Late last week, Judge Roy Moore, current and former US Senate candidate and former Alabama state Supreme Court justice, announced that his “Ten Commandments Monument” would be placed on the first floor of his Foundation for Moral Law in Montgomery, Ala. In 2001, Moore commissioned and installed the monument in the rotunda of the state’s judicial building, in the hope of reminding all those who walked into the courts of the need to find “the favor and guidance of almighty God” when walking through its halls. While the placement of the monument was found to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and Moore was removed from office for refusing to move the monument, the incident became a flashpoint in how people of different faiths and no faith come to terms with the use and abuse of faith in the public square. For many, being forced to confront a symbol of faith in a government building not only proved to be a violation of US law, but it also violated their own sense of personal freedom to choose how they relate to religion. By laying down the law in 2.5 tons of granite, one individual attempted to dictate what religion and proper behavior and belief meant.
I am glad that the Ten Commandments monument was removed from the Alabama Judicial Building, and I’m disappointed that it is being brought back this week as part of a political campaign. But I am struck that we continue to debate the Ten Commandments and what it represents, and how it is so often weaponized to impose the views of one person or group of people on others. I also find the timing of the monument announcement ironic because in Jewish communities around the world this Saturday, we will read the section of the Torah that includes the Ten Commandments. This coincidence makes me appreciate how radical some Jewish understandings of the Ten Commandments are. I think they can help us appreciate something crucial about what religion and the spiritual path can be about, and how they point to who we are.
One of my favorite teachings about the Ten Commandments is that there aren’t actually ten. There might only have been two, and, tantalizingly, maybe even fewer.
So why only two? In one midrash, or creative interpretation, we’re told that the Israelites only heard the first two utterances made by God at Mount Sinai: “I am the Lord your God” and “Don’t have any other gods” (Pesikta Rabbati 22). That’s because the Israelites were so freaked out by the experience of listening to God that they told Moses, “Stop this craziness! Tell you what: you talk to God, and we’ll listen to you. Otherwise, we are literally going to die from listening to the sound of God speak” (Exodus 20:16, loosely translated). Trusting Moses to be a faithful transmitter of God’s will, the Israelites ask their leader to do the listening and then to tell them what God has said. But as we might admire the Israelites’ trust in their leader, we may also get the sinking suspicion that just maybe the text we have received in our Bibles isn’t exactly or fully what God has said.
Which brings us to another interpretation that I especially love. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov was a Hasidic master who lived in Poland in the late 18th and early 19th century. He taught that at Sinai the people of Israel heard only the first word uttered by God — “I am,” or in Hebrew, “anochi” (Exodus 20:2). But then he revised himself and went even further: the only thing that the Israelites heard was the first letter of that first word — aleph, a letter which in Hebrew, when it is on its own, is silent. So what did the people of Israel hear at Sinai? Pure silence, undifferentiated sound (Zera Kodesh by Naftali of Ropshitz).
To me, that is deeply refreshing. When the Source of Life wanted to reveal something of the nature of existence to humanity, what emerged was silence. A silence of limitless possibilities, a silence that extended throughout space and time and which held within it a multitude of interpretation and potential. A silence that was, at its essence, mysterious. To approach the Ten Commandments and the revelation at Mount Sinai in this way is to be reminded that the essence of religion or spirituality is not simple and rigid adherence to an external code of behavior that tells us who are the good little boys and girls and who are the naughty ones, but rather, it is an invitation into the mystery that is everything. Too often, religion becomes a way for people to oppress others, or a way for us to oppress ourselves when we don’t act or believe what we are told. But I think this way of looking at revelation, and really religion and spirituality more generally, invites us to experience the world from a different angle. To recognize the mystery and presence in the world and within us, and to see that as an invitation to turn our consciousness to what is possible. At a time of year when we all turn our attention to our new courses and dive back into the high intensity environment that is Williams College, I think we all have an opportunity to take a backward step and to turn within, to explore the mystery that abides within and to then turn that into an opportunity to engage the world afresh.
Rabbi Seth Wax is the Jewish chaplain at the College.