imageLast week, a U.S. district court judge sitting in Roanoke, Va., made an extraordinary suggestion about the document commonly referred to as “The Ten Commandments.” He suggested it be cut to six. He appointed another judge to oversee negotiations to accomplish that goal.

The case involves Narrows High School in Narrows, Va., a part of the Giles County school district, which is the actual defendant in the case. After Narrows High put up a display of “The Ten Commandments,” the American Civil Liberties Union objected and brought the case to the U.S. District Court in Roanoke. It cited the separation clause of the First Amendment, as well as a number of federal court decisions, as its reasons.

Hearing the case is Judge Michael Urbanski. The issue, Urbanski told the litigants last week, boils down to a matter of intent. Was the display intended to convey a message of morality and ethics, or was the intent to promote a religion?

“If it’s not about God,” he asked, “then why are we having this argument?”

“If indeed the issue is not about God,” he continued, “why wouldn’t it make sense for Giles County to say, ‘Let’s go back and just post the bottom six [the “secular” commandments from honoring parents to coveting what others have]’?”

Although Urbanski sent the case to mediation, observers doubt that either side is willing to compromise on the issue. It is all ten, or nothing at all, it seems. Urbanski indicated that he is prepared to impose his solution if the parties to the case cannot agree to resolve the matter.

The Narrows case is just another round in a continuing saga of court cases surounding “The Ten Commandments.” It, and the unusual suggestion from the judge, come just as Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Shavuot, “the time of the Giving of the Torah,” by which is actually meant God’s “appearance” on Mount Sinai to enunciate His Law, beginning with “the Ten.”

This most unique document in human history is shrouded in myth and misperception, and has been for a very long time.

The greatest myth surrounding it is its name. To call it “The Ten Commandments” is a very Christian thing to do, and the purpose of doing so is to undermine the authority of the Torah. More about that later, however. Suffice it to say at this point that, while there are commandments found in the document, this is secondary to its purpose, which is to have God Himself set out the underlying premises of His covenant with Israel.

Myth No. 1: God said them all

We are told that “God spoke all these words” directly to each Israelite. Other than at this one singular moment in time, never has God spoken directly to an entire people.

Of course, this applies only if you believe – as I do – that God did “speak” these words. Sort of.

To begin with, as the Midrash in Exodus Rabbah 42:8 notes, God did not speak “all” of these words. Almost certainly, in my view, that is because the people stopped Him before He got too far. Never mind that the Torah text in Exodus 20 puts the interruption at the end of the recitation of “the 10 statements.” The Torah simply did not want to interrupt the flow of God’s personally delivered statement with narrative about how Israel did not want to listen to Him.

Consider the text. We begin with “I am the Lord your God,” and follow this with a warning to “have no other gods before Me.” We are then told that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” who deals harshly with “them that hate Me,” but “showing mercy to thousands of those who love Me, and keep My commandments.”

Throughout this, God is addressed in the first person. Next up: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

Suddenly, God is in the third person and that is how it remains for the rest of the declaration. God would have no reason to switch from “Me” to “Him.” Obviously, He was stopped before He got very far in his message.

That brings us to the other issue about “speaking”: God cannot speak; He has none of the physical attributes necessary for speech.

God is incorporeal. “His unity is in no way physical, either potentially so or actually so,” Maimonides – the Rambam – tells us. “None of the attributes of matter – motion, say, or rest – can be ascribed to Him. They cannot refer to Him accidentally or essentially….Whenever Scripture describes Him in such corporeal terms as ‘walking,’ ‘standing,’ ‘sitting,’ ‘speaking,’ and the like, it speaks metaphorically.”

Rambam made this the “third fundamental principle” of faith out of the 13 he said were essential for Jewish belief.

He continues the thought in his eighth fundamental principle. While we must believe “that the Torah came from God,” it did not happen the way we think it did, he said. “When we call the Torah ‘God’s Word,’ we speak metaphorically,” said Rambam. “We do not know exactly how it reached us, but only that it came to us through Moses, who acted like a secretary taking dictation,” metaphorically speaking.

One of Rambam’s prooftexts for this is Deuteronomy 4:12-15, in which Moses himself makes the incorporeality claim:

“And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice….[Y]ou saw no manner of form on the day when the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire.”

Moses was not merely saying that the flaming mountain obscured the view of God. He said “no manner of form” was seen. Nothing was seen because there was nothing to see.

