2016-07-27
A pair of Supreme Court rulings dealing with the display of the Ten Commandments on public property are only the most recent illustration of the power of the Decalogue (from the Greek, meaning "ten words") to illuminate philosophical, religious, and cultural fault lines. For two thousand years, it has served as a potent symbol of the clash between moral cultures.

The identity of the cultures has changed, but this most familiar of all biblical law codes has remained the ultimate token of victory: He who controls the meaning of the Ten Commandments and the purpose to which they may be put, has won the culture war. Ancient Christians and Jews, 20th-century fascists, and 21st-century political liberals and conservatives have all understood the stakes in the tug-of-war over the Decalogue.

That this would prove to be the case wasn't necessarily obvious to the first people to hear the Ten Commandments.

The Bible's Book of Exodus relates how the Jews were liberated by their God from Egyptian slavery, fled into the desert, and, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard the Lord's voice speaking the commandments that would become the heart of Jewish faith, as well as of the Christian religion. After the Hebrew tribes had spent 40 years in the wilderness, immediately before entering the promised land of Israel, Moses reviewed for them the whole Teaching (or "Torah," as the Five Books of Moses are called in Hebrew) that God had revealed at Sinai. As given in the written text of the Torah, this Teaching actually comprises 613 commandments (according to Jewish tradition)-including rules for everything from distinguishing between kosher and forbidden foods to circumcising baby boys-of which the Ten Commandments add up to less than one-sixtieth.


Yet neither in Exodus, nor in a slightly different version given in Deuteronomy, is there any explicit indication that the Decalogue stands out for special regard among all the other commandments in the Torah. Distinctions that later religious thinkers would make between the Ten Commandments and all the rest, or between "moral" and "ritual" commandments, are nowhere evident in the Torah itself, which recounts the giving of the whole body of the commandments in the form of a narrative of those 40 years in the desert. The commandments are simply recorded in the order in which God chose to reveal them.

Thus, in the Exodus narrative, the Decalogue is followed almost immediately by instructions on a matter that some much later biblical interpreters would anachronistically regard as being of "merely" ritual significance--how to build an altar for animal sacrifice. The latter subject is treated in the Bible with no hint of a suggestion that we're making a transition from commandments of ultimate, permanent importance to others of lesser or transient value. The fact that God makes no distiction of the kind that these later Bible readers would make should suggest to us that either in his eyes, or (if you prefer the conventional academic viewpoint) in the eyes of the Pentateuch's editors, there was no such distinction to be made. In any event, from the Bible's own perspective, the Decalogue is simply 10 out of 613.

So where, then, did there arise the idea that these ten are The Ten-the vaunted Ten Commandments, as if the other 603 were little more than chopped liver?

That idea didn't arise in Judaism, though the ancient rabbis did grant a certain elevated status, of purely symbolic significance, to the Decalogue. The rabbis taught--as an oral tradition which they said went back to a body of teaching given by God to Moses at Sinai, called the Oral Torah, as an accompaniment to or explanation of the Written Torah and finally written down for the first time about 200 C.E. in the Mishnah-that the Ten Commandments were different from other commandments in one respect.

That was, besides being commandments in their own right, they functioned as a sort of a table of contents for the rest of the commandments. The 10 items of the Decalogue are like chapter headings to a book, with the other commandments each falling under one of these 10 headings. Just as a book's table of contents is only that-the table of contents, not the full text-so the Decalogue is not the whole account of what God told Moses to command the Jewish people.

In this sense, as a summary of the 613 commandments, the Ten Commandments still held a special place in Jewish eyes. That is why, according to the Mishnah, when the Jerusalem Temple still stood, before its destruction by Roman forces in 70 C.E., the reading of the Ten Commandments was a central fixture of the Temple liturgy. In the order of prayers, it came immediately before recitation of the Sh'mah, the central statement of Jewish belief in God's indivisible oneness. When Jesus attended worship services in the Temple, as historians assume, he undoubtedly witnessed this liturgy.


The experience of hearing how the Decalogue was venerated in the priestly liturgy conveyed to Jesus that the Ten Commandments were special laws. Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he said, "Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).

