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Dear Friends,

In 1982, New Jersey law mandated a daily “moment of silence” in schools. The statute required a period of “quiet and private contemplation or introspection” at the beginning of each school day. Proponents argued that it was merely a moment of silence, but it was an obvious attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ban on state-sanctioned religious observances.

I was a junior in high school when the law, which was repealed through a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1986, first went into effect. I recall my discomfort at the time. I understood this was an attempt to chip away at the separation of church and state, and I wanted no part in it.

Fast forward to this week and the establishment of a law in Louisiana that requires that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every classroom in public schools and colleges in “large, easily readable font.” The new law has already drawn fire from organizations that monitor attempts to undermine the Establishment Clause. Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is already preparing for legal challenges. Unfortunately, this is just an opening salvo in the new attempt to erode further the legal wall that is supposed to exist between the government and religion, and the current Supreme Court has thus far sided with plaintiffs raising such issues under the guise of “religious freedom” 80% of the time. Numerous states have been reported to have prepared their own bills and are simply waiting to see how the Supreme Court addresses Louisiana law.

I personally agree with those who oppose this entirely performative attempt to blur the lines, but I believe the issue extends beyond the obvious challenge to the separation of church and state. For while the “moment of silence” was general enough to be open to individual interpretation and response (I used the time to review class notes), this law requires the state to determine which translation of the Ten Commandments to use.

Do they use the rendering of the commandments in the Book of Exodus or the version in Deuteronomy? They aren’t the same.

Do they use the Jewish translation of the commandments or one of the myriad Christian interpretations? They share much in common but there are subtle and relevant differences between them. For example, in the Catholic translation, determined by St. Augustine, the first commandment combines injunctions against false worship and the worship of false gods. Protestants, however, generally split the two and make them their first and second commandments. In the Jewish version, however, the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” which many Christians read as an introductory statement.

And who determines the “acceptable” translation? For example, most translations of the Ten Commandments to English, including the statue installed in the Alabama State House a few years ago, translated the 6th Commandment as “Though shalt not kill” when the Hebrew states, “Though shalt not murder.” This is no minor issue since the Hebrew words for kill and murder are entirely different. Had the Commandments sought to say, “Though shalt not kill,” they would have said so. Louisiana seems poised to use a similarly inaccurate translation.

Ultimately, by choosing one version over others, the state will tacitly endorse one approach to religious life.  As a result, this law is an affront to religious freedom rather than an attempt to protect it. In the coming months, it will be worth watching and, if need be, taking action. If this new law is allowed to stand, it will further erode one of the most important legal tools to ensure our country remains fully welcoming to all religious perspectives and to those who hold no religious beliefs.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen