You may remember that, ten years ago, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, placed a enormous monument displaying the Ten Commandments in front of the Alabama Supreme Court building. A federal court ordered Moore to remove the edifice, ruling that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
If you recall, the first of the Ten Commandments states, “I the Lord am your God.” The federal court ruled — correctly in my view — that a Buddhist, a Hindu, or, for that matter, an atheist, could certainly see the monument as a statement that his or her beliefs would not be honored in that court of law. Our legal system and our government are supposed to work equally for everyone — people of all religions and people of no religion. Statements about which deities we ought to worship have no place at the courthouse steps.
I remember thinking, at the time when Chief Justice Moore was fighting for this religious monument, ‘Has this guy ever even read the Ten Commandments?’ Quite prominent on the list of "divine dos and don’ts" is a statement about idolatry and graven images. The Torah seems quite clear that God does not like it when people revere objects as if they were God. That, it seemed to me is exactly what Moore was doing. In all of his statements opposing the federal court order, he argued that federal judges were placing themselves against God. Moore seemed to believe that opposing his statue was the same as opposing God, or, perhaps, that opposing him was opposing God. Either way, that’s a big no-no according to the second commandment. Only God is God — not a piece of stone and certainly not Chief Justice Moore.
Back in 2003, Moore was removed from office for his refusal to heed the federal court order. Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Predictably enough, he has sought to pedal his defeat on this hot-button issue into a political career. He has run, unsuccessfully, for governor of Alabama, and even has tinkered with the idea of running for President. Last year, he did win election to return to his former office as the Alabama Supreme Court’s Chief Justice. God help the great state of Alabama.
It has been ten years since the episode with Moore and his giant marble monument of the Ten Commandments. Why should I bring it up now?
Well, for one thing, in the last ten years, efforts to confuse the roles of religion and government have become even more common. We have seen attempts to circumvent some of the requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act on the basis of religion. Some employers have claimed that they have the right to deny access to reproductive healthcare to their employees because it offends their religion. Never mind that the law does not require any employers to pay for reproductive healthcare benefits, and never mind that the employers are not the ones who would receive the care they oppose. Here in the early Twenty-First Century, the right to freedom of religion enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is being turned by some into the right to impose ones religion on others and to inflict ones beliefs onto other people's bodies.
I have also noticed that the people in government who most loudly trumpet their love of God, tend to be very selective about which of God’s words they want to put into our laws. Opponents of same-sex marriage are very ready to quote Scriptures that call it an “abomination” for a man to lie with another man, but they never propose laws to ban other practices that the Bible also calls “abominations” — eating shellfish for example. Are they really trying to impose God's law, or just their selective reading of it?
In another example, the opponents of Immigration Reform never tire of talking about the threat to our nation posed by “outsiders” who “don’t share our culture and values.” They never seem to reflect, though, on God’s commandment to “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). There is good stuff in the Bible for those who care to listen to it.
And that brings me back to the Ten Commandments. Repeatedly in this week’s portion, Moses implores the people to observe all of the commandments, not just the ten engraved on the two tablets. He says, “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people’” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
This verse gives us a clue about how we can know if our secular laws based on the Bible are correct. When we do as God wants us to do, Moses says, the proof is not in the way we slavishly obey the Bible's words even if they don’t make sense to us. The proof of God’s commandments, according to Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest philosopher, is that they do make sense. Even those who come from outside our tradition will look at our laws and say, “What a noble and wise people those Jews are. They follow laws that actually make their people better and that make the world a better place.”
If there is anything that members of Congress should look at in the Bible when they consider our nation’s policies, it should be that. Our laws should actually make sense and they should make us a wiser, nobler, and more compassionate society. Our laws should make our nation the kind of place that we are proud to uphold as a model to other nations — not because of our material success or our military might, but because of our devotion to equality and justice. I see nothing in the Bible that tells us that we should build a nation on laws that impose the religion of some people on everyone else, but I see plenty that says that we should build our nation on concern for the plight of the poor, love of the stranger, and defense of the rights of the weak against the power of the mighty.
Ultimately, though, the laws of the Bible are not meant primarily for governments and politicians. They are meant for individuals. They are for people. They are for us. God and Moses did not give the Ten Commandments to frame public policy debates nearly as much as they gave them to help us make good choices in our own lives. So often, I hear people say, “Rabbi, I may not be religious, but I follow the Ten Commandments.” To such people I want to say, “That’s fine. Just make sure that you read them occasionally.” Just as I ask Chief Justice Moore, I ask you: Know what the Ten Commandments ask you to do:
1) “I am Adonai your God” — Know that you are not the center of the universe. Know that there is something beyond yourself to which you owe ultimate allegiance, even when it is inconvenient or against your desires.
2) “You shall have no other gods” — Do not turn objects, people or your desires into false gods. Let only God be God and don't pretend that your version of God is the only one for everyone else.
3) “You shall not swear falsely by the Name of God” — Make your mouth a temple of truth. Make every word you utter a testimony to your values.
4) “Observe the Sabbath and keep it” — Create room in your life for rest. Make Shabbat a treasure for yourself and for your family.
5) “Honor your father and mother” — Put the honor of your elders ahead of your own honor. Teach your children to do the same.
6) “You shall not murder” — Live a life that respects the lives of others, no matter how different they are from yourself.
7) “You shall not commit adultery” — Regard your intimate relationships as a sacred bond. Be true to your partner — with regard to your sexuality, your emotional life, and your personal integrity.
8) “You shall not steal” — Treat the property of others with even greater respect than you would wish others to treat your property.
9) “You shall not bear false witness” — Demand the highest level of justice. Even when the accused is someone you disfavor, honor your commitment to fairness and equality for everyone.
10) “You shall not covet” — Be mindful of the way that our brains can trick us into justifying the pursuit of our desires. Do not become a slave to thoughts about wanting things that are bad for you, or that are not yours to have.
If we say that we are good people, and that we want to be good people, we have to live it in our own lives first. Religion is, first and foremost, about working on ourselves, not imposing our rules on others.
Judaism has a lot more than ten commandments, but, if you want to say that you live at least by the ten that are written on the doors of the ark in our sanctuary, be sure you know what they say. Be sure to take them seriously and make them more than an idol. Make them the foundation of your life.