Joel N. Shurkin
Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?, p. 2

"A big part of what's going on in Alabama, as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson lament, is that America used to be a Christian country and isn't anymore," says Rabbi Charles Arian, a Jewish scholar at the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "A lot of Protestant Christians feel that their country has been taken away from them. People who weren't Christian and Protestant used to know their place, and they don't any more. It's about cultural conflict."

As a lawyer and justice of the state's highest court, Moore knew perfectly well his legal case was unsound and that he would lose. He also probably knew what he could do to exhibit the Ten Commandments legally. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Decalogue can be displayed in the "public square" in a historic content. Had Moore put Hammurabi's Code and the Magna Carta, for instance, next to his Decalogue and described them as part of the historical sources of American law, it would have been permitted. That apparently would not have suited his purpose, however: Moore wanted to make a point about the centrality of Biblical law, not its role as one source among many.

Which Ten Commandments?

Moore was probably unaware that even the numbering of the Decalogue is a matter of dispute. There are at least four methods of numbering the "Ten": Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox.

Is the first line, "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt...."a statement or a commandment? Some Christians say it is a statement, a prelude to what follows. That would leave them with nine commandments, but they break the last one into two prohibitions, one against lusting after your neighbor's wife and another against coveting your neighbor's property, to get back up to ten. Maimonides, though, said that the first phrase was a commandment to recognize the one God, an affirmation of monotheism.

In typical fashion, Jewish scholars have debated just how many commandments the Ten Commandments contain, and numbers vary up to near 30, depending on how you divide the sentences. Of course, "Ten Commandments"is not a Jewish term anyway. In Hebrew, the Decalogue is called aseret ha-dibrot, which means statements or utterances, not aseret ha-mitzvot.

Beyond numbering, mainstream Christianity's and mainstream Judaism's relationships to the Decalogue have long been complex. Rosann Catalano, Arian's Roman Catholic counterpart at the institute, says that "generally, they carry the sacred word of the living God and we're obliged to heed them." Yet while Catalano says that the Decalogue has not been superseded by the New Testament, Christians regularly disobey two of the 10, the one against graven images (visit any Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church) and the one requiring Sabbath observance (almost all but Seventh Day Adventists). They believe Jesus made them less imperative, and some Christian scholars believe the Sermon on the Mount might have superseded the commandments.

Perhaps surprisingly, mainstream Judaism also has a complicated relationship with the Ten Commandments.

The Jewish Studies scholar Everett Fox, whose poetic translation of the Torah was a best-seller, called the Ten Commandments the "cornerstone of Western civilization-although a glance at them will reveal that they have not even very well followed over the past two millennia." Similarly, Rabbi Bradd Boxman of Har Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Owings Mills, MD , calls the Decalogue "one of the most important advances in the history of humankind. It incorporates the breadth and scope of what a just and civilized society should look like."

But in traditional Judaism, the Decalogue is deliberately de-emphasized, the result of a brawl going back to when the Christians separated from Judaism. In the days of early synagogue, both the Decalogue and the Shema were recited at services. The early Judeo-Christians made much of the ethical focus of the Ten Commandments (at least the last six, anyway), arguing that it showed that ethics, not ritual law, was the fundamental essence of the Covenant. In response, the early rabbis decided to play down the Ten Commandments (see Berachot 12a) and the Shema became the sole "Watchword of the Faith" of Judaism.

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Image: Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments: The original and best?

December 2003

"We are Seriously Concerned
About the Fate of
the State of Israel"

An interview with four former Israeli Intelligence Directors

Are the Ten
Carved in Stone?

Joel Shurkin

Run Like the Wind
Dan Friedman &
Jay Michaelson

Temima Fruchter

Fleeing Edges
Noam Mor

Josh Goes to Services
Josh Ring

Our 400 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

The Nature of Authority
Dan Friedman

Elephant Memory
Jay Michaelson

Drawing a Line in the Cheese
Michael Shurkin