The Constitution has mandated — and the Supreme Court has upheld — that the government not establish a state religion. Unfortunately, any attempt to place a text of the so-called "Ten Commandments" in a classroom would do just that. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to allow states to permit their display in schools and other public places.
Let me show you a few of the legitimate issues the state and the public school system will have to arbitrate. By making any decision at all, they will inevitably favor one religion over all the others.
1. Which version of the so-called "Ten Commandments" is permitted: the Exodus version or the Deuteronomy version? There are two versions, and they differ a little, mostly in regard to the fifth one, the Sabbath, which is totally different in the two versions, and No. 10, coveting, which is substantially different. How will the teacher explain the existence of two different versions of the text if it is supposedly derived from the same revelation at Mount Sinai?
2. How will these "commandments" be cited? The numbering of these verses in the "Old Testament" of the Christian Bible is different from that in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In the Old Testament they are Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. In the Torah they are Exodus 20:2-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The discrepancy arises from the fact that the prohibitions against murder, wrongful sex, kidnapping and false testimony are separate verses in the Christian Bible, whereas they are all in the same verse in the Torah. Once you cite your source, as all honest quoters should, you have taken a stand on which religion's text is to be preferred.
3. If we then use the Christian Old Testament — in modern English "Old Testament" means "The Superseded Covenant," which Christianity believes it has inherited from disbelieving Jews — what does that say about Judaism? Adopting Christian nomenclature would mean the government was siding with Christianity. Similarly, if the state chose the Jewish text, it would be promoting Judaism, and I do not at all believe that that is what those House members and their supporters wish to do.
4. I refer to the text as the "so-called Ten Commandments" because there is no one universally accepted way of defining them. There are either 13 or 16 verses in the Bibles, and they do not have, in the original version, headings that delineate which verses belong to which commandments. According to the way Jews and most Protestants break them up, the first of these statements is not a commandment at all:
I am YHWH. No other gods/idols. No vain swearing in God's Name. "Remember" (Exodus)/"Guard" (Deuteronomy) the Sabbath. Honor Parents. No murdering. No wrongful sex. No stealing. No false testimony. No coveting.
That is why the Torah (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13 and 10:4) refers to them as the Aseret haD'varim, often translated as "The Decalogue," a Greek-based word meaning the "Ten Statements." For in the above version, there are only nine commandments and a preamble.
Catholics and Lutherans, however, break them up differently. How will the government decide which version to use? And should they be called "The Decalogue" or the "Ten Commandments?"
5. Should YHWH — the four Hebrew consonants for God's name (represented in Greek and then English letters as JHVH) — be translated? Jews do not pronounce God's name, and find it offensive to hear it mispronounced as "Jehovah." It is equally offensive to hear the scholarly interpretation of the pronunciation of YHWH as "Yahweh," as many new Catholic Bibles have it. It is also offensive to many to hear "The Lord," a masculine word.
6. I doubt that many of the lawmakers proposing the bill want to use the original Hebrew because that would be promoting the wrong religion as well as using a language no one in the classroom speaks. So which English translation would they recommend?
The King James English is also a language we do not speak, and whose usage would only obfuscate the meaning. So would they use the New Revised Version, or the Jewish Publication Society text? Or something else?
And what about the translation of the commandment that prompted this bill's inclusion into the post-Columbine massacre debate? Should school districts translate the "sixth commandment" as "Do not murder" or as "Do not kill?" The mistranslation of the Hebrew term retzach (murder)" as "killing" sets society up as guilty of horrible hypocrisies. And if the more accurate translation, "Do not murder," is used, then how will teachers explain that killing is not murder if it is done legally?
7. I watched several lawmakers posing as Moses during the debate, holding replicas of the "two tablets of stone" upon which the Decalogue was supposedly written. The two tablets they held up were in the shape of tombstones, a depiction that has been standard since at least the 13th century in illuminated Spanish Hebrew Bibles. The Torah does not specify a shape or size, but the majority Jewish tradition saw them as square, not tombstone-shaped. Is this a discussion into which the government wishes to enter? And, if the lawmakers who propose this law see one possible boon as a prevention of violent crime, what will the ever-present vision of a pair of tombstones in the classroom inspire?
8. One of the arguments for displaying this text in schools is that were the students to take it to heart, they would not murder each other. However, it may have the opposite effect, because most Christians — with the exception of Sabbath-observing sects such as Seventh Day Adventists — neither "remember" (as per Exodus) or "observe/guard" (as per Deuteronomy) the Sabbath "to keep it holy." If they do anything at all Sabbath-like, they do it on Sunday, which is not the Sabbath according to the Torah.
This is not the place to enter into the whole issue of what Christians feel about the continued validity of God's law as written in the Torah. Suffice it to point out, however, that with this example of non-compliance with one central tenet of the Decalogue, how can schoolchildren be inspired to believe that any of the others deserve their allegiance?
9. Teachers will reveal their religious beliefs and preferences to their students through the text they choose, the translation (or original language) they choose and the way they refer to the book in which the text is found.
10. The Supreme Court already struck down a law intending to post this text in schools. Now do you see why?