c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The Jewish holiday of Shavuot (the Hebrew word for “weeks”) begins at sundown on June 8 and concludes 48 hours later. Shavuot occurs seven weeks and one day after Passover, and commemorates when Moses received the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, on Mount Sinai 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt.
Shavuot is an annual reminder of the Jewish people’s “irrevocable covenant” _ to borrow the words of Pope John Paul II _ with God. Shavuot is also the basis for the Christian holiday of Pentecost that marks the birth of the church.
In today’s litigious America, attempting to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings is a continuing source of legal battles and community divisiveness.
Many political and religious leaders constantly cite the Ten Commandments as the foundation of our nation’s ethics and laws. But despite all that attention, few people can accurately name and list God’s “Big Ten.” Indeed, the Commandments have morphed into an “American Idol” that millions of people adore without probing their actual meaning.
One remedy for this problem is to drill down below the facile slogans and bumper-sticker phrases that minimize, even obscure the Ten Commandments, and study each one within the context of contemporary society.
“I am the Lord your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” This Commandment is actually a declarative sentence. In an ironic twist of history, white Christian slave-owners in the United States brought Christianity to African-Americans believing it was a means of making their human chattels docile and obedient. But the black slaves saw something else in the Bible: a God who acts in history in behalf of the enslaved _ whether in ancient Egypt or in slave-owning America.
“You shall have no other gods but me.” Several of my college classmates fervently believed we would see in our lifetime a world freed of destructive nationalisms, tribalisms, ethnicities, religions, and races. They were wrong. Instead, today millions of people idolize their own group as if it were a deity.
“You shall not take the name of your Lord in vain.” A Commandment to stop making bargains with God like, “Oh Lord, let’s make a deal! I promise to be good, if you will get me through this crisis. I swear it!”
“You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.” Because the Sabbath is the only holiday listed in the Ten Commandments, Jews and Christians throughout history have adopted “blue laws” that closed businesses on the Sabbath and prescribed myriad restrictions. Yet, it’s clear that people ultimately define for themselves what “remember” and “keep” mean. Sabbath coercion rarely works.
“Honor your father and mother.” The Bible does not command us to “love” our parents. That may be too difficult in some families, but “honor” can be achieved.
“You shall not murder.” This Commandment does not say “kill.” There are specific Hebrew verbs for “murder” and “kill.” Any lawyer, judge, or even a rabbinic columnist knows there are differences between premediated murder, manslaughter and self-defense.
“You shall not commit adultery.” There’s only enough space to mention former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and U.S. Rep. Vito Fossella, who announced this week he would not run for re-election, following his public acknowledgement of adultery. These New York politicians are only the latest to violate this Commandment. There are always many other names to include in this large hall of shame.
“You shall not steal.” Going beyond the obvious meaning of stealing from others, this Commandment also means we should not steal from ourselves by denigrating our own unique skills, talents, and abilities.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The late Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, taught that we should not bear false witness or lie about another person’s spiritual beliefs in order to advance our own religion.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Ah, the green-eyed monster of envy! This is perhaps the most difficult Commandment of them all.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published book “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
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