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 "A Courtroom is No Place for the Ten Commandments" - upon the investiture of Judge James Horwitz, Harris Country Probate Court 4, January 25, 2019 

01/26/2019 01:58:56 PM


Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

Good afternoon.  My name is Scott Hausman-Weiss and I am a Rabbi in Houston for Congregation Shma Koleinu – A synagogue without walls, membership or dues.  Taking a cue from our ancient ancestors as we move from venue to venue, and considering how hot it can get here in Houston, one might think we are truly channeling our desert-wandering ancestors.  They say that if Moses had been a woman, the Israelites would never have wandered nearly as long as they did.  For a woman would have asked for directions.

I am truly honored to stand here in this sacred space, having been invited to offer a benediction upon the investiture of Judge James Horwitz, the first Jewish individual to serve the Harris County Probate Court as a Judge.  I am quite touched for having arrived here myself on his coattails.  Upon considering Judge Horwitz’s invitation, and upon considering the content of what I may speak about on any given occasion, my first source for inspiration is the Torah portion of the week.  Now without claiming too much Divine intervention or supernatural involvement, isn’t it amazing that this week’s parshah happens to be “Yitro,” the Torah portion from the Book of Exodus that includes the giving of the Ten Commandments.  A most appropriate text it would seem, standing in a US court room, where we often find affirmations of our history as a Judeo-Christian society, built upon the deep and abiding values that have made Western civilization so profoundly good.

Except, I am not convinced that our country is built upon the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Not because I deny the religious origins of the judicial processes that are part and parcel of the American legal landscape.  But because if it indeed was built upon Biblical values, our legal system would simply be a lot more fair and a lot more just.  You see, what those who claim this tradition never fail to miss, is that if it were based on the teachings of Moses and the Ancient Rabbinic Sages and Jesus and Paul, compassion, not passion, would rule the day; inspiration not perspiration would influence a decision; a long-term view on what kind of society we are seeking to build would overshadow the efforts of those whose shadows too easily block the weakest and most vulnerable from view.  I know that I may sound naïve at worst, and aspirational at best but, guess what, Judge Horwitz invited his Rabbi to speak in this moment. 

You see, the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, upon which ostensibly this Judeo-Christian tradition stands, is far, far more flexible, far, far more requiring of interpretation, and far, far more fluid than for example, Judge Roy Moore’s 10,000 lb granite sculpture of the 10 Commandments could ever have inspired.  Yes, I used to live in Alabama, and for me, it was a sad day when in the dark of night, this blight on the Judeo-Christian tradition was installed in the foyer of the Alabama Supreme Court.  It’s not that I don’t believe that the Ten Commandments are a foundational aspect of this tradition, and it’s not that I don’t believe that a good and wise judge could find elucidation and clarity from the study of the texts where the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Spoken Utterances, as they are actually called in Judaism, can be found, and it’s not even that the Ten Commandments represent a sacred book that is nonetheless not considered sacred, or at least the most sacred, by millions and millions of people worldwide.  It’s that the Ten Commandments and every other set of biblical laws, are only the very beginning of understanding and determining the rule of law.  Inherent in them is the recognition that all of our words are symbolic, that all of them are meant to not simply be applied in ways that serve political and personal agenda.  They matter only if they imbue a process that places us on what Harvard Law Professor, Robert Alter called, A bridge to alternity.  A Bridge to alternity.  We are here but we as a society wish to be there.  Together.  Its only cynicism, greed and self-interest that drive any other narrative.  We are here, this court is here, all courts should be here for one single purpose – to move us towards a better version of the world we are living in today.  Given the Torah portion, if indeed we can use the Ten Commandments as a guide that moves us towards this alternity, let us pay attention especially to the first two of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord God who brought you of the land of Egypt” and “Do not make of yourself and for yourself graven images of that which you can see in the world.”  With the Ten Commandments, God is urging us to NOT place them in places that serve the public good – but to be inspired by them to do what is just, what is fair, what is loving.  God is the one who brings the suffering out of the narrowest places- we matter as God’s children only when do the same for others.  And God is the one who adjures us to never create rules, laws, policies so fixed that they necessarily raise up the most powerful and disenfranchise the least.  This is the biblical call.  This is what it means to be a religious Judeo-Christian. If we truly wish to call ourselves a society based upon Judeo-Christian values, then let the rain of redemption fall.  Let the sustenance of repentance and forgiveness inspire our interactions.  Let holiness be a strategy for living a life guided by kindness and love and hope and possibility, that it may overrule our inclinations that too often only create more and more suffering.  The Rabbis of old ask, “What is the prayer that God asks Godself?  This is what God prays: May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My other attributes, so that I may deal with My children with mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” 

As Judge James Horwitz assumes this bench, may he and his team remember that we are God’s messengers, we are God’s hands, we are God’s mouths, God’s eyes and God’s ears.  And we aer the living and beating hearts of God’s compassion and love.  This is the divine work God implores us to do.  While I do stand meaningfully against the presence of any fixed religious symbolism in this and any other court room, I pray that this space be a sanctuary in which God’s presence be felt and experienced through the wisdom and kindness channeled for all to see.


Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780