The Ten Commandments are a central part of the experience of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. They are major statements of faith and guidance on how we should live our lives in relation to God and each other.
Freedom from slavery was great and glorious. We celebrate this national freedom not only on Passover, but each day – Jewish prayer and ritual remind of the liberation from Egypt.
Freedom, though, was only part of the picture. Freedom led us to Mount Sinai and the laws that helped shape us into the Jewish people we are today.
Law without freedom would have been slavery. And freedom without law would have been anarchy. It was the combination of both that helped shape our identity. We are fortunate to have the Commandments and laws to follow, as well as the opportunity to follow them freely – at least today, in this country.
However, even thousands of years ago, our sages were worried that we might put so much emphasis on the Ten Commandments that we'd come to neglect the rest of the Torah.
Consider now, the many who want to emphasize the Ten Commandments and put them on display in public places, particularly in governmental ones.
Of course, we're not against the Commandments, but we do worry about the motives behind these various attempts.
Does God's existence depend upon a public display? No. Does faith in God depend upon a monument? I hope not. Would that not be idolatry? Is not the religiously motivated push for public monuments similar to the conquerors who would set down their flag or cross, and claim the territory in the name of their monarch or Christendom? What about sharing the land and society with others?
And other questions exist.
Which version of the Commandments should be used – the version in this week's Torah portion of Yitro in the book of Shemot/Exodus (Chapter 20), or the version in the portion of Vaetchanan in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy (Chapter 5)?
And if we are to post them, why use an English translation? Should we not use Hebrew, the language of the original text? After all, a translation is already an interpretation.
If we're to use an English translation, which one do we use? Some translations are more connected to the Catholic tradition, some to various Protestant traditions, and there are some more connected to Judaism.
Choosing one translation over another – particularly by a supposedly neutral government authority – would cross lines of separation of church and state.
The Message Being Sent
Also, why is it always the Ten Commandments?
If the message of the monument is the vital part, then what about other passages from the Bible? In courthouses, we could post Deuteronomy 16:18-20: " … they shall judge the people with righteous judgment … justice, justice you shall pursue … ."
In schools, we could incorporate Deuteronomy 6:7: "You shall teach them diligently to your children … ."
For social agencies, there's Exodus 22:20-21: " … you shall not oppress the stranger … the widow, the orphan … " or Isaiah 58:6-7, " … to loose the chains of wickedness … let the oppressed go free … share your bread with the hungry … ."
Yes, the Ten Commandments are quite important. However, let us not forget the entire Torah, and the combined heritage of biblical and rabbinic teachings that help guide us in our daily lives.
Let us live up to the challenge of all these laws and guidelines. That way, we'll never need physical monuments to remind us of these teachings, as they will part of our very being.
Rabbi Robert Rubin is the religious leader of Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park in Philadelphia.
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