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I’m a Louisiana Jew. The Ten Commandments get lost in translation in the new law

Louisiana passed a law this week requiring a unique translation of the Ten Commandments displayed in every public school classroom

Like many Jewish Louisianans, I followed with interest the so-called “Ten Commandments” bill which Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry signed into law this week. It requires public schools, including public colleges, to display the Ten Commandments in all classrooms, in an effort to “ensure that students in our public schools may understand and appreciate the foundational documents of our state and national government.”

The Ten Commandments are, of course, deeply important to Jews. I feel so strongly about their importance that I send my kids to a Jewish day school, where they’ve been learning to “understand and appreciate” this socially, philosophically and historically significant text since they were in diapers.

But my firm belief in Jewish education is precisely why I question whether my legislators truly “understand and appreciate” the can of worms passing this bill has opened. In codifying a version of the Ten Commandments that is not from the Hebrew Bible, nor any recognized Christian translation, Louisiana lawmakers are haphazardly translating, to say the least, divine intent. 

Which Ten Commandments?

For starters, there’s no such thing as “the” Ten Commandments, in a singular, definitive sense. In the primary source — the Hebrew Bible — there exist at least three depictions of the Ten Commandments:

Exodus 20:1, when God speaks the 10 statements directly to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.

Exodus 34:28, when God explicitly directs Moses to write down the Ten Commandments on a second set of stone tablets, after Moses smashes the first set in anger after the whole Golden Calf debacle. However, God also mixes in some new directives here along with the old ones, including commandments to observe holidays like Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

In Deuteronomy 5:6, Moses restates the Ten Commandments for the Israelites, but makes a few subtle changes, the most notable of which being the use of the phrase “observe the Sabbath day” instead of “remember the Sabbath day.” That discrepancy led to centuries of Talmudic debate and has informed Jewish observance ever since, including why we light two Shabbat candles instead of one.

So that’s three versions of the Ten Commandments, just in the original Hebrew Bible! Which of them is the “right” one?

Easy. According to Jews: all of them.

Since our tradition holds that the Torah is divine in origin, every word of it matters — even the words that contradict one another. So we have three different accounts of the Ten Commandments, because, well, God wanted it that way.

Complicating matters, however, is the fact that the Hebrew Bible has been translated hundreds of times into dozens of languages. Each translation — even the most faithful ones — inherently add connotations, remove context and subtly change the original text’s meaning.

So which of the many, many official Biblical translations have our state legislators decided is most appropriate to display for our schoolchildren?

None of them, actually.

Graven images in the Supreme Court version of the Bible

Turns out, the Louisiana legislators adopted their version of the Ten Commandments not from the original Hebrew, nor from one of the 64 official Christian Biblical translations available, but from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case: Van Orden v. Perry.

That case argued the constitutionality of displaying a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds. The stone monument in question was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1961, and it’s not readily apparent which translation they used.

For example, in the King James Version, Exodus 20:4 in full reads:

Thou shalt 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.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana’s law, it simply reads:

Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.

That version of the verse excludes crucial context about not fashioning false gods from natural phenomena (a reminder that the Israelites clearly needed, given their past with the Golden Calf).

Essentially, our Louisiana legislators are canonizing an entirely new translation of the Bible that exists largely within our country’s court records. It doesn’t bother with accuracy or consistency to the Hebrew, and excises entire sentences from the holy words of the divine.

How can Louisiana students be expected to take in the Ten Commandments as intended when they’re not even getting a full and accurate translation of the text in question?

Are the Ten Commandments “foundational” to Louisiana politics?

If the state is truly committed to the idea that public schoolchildren should deeply value the Ten Commandments, let’s lean into that, too.

Why not use the Ten Commandments to teach kids how to interrogate and interpret primary sources? Let’s educate them on how different translations can reflect the priorities and values of the societies from which they originate, and how contemporary governments who claim to use the Ten Commandments as “foundational documents” actually put them into practice.

For example, if the Ten Commandments teach us not to bear false witness, then how can Louisiana’s legislators claim that there isn’t enough money in the state budget to require public school buses to provide air conditioning?

If the Ten Commandments teach us to honor thy father and mother, then how can Louisiana’s lawmakers allow teachers to claim “religious objections” to using a transgender student’s chosen name and pronouns, even when that child’s parents give the required approval?

If the Ten Commandments teach us not to kill, then how could state legislators have justified locking juvenile offenders in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s historically brutal Angola Prison?

Governments are designed for creating laws, not scripture. As both a parent and a citizen to whom Jewish education matters a great deal, I don’t think governments succeed particularly well at translating or interpreting divine intent. I’d rather everyone just stick to what they know best.

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