There is an old joke about a non-Jew who keeps getting robbed while his Jewish neighbor’s house is never touched. “It is because we hang a mezuzah on the door for protection,” the Jew explains.
“Could you get me one?”
“Sure. My pleasure.”
For a while, the Gentile’s home suffers no robberies, protected by the sacred scroll. Then one day the Jew comes home to see police cars next door taking a robbery report. “What happened to the mezuzah?” he asks his friend.
“I had to take it down. I couldn’t afford all the collectors for Jewish charities.”
Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida seems to be experiencing a similar problem.
Earlier this year he received a mezuzah from Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a Republican, as a gift. He decided to hang it up in the governor’s mansion as a sign of respect for the Jewish community. Now the American Civil Liberties Union is on the case, complaining that this violates the separation between church and state. Is there any organization so consistently anti-American, uncivil, anti-liberty and disunifying?
To examine the merits of their argument, we must first describe a mezuzah. A small piece of parchment, usually about three inches square, has two small Bible readings written on it using a feather quill and thick black ink. The first segment is Deuteronomy 6:4-9, proclaiming belief in one God and the importance of studying His message; the second is Deuteronomy 11:13-21, emphasizing the value of acting in accordance with His will. This tiny scroll is rolled up into a cylinder, enclosed in an ornamental case and affixed to the doorpost of a room’s entrance. Although those words are not actually available to be read, having them nailed to the wall offers a silent rebuke to anyone who would use that room for inappropriate behaviors of any kind.
Ironically, if a Jewish governor hung one, there would be more grounds for protest. He would be sending a signal that he intended to conduct the affairs of his office in accordance with a specific religious credo. That could still be deflected to a degree by making the point that since no actual writing can be viewed from the outside, and the case itself is just a receptacle, not a per se religious symbol like a crucifix, there is no message sent beyond the knowledge that this officeholder practices Judaism. Still, there is room here to debate this back and forth.
In the case of Crist, however, their gripe becomes simply ludicrous. What possible religious statement could the governor be making? That Judaism is the one true religion? Obviously not. That all citizens of the state of Florida would be benefited by converting to Judaism? Obviously not. That all legislation proposed in this state will henceforth be vetted before presentation to see if it conforms with the tenets of Judaism? Obviously not. He is not even saying that he believes in the spiritual power of the mezuzah to protect the governor’s mansion from physical attack and moral weakness.
All he can possibly be communicating here is a respect for Judaism as a valid source of spirituality and wisdom, along with a general sensibility that people in public service should never lose sight of their better angels. In this context it assumes a generic role, somewhat akin to the place of the “higher power” in the approach to self-improvement pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, AA itself, which by tradition avoids political involvement, teaches those who are loath to identify a higher power to act as if there were one, as an exercise to stimulate the individual to get beyond his own pettiness. In a sense, Crist’s mezuzah is there to encourage that attitude.
The ACLU never feels that this country is threatened by terrorists. They are the first to jump in on behalf of Hamas and Hezbollah collaborators, even neo-Nazis, to support their right to harangue and organize. Yet even the most unassuming message of positive inspiration to build our institutions in a spirit of transcendence strikes them as offensive. The very idea that a higher power calls you to, say, protect our civil liberties, is in their eyes an affront to those liberties. But if a lower urge prods you into behaving like a self-absorbed libertine, you are to be applauded.
Governor Crist is not backing down for now, issuing a statement that he sees no problem. He may have scared off the Avon lady with all this horrid fanaticism, but the Hadassah ladies will be knocking on his door any day now. I hope he knows his mah-jongg… and his jujitsu for the ACLU.