Louisiana, keep your hands off my Commandments

Neal Schuster is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines. This essay is the prepared version of remarks he delivered at a Shabbat service on June 28.

Well, let’s see – what’s in the news? What’s in the news?

Hmm, let’s see. Oh, there was an anti-Jewish pogrom outside of a synagogue in LA, with police in riot gear standing idly by for an hour while Jews were being blocked from shul, pepper-sprayed, and attacked in various ways.

Hmm… oh, all the major news outlets continued to ignore comprehensive analysis reports debunking previous, unfounded reports about imminent famine in Gaza, and they continue to ignore the UN’s revised estimate of civilian casualties in Gaza in favor of the demonstrably false numbers supplied by Hamas.

Locally… the Iowa Supreme Court ruled to allow the restriction of abortion within the state to impossible and unconscionable parameters, while supporters of the restriction continue to ignore possible unintended consequences such as a potential increase in abortion numbers as people are forced to make hasty decisions “just in case.”

And on the Federal level, the media continues to refuse to inform the public about Supreme Court decisions, instead insisting on telling us what to think about Supreme Court decisions, based on what team we’re on.

And, lastly, in the wake of President Biden’s dumpster-fire of a performance in last night’s debate, Democrats are freaking out and making lists of possible alternative candidates, none of which include the otherwise excellent choice of Pennsylvania governor, Josh Shapiro, because we now live in a time when it is an uncontested given that a Jew could not possibly run for president right now.

With all that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions about how we might rearrange the deck chairs on this here Titanic. [That is to say, given all that’s going on, the following seems like proverbial small potatoes:]

From Louisiana House Bill No. 71. Section 1a:

Each public school governing authority and the governing authority of each nonpublic school that receives state funds shall display the Ten Commandments in each building it uses and classroom in each school under its jurisdiction. The nature of the display shall be determined by each governing authority with a minimum requirement that the Ten Commandments shall be displayed on a poster or framed document that is at least eleven inches by fourteen inches. The text of the Ten Commandments shall be the central focus of the poster or framed document and shall be printed in a large, easily readable font.

As it turns out, idiocy is neither a crime nor a specific religious transgression. However, for the authors and sponsors of this bill:

Representatives Horton, Amedee, Bacala, Bamburg, Bayham, Billings, Boyer, Butler, Carlson, Carrier, Carver, Crews, Dewitt, Dickerson, Echols, Edmonston, Egan, Fiment, Galle, Kerner, Mack, Melerine, Owen, Riser, Schamerhorn, Taylor, Thompson, Ventrella, Wileder, and Wiley, and Senators Bass, and Hodges…

…I, Rabbi Neal Schuster, hereby accuse you… of violating the Ten Commandments.

…I mean, I also accuse you of being idiots, but that’s not a formal charge.

Is this uncharitable assertion because I have something against the Ten Commandments? I mean, just two weeks ago we celebrated the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Ten Commandments. We stood and read them aloud from the Torah during morning services, so what could I possibly have against them?

I have nothing against the Big Ten, as I like to call them. I’m actually a huge fan. I would love it if more people actually knew them and lived by them. They are not the issue.

And the issue also isn’t the completely overlooked irony that the same political forces that pushed this legislation, as columnist Peter Greene put it, have “worked hard to end indoctrination in classrooms, [now] seem intent on installing some indoctrination of their own.”

And the issue isn’t even the micromanaging and controlling aspect of specifying the size and style of the displays – although that does lend a bit of a sublime weirdness to the bill.

Where the issue does begin is with specifying the exact text of the so-called Ten Commandments that is to be displayed.

Why “so-called” Ten Commandments? Well, first of all, in Jewish tradition, they’re not actually called the Ten Commandments. They’re called aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Utterences is really what it means. Still, I’m OK with calling it the Ten Commandments. But in this case, I say “so-called” because the text they provide is completely mangled and mistranslated.

