Rabbi: Why the Ten Commandments doesn't belong in public schools (Opinion)

David A. Lyon, s senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, makes his arguement for why the ten commandments don't belong in Texas' public schools.

Rabbi David A. Lyon
Wed, May 10, 2023

The 5-foot tall stone slab bearing the Ten Commandments stands near the Capitol in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

After a talk to a civic group on Judaism, I was asked, “As a Jewish person, how do you feel about the display of the Ten Commandments in public settings?” As a Jewish person and a rabbi who honors the separation of church and state, I explained that I believe the Ten Commandments should not be displayed on public grounds or in public school classrooms. I added that the Bill of Rights provides for the freedom of and freedom from religion. No one who enters a public space should be coerced or subjected to the suggestion or force of a religious position.

I honor the Ten Commandments, but they appear differently to Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

There are still only 10, but if one is Jewish, then the first commandment is, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” If one is Catholic, the first commandment begins with “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt,” and includes, “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” If one is Protestant, the first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

We’re not only debating whether or not the commandments should be displayed; we’re also debating which version of the Ten Commandments we’re debating. The Ten Commandments are not a talisman against evil thoughts and deeds. I concluded my answer to the woman by offering this: Let’s honor both church and state.

To accomplish both goals, I said, let’s begin with the premise that humanity begins at home. And if respect for humanity begins with core values found in the Ten Commandments, then they should be displayed in the home. I recommended that they be displayed over the door on the way out of the house. This way, adults and children would see the commandments; they would be motivated to live by them when they entered public space; and ideally, they would carry them in their hearts and minds wherever they went.

In Judaism, the home is called a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary. The Jewish home is dedicated to everything we inspire, teach and share in the synagogue. As I like to say, “If Judaism isn’t happening at home, it isn’t happening.” 

The same can be said of any home where other religions are observed. There we teach, engage in conversation and act on the moral duties of our respective faith. But if parents teach hate, amplify conspiracy theories and demonize minorities, there’s no set of Ten Commandments or prayer time at school that will neutralize the poison and invectives that students’ parents feed them.

The public display of the Ten Commandments represents the focus of concerns about the separation of church and state. But today there are more reasons to be concerned.

In Texas, the following Senate bills are currently in committee and potentially on their way to a vote. Here they are, in brief:

SB 1396 requires public schools to adopt a period of prayer and Bible reading for students and employees.

SB 1556 authorizes public school employees to pray or engage in religious speech while on duty.

SB 763 allows public schools to employ chaplains in place