After Jesus died, the status of Jewish law became a point of contention among his followers. Some insisted on the continuing obligation to observe all the Mosaic legislation without differentiating between the Ten Commandments and the other laws. St. Paul seemed to take a dim view of "the Law" (his term for the Torah) altogether, calling it a "captor" and a "curse" (Romans 7:6, Galatians 3:13) to those who believed that observing Jewish law was what God wanted from them. For, he wrote in his letter to the Romans, "now the law has come to an end with Christ" (10:4).

The church had to decide how to adjudicate the dispute between the legalists and the antinomians-that is, between those believers in Jesus who argued against Paul's jettisoning of Jewish law, on one hand, and Paul's own disciples on the other. The heretic Marcion repudiated the entire Torah explicitly, including the Ten Commandments, which Paul hadn't done. The church fathers, however, recognized the continuing validity of the Ten Commandments while rejecting all the other laws Moses had received at Sinai. This was the position of Justin Martyr, who wrote a Christian polemic against Judaism, the "Dialogue with Trypho."

Other early Christian theologians saw in the Ten Commandments a symbol of God's having rejected the other 603 commandments. In the Torah itself, the story is told of how Moses, descending from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the Decalogue in his hands, observed the Jews engaged in worshiping the notorious Golden Calf. In his anger at this shocking reversion to idolatry, Moses smashed the tablets upon the ground. God later made him another, identical pair. According to the church fathers Barnabas and Origen, the breaking of the first set of tablets shows the low opinion Moses had of the commandments-that is, apart from the Decalogue.

In other words, in the conception of these early Christians, the Ten Commandments alone were worth salvaging, for practical observance, from the otherwise derelict body of Mosaic legislation.

For traditional Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians alike, the Ten Commandments had become the symbol of a most divisive question: Had the Torah been rendered "obsolete," as the New Testament's Letter to the Hebrews frankly put it (8:13), or not? Because a significant number of early Christians had been born Jews-how many remains unclear, though the figure diminished with the passing centuries as these Jews inevitably assimilated into the wider gentile Christian world-Jewish religious authorities felt bound to respond to what they regarded as the serious error of singling out the Decalogue as if only it remained in force.

This is why, according to the Talmud's Tractate Berachot (12a), the rabbis made an important decision. The timing is unclear, but it was around the time the Temple was destroyed and replaced as the locus of Jewish spiritual life by the local synagogues. The rabbis ruled that it was no longer acceptable in worship to recite the Ten Commandments as a central feature of the liturgy. The Talmud renders this in typically telegraphic fashion: "Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: They [i.e., the rabbinic sages] wished to institute the recitation [of the Ten Commandments] in the provinces but soon abolished them [the recitation] because of the arguments of the sectarians."


Reading and studying the Decalogue remained vitally important, but giving it the same special place in prayer that it had when the Temple stood only served to encourage the confusion which the rabbis associated with what they called the minim, or "sectarians," namely Jewish Christians. But for this clash of cultures-traditional Jews against Jewish-born Christians-the Ten Commandments would likely still be included in synagogue liturgy to this day. Of course, we can't be sure about that, but the Sh'mah was retained in its central place in prayer, so there seems no reason to doubt that its liturgical companion piece, the Decalogue, would also have been kept.

The clash was reflected not only in the way Jews pray, but also in the writings of later Christian theologians. The question of how to regard Torah law, and its relationship to the Decalogue, continued to bother these thinkers, who came up with different resolutions of the problem. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church taught that the Ten Commandments summarized natural law-the universal law evident to all peoples even before Moses met God at Sinai-as distinct from now obsolete "ritual" legislation found elsewhere in the Torah.

Among Protestants, Martin Luther argued that when Jesus declared the eternality of the law, he had in mind only the Ten Commandments-of which, however, there was one exception: the Fourth Commandment, Sabbath observance on the seventh day (Saturday), which was a Jewish institution and therefore could be discarded. John Calvin, by contrast, took a much more "Jewish" view of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, granting high regard to the legal observance of Old Testament precepts even apart from the Ten Commandments. Calvinism stands out from other branches of the Christian faith in recognizing the importance of acts of righteousness much as the Hebrew Bible does, an importance that Jews could join Calvin in defending as being far from "obsolete."