Maimonides elaborates on this in his Mishneh Torah, Y’sodei ha’Torah (Basic Principles of the Torah, Chapter 1:7. “Were the Creator to have body and form, He would have limitation and substance, for it is impossible to have a body without limitations. For any [entity] whose physical being is limited and defined, his power is limited and finite. And since the power of our God, blessed be His Name, is neither limited nor finite…, His power cannot be that of a corporeal being….”

If God did not “speak” that day, however, why did Moses say He did? It is because Israel did “hear” God’s voice, but it came from somewhere inside themselves and entered their minds. They did not hear God’s word, they experienced it from the very core of their own beings.

No wonder they panicked.

However the words got to us, they are the “words” God chose as the only ones He would personally deliver to each and every Israelite. Thus, they are considered the ultimate religious testament. That is what keeps “the Ten Commandments” at the center of so many First Amendment cases.

Myth No. 2: There are 10 commandments

That brings us to the next myth or misperception: There are 10 commandments in “the Ten Commandments.”

Actually, there may be as many as 13, by one count. Then again, there may be no commandments here at all – at least not in the normal sense.

The Torah refers to this document as the “aseret ha-d’varim” and we call it the “aseret ha-dibrot.” Both mean “ten statements” or “ten utterances,” or “ten declarations,” but definitely not “ten commandments.”

That is because these “commandments” are not “mitzvot” in the ordinary sense. Rather, they provide a sense of the mitzvot to come; a preamble, as it were, to the constitution of God’s “treasured nation.”

In that sense, it is not unlike the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

There can be no question what the Constitution is about based on what leads into it. There is no question what Israel’s “constitution” is about based on what leads into it.

That God intended to set forth a “constitution” for Israel is clear. He says as much when He tells Moses what to say to Israel in advance of His “appearance” on Mount Sinai. “[If] you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6.)

It is just as clear that the text of this constitution, soon to be referred to as “the Covenant,” appears immediately after God makes His “appearance.”

“And all the people…said to Moses, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die….And the people stood far away, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. And the Lord said to Moses, Thus shall you say to the people of Israel….” (Exodus 20:15-19.)

Finally, as Exodus, Chapter 24, begins, the covenantal text is complete and it is the people’s turn to speak.

“And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord has said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and…he took the Book of the Covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, All that the Lord has said will we do, and obey.”

In other words, the covenant evolves as a continuous narrative from God, with no break intended between the “coveting commandments” in Chapter 20 and the text of the next three chapters of the Torah. That a break momentarily occurs is due solely to the timidity of Israel. For all we know, God may have divulged all of “the Book of the Covenant” to them if they did not fear His “voice.”

Seen in this light, it is understandable that the Torah does not single out this text as “The Ten Commandments,” because it is only the first part of a larger package. Indeed, that “package” is itself only part of an even larger package of commandments that follow the “Book of the Covenant.”

“And the Lord said to Moses, Come up to Me into the mount, and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the Torah, and commandments which I have written; that you may teach them….And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount 40 days and 40 nights.” (Exodus 24:12-18.)

To be sure, there is huge difference between the Preamble to the Constitution and the Preamble to the Covenant. The former was written by human beings. The latter was pronounced by the One True God in a unique moment of Revelation never since repeated.

There is no such difference, however, between the Preamble to the Covenant and the Covenant itself, just as there is no such difference between the Covenant and the Torah which continues to be revealed after the pact is sealed. All are God’s words and it does not matter whether we heard them or Moses did and repeated them to us.

That is why we refer to “the 613 commandments,” not “The Ten Commandments.”

To the Christian world, of course, “The Ten Commandments” is a big deal, precisely because God allegedly spoke these words only to all the people, and no other. It is this Christian take on the document that makes it so contentious a document in courtrooms and legislative chambers. That brings us to –

Myth No. 3: The Jews revere ‘the 10’ over all else

There is an insidious side to the Christian belief that God spoke only these words and no other. From early on, Christianity used this “fact” to undermine the authority of the Torah. (Never mind that the text makes clear that He did not even speak all of these words to the people, but was stopped almost as soon as He began.)

Eventually, the Christian canard led to a change in our liturgy and ritual.

An explanation is required. It may not be completely accurate to say that we were commanded to recite the Sh’ma in the evening and the morning. The text in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 states: “And these d’varim, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when…you lie down, and when you rise up.” Only moments earlier, Moses reprised the Preamble to the Covenant and referred to them as d’varim (see Deuteronomy 4:13 and 5:19).

