Thou Shalt Separate Church and State

By Marc Brettler

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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You might think that I, as a biblical scholar and an observant Jew, would have been overjoyed that the Supreme Court recently agreed to take up the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings. After all, our nation’s highest arbiter of justice is about to give free publicity to the book I love and teach. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

As you can see in the picture to the right, the monument displayed in the Texas Capitol building — one of the three monuments being ruled upon by the Supreme Court — contains the words “The Ten Commandments.” There is only one historical problem with the monument: There are no Ten Commandments in the Bible.

The Hebrew phrase referring to the injunctions found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is “aseret haddevarim,” which means “the 10 sayings, utterances, or things”; this is reflected in the Greek and Latin term Decalogue. The Hebrew term used in the Bible has nothing to do with commandments. Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, the first of these “commandments” is “I the Lord am your God…” — which is not a commandment at all, but a saying or utterance.

It is not even clear how we reach the number 10. I count 13: (1) I am the Lord your God…; (2) You shall have no other Gods…; (3) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image…; (4) You shall not bow down to them or serve them…; (5) You shall not swear falsely …; (6) Remember the Sabbath day…; (7) Honor your father and your mother…; (8) You shall not murder; (9) You shall not commit adultery; (10) You shall not steal; (11) You shall not bear false witness; (12) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, and (13) You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

Different religious traditions arrive at the number 10 by suggesting that some do not count — for example, by understanding 1 as an introduction — or that several sayings should be combined together, such as 1 and 2, or 2 and 3, or 12 and 13. There is no definitive or clearly correct way to do this; the Hebrew text certainly does not have Roman numerals before each utterance.

Thus, any public monument that uses a system of numbering is favoring one religious tradition over another, and is not, as is so often claimed, proclaiming the importance of the “Ten Commandments” to our common Judeo-Christian heritage.

The problem goes further and deeper. The Decalogue appears twice in the Bible, in Exodus 20, the Bible’s second book, and in Deuteronomy 5, the Bible’s fifth book. The two texts differ in large and small details. Which is the more authoritative version deserving of display?

More significantly, which translation should we use? The history of translation of one of the utterances is especially significant. The King James version, published nearly 400 years ago, renders the Hebrew “Lo tirtzach” as “Thou shalt not kill.” However, tirtzach means “murder” — namely, to take a human life under the wrong circumstances. The Bible is full of killing in times of war and as punishment for a variety of crimes. Thus, the idea that the Decalogue’s “Thou shalt not kill” should play a role in the crucial public policy issues of just wars, capital punishment or abortion is absurd.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Decalogue and believe that its injunctions could help create a better society. But they do not belong in public places, and especially not in courtrooms.

Choosing what name to call these utterances, how to number them, which version of the Decalogue to follow and which translation to use — all these involve making a religious decision. Any such public preference gives one religious tradition precedent over another, and disenfranchises some who believe in a different Decalogue, as well as those who do not uphold any form of the Decalogue.

We must not be led to believe that there is a single set of Ten Commandments that unifies all Americans, even all Jewish and Christian Americans. A document that begins, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” does not, cannot and should not speak to every American in the same way as one that commences, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”

Marc Brettler, chair of Brandeis University’s department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies, is a co-editor of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Jewish Study Bible” (Oxford University Press).

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