Instead of the Ten Commandments, let’s teach Hebrew to schoolchildren in Louisiana

Children aren’t born religious. They have to be taught. I was taught to be Jewish at home and at Beth Israel — The West Temple. “West” because it was on the West Side of Cleveland, where my family lived. I learned Hebrew, with the same sense of joy I mowed the lawn or other obligatory tasks required of me.

But Rabbi Eric Hoffman’s Talmud class was different. It made me think, and I liked that. This was in the mid-1970s. I was around 16.

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The Talmud consists of dozens of books of rabbinic commentary on Jewish law. For instance, the central tenet of Judaism is the Schma. A brief prayer — “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” — said by devout Jews three times a day, literally morning, noon and night. The question we were discussing in Talmud class was: when to say the Schma for the third time each day? Answer: at night. When is it night? When it gets dark. When does it get dark? When the stars come out. How many stars? Three. How big? Medium sized stars.

I raised my hand. Given that Reform Jews like ourselves don’t say the Schma daily, never mind three times a day, I asked, why does it matter when the third time should be? Why are we learning this?

Rabbi Hoffman — a trim, compact young man with a dark black beard — explained the Talmud offers a way of thinking.”Talmudic reasoning.” A method of breaking down problems into basic parts; that has been very useful ever since, both personally and professionally.

What he didn’t say was, “Do what you’re told.” Compulsion is not educational. Compulsion is slavery. The way the state of Louisiana is legally forcing all public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments.

That bit of news drew no surprise or outrage from me, but pity for a state that is a backwater. Louisiana is called the Pelican State, but it is also the Dead Last State. The perennial bottom dweller of state rankings. The worst crime. Worst economy. Nearly dead last health care, in education.

The real point is to float the case to the Supreme Court, where Donald Trump’s missionaries can enshrine it into law and other states can follow suit, under the flag that being denied a chance to shove their own religion down everybody’s throat is oppression — to the top dog religion doing the shoving, that is. Everybody else has to smile and take it.

Do you know why people force others to do something? When they can’t persuade them. Religion — even your religion — is supposed to be voluntary. Sorry to be the one to tell you.

There was another question I remember asking Rabbi Hoffman. Christian groups go door-to-door proselytizing. My mother would point to our mezuzah, tell them the little prayer box means we’re Jewish and to get lost.

“Why,” I asked Rabbi Hoffman, “don’t Jews proselytize?” Everybody else does. Is being Jewish so arduous that nobody in their right mind could be expected to convert?

It’s been almost half a century, but I remember Rabbi Hoffman’s exact reply.

“If you’re lost in the woods and you’re in the dark, you want company, and grab any passerby to go along with you and help figure out where you’re going,” he said. “But if you’re on the right path and have a light and know where you’re going, you don’t need to enlist others to go with you. That’s why Jews don’t try to convert others.”

I really liked that. Because it speaks of confidence. Some religions feel they must try to dominate the world because the existence of others is a rebuke they can’t tolerate. Their own belief is so weak that anybody thinking differently anywhere is a temptation and insult. Jews are better than that.

I know that’s smug. But I toss the thought out as a reminder: Other faiths are here and believe their own doctrines as strongly as you believe yours. Maybe more. This never was a Christian nation, and it becomes less so every day.

If Louisiana wants to put the 10 Commandments in every school, shouldn’t the tablets be in the original Hebrew? Makes sense to me. Sure, the bayou kids don’t understand the language, now. But they’re in school. They can be taught. Toss in lessons about the holidays — Yom Kippur, Passover, Hanukkah. Then the Louisiana legislature can mandate that all public schoolchildren must become a bar or bat mitzvah when they turn 13.

Not so fun when it’s somebody else is pressing their faith on your kids, is it?

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