So, when Moses declares that “these d’varim” are to be recited “when you lie down, and when you rise up,” he is more likely referring to the “Ten” than to the Sh’ma. Why, then, do we recite the Sh’ma, but not the Aseret Ha-d’varim the text suggests be recited?

Actually, originally the “Ten” is what we did recite, as is made clear in the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’rachot 12a. As is also made clear there (and elsewhere), we stopped reciting this document during the service “because of the insinuations of the sectarians,” by which is probably meant the early Christians. Apparently, they claimed that the fact that the “Ten” had pride of place in our liturgy was proof of the document’s status in Jewish eyes as God’s only declared law. After all, it is “these d’varim, which I command you this day” that we are supposed to recite and, if the “Ten” is all we recite, then the “Ten” is all that He commanded us.

To prove that they were wrong, recitation of the “Ten” was removed from the liturgy. (It is now an optional reading at the end of morning prayers.) As the Jerusalem Talmud tractate B’rachot 1:5, reveals, efforts were then made to “find” all ten statements lurking within the three paragraphs of the Sh’ma.

Myth No. 4: This is the ultimate religious document

Ironically, not only are these 10 not “commandments,” per se, they probably are not really “religious statements,” as that term is understood.

Certainly, as U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch noted in 2003 (see sidebar) and Judge Urbanski noted last week, much of the text is secular in nature. Only “the first four” are not (the reason for the quotation marks will soon be apparent). These four are: not to believe in another god; not to have graven images; not to take God’s Name in vain; and to keep Shabbat holy.

Prohibiting the worship of other gods is surely a religious commandment, but there is a very interesting (albeit hair-splitting) reality that softens this a bit. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (which is what the text says, something even an atheist can observe) is not the same thing as “you must believe in Me alone” (which the text does not say, despite many claims that it does, and which makes no provision for atheists).

Let us examine the other three, however. There is little question about the graven images statement. Spin it anyway you want, it remains religious in nature.

Not taking God’s Name in vain sounds religious, too, but actually has (or originally had) a very secular reason for being. In ancient times, people would invoke the name of a deity as a guarantee. Use the name of a god for a falsehood and that god will zap you into nothingness. This commandment is a way of saying, “Do not use God’s Name to trick someone into believing a lie.” This is made explicit in the actual commandment, which is found in Leviticus 19:12.

As for Shabbat, not working on a particular day because God said so is religious, but the commandment goes way beyond that. The statement not only forbids us from working (imposing a religious obligation), but forces us to allow others to have the day off, as well (clearly adding a secular/social component to Shabbat). Look a bit deeper, however. Thirty-five hundred years ago, we and all humankind were told that no one has control over anyone else one day out of every seven. Rich or poor, master or slave, man or woman, parent or child, human or animal – everyone has an equal right to the same day of rest each week. Control is absolute. Deny it for one-seventh of the time and you deny it for all the time. This is not “religious,” as much as it is secular/social (and revolutionarily so).

Now, with all due apologies to Maimonides and others who insist as he does that the “first commandment” begins by requiring belief in God, no such commandment is to be found here or anywhere else in the Torah. First, God and His existence are givens in the Torah, which is presumed to come from God, so there is no need to codify belief. Theoretically, if you believe in the Torah, you must automatically believe in the God who gave it. Second, “I am the Lord your God” is a flat-out statement, not a commandment. It is not written in the language of commandments.

True, God states (not commands!) that He “rewards” those who “love” Him and “punishes” those who “hate” him, but by “love” and “hate” is meant observing God’s law. Understood this way, you do not need to believe in God in order to “love” Him.

Eliminate that as a commandment – Sifre to Numbers (112), among other examples, seems to do just that – and there are nine clauses here, unless you divide the “coveting” clause into two (which Sifre does). If you do divide that into two, then the language of the text itself should force you to consider dividing the “first” one, as well. It, thus, can be belief in this God and no other (this in itself can be split into two); not to make any graven image to depict a shapeless, imageless and formless God; and not to bow down to a graven image or to serve it. That makes this “The Twelve (or Thirteen) Commandments,” which is a lot closer to Mel Brooks’ version than Cecil B. DeMille’s (and brings us back to Myth No. 2).

This is the minefield Urbanski is trying to negotiate his court through. Good luck with that.

There is nothing simple about this “simple” document.