Why the posting of the Ten Commandments is wrong

(RNS) — The headlines could have read, “Sacred Jewish text to be posted in Louisiana classrooms; most Jews are opposed.”

That headline would have been correct.

Yes, Gov. Jeff Landry of Louisiana has signed a law that mandates the Ten Commandments be posted in every public education classroom in the state — the first state to do so.

And, yes, the Ten Commandments are a sacred Jewish text (known as the aseret ha-dibrot, the 10 utterances), which is not the reason why he has made that a mandate. I doubt he has reflected overly much on their Jewish origin; for him, they are part of that amorphous thing called “the Judeo-Christian tradition” — useful because, supposedly, such a posting will create a more moral generation of young people.

But, no, this rabbi is not happy about this. I daresay I speak for many if not most Jews in America in voicing my displeasure and my concern.


First, we might think the Ten Commandments are simply a list of basic moral rules. They are a religious text that comes from a particular religious tradition. The revelation of those commandments forms the core of the Jewish covenant with God.

As such, this is a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which forbids the government from establishing an official religion. It also specifies that the government must neither promote nor inhibit religion. In this particular instance, the religion in question just happens to be mine (though, through that “Judeo-Christian” thing, it is not only “mine”). This does not make me feel better.

But, you will protest, doesn’t the fact that this is “Judeo-Christian” have any bearing on the matter? After all, this is a “Judeo-Christian” country.

To which I would say: Dwight David Eisenhower just called and he wants his worldview back. That whole idea of “Judeo-Christian” is a nostalgia act — the religious equivalent of a doo-wop revival. This country is Christian (and every flavor thereof), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Mormon, Wiccan, etc., etc. — and it is also agnostic, atheist and everything in between. Again, posting the Ten Commandments favors one particular religious tradition as a source of inspiration and guidance.

Moreover, we have an additional problem: Which version of the Ten Commandments?

There are two versions of the Ten Commandments/Aseret Ha-dibrot in the Torah. Here is a summary of the list in Exodus 20:

  1. I am God, Who brought you out of Egypt.
  2. Don’t make images, and worship other gods.
  3. Don’t swear falsely by My name.
  4. Remember the Sabbath.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Don’t murder.
  7. Don’t commit adultery.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t bear false witness.
  10. Don’t covet what your neighbor has.

There is a second version in Deuteronomy 5. The two versions differ from each other in subtle, yet important ways. The Exodus version says Jews must “remember” the Sabbath; the Deuteronomy version says Jews must “observe” the Sabbath. More than that, the Ten Commandments reappear in the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19.

Let’s add to the problem: Whose Ten Commandments? We have seen there are two versions in the Torah.

Let’s make it more complicated. There are two Christian versions.

First, the Catholic version.

  1. I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange Gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Notice: In this version, the first two commandments are combined into one, except that it omits the passage about graven images, and the last commandment about coveting is divided into two — one about your neighbor’s wife, and the other about your neighbor’s goods. 

There is also the Protestant version:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: You shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not kill.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s.

The version of the Ten Commandments that is about to find a place on classroom walls in Louisiana? That would be the Protestant version.

So, the placing of a Protestant text will seem, to many people, as the government establishment of a religion.

For me, as for many of us, that would be enough reason to oppose this legislation. That opposition need not be, and should not be, the sole responsibility of secular groups. All religions should oppose it as well — even, and especially, Protestants who might choose not to view this as a theological victory, but as a moment to say “gulp” and to think about the American body politic.

Finally, why do I oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments?

First, let me channel my inner Hebrew scholar. The Christian versions canonize a mistranslation of the sixth commandment — lo tirtzach. It does not say “you shall not kill”; rather, “you shall not murder.” The biblical tradition understands that there is a difference between murder — the wanton taking of a human life — and killing, which might be accidental or even, at times, tragically necessary.

Snark alert: If, in fact, Louisiana (and perhaps other states) would want to post the Ten Commandments, with their directive to “not kill,” the least we could expect is some kind of activism regarding access to firearms. Nothing would be more effective in making the words of that commandment into a civic reality.

But, second: The Ten Commandments are too “nice,” too basic, too Hallmark greeting card. Even though no one has asked me, I would put a different biblical text into classrooms.

Which text would that be? How about Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code? True, you get the Ten Commandments in there anyway. But there are some other necessary gems in there.

Would I really call for putting these verses into classrooms? Obviously not.

But that is the kind of society I would want to create.

Which answers the question: WWMD?

What would Moses do?

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