As a Jew and a rabbi, I am certainly not opposed to promulgation and observance of the Ten Commandments. However, in the cases currently before the Supreme Court concerning the public display of the Ten Commandments, the question has to be asked: Which version of the Ten Commandments are we to use?
First of all, there are two distinct versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah: “God’s own” version in Exodus 20 and Moses’ recapitulation of them in Deuteronomy 5, with the commandment about the Sabbath being the most notably different. Then too, there is the possibility that Exodus 34 contains a third and even more different set.
Assuming we can all agree on which text to use, how shall they be counted and depicted? For Jews, “I am YHVH your god” is the first commandment and “have no other gods,” the second commandment. But, apparently, for all kinds of Christians “I am YHVH your god” is a kind of prologue and “no other gods” is the first commandment.
Catholics and Lutherans count the Sabbath as number three, but Jews and Episcopalians consider this as number four. (And technically speaking, we Jews would have to say that Christians “remember” the Sabbath rather than “observe” it, since they chose to move the Sabbath to the first day of the week.)
Coveting is even more problematic. It seems that coveting is a bigger sin for Catholics and Lutherans than for everyone else because, according to their enumeration, there are two commandments: 9. You shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife and 10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. Episcopalians, for reasons known only to themselves, follow the Jewish model and put all forms of coveting in number ten.
When it comes to depicting the Ten Commandments, how are they to be arranged, for even this is charged with meaning. Are they five on one tablet and five on the other as is commonly depicted—but wouldn’t God or Moses have thought that, in order to save stone, they should use both sides? In fact, the Torah itself is not clear on this issue—compare Exodus 32:15, Exodus 34: 29, and Deuteronomy 5:19. Maybe they were written front and back of both tablets, but then how would artists depict them?
Lastly, there is the matter of translation and interpretation. The Ten Commandments—or “the ten utterances” as they are traditionally (and literally) known among Jews—were originally formulated in Hebrew. How do we know what the original Founding Father intended once we begin translating—and perforce interpreting—from the Hebrew into English or any other language?
When we read “lo tirzach” is God understood to be prohibiting “murder” as we Jews believe, or all forms of “killing” as some Christians believe? If adultery is forbidden, is this referring only to sex between a man and a woman married to another man, which was the legal definition for this commandment in its ancient context, or do we extend it by some feat of ledger de main to all forms of gender-equal extra-marital sex?
One cannot read the Ten Commandments without understanding them in one context or another. They beg interpretation. Consequently, the best way to present them would be in the original Hebrew form, without punctuation or capital letters or even vowels—but then who could read them?
For most Americans, the Ten Commandments either have symbolic value, almost like an ancestral totem (in which case Hebrew should do just fine), or they have religious meaning and thus need to be rendered into English. But according to which translation, and by whose enumeration—all this leads us into the issue at hand: not the free exercise of religion, for that we can do everywhere, but the establishment of one religion’s perspective over and above all others.
One final word of caution: Proponents of the public display of the Ten Commandments often point to the sculptural depiction of Moses holding the Tablets on the frieze of the Supreme Court building as evidence that previous generations did not have the same problem with them as we now are facing. That may be, but beware of the results. Because Moses’ beard covers most of the tablets, all one can read of them is “you shall murder, you shall commit adultery, steal.” Oy veh!