Michael L. Feshbach

Hang Ten? A rabbi objects to the Ten Commandments

The first commandments of civic engagement are to see the humanity in others, and to assume good intentions on the part of those with whom you have disagreements.  Even in the midst of controversy and hyper-partisanship, it is often worthwhile to begin by attempting to understand views not shared. Is it possible – is it even conceivable – that they have a point?

So, nu? What’s going on, with this renewed attempt to position the Ten Commandments in the line of sight of all students in our public schools?  And, for our part, since this collection of sayings is certainly part of our Jewish tradition, what’s our problem with it?

So I confess, or I concede: yes, despite the protective wall of “separation of church and state,” the United States was, in fact, founded with a religious impulse at its heart.  And, in fact, it was an important insight.

The words that follow are my sense of what is right and proper in the context of the United States.  It is about one specific country, our origin, and our destiny.  It might not apply everywhere; other countries are based on different propositions.  It would not apply, for example, in Israel – which is not a Jewish state in the sense of a theocracy, or the Jewish religion, per se, but it is an ethno-national state in a way which is not true of the United States.  (How a democracy can still have a “flavor” in favor of one people or group, without being racist or chauvinistic is, of course, the subject of both controversy and misunderstanding – but that is a topic for another time.)  For now, this is an American argument

The founders of the United States might not have been traditional Christians, some of them, but they were what came to be called “Deists.”  They believed in God.  And they saw in the divine, however defined, a central source of human worth, dignity, law and morality.

But the document with a religious impulse at its heart which would be appropriate to position in our classrooms is not the Ten Commandments, for the many reasons I will share in a moment.  The proper choice would be… the Declaration of Independence.

It is there, at the moment of the formation of our nation, that our founders claimed that human beings possess certain rights “endowed by our Creator.”  What they are saying, is, of course, in contrast to a different view, that of the Divine Right of kings, where a sovereign extends rights to certain groups as outlined, perhaps, in a charter (hence, the Magna Carta).  But the point of that whole system was this: rights that are given by a king… can be taken by a king.  Against that, our founders proclaimed these rights “inalienable,” because their source was not a person, but from a realm beyond that of the human.  Our inherent and permanent rights… come from God.

That is a religious insight!  And it is part of the spirit of our country.  So there might not be an issue with the notion that the foundation of law and society is something beyond ourselves.

My own personal sense of morality echoes this: morality which originates only with human beings can be changed by human beings.  And there is something to be said to teaching that some things are right because that is the way it is, whether a majority decide differently or not.  I want – I need – a universe in which the Nazis were “wrong” not because they happened to lose the war in the end, but because they acted in ways which go beyond morality even if a majority of their society at one point agreed with and supported them.  (I said “if.”)  This is important.  And yes, it should be taught.

But.  That is a “religious” insight in the broadest possible sense of religion.  It is not about any particular religion.  Further, it establishes rights for, but does not demand credal affirmation from even those who might not believe in a God at all.

And.  There are particular problems with this whole Hang Ten thing, and the specific focus on the Ten Commandments.

First, even calling them the Ten Commandments is a choice.  In Jewish tradition, we certainly know about commandments.  They are called mitzvot. Our tradition claims there are 613 in the Torah.

But the only Biblical name given to these “ten” is a reference the Aseret HaDevarim – the Ten Sayings.  (The Talmud refers to the Aseret HaDibrot, which is essentially the same thing.)  There are practical implications to this difference, which will become clear in a moment.

Secondly, which version of the Ten Commandments are we talking about?  Actually, I don’t mean Exodus 20 versus Deuteronomy 5, where the two appearances of the more familiar wording of the Ten Commandments appear in slightly different forms, with variation in the wording.  (And never mind that the second set of tablets, described in Exodus 34, is vastly different altogether.  Everyone seems to forget about that.)

What I really mean is: whose version are we talking about?  That is because Jews, Catholics and Protestants “count” the ten differently.  There are, in fact, at least eight ways to “divide” up the 17 verses in Exodus 20 we are talking about here.  And there are implications in those differences.

The most obvious difference centers on the first commandment.  In Jewish tradition, that commandment is “I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  And it ends there.  Which is why “Ten Sayings” is more appropriate – does this really command anything?  If so, does it actually command belief?  What does that look like?

