Monday, March 21, 2005

The Ten Commandments Controversy

The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments about the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property. I've watched cases like this come and go for a number of years, and I think overall the courts have done a good job of assessing the situations presented: a two-and-a-half ton monument to the Ten Commandments placed as the centerpiece of a courthouse rotunda, with the explicit intent of reminding citizens of the sovereignty of G-d and His revealed law, was found to be an impermissible establishment of religion. Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F.3d 1282 (11th Cir. 2003). A small plaque that was a longstanding fixture at the disused entrance to a historic courthouse was not. Freethought Soc'y v. Chester County, 334 F.3d 247 (3rd Cir. 2003).

The Ten Commandments controversy has split the Jewish community in interesting ways. The Orthodox, who believe that the Ten Commandments were originally carved in stone by G-d's own power and given to Moses on Mount Sinai and represent immutable laws of G-d that must be followed, claim that the Ten Commandments convey a secular message. Meanwhile, Jewish groups that tend to believe the Ten Commandments were written by man but inspired by G-d or inspired by a quest for G-d, argue that Ten Commandments displays are inherently religious. Christian and Catholic organizations have largely kept silent on the issue.

The explanation of this strange division is quite simple: The United States Constitution prohibits government action "respecting an establishment of religion." If the display is secular, it is permissible; if it is religious, it is not. The Orthodox want the display to continue, so they claim it is secular; other Jewish groups do not want it to continue, so they claim it is religious. Christian organizationss apparently don't want to get caught in the awkward position of claiming that the Ten Commandments aren't religious, so they're staying out of it, though some individual Christians have staked themselves out on courthouse lawns tearfully bemoaning the removal of G-d and the Ten Commandments from public life, providing proof that this is precisely the kind of religious display that would be prohibited.

This division within the Jewish community is nothing new. The Orthodox have in general favored government policies that affected religious groups, such as religious groups using public property or funding of faith-based initiatives, while other Jewish groups have opposed such things.

In the past, however, the Orthodox groups that supported such things had something to gain and little to lose. For example, when an Evangelical Christian group sought to use an elementary school's classroom for Bible studies, the Orthodox supported it. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001). Perhaps they saw the value of access to public school space, and after all, it wasn't their children who were being proselytized.

What have they to gain here? Judaism is not a proselytizing religion; we do not try to convert people to Judaism nor even to the Ten Commandments. According to Judaism, only seven commandments are required for gentiles. We have no religious need to teach the Ten Commandments to the world.

Perhaps the motivation can be found in the Orthodox Union's press release, in which they describe themselves as "representatives of the faith to whom the Ten Commandments were initially given on Sinai." Perhaps they hope that displays of the Ten Commandments will serve as a reminder that these laws, which are a foundation of law and justice in Western culture, came to mankind through the Jewish people.

CNN article about the case:

The Union of Orthodox Congregations' press release:

The Anti-Defamation League's press release:

Judaism 101 on the Ten Commandments:

Judaism 101 on the Seven Commandments for gentiles:


Rhianna said...

So there are a total of 613 Commandments, but they aren't directly given by G-D? How then were they recieved, and why treat those recieved by Moses from on high as 'responsibilities' and not 'Commandments'? Were they 'given' to the Jewish nation by Rabbis after the time of YHWH no longer 'speaking' to the Israelites?

I knew there were several hundered for Jews, but didn't know they didn't carry the same weight/name as those recieved by Moses.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jon said...

my college professor for a "history of the jews" class recommended your website ( a source for information. i would like to thank you for making your site. i really appreciate how it is organized to make things easier for us.

JewFAQ said...

To Rhianna: The 613 commandments were given by G-d to the entire Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai. They are all found within the Torah (the first five books of what you would call the "Old Testament"). See my page on the 613 Commandments,, for details. This page lists all 613 commandments, provides citations to the source of each commandment in the Torah as well as a cross-reference to a well-respected Jewish reference book.

My page about the "Ten Commandments" ( explains that Judaism views the "big ten" as categories of commandments, rather than as individual commandments, and all of the 613 can be understood as falling under one of these categories.

I think perhaps you are confusing the 613 mitzvot (commandments) with gezeirot, takkanot and minhagim, which are rules that were created by the rabbis or by custom. There are definitely differences in the way Judaism views these things that do not come directly from Torah. Though they are all binding, you will often hear Orthodox Jews distinguish between mitzvot d'oraisa (from Torah) and mitzvot d'rabanan (from the rabbis or custom).

