Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
02 February 2013 • Parashat Yitro
Two times Ten?
Earlier this month, Roy Moore was reelected to the Alabama Supreme Court. You may remember him as the judge who commissioned a massive granite sculpture of the Ten commandments in the Alabama courthouse building.
The ACLU and other civil liberties groups sued, arguing that this installation violated the Establishment Clause, and they won. Moore refused to remove the sculpture, so he was removed from his post by Alabama’s judicial ethics panel.
It's fitting to talk about the Ten Commandments tonight, since they appear in this week’s parshah. Of course this is the first of two appearances, in Exodus and then later in Deuteronomy. And that leads to something too often overlooked in the public shouting matches over Ten Commandments displays. When someone argues that the Ten Commandments should or should not be displayed, we should ask: Which version of the 10 commandments? Exodus or Deuteronomy? Whose translation? And by the way, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish tradition differ in how they divide up and number the commandments.
My favorite example of the difference between the two versions of the Ten Commandments occurs in the command about Shabbat. In Exodus, it begins Zachor / "Remember" and in Deuteronomy it says Shamor / "Observe" or "Keep."
But there’s more: the two versions differ significantly in the way they justify the Shabbat command. The Exodus version explains Shabbat like this:
For in six days ADONAI made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore ADONAI blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exod 20:11)
We are to observe Shabbat because God did. It is an affirmation of the spark of divinity within each of us.
The Deuteronomy version provides a very different reason. After commanding the observance of Shabbat, it says:
...so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and ADONAI your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore ADONAI your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.
Here, we are to observe Shabbat so that those who work for us may rest. In this version, Shabbat is about justice and freedom, and it is linked to God the liberator, not God the Creator.
The Exodus version is about Creation. The Deuteronomy version is about Redemption.
Of course, both versions are relevant, and both are integral to our story and self-definition as Jews. The rabbis of the Talmud were fairly intellectually honest about textual complexities like this. They knew that there is a higher truth within dualities and apparent inconsistencies.
A case in point: We tend to picture the Ten Commandments as two tablets with five commandments per tablet. This is the common conception (unless you’re a Mel Brooks fan...)
But in a classic midrash collection (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael), the majority of sages don’t share that view that we consider common today. They say instead: all ten commandments were written on both tablets. They don’t give a reason or explanation; I agree with Rabbi Daniel Lehmann of Hebrew College, who suggests that the two sets of ten written on the tablets represent the two versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
Lehmann goes on to remind us of the midrash about God’s miraculous handing down of the commandments:
It is in the nature of flesh and blood that he cannot say two words at the same time, but the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke the Ten Commandments all at the same time, as is said, “And God spoke all these words, saying [implied: at one time]...” (Exod 20:1). (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallakh, Shirata, 8)
In the rabbis' view, divine revelation is complex, multi-voiced, even pluralistic. Those who simplistically insist on displaying “The Ten Commandments” in public distort the depth and truth of Scripture. We Jews, as bearers of the rabbinic tradition, can be models and advocates for a different approach. We can celebrate the Torah’s complexity and reflect it in our own humility and inclusivity.
Rabbi Lehmann concludes his d’var torah by commenting on the typical Jewish choice of depicting two tablets of five commandments each:
Perhaps Judaism needs to re-imagine that symbol to reflect a profound principle of theological pluralism that lies at the heart of much of Jewish tradition. We could teach others through the symbol of 10 and 10 on each tablet that diversity, complexity and plurality are God's blessing to the world and a true gift of the Divine self...
As we sing each week in L’cha Dodi:
Shamor v’Zachor b’dibur echad / hishmiyanu El ha-m’yuchad“Observe” and “Remember” in one utterance / the singular God caused us to hear.
It's a paradox, perhaps, but it's essential Jewish wisdom that God’s oneness encompasses great diversity of expression. It is kind of the reverse of our American motto: it's not e pluribus unum, "out of many, one" -- but out of the one God, come many possibilities and interpretations, many paths to holiness, and many ways to be a Jew.