dividing our country
The significance of the Ten Commandments in contemporary America, where they’re called the nation’s “rightful heritage,” is more a matter of history than of religion. A case in point: Several years ago, The Colbert Report featured a Georgia congressman who was eager to put up copies of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol building. When pressed by Colbert to name them, he couldn’t. For this congressman, and undoubtedly for many of his constituents as well, it wasn’t the individual prescriptions, the specifics, that mattered so much as their cumulative symbolism. The U.S. is not known for its cultural literacy but for its commitment to the Bible. We probably know much more about Elvis than we do about the ancient text, but the Bible remains central to America’s sense of itself, its sense of providence and election. Little wonder, then, that in its 2005 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court, mindful of the larger historical and cultural context, said both “yes” and “no” to having the Ten Commandments displayed in the public square: “Yes” to a longstanding monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol where it can be seen as a physical testament to Texas history, and “no” to a brand-new, religiously motivated iteration of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse, which crossed the line between church and state. What’s also worth noting about America’s relationship to the Ten Commandments is that once upon a time they unified rather than divided the country. Today, the Ten Commandments are a source of rupture rather than community.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and history professor at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she directs its Judaic Studies program.
civilization at its best
The Ten Commandments are as relevant now as they were when a motley but impassioned band of Hebrews wandered through the desert trying to discover how to be a just and moral symbol of what it means to be “of God,” “Godly” and “Chosen.” This template of civilization has been a guide for us ever since. They call on us to remember that we are not guides, that we, too, are each fallible, that we owe justice to the other, loving care to all, commitment to the family, security to the neighbor, integrity to the self and a sense of personal value high enough to want to secure it for others as well. The Ten Commandments are not “laws” in the legal sense, meant to restrict us, confound us or hamper our human development. Rather, they are the trumpeting of a vision of what it means to be truly human. They free us to be our best selves. In this world of massive violence, moral confusion, deep-seated polarization and destructive individualism in a global family, we have never needed them more than we do now. It is civilization at its highest, most developed, most spiritually centered that the Ten Commandments are all about.
Joan D. Chittister, Order of Saint Benedict, is executive director of Benetvision and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders.
not norms for everyone
The Decalogue [the Greek word for the Ten Commandments] is part of a specific covenantal relationship, born out of the Exodus, between God and Israel. It does not purport to be a set of universal norms. To act as if everybody in the world came out of Egypt, everyone in the world is required to observe Shabbat and everyone in the world was brought into the land of Israel would make a travesty of the actual biblical narrative. The truth is that neither biblical nor rabbinic traditions speak of the Decalogue as applicable to universal humanity. In rabbinic tradition, there is a universal set of norms, but it is the “Seven Noahide Commandments.” Among different Christian communities, the understanding of the Ten Commandments varies widely. Sometimes they are seen to include ceremonial norms that applied to the ancient Hebrew commonwealth but were superseded by the Gospel, but other times they are thought to apply in full force to Christians today. Given the prominence of Protestantism, and especially the Calvinist emphasis on the Old Testament in American culture, it is not surprising that the Decalogue has widespread significance and high prestige here. It is often mistakenly detached from its covenantal framework and treated instead as a code that binds society as a whole. Within the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, of course, scrupulous observance of the Decalogue remains essential.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.
not the foundation of U.S. law
The notion that U.S. law has biblical roots is inconsistent with how it has evolved over the years. Early Puritan experiments with religiously based law were overturned in favor of British common law with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The founders, most of whom were very well-versed in the Bible from their traditional, Protestant, religious upbringings, made the concerted effort to set up a secular government, relying on a broad combination of sources including the Magna Carta, British common law and the philosophical works of enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. In the 19th century, there was a movement to systematize the law to make it more scientific and predictable—concepts inconsistent with the notion of a static, preordained biblical law. Part of the growing commercialism of that time meant pressure from businesses that wanted clear, predictable results, requiring lawyers and judges to put aside their morals and values when deciding legal issues. You see in the case law—in which there is barely a mention of the Ten Commandments—a rejection of religiously based justifications, even for
seemingly religion-based laws held over from the colonial days such as Sabbath and blasphemy laws. That set the stage for the major church and state trials of the 20th century. On the most general level, of course, the values represented in part of the Ten Commandments can be seen as having some type of manifestations in most legal systems, but when we look to a more specific grounding of American law, then they are just absent.
Steven K. Green is a legal scholar and historian at the Willamette University School of Law in Salem, OR.