The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals beat us to it by three weeks and two days. On Jan. 14, it issued the latest in a series of federal rulings delivered since 2005 defending the public display of that document that we never called “The Ten Commandments.” The document takes center stage this Shabbat in the first of its three annual appearances as a Torah reading.
To us, the document is not “The Ten Commandments.” The Torah calls it the “aseret ha-d’varim.” In the Talmud, it is the “aseret ha-dibrot.” Both mean “ten statements,” or “ten utterances,” or “ten declarations,” but not “ten commandments” (that would be aseret ha-mitzvot). We have other names for the document as well, such as “the tablets of stone” or “the tablets of the covenant,” or simply “the tablets.”
To call this document “The Ten Commandments” is to fall into a Christian trap. To them, the term has a unique function: to undermine the authority of the Torah. Christians want to believe that only these “Ten Commandments” are the legitimate, revealed word of God. To us, the document merely serves as the preamble to a constitution containing 613 commandments, not just 10.
That God intended to set forth a “constitution” for Israel is clear. (See Exodus 19:5-6.) It is just as clear that this constitution – we prefer the term covenant – evolves as a continuous narrative from God, with no break intended between “I am the Lord” in Exodus 20:2 through “will prove a snare to you” in 23:33. That a break momentarily does occur (see Exodus 20:15-18) is due solely to the timidity of Israel.
In other words, what to Christians is the ultimate and exclusive revelation of God is only the first part of a larger package (the Book of the Covenant) which itself is merely part of an even larger package (the Torah; see Exodus 24:12-18).
To be sure, undermining the Torah was not the intention of the Sixth U.S. Circuit. As one legal-issues blogger put it, however, the decision is further proof that “a major shift in American church-state jurisprudence” is under way. In the end, the decision will further erode the wall that keeps Christianity from formally becoming the established religion of the United States.
In a 2-1 decision in American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, et al., v. Grayson County, Kentucky, the circuit court overturned a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. of the Western District of Kentucky at Owensboro. That decision prohibited use of “the Ten” in a county courthouse display that McKinley said violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Two of the three judges on the circuit court ruled that it did not.
The defendant, Grayson County, argued that all it had done was put up a general display in its courthouse entitled “Foundations of American Law and Government Display.” Nine documents were included in the display: the Mayflower Compact; the Declaration of Independence; the Magna Carta; the Star Spangled Banner; the National Motto (“In God We Trust”); the Preamble to the Kentucky Constitution; the Bill of Rights (but not the U.S. Constitution); a pictorial representation of Lady Justice; and the Ten Commandments. Also included was an “Explanation Document” describing the historical significance of each item. Clearly, Grayson argued, there was no religious motive here and certainly no endorsement of a religious belief. The circuit court majority agreed.
Judge Karen Nelson Moore did not. In her dissent, she called the argument “a sham” that “should be rejected.” Citing count records, she noted, among other things, that it was a Christian minister who proposed putting up “the Ten” and that he also proposed adding secular documents to the display to overcome any civil liberties objections.
“The evidence from these meetings,” she wrote in her dissent, “clearly indicates that the predominant purpose was to post the Ten Commandments as a religious text and that the additional ‘Historical Documents’ were added merely to avoid violating the Constitution.”
Judge Moore may have been outvoted, but she was correct. There is a religious purpose here and it is to promote Christian beliefs over all others. As such, displays of “The Ten Commandments” are as insidious as is the term itself.
From early on, Christianity’s purpose in imposing such overarching importance to “the Ten” was to undermine the authority of the Torah and the legitimacy of the people who believed in it. Almost certainly, the response of our sages of blessed memory was to make a significant change to our liturgy and daily ritual.
We accept today the notion that we are commanded to recite the Sh’ma in the evening and morning. Contextually, however, that may not be so.
The text in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 states: “And ha-d’varim ha-eileh [these words] 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 â€¦ you lie down, and when you rise up.”
What are the d’varim ha-eileh? Only a few verses earlier, Moses uses that very term, ha-d’varim ha-eileh, to refer to his restatement of “the Ten.” (See Deuteronomy 5:19; also see 4:13, where he refers to them as the “ten d’varim.”)
So, when Moses declares that ” ha-d’varim ha-eileh” are to be recited “when you lie down, and when you rise up,” he is likely referring to “the Ten.” Why, then, do we recite the Sh’ma, but not the aseret ha-d’varim the text seems to suggest should be recited?
Actually, originally we did recite “the Ten,” 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 almost certainly 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 as God’s only declared law. After all, if “these d’varim, which I command you this day” is what we are supposed to recite and, if the “Ten” is all we recite, it follows that the “Ten” is all that commanded us.
To prove that they were wrong, recitation of the “Ten” was dismissed from our liturgy. (It is now an optional reading at the end of morning prayers.)
If only the decision of the Sixth U.S. Circuit were as easily dismissed.