Perhaps because it does not seem to command anything, some Christian traditions include “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me” as part of the first commandment.  Jews do not.  For us this is the beginning of the second commandment, along with the prohibition on making images.  So for Jews, the injunction against idolatry and iconography are together.  For Christians they are not.

Some actually count “Thou Shall Make No Image..” as part of the first commandment as well, which would make “Do Not Take the Name of the Eternal Your God in vain” (whatever that means) as the second commandment. Jews and some Christians count that as the third.

There are other differences in the counting of the later commandments, but the point here should be very, very clear: this is not about a religious impulse in general!  Once you choose to post in a public space any particular version of the Ten Commandments, the state is explicitly endorsing one religious tradition over another.  If that is not a violation of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment, then nothing is.

Third, in what language will be shown?  I believe the Louisiana laws specifies that the display must be in English.  Um… Really?  These words, whatever they are, were clearly given in Hebrew.  And: translation matters.

In fact, let’s look at what I consider to be the sixth commandment (but which Catholics and at least Lutherans count as the fifth).  The Hebrew is two words: Lo Tirtzach.  Thou Shall Not Murder.

But.  I can’t tell you how many times, and in how many places, I have seen that written in English as “Thou Shall Not Kill.”  (Go look at the Ten Commandments as on display in at least half of the taxi/safari trucks in St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands!)

I don’t know if I can be polite here.  Because: that translation… it’s just wrong.  Plain and simple, it’s wrong.  If the Biblical write had wanted to convey a prohibition on killing, it would appear as Lo T’harog, not Lo Tirtzach.  It’s a different word, in Hebrew as it is in English!

“Murder” is a term defined by the state.  Had it said “kill” it would open up conversations about a) capital punishment, b) armies in general, c) (possibly, as a stretch) abortion and d) (extended to all creatures?) vegetarianism.   Those are all valid conversations, perhaps.  These moral discussions are worth having.  But this is not the right anchor for them.  And I have heard every one of those arguments supposedly – and incorrectly – based on this commandment.

Finally, of course, is the recognition that not all students come from backgrounds which are Jewish, Catholic or Protestant – nor would this belong in a classroom even if there were no Sikhs, Muslims, Hindis, Buddhists or those of other faith traditions present.  There might even be (horrors!) an atheist student or two somewhere in the entire state of Louisiana.

To say that our laws, our morality, and our sense of the duties and obligations we owe to each other as citizens and as human beings comes from a place beyond any person or government official… yes, that is accurate in terms of American history.  It may be a message as needed now as it was at the time our country was founded.

Probably the most appropriate and respectful way to teach that is to say that “our country believes that…” or “our country was founded on the idea that…” rather than presenting it as a “fact.”  At least that’s how I would approach it in a public school setting

But if that is the impulse, and the motive behind wanting to put up the Ten Commandments, at least I can say that I understand where you are coming from.  It’s the wrong vehicle, the wrong way to go about it, but I “hear” you.  I see you.  I can see some of what we share as values.

If, on the other hand, the proponents of positioning these words in public places is to push a particular faith – as is clearly the case for some number of them – then you are attempting a purge.  You are trying to read me, and others, out of your world.  You don’t want to be around anyone who is not like you.  I oppose you.  I will fight you, and if our country preserves anything of its tolerance and pluralism and the greatness based in decency and democracy, you will fall short of your parochial goal.

I can’t end this essay without sharing a quote from my teacher and one-time boss, Rabbi David Saperstein, who once said (paraphrasing) that he thought “hanging the Ten Commandments as some kind of visual muzak in the background will do about as much good for morality in our classrooms as having the Gideon Bible in the drawer does for morality in our motel rooms.”


I love the Ten Commandments!   Surrounding the content of the Ten Commandments is the amazing articulation of revelation, the concept of how a God with no body, and no vocal chords, can “speak” at all, and the notion of the Infinite somehow coming into intimate contect with the finite and mortal realm of human perception.

It is an amazing story, and these are powerful words.  They deserve exposure and exploration… in houses of worship, spiritual communities and other discussions.  Not in public schools.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, in Northfield, NJ. He came to New Jersey in 2022, after five years as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously he had been Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had also served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They have three grown children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.