Usually, I don’t think too much, not too consciously anyway, about the Ten Commandments until Shavuot is almost upon us.
But this year is different. Two reasons: (1) the hoopla attached to the Trump election and inauguration; (2) the fact that I’ve done a major cleanup in my office and located something about those Commandments that shouldn’t have to wait for the holiday to be thought about.
The main file I emptied was huge, as piles of saved paper go. Everything old — some items by a decade or even more! They resided in an old-fashioned accordion-type file, with alphabetized compartments into which I’d thrown things more or less connected only by initial letters of their basic subject matter, and never looked at again. I was on the verge of just tossing the whole business into my recycling bags. But…but…but…
The desire to look before pitching won out, and I found a few treasures. The one that made me think of the Man on the Mountaintop early this year was a report from the Library of Congress quoting a presentation titled “Holy Moses! A Cultural History of the Ten Commandments in Modern America.” It was one of many talks by Jenna Weissman Joselit, then a Princeton professor spending the summer of 2007 as that Library’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar. More recently, she has become director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Washington, right there in D.C.
Let me quote a bit from what this prolific woman had to say a decade ago: “The Ten Commandments cast a long shadow over the body politic these days. Angry words about the appropriate role for the Commandments in 21st-century America fill the air, as proponents and opponents square off. Have they always been the stuff of controversy? Or is this a new phenomenon — the consequences of a rapidly changing world?”
I’ve seen this change during my own long life: America no longer seems to articulate, as it used to years ago, its prideful founding on Judeo-Christian values, which of course have their beginnings in our own Bible, with the Tablets — first written by the finger of God — that Moses brought down from that mountaintop. Today, the references seem to be all about Christian; the Judeo root that birthed the other is for the most part forgotten. How and why has this happened?
Joselit recognized it early. “Throughout much of the mid-19th and 20th centuries, Americans of all stripes identified strongly with the Decalogue and the figure of Moses, incorporating them into the domestic sphere as well as the public square — into the nation’s visual culture as well as its political rhetoric.” In her presentation, she cited many places in which the Ten Commandments once made regular appearances in our nation’s culture: synagogue and church architecture, plays and pageants in Sunday schools both Jewish and Christian, movies such as that huge epic by Cecil B. DeMille that we’ve all seen (and laughed after-the-fact at its pretentiousness), which she calls “legendary.” But most of these concrete references are long gone now. Yes, there are still six-pointed stars on our dollar bills, but hardly anyone notices them any more.
Joselit has too many credits to her name to list here. She has written many articles for a range of publications plus a column for The Forward; she has been a visiting professor at Yale, Temple, NYU and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and many other universities; she has served as consultant for many museums — Jewish and other — and as exhibit curator at the National Yiddish Book Center. And she has written a number of books on a variety of Jewish subjects.
But the one I think the most important is her newest. Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments will be released by Oxford University Press on April 28 of this year — just in time for the May 1 start of Shavuot!