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Variations on a theme

The Ten Commandments aren't figuratively set in stone. It just depends on whether you're Jewish, Protestant or Catholic.

Published March 1, 2005

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases challenging the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property.

Opponents say such displays violate the First Amendment by promoting religion. Supporters counter that they simply pay homage to the Decalogue's role in history.

Observers nationwide and locally may well question which set of commandments are being considered in this debate. Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions differ.

For Jews, there are 613 commandments, not just the "top 10," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg.

The Rev. Robert Schneider noted that Catholics and Protestants number the commandments differently.

"The first three commandments we say deal with our relationship with God, and the last seven commandments deal with our relationship with others," said Schneider, pastor at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia Web site, the system for numbering the commandments in Bible translations used by Catholics was determined by St. Augustine. The first commandment combines injunctions against false worship and the worship of false gods.

Protestants separate the two and make them their first and second commandments.

For Jews, the first commandment combines a verse considered introductory by some Christians: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside me."

"In the context of the ancient world where polytheism was the norm, the concept of one and only one God was a most unique gift given to the children of Israel," Luski said.

Notwithstanding different numerical designations, Jews, Catholics and Protestants all end up with a total of 10 commandments. All believe, as well, that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

But people opposed to Ten Commandments displays in public buildings say the choice of one version over the other shows favoritism on the government's part.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the attorney for Thomas Van Orden, a homeless man who filed the case in Texas. Chemerinsky has noted that Catholics, Protestants and Jews use different versions of the commandments. The Jewish version says, "You shall not murder," but the one used on the Texas monument says, "Thou shalt not kill," the wording in the King James Version of the Bible used by many Protestants.

But attorneys for Texas said in a court filing that the Fraternal Order of Eagles made the monument neutral. "To ensure that their monument would not be identified with any particular religious group, the Eagles carefully selected a nonsectarian text of the Ten Commandments that had been developed by representatives of the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faiths."

The legal ramifications of commandments may be a courtroom debate, but the religious aspects are clear to people of faith.

"At Mount Sinai, Moses entered into a covenant with God on behalf of the children of Israel. A sign of that covenant was Moses returning to the people with the Ten Commandments," Luski said.

Jews celebrate the event at the festival of Shavuot, which falls seven weeks and one day after Passover.

Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, 248 are do's and 365 are don'ts, Luski said.

He doesn't teach dire consequences for breaking the commandments. "My approach is that of positive reinforcement rather than negative fear," Luski said.

The Catholic Church adopts the same attitude, Schneider said.

"We primarily use the Ten Commandments as an examination of conscience. They are general precepts and they don't really define individual sins," he said.

For example, the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" also means one should not cheat on a test, Schneider said.

The Rev. J. Phillip Miller-Evans of American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes in St. Petersburg said the Ten Commandments "are a concise, clear understanding that good living is important."

He added, however, that "they don't hold any higher value than the other commandments of God, such as simple things as gossiping."

The punishment for breaking the commandments is death, Miller-Evans said, but "Jesus Christ offers us eternal life through grace."

Miller-Evans said American Baptists are one of 32 Baptist denominations that have filed a friends of the court brief stating that displays actually diminish the Decalogue's sacred value.

The Catholic Church has issued no statement about the controversy, said Schneider, who offered his own opinion.

"I see it as part of our spiritual history," he said of the commandments, "but I see it also as part of our moral code that helps form our ethics today."

The last seven commandments are not particularly religious, Schneider added.

"They don't say anything about God. They are a lot of ethical codes," he said.

Unlike their monotheistic cousins, Muslims have no Decalogue. They follow similar precepts, said Askia Muhammad Aquil, an imam, or Muslim prayer leader, from St. Petersburg.

"There are some basic beliefs and some basic principles. They are essentially scattered throughout the Koran," he said.

Aquil said he can see both sides of the public display issue. On one hand, he thinks supporters are attempting to establish a state religion, he said.

"On the other hand, it is an attempt to confront this oversecularization of society, where there is no clear basis for right or wrong," he said.

"The challenge is to be able to balance that and to develop a democratic society that will embrace all of the citizens in our diverse makeup."

[Last modified March 1, 2005, 17:04:04]

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