Calvin's religious and political thinking resulted, writes Jewish historian Salo W. Baron, in a "rapprochement between Protestantism and Judaism"-perhaps even, going a step further, between Christianity and Judaism. For it was Calvinist Protestants, the Puritans, who gave the initial religious inspiration to what became the founding of the United States, the most philo-Semitic country the world has ever known. That rapprochement found its most remarkable expression in American law, which from the 17th century on drew inspiration not only from the Ten Commandments but from the entire Hebrew Bible.

The earliest legal codes of colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut were based explicitly on the Pentateuch's legislative system, with Connecticut enshrining in its 1672 "Fundamental Orders" the statement that the "laws and constitutions suiting our state" should best be derived from "the Great Lawgiver, who hath been pleased to set down a divine platform not only of the moral but also of the judicial laws suitable for the people of Israel."

With the flowering of the American legal system, the Ten Commandments as a symbol of Jewish-Christian culture clash had largely faded, at least outside Europe. On the bloody old continent, however, there arose in the 1930s a new and demonic culture. That culture, Nazism, would turn out to be no less fixated on the Ten Commandments than had been the Christian faith that Hitler's minions sought to depose.

Nazism, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, "in its very roots was a rebellion against the Bible, against the God of Abraham. Realizing it was Christianity that implanted attachment to the God of Abraham and involvement with the Hebrew Bible in the hearts of Western man, Nazism resolved that it must both exterminate the Jews and eliminate Christianity, and bring about instead a revival of Teutonic paganism."

Toward this end, Hitler decided that extirpating the Ten Commandments from the consciousness of his fellow Germans must be a primary goal. In comments to a fellow Nazi, Hermann Rauschning, he confided his thoughts: that the "life-denying Ten Commandments" symbolized the "tyrannical God" of the Jews, and that the Nazi regime must, consequently, make war on the Decalogue.

Hitler was thwarted, but his hostility to the Bible survived, as Heschel, a political liberal who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., plainly recognized: "Nazism has suffered a defeat, but the process of eliminating the Bible from the consciousness of the Western world goes on. It is on the issue of saving the radiance of the Hebrew Bible in the minds of man that Jews and Christians are called upon to work together."

Those prophetic words were published in 1966. The current culture war pits traditionally minded Christians and Jews against those liberals and secularists who would diminish public awareness of the Bible. I don't mean to draw an obviously unfair analogy between Hitlerian fascists and civil libertarians. The latter, we may assume, are motivated not by hostility to the Bible, or the Ten Commandments, per se, but by the worry that religion, if not reined in, will break out of bounds and dominate the culture in such a way as to intimidate unbelievers and other minorities.


Even those of us who don't share this concern should nevertheless respect it. That having been said, the fact remains that modern secularism has as one of its goals to reduce the public visibility of biblical religion, and the Ten Commandments in particular, which must inevitably mean reducing its influence.

Today's struggle over the Ten Commandments-posing the question of whether and under what conditions they can be posted on or in publicly owned land and buildings-is simply the form that the ongoing war over the Decalogue has mostly recently taken. Perhaps this is because the ancient Jewish oral tradition is right in saying that the Decalogue is a shorthand summary of the whole law of God-the crystallization of what He asks of us. What we think of the Ten Commandments is, in turn, shorthand for what we think of God.

When the Supreme Court unveiled its twin rulings at the end of the 2005 session-allowing the Decalogue to be displayed under some circumstances, forbidding it under other conditions, the combination of the two decisions seemingly calculated to the keep the issue in litigation for decades to come-the Court appeared to accept that conflicting beliefs about the place of the commandments in American life will remain a permanent feature of the cultural landscape.

That is, in a sense, only appropriate. People have been fighting about the Decalogue for almost two millennia, reflecting something essential in the great legal declaration itself. For all that the Torah itself doesn't draw attention to the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue's significance seems almost to be coded into the words themselves. Readers of every religious and poltical persuasion recognize this.

Something about these ten brief statements communicates to us that we are not dealing with just any ancient moral and judicial constitution, but with a timeless challenge to humanity. Years from now, men and women will probably still be arguing about the nature of that challenge, and over what, in light of the urgency communicated in its bare, terse language, should be our response.

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