01/29/2013 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Exodus 18:1-20:23: The Ten Commandments as a Symbol of Pluralism

Earlier this month, Roy Moore was installed once again as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Ten years ago he was removed from that same position after refusing to adhere to a federal judge's order to remove a sculpture of the Ten Commandments placed outside the Alabama state courthouse.

Moore had commissioned that sculpture as a symbol of the Divine legislation that he believes to be the foundation of American law. The American Civil Liberties Union and others challenged Moore's move as a violation of church-state separation, and the federal court concurred.

Unlike the national trend away from the Religious Right that was characteristic of the 2012 election, Moore's re-election as chief justice of the highest court of the State of Alabama indicates that religious conservatism is still alive and well in parts of the body politic.

What disturbed me most about the erection of the Ten Commandments sculpture in Alabama over a decade ago was the assumption that those of us who regard the Ten Commandments as fundamental to our religious belief system agree about exactly which commandments were on those stone tablets.

In fact, Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions of the Ten Commandments. Even within Judaism, the ancient rabbis held different views of which commandments were among the 10 given with such pomp and circumstance at Mount Sinai and precisely how they were arranged on the stone tablets.

Most Jews and Christians agree that the commandments were arranged with five on one tablet and five on the other. However, the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, an early collection of rabbinic commentaries on the Book of Exodus, associates that common arrangement with the opinion of Rabbi Hananiah son of Gamliel. The majority of sages, according to the commentary, maintain "that all ten were written on each tablet."

No explanation is given by the Mekhilta as to the reason why 10 would be written on each tablet, though a proof text is cited.

I would like to suggest that one possible explanation is that 10 on one tablet represents the commandments as recorded in Exodus (20:2-13) and the 10 on the second tablet represent the commandments as recorded in Deuteronomy (5:6-17).

The text of the Ten Commandments in each version differs slightly, and in the rabbinic tradition, they are understood to have been uttered simultaneously by God at Sinai.

This commentary articulates a powerful message about the complexity of the Divine word. Even the most intense moment of Divine revelation, witnessed by the entire Israelite nation, could not be captured in one simple set of commandments. Plurality and ambiguity constitute a fundamental aspect of the Divine will.

How fitting, then, that in this week's Torah Portion (Parshat Yitro) we read of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. How we choose to represent that covenant in physical form reveals much about our religious worldview.

In synagogues throughout the world and across the centuries, the tablets of the Ten Commandments have been erected above the holy ark that contains Torah scrolls as a symbol of our covenantal commitment. Invariably, the tablets display five commandments on each tablet.

Perhaps Judaism needs to re-imagine that symbol to reflect a profound principle of theological pluralism that lies at the heart of much of Jewish tradition. We could teach others through the symbol of 10 and 10 on each tablet that diversity, complexity and plurality are God's blessing to the world and a true gift of the Divine self as echoed in the enigmatic, "double" name, "eheyeh asher eheyeh," I will be what I will be.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.