Getting the ‘Ten’ wrong — again

Getting the ‘Ten’ wrong — again

Memo to Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Jeff Landry:

On June 19, as you prepared to sign into law a bill that requires “The Ten Commandments” to be displayed in every one of the state’s public schools and state-funded university classrooms, you said, “If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses.”

Governor, Moses never heard of something called “The Ten Commandments,” and he was not “the original lawgiver.” God was. Moses just passed God’s laws on to us. And God gave Moses 613 commandments to transmit to us, not 10.

Besides, these “Ten Commandments” are not even commandments.

Your new law requires that the classroom display must be poster-size and the words must be printed in a “large, easily readable font.” Displaying all the commandments that “the original lawgiver” actually gave would require so much wall space that it would displace a lot of informative material students also need to know about.

Sincerely, etc.

Once again, a state’s display of
“The Ten Commandments” is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which narrowly prohibited just such displays
44 years ago in Stone v. Graham (449 U.S. 39, 1980).

At issue then was a law that required every public school in Kentucky to post a copy of this document on a wall in every classroom. The Court’s 5-4 majority at the time said that Kentucky’s law served a religious purpose, thus violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It added that “no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.”

There is no question that the “Ten” are a sacred text, but only because everything in the Torah is sacred text. However, there also should be no question that the overall text of the “Ten” does have a secular purpose — and no misguided recitation should blind anyone to that fact.

As my wishful-thinking memo to Landry says, Moses never even heard of something called “The Ten Commandments,” the name Christianity gave it. Moses called it the aseret ha-d’varim, and rabbinic texts going back to the talmudic era call it the aseret ha-dibrot. Aseret means 10. D’varim and dibrot are synonyms that can mean words, statements, utterances, or declarations — but not commandments (mitzvot). We never refer to this document as “the aseret ha-mitzvot” because it does not contain a single mitzvah. Not a single commandment.

That these “Ten Statements” are more secular than religious becomes clear when we dig beneath the surface of the text, which is how Torah text is to be studied. There is nothing “religious” about honoring parents, not murdering anyone (murdering, not killing, as most versions incorrectly put it), stealing from anyone, or committing adultery or perjury. At best, only “the first four” would seem religious — until we dig beneath the surface. These four are: not to believe in another god, not to make graven images, not to take God’s Name in vain, and to keep the Sabbath day holy.

If prohibiting the worship of other gods was meant to be a religious commandment, it would have been worded differently, such as, “I am the Lord your God. You shall believe in Me, and only Me, and you shall worship Me and only Me.” What the text does say is this: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (“I am the Lord your God” is a separate statement; see below).

This is not a commandment to believe in God (with apologies to Maimonides, the Rambam, and everyone else who insists that it is). It is not even worded as a commandment.

In fact, the Torah does not have such a commandment because there is no need for one.

The Torah is presumed to come from God, so God and God’s existence are givens. Theoretically, if you believe in the Torah, you believe in the God who gave it. (If you do not believe in God but are Jewish, you are still subject to God’s laws, however you believe they came about. Clubs have rules that their members must follow, even if they have no idea who made those rules. Countries have laws that their citizens must obey, even if they did not vote for the legislators who made those laws.)

Also, this document is written in the form of an ancient contract known as a suzerain-vassal treaty, which requires a specific formula. First, the ruler making the contract must be identified. Then, what gives the ruler the right to impose its terms on the people must be stated.

Who is making this contract with Israel? “I am the Lord your God.”

By what right does God make this contract with Israel? “Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the House of Bondage.”

Only then do we get to the actual first statement: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” which was dealt with above.

Next comes the graven image statement, which certainly would seem to be religious in nature. However, a graven image can mean anything we so value — money, power, beauty, and so forth — that it causes us to ignore God’s laws. In that sense, this is also not a religious statement but a secular one.

Not taking God’s Name in vain is very much secular in nature. In ancient times, scammers would invoke the name of a deity as a guarantee of their honesty because the people being scammed expected that the named deity would instantly zap the user if he or she were lying.

Today, using God’s name that way is something akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. “I swear to God this car never had a scratch on it.” This “name in vain” statement says, “Do not use God’s Name in order to harm or defraud anyone.” That is secular, not religious.

The Torah has real commandments regarding Shabbat that cover the religious requirement to observe it. This statement, on the other hand, is the Torah’s ultimate social justice statement. Regardless of whether we choose to work on Shabbat, it says, we must allow everyone and everything else to have that day off. We may not even ask, much less compel, anyone or anything to do work of any kind that day, the “Shabbes Goy” included (but that is for a different discussion).

Thirty-five hundred years ago at Sinai, we and all humankind were told that at least one day out of every seven, no one has control over anyone else. Rich or poor, master or slave, man or woman, parent or child, human or animal — even the environment — everyone has an equal right to the same day of rest each week as we are entitled to.

Control is absolute. Deny control for one-seventh of the time coming every seventh day, and we deny that control exists at all, and we must conduct our interactions with others that way. This is not religious; this is the ultimate social justice commandment.

The remaining statements are clearly secular in nature, as noted.

There is a reason why the Torah and subsequent Jewish texts never refer to this document as “The Ten Commandments.” That is because these “commandments” are not mitzvot in the ordinary sense (the Torah contains actual commandments to cover each of the Ten). Rather, they provide a sense of the mitzvot to come, a preamble, as it were, to the constitution God gave to Israel to guide them (and us) on their (and our) mission as God’s “kingdom of priests.”

In that sense, this document is not unlike the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. There can be no question what the Constitution is about based on what leads into it: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, and our posterity.”

There is no question what Israel’s “constitution” is about based on what leads into it. That “constitution” is recorded in Exodus 21-23. In Exodus 24, Moses presents it to the people and refers to it as the Book of the Covenant, the Sefer Ha-b’rit. That it is meant as a “constitution” is obvious from what God said to Moses after the people accepted its terms: “Come up to Me on the mountain…and I will give you tablets of stone, and the teachings, and commandments that I have written for you to teach them.” (Exodus 24:12.)

In other words, “I gave you the preamble telling you what to expect. I then gave you the Covenant itself. Now come up, and let’s study the enabling legislation I’ve prepared in order to make it all work.”

Seen in this light, it is understandable that the Torah does not single out this text as anything but what it is: the first part of a larger package of God’s laws that itself is part of an even larger package of God’s laws that would grow out of the Sefer Ha-b’rit over the next 40 years.

The “original lawgiver” handed down 613 commandments, not 10. Many of these were meant for Israel alone. If Louisiana wants people “to respect the rule of law,” it should post all the other ones in big, bold letters on schoolroom walls.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed–a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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