My Take on the 10 Commandments Controversy

Thursday, 20 June, 2024 - 11:37 pm

Louisiana’s mandate to place a Ten Commandments placard in state funded school classrooms is at the top of the news cycle right now. I am by no means a legal expert or a constitutional scholar, so any comments I offer are strictly in the context of the Torah angle on this question, primarily as elucidated by the Rebbe’s insights on related matters.

I do not believe that the first amendment intended to remove G-d from public discourse. We must certainly protect against the encroachment of one religion on the rights of others. Yet, that doesn’t mean G-d is a dirty word, or that G-d centered morality should be taboo. For a broader treatment of this issue, please see an article I wrote two years ago on a related matter:

Regarding the Ten Commandments issue, there are several points to consider. Firstly, while we Jews are in possession of the original iteration of the passage known as the Ten Commandments, other faith traditions have a different way of listing them than we do. This is primarily due to the fact that we consider, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” to be commandment number one, while it is not regarded as its own passage in most or all of the Christian versions. (Not surprising seeing that they were not slaves in Egypt…) They end up splitting up one of two later passages to compensate for the lost first passage. So, any standard issue placard would end up having to choose one version over another, and that is problematic.

(As an aside, in Hebrew they not referred to as “Mitzvot” - commandments but rather as “Dibrot”, meaning passages or statements. Technically there are more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments… but that is for another discussion.)

Beyond this, there is also a theological question of whether all the Ten Commandments are universally applicable. It is safe to argue that according to Jewish law at least one of them (Sanctify the Sabbath) was given exclusively to the Jewish people. While the message of Shabbat as affirming a belief in creation has universal application, the practice of Shabbat is a uniquely Jewish heritage. In fact, we say in our prayers on Shabbat “You have not given the Sabbath to the nations of the world... You have given it in love to Your people Israel, the descendants of Jacob…”  

The alternative might be a placard displaying the Seven Universal Noahide Laws. After the flood G-d issued a universal moral code to Noah and his children that would be forever incumbent upon all of humanity. These seven principles are the true bedrock for all future moral and lawful societies.

For a comprehensive explanation of these principles, see Seven Laws for a Beautiful Planet:

In brief they are: 1. Rejection of idolatry. 2. Prohibition of blasphemy. 3. Respect for human life - prohibition of murder. 4. Respect for marriage - prohibition of sexual immorality. 5. Respect for property rights – prohibition against theft and dishonesty. 6. Respect for resources – prohibition against cruelty to animals by eating of an animal while it is still alive. 7. The obligation to establish a moral justice system.

Yet, in an instructive letter to President Ronald Reagan in 1982, the Rebbe did connect the Seven Noahide Laws to the “universal moral code of the Ten Commandments.” Here is an excerpt of that letter.

“By focusing attention on "the ancient ethical principles and moral values which are the foundation of our character as a nation," and on the time-honored truth that "education must be more than factual enlightenment - it must enrich the character as well as the mind, while reaffirming the eternal validity of the G-d-given Seven Noahide Laws (with all their ramifications) for people of all faiths - you have expressed most forcefully the real spirit of the American nation.

More than ever before the civilized world of today will look up to the United States of America for guidance as behooves the world's foremost Super Power - not merely in the ordinary sense of this term but even more importantly, as a moral and spiritual Super Power, whose real strength must ultimately derive from an unalterable commitment to the universal moral code of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is this commitment to the same Divine truths and values that, more than anything else, unites all Americans in the true sense of E Pluribus Unum.”

So, while technically the Ten Commandments may not be universally relevant, and it may be problematic to display them due to the discrepancy in how they are listed according to various faith traditions, nevertheless it is valuable for Americans to otherwise recognize that our moral foundation is the commitment to Divine Truths articulated in the passages we call the Ten Commandments.

We yearn for the time, the era of Redemption described by Maimonides when, “The one preoccupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d… as it is said: “The earth shall be full with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea!”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin    


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