Biblical Literalism and the Ten Commandments

In 2001, Roy Moore, then the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had a statue of the Ten Commandments displayed in the court building. The instillation led to a big court fight and debate about the separation between church and state. However, it also illustrates to which the Ten Commandments are seen by Christian fundamentalists as being the basis for living a moral life and the the literal word of God. Such an attitude also reinforces their belief in a literal interpretation of scripture. For the paradigmatic fundamentalist, a simple and literal reading of the Ten Commandments serve as the guide to how people should believe and act.

On the surface, it would seem as there is something special about the Ten Commandments, since they are given directly on Mount Sinai to all of Israel. Further, these commands seem simple and explicit:

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ס) (ב) אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃ (ג) לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ (ד) לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ (ה) לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒...

(1) God spoke all these words, saying: (2) I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: (3) You shall have no other gods besides Me. (4) You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. (5) You shall not bow down to them or serve them...

Believe in God! Don't worship idols! What is so complicated about that?

The Rabbinic tradition is more ambivalent about the Ten Commandments and their status:

וְקוֹרִין עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת ״שְׁמַע״, ״וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ״, ״וַיֹּאמֶר״, ״אֱמֶת וְיַצִּיב״, וַעֲבוֹדָה, וּבִרְכַּת כֹּהֲנִים. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: אַף בִּגְבוּלִין בִּקְּשׁוּ לִקְרוֹת כֵּן, אֶלָּא שֶׁכְּבָר בִּטְּלוּם מִפְּנֵי תַּרְעוֹמֶת הַמִּינִין. תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי, רַבִּי נָתָן אוֹמֵר: בִּגְבוּלִין בִּקְּשׁוּ לִקְרוֹת כֵּן, אֶלָּא שֶׁכְּבָר בִּטְּלוּם מִפְּנֵי תַּרְעוֹמֶת הַמִּינִין.
The Gemara related above that the priests in the Temple read the Ten Commandments, along with the sections of Shema, VeHaya im Shamoa, VaYomer, True and Firm, Avoda, and the priestly benediction. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Even in the outlying areas, outside the Temple, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner every day, as they are the basis of the Torah (Rambam), but they had already abolished recitation of the Ten Commandments due to the grievance of the heretics, who argued that the entire Torah, with the exception of the Ten Commandments, did not emanate from God (Jerusalem Talmud). If the Ten Commandments were recited daily, that would lend credence to their claim, so their recitation was expunged from the daily prayers. That was also taught in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: In the outlying areas, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner, but they had already abolished their recitation due to the grievance of the heretics.

According to the Talmud, the Ten Commandments were recited in the Temple as part of the daily Shema. Since the Ten Commandments seemed so important, those who lived outside of the Temple wanted to include it in their daily recitation as well. The sages rejected this, since they were concerned about heretics (early Christians?) who would find support for the idea that only the Ten Commandments are of Divine origin. It is not clear from this text whether there were actual heretics who believed this notion. Even if there weren't, it illustrates that the sages were afraid of any suggestion that the Ten Commandments are any more significant than the rest of the Torah.

This concern about elevating the Ten Commandments over the rest of the Torah was the reason Maimonides forbade standing when the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue.

The following is taken from Teshuvot HaRambam (Freiman Ed.) no. 46:

Thus it is fitting to do in any place where the practice is to stand [for the Ten Commandments]--it is fitting to prevent them from doing so to prevent a loss of faith, that they would come to think that some parts of the Torah are more important than others. This is extremely problematic and it is fitting to close any openings that would lead to this deficient form of faith.

According to Maimonides, every verse in the Torah is equally sacred, and standing for even the Ten Commandments could give someone the heretical notion that they are more important than the rest of the Torah. Therefore, he writes, one should put a stop to this practice even in places where it is already the local custom.

There have been others who justify the practice to stand for the Ten Commandments. For example, Rabbi Soloveitchic argued that standing is a re-enactment of Israel standing at Mount Sinai when the Torah is given.

Nonetheless, Maimonides' directive illustrates the degree to which rabbis were concerned about singling out the Ten Commandments in any way.

Another Talmudic text may serve to undermine any association of the Ten Commandments with biblical literalism.

The passage speaks about making sense of all the many disagreements between rabbis. How can we study the Torah when the meaning of almost every word is subject to debate?