Not only does it ignore the fact that the Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah, first in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy, with slight variations in the wording, but their version is chopped up and edited down. It’s not even the whole thing.

And the translation is totally off. There is no commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s “Thou shalt not murder.” The Hebrew is very clear, and killing and murder are not the same thing.

Where the issue really gets rolling, as columnist Eli Federman points out, is with the fact that in order to justify the requirement that it be posted in every classroom, they have declared that it is not a sacred, religious document, but, rather, a document of secular, historical importance—they’re no different from the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence.

In the name of… whatever it is they’re trying to do, they have turned the Ten Commandments from a sacred and religious covenant, into a secular object. But even worse, they have turned it into a secular object that they then proceed, effectively, to bow down to and worship.

That is what we call idolatry, and idolatry is definitely against the Ten Commandments.

But the worst violation is even more serious. If they had a better translation, they might know that the third commandment is not “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” it is “Thou shalt not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” And if they hadn’t chopped up that commandment, they would know that it continues, and that it is the only one of the ten that says God will not forgive (or “hold blameless” or, literally, “cleanse”) those who carry God’s name in vain.

It is not a prohibition against saying God’s name in vain, it is, ultimately, about not giving God a bad name, about not belittling or damaging the name and reputation of God. And that, they have accomplished in spades.

Did they not know that it would be challenged and that the Supreme Court has already struck down a law like this in 1980?

Was this bill a willful, intentional sewing of discord and conflict in our nation? Did none of them hesitate about turning something sacred and beautiful into an idolatrous object of political posturing. They weren’t concerned about turning the Ten Commandments into an object of scorn and a byword for ugliness and strife and partisanship?

Like we needed something else to be upset and fight about.

So, to the Louisiana legislature: Keep your hands off my commandments! Stop breaking them in order to save them. You don’t like it when someone forces their ideology on you, so, please, stop forcing your ideology on everyone else.

And just for one last good measure, to you Louisiana legislators, here are few other commandments you might want to keep in mind (from Leviticus 19):

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely reproach your kinsfolk and do not bear sin because of them.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.” – Ve-ahavta l’rei-echa k’mocha – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself:” and as the verse concludes, Ani Adonai – I am God.

God is God. Not you. Not me. Only God is God. So please stop giving “Him” a bad name. And, if you like, I’d be happy to print that up, in a large, readable font, on a nice 11” x 14” poster. Just, please don’t make them post it at school.

Shabbat shalom.

Top image of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on stone tablets is by James Steidl, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Neal Schuster

  • Chosen

    You’re the Chosen. I got it.

    The commandments don’t belong to you either.

    It would be better if Jews stopped dropping hints, as you have here that Christians are “idiots.” That you stop doing everything you can to ridicule and condemn Christian culture in public life.

    Christians have oppressed Jews in the past. Christians have saved Jews as well. I speak as someone with a son who still has shrapnel from the recent mid-east wars that were in large part about protecting Jews.

    These kinds of snide remarks are there own sort of prejudice.

  • And the backstory...

    of what the law requires is hilarious.

    The Ten(?) Commandments text required by the law is filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille’s movie version.

    Two lovely pieces here explain:

    Louisiana will post the Twelve Commandments in schools


  • Oddities

    It’s kind of odd to read preaches by Rabbis in Bleeding Heartland. Politics is something you can argue about, but religion can only be discussed within.

  • Huh?

    Some reactions to the Rabbi’s comments stunned me. Snide? Anti-Christian?
    Not fit for Bleeding Heartland?
    What nonsense.
    As a Christian (Lutheran) I found the comments to be timely, thoughtful, informative, restrained, appropriate, witty and other good things we find in submissions thanks to Laura Belin’s sound judgment, and good editing, which my occasional posts always benefit from, and to posts by people like Rabbi Schuster.
    There’s no lack of things for Christians to repent for, no need to add to them.
    Herb Strentz

  • Thank you, Fly_Fly__Fly_Away

    That link is amazing.