Parshat Yitro

Torah Reading for Week of February 5 – 11, 2012

“Our Decalogue Dilemma”
By Rabbi Arthur Levine, Ph.D. J.D., is a 2009 AJRCA alumnus 

This Shabbat, Jews praying in synagogues will rise as the Torah reader begins Exodus chapter twenty.  Even those of us who neither understand Hebrew nor follow along in English will likely feel the raw power of the Ten Commandments.  For many, it will be a rare confluence of conscious, emotional, and experiential connection with G-d and Scripture.

We will feel, in a word, spiritual.  How often does that happen?

We’ll then sit down and not reencounter the “Ten Utterances” (as the Torah actually refers to them) for months (or, in a triennial reading cycle, years), until reaching the nearly identical passage in Parashat Va’etchannan.

On every other day but these two, Jews praying from the siddur in the synagogue connect with many other Torah verses that the rabbis of old incorporated into our liturgy.  Ironically, we likely recite them while periodically gazing upon a beautiful artistic representation of the Aseret Hadibrot on the Ark.  But we won’t read, hear, or say them.

Thus, on the one hand, our tradition affords the Ten Commandments the primary place of symbolic honor.  Yet, on the other hand, we have literally hidden them in plain sight.  Why?

We often think of Judaism as a “historical” religion.  Perhaps this is mainly because of Torah’s antiquity, its textual account, and our historical connection to Eretz Yisrael.  Judaism is also “historical” because our people’s ancient political and social history continues to deeply inform our liturgy and ritual.  The “Decalogue Dilemma,” as I like to call it, is a prime example of this.

During Second Temple times and perhaps earlier, the Ten Commandments were prominent, recited immediately before the Sh’ma and even included in Tefillin.  After the catastrophic Destruction of the Second Temple and its Holocaust aftermath, the rabbis sought to save Judaism by establishing a society based primarily upon the oral, rather than the written, tradition.  (Ironically, to do this, they wrote down the oral tradition which, with later commentary, became the Talmud, the basis for the Judaism we have known ever since).

The rabbis’ powerful critics, including the Jewish followers of Jesus who became Christians, challenged the authenticity and validity of the new Rabbinic Judaism.  Engaged in a struggle for their Judaism’s survival, the rabbis decided to drastically deemphasize the Ten Commandments.  They didn’t just remove them from liturgical prominence; they actually banned their public recitation, except during Torah reading! This accounts for their absence from our daily and Shabbat liturgy, even as they still live in our collective consciousness.

Honoring traditions established millennia ago by our sages remains very important.  I would argue, though, that among the most important of these traditions is modifying our liturgy when necessary to promote Jewish survival.

By “Jewish survival” in our current place and circumstances, I refer to the impoverished spiritual life of so many liberal American Jews.  Many of our people feel disaffected, disconnected, and even indifferent to Judaism.  They look elsewhere for spirituality, including to other religions that take seriously the directive to “teach ‘These Words’ diligently to your children.”

Still, even though long-(virtually) buried, The Ten Commandments continue to resonate in the Jewish soul, perhaps as no other words.  Rabbis of a former era “exiled” them for the good of our people.  I now call upon rabbis of our era to redeem them.

May we restore “These Words” to their former prominence in our people’s minds, hearts, and prayers.  May we renew their power, as of old, in our days!

Shabbat shalom u’mvorach.

Leave a Reply