Reclaiming our Ten Commandments Parashat Va’etchannan: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

By Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D.

A congregant tells her rabbi: “I recently attended the funeral of a Christian friend, at which the pastor read the Twenty-Third Psalm. It was so beautiful, spiritual, peaceful, and uplifting. Rabbi, why don’t we have anything like that?!”

Like other quintessential , this rabbinical joke operates at several levels. It is: 1) a poignant lament (the Am HaAretz are woefully ignorant about basic Jewish texts); 2) a self-deprecating criticism (many Jews find rabbinic legalistic, stultifying and/or uninspiring, especially contrasted with what they have been told is ’s “love” focus); and 3) an implied criticism of the dominant “other” (what chutzpah for them to call our Tehillim “Christian psalms!”).

Adonai roee; lo echsar (translated by the King James as “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) is the familiar “cross-cultural” vehicle for making the varied points of the joke. But this ’s portion – Va’etchannan – presents an even better opportunity, as well as inviting us to revisit our hoary practices and to address what should be serious concerns for Jews in our place and time.

At Deuteronomy 5:6-18, repeats the “Ten Commandments” (the Torah never refers to them as such, but rather as ten “words,” “utterances,” or “statements”). He uses nearly the same words as G-d revealed them in Exodus. Commandments are the most familiar and ubiquitous Jewish symbol in America. Indeed, is there a that lacks one or more prominently displayed images of the tablets, often on or above the ark or Torah cover? And yet, if you can accurately recall most of the Ten, you are in the decided minority. For most Jews, they are a very powerful symbol, but only that. We neither accept nor recognize their text as the base line of our morality, law, history, or religion. We certainly don’t argue that they are the foundation of American morals, law, and/or history.

Ironically, however, many non-Jewish Americans do so. They point to images of Moses holding the Ten Commandments prominently displayed both in the Supreme Court and on the building’s exterior, as well as on numerous other public buildings in Washington. Our courts regularly rule on the constitutionality of public displays of the Ten Commandments, usually issuing split decisions turning on how and why displayed. Conservative commentators, more than a few legislators, and even some historians argue that the Ten Commandments


are the foundation of American law. Why are we mostly silent in the Ten Commandment culture wars raging around us?

There are many reasons, including our sensitivity to /state separation and past religious persecution. But the most surprising and powerful answer may be our own Torah and . Immediately after restating the Ten Commandments, Moses tells the assemblage: “The Lord spoke those words – those and no more.” (Deut 5:19, JPS translation). After the destruction of the , the rabbis were attempting to create and solidify a non-Temple centered Judaism that embraced a comprehensive oral tradition (written in the and later Talmud). Karaites challenged the legitimacy of what the rabbis characterized as “the oral law;” Christians went further, rejecting most Torah mitzvot as anachronistic and superseded by the “New .” Both could point to this week’s Torah portion and ask: Hadn’t Moses expressly conceded that only the Ten Commandments were G-d’s actual words? Weren’t these ten, then, the most important, the ones that really mattered, or even, the only authentic ones?

As the direct consequence of this “Decalogue Dilemma” that threatened their legitimacy and national restorative efforts, the rabbis moved to drastically deemphasize the Ten Commandments. They stripped them from the daily liturgy and actually banned their public recitation (!), except as part of the normal Torah reading cycle. (Ber. 12a., Jerusalem Talmud Ber. 1:5.)

We have inherited their ambivalence. On the one hand, we not only venerate and prominently display the symbol in our sanctuaries and homes, we stand when the actual words are read during the Torah service. Yet, we never otherwise say them (except, as part of private devotion), nor emphasize them as paramount or foundational. As a result, we deprive ourselves of their great moral and spiritual power…leaving it to others to promote these divine commandments, organizing principles, or moral guidelines, however we might characterize them.

But our America is not first-century CE Palestine. We need no longer fear that conscious attention to the Ten Commandments will marginalize or delegitimize the rest of Torah and Halacha. Nor will it threaten the beauty and deep spirituality offered by the entirety of . Rather, the Ten Commandments can open the door to these for the many (majority of?) Jews who now find their Judaism lacking in ethical power, emotion, and spirituality. Indeed, no less authorities than and Saadiah Gaon, as well as Midrash, opined that all of the mitzvot can be derived from the Ten Commandments.

We should embrace the Decalogue as the best tool already in our hands. After all, the Ten Commandments are deeply engrained in both American social history and popular culture (thank you, Cecil B. DeMille and Dr. Laura Schlessinger). They resonate with others. Isn’t it time to let them resonate for us, to whom they were given?


Serious Christians do not merely adorn their sanctuaries with their principal religious symbol, they build their lives around it/him/Him. As a result, many find a deep personal connection with their religious convictions and culture. We can and should learn from their example. But not only from them. We should also learn from our own tradition.

If, according to generally accepted principles of Halachic interpretation, the earlier the sages, the closer to Sinai, and thus the more correct their interpretation, those of our pre-rabbinic sages should merit the greatest weight. We learn from the Talmud (M. Tamid 5:1) that the Ten Commandments were part of the Second Temple liturgy; perhaps they were part of the First Temple liturgy as well. Liturgy historians speculate that the Aseret HaDibrot were recited immediately before the Shema, thereby enumerating the principles of the Torah before reciting the formula for accepting the obligation to observe these principles. Both the Decalogue and the Shema were found in tefillin at Qumran.

Our pre-rabbinic Judaism ancestors thus clearly recognized the power, majesty, and centrality of the Ten Commandments, and so should we. The rabbis addressed the critical existential challenge to the Judaism of their time by removing the Ten Commandments from their former historical prominence. This should have been only a dire temporary measure, like Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus during the national insurrection. We should now address the critical existential challenge of our Judaism by restoring the Ten Commandments to their former luminescent prominence. “The Lord spoke those words.” It’s time to take them out of the ark/closet and bring them back into our tradition, our liturgy, and our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.