I'm not sure where you got the idea that G-d is no longer speaking to the Israelites. Perhaps you are confusing this with the issue of prophecy. The age of prophecy ended when the majority of the Jewish people started living outside of Israel, but G-d still "speaks" to the Jewish people, though perhaps not in quite such obvious and dramatic ways.

Rhianna said...

I'm sorry, my speaking comment wasn't that well written. Correct on the Prophesy front as I don't know of any prophets that are current, or have been for millenia. Is this due to just the Jewish peoples moving away from the Promised Land or is there some form of human reason to no longer accept prophets? IE Rabbinical teachings or a desire to no longer believe in direct rule-giving by G-D?

I misunderstood the 613 and 10 Commandment posts on your FAQ site. I was getting the idea the 613 were in addition to, not subsects of the 'big 10'.

Oh the lesser rules via Rabbis, is there a governing body of sorts the decides when new rules need to be added or are they prety much static?

muhsana said...

Though I am a Muslim, I have visited the JewFaq wesite & I enjoy learning from your blog as well. My blog is:

Again, you have an informative site & weblog. Peace.

dcasillas said...

You said, "Christian and Catholic organizations have largely kept silent on the issue."

Are you kidding? Christians have been the MOST vocal about it. They're angry about it and the ACLJ and others have had tons of rallies about it.

JewFAQ said...

Re: "Christian and Catholic organizations have largely kept silent on the issue."

Let me clarify: the organized church hierarchies have largely kept silent on the issue, apparently because they understand the legal implications: that if it's religious, it's not permitted, and if it's permitted, it's not religious. If you can find a formal statement from any church hierarchy, I will stand corrected, but I have not seen any evidence of a formal position from, for example, the Catholic Church, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, etc.

Yes, there are plenty of individual Christians and grass-roots Christian groups that are determined to turn America into a Christian theocracy, one nation under Jesus, with forgiveness and salvation for all who Believe, and those are the ones who are standing in the Supreme Court courtyard crying to save the Ten Commandments.

Ironically, these people are the strongest possible argument against allowing these kinds of displays to continue. Their indisputably religion-based fervor to keep the displays reinforces the notion that the primary purpose of the displays is religious, and if the primary purpose is the endorsement of religion, then the displays are not constitutional. If, on the other hand, as the Orthodox Jewish establishment is saying, the primary purpose is to show respect for an ancient legal code that is a source of our own system of justice, then such displays would be permissible, but that is clearly not what those people rallying and crying have in mind.

Yonah Mishael said...

I agree with dcasillas. I think that the Christians have been extremely vocal on this issue -- even the "hierarchy." I constantly hear things that the fundamentalist leaders have spouted off about the "Ten Commandments" being removed from the courts, etc.

Anyway, I wanted to say that I appreciate all of the hard work that you've put into The site is an invaluable resource. Thank you!

Miki Tracy said...

I also find myself backing decasillas. While the Catholic Church as an establishment is banned by Canon Law (not to mention, in the US, Federal strictures of seperation between Church and State) from involving itself in political issues directly, the American Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic League and several other well respected and ecclesially recognised bodies have been adamant and very vocal in the condemnation of the removal of the Decalogue from government buildings--for much the same reason that Jewish officials are opposed to this sad action.

The Catholic Church is most forthright in recognising that all civil law has it's basis in Divine Law. To remove G-D from civic life is dangerous in the very least, and a denial of our purpose in life--which is to know, love and serve Him above all else.

While I greatly enjoy both your FAQ and your blog, Tracey, I wonder sometimes whether you study out all of your claims before you make statements like these. With all due respect, I take offense to being told that my faith community has been "silent" on issues like this--especially when I myself have been contacted over the past few years by several officially recognised groups, possessing the full support of the heirarchy (which has itself made overt statements condemning the removal of G-D from civic life), and asked to sign petitions or send in pre-written postcards to my state reps and congressman to stop the removal of the Decalogue from buildings that my taxes pay for. That's not silence in my book, or inaction.

Regardless, I do read you site and your blog regularly, as time permits. It's a great service you provide to us Gentiles, and I thank you for the time you take in doing it.