Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the beginning… there were billboards

Along a semi-rural highway, just yesterday, I was taken aback by a LARGE billboard mural of the cosmos – planets, sun, various stock images that convey ‘intergalactic’ – with two outstretched arms flanking it, and the logo, “In the beginning, GOD created heaven and earth,” running across the picture. There may have been stigmata on one of the hands; I drove past too quickly to be sure that wasn’t just a large bird dropping.

The mural, presumably sponsored by some local church or national Evangelical Christian organization, said many things to me.

A Plus: Cultural respect for religion
As a rabbi I respect noted to me recently, it’s easier to be religious when surrounded by a religious culture, even if it’s not your own. (Of course, this is not as true if the external religious society is directly, overtly hostile to your own… say, living as a Jew in downtown Mecca…)

I agree with him. It’s certainly easier to live in, and interact with, a world in which belief in Gd is not intellectually associated with subtle insanity. When observers’ reaction to your ritual practice is a sincere interest and respect rather than hostility, cynicism or a patronizing smile, the religious life is easier to maintain.

A Minus: Lumping us in with the Evangelicals
That said, I’m still not comfortable with the billboard; as a highly visible representation of Bible-based religion, it will likely be among the first images in local people’s minds when they read about, or encounter, people who believe in the Bible.

When people who have seen this billboard associate me with biblical religion, they will assume that I am one of those people who would put up such a billboard, who would attempt to foist his own belief on society, who denies the validity of scientific method, who wants children to study Creationism (or its not-distant-enough cousin, Intelligent Design) in the public schools, who believes that the United States of America should ban all abortions, etc.

I don’t want to have to find clever ways to inject into routine conversation, “You know, Judaism doesn’t agree with the Church on many issues.” Or, “Isn’t it interesting to note the significant philosophical and practical differences between different Bible-based religions?” These don’t really lend themselves to snappy dialogue.

A third point: Public religion
And a third thought: Even if I disagree with their substance as well as method, I appreciate and respect their pride in expressing their religious belief publicly. Maybe it’s just that they don’t realize how the rest of the world sees them, but I don’t think so – I think they are proud of their religion, and they have no qualms about letting people see it.

So many Jews rely anachronistically on questionable justifications for keeping their yarmulka, their tzitzit, their menorah, their mezuzah, invisible. Anti-Semitism is certainly not gone, and a public yarmulka may well earn a Jew odd looks in certain contexts, but, really, how dangerous is it to have a menorah in my window, in 95% of the USA? How hazardous is it to have a mezuzah on my doorpost (assuming I don’t live in one of those stubbornly resistant co-ops)?

In this, perhaps we could take a lesson from the Evangelicals’ billboard, even if it is overdone. Religion shouldn’t be a subject of shame, and a good way to dispel people’s misconceptions about Judaism – aren’t you like those Evangelicals? - is to expose them to the real thing. Perhaps we could benefit from becoming ‘billboards’ of our own, living Kiddush HaShem, in daily life.

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