בעלי אסופות אלו תלמידי חכמים שיושבין אסופות אסופות ועוסקין בתורה הללו מטמאין והללו מטהרין הללו אוסרין והללו מתירין הללו פוסלין והללו מכשירין שמא יאמר אדם היאך אני למד תורה מעתה תלמוד לומר כולם נתנו מרועה אחד אל אחד נתנן פרנס אחד אמרן מפי אדון כל המעשים ברוך הוא דכתיב (שמות כ, א) וידבר אלהים את כל הדברים האלה אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין בלשון הזה אמר להם אין דור יתום שר' אלעזר בן עזריה שרוי בתוכו

“Those that are composed in collections [ba’alei asufot]”: These are Torah scholars who sit in many groups [asupot] and engage in Torah study. There are often debates among these groups, as some of these Sages render an object or person ritually impure and these render it pure; these prohibit an action and these permit it; these deem an item invalid and these deem it valid. Lest a person say: Now, how can I study Torah when it contains so many different opinions? The verse states that they are all “given from one shepherd.” One God gave them; one leader, i.e., Moses, said them from the mouth of the Master of all creation, Blessed be He, as it is written: “And God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). The plural form “words” indicates that God transmitted all the interpretations of the Ten Commandments. Since the Sages invariably utilize the Torah itself or the statements of the prophets as the sources for their opinions, there is a certain unity to the study of Torah, despite the numerous explanations and applications. So too you, the student, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.

The Gemara addresses someone who may be discouraged by the many different opinions. How will they know which one is "right" and which one is "wrong"? By studying the "wrong" opinion, they will come to misunderstand the True meaning of the Torah. Furthermore, how could a Divine document lend itself to different interpretations? Wouldn't it mean that there is something wrong with it, God forbid?

The Gemara therefore teaches that even though there are disagreements about every realm of Torah observance, one shouldn't be discouraged. It is not as if one rabbi has the "right" understanding of the Torah while another has the "wrong" one. Rather, the different opinions about what the Torah means contain Divine truth, and there is thus a value in studying all the opinions in any debate.

While this is an important message, the prooftext for this argument is also significant. The biblical source employed is the verse introducing the Ten Commandments, "and God spoke all of these words." The simple reading of the verse seems to be that "all these words" means all of the words of the Ten Commandments.

However, the Midrash turns "all these words" into referring to all of the opinions regarding the meaning of the Torah. "All these words" thus mean that God is the source for BOTH the interpretation that forbids AND the opinion that permits.

The usage of this verse subverts biblical literalism surrounding the Ten Commandments and bible as a whole. If any passage in the bible could be understood simply and literally it would be the one containing the Ten Commandments. Yet, it is this very same passage that is being used as the source for the Torah containing multiple understandings.

Upon further reflection, it seems as if literalism and our talmudic passage reflect differing theologies on what would most make the Torah perfect.

A fundamentalist may believe that a Divine and perfect book would give clear lessons on how we should live our lives. A work subject to different interpretations is one that is less clear and thus less perfect. To put it another way, if the purpose of the bible is to teach us the Truth with a capital T, a book containing multiple readings would thus not be giving us the Truth about God and how we should live our lives.

On the other hand, our Midrash could be suggesting a different theology. If God is perfect, it means that God cannot be simple, and thus would not write a perfect document that has only one simple meaning to it, and without any further readings or depth. To say that the Torah is Divine and perfect would instead require us to accept that it is complex and deep enough to contain multiple layers and perspectives. There would thus be some Divine truth in the opinion that forbids and also the opinion that permits. The most perfect God would thus write a book with multiple layers of truth.

The idea that our understanding of God should impact how we read the Torah can be unpacked from a talmudic passage also based on the Ten Commandments. The first of the Ten Commandments begins with the word "Anokhi"--I. In this passage, Rabbi Yochanan makes "Anokhi" into an abbreviation for God giving an important message about the Torah.

The translation below is taken from the Koren Talmud:

רבי יוחנן דידיה אמר אנכי נוטריקון אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית

Rabbi Yoḥanan himself said that the word anokhi that begins the Ten Commandments is an abbreviation for: I myself wrote and gave [ana nafshi ketivat yehavit].

Many Jewish thinkers understand the teaching differently. For them, "Ana nafshai ketivat" means "I wrote Myself [into the Torah] and gave it." In other words, the Torah is--in a certain sense-a revelation of God, Godself. Some mystical thinkers teach that the Torah is really all the name of God.

This understanding would thus connect our understanding of the Torah with that of God. If God Godself is revealed in the Torah, then the very study of the Torah serves to reveal more and more of God.

But aside from that, it would mean that a perfect God Who is beyond our understanding could not possibly reveal Godself in a book that has only one simple and literal meaning. If the Torah is Divine, it must be able to contain many perspectives and layers of truth.

The following Talmudic passage best illustrates this idea:

דבי ר' ישמעאל תנא (ירמיהו כג, כט) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים

Alternatively, the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught that the verse states: “Is not My word like as fire? says the Lord; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29). Just as this hammer breaks a stone into several fragments, so too, one verse is stated by God and from it emerge several explanations.

The school of Rabbi Yishmael compares each verse of the Torah to a rock. Just as a rock can be broken into many fragments (others translate the passage as many sparks coming out of the rock), so too, each verse in the Torah can be understood in many different ways. Again, it is specifically because the Torah is Divine that each verse in the Torah must be able to contain many different explanations.

We have hopefully come to see a new way to see not only the Ten Commandments but revelation as a whole. The very Ten Commandments, which would seem to teach us that there is one Divine Truth, specifically teach us about multiplicity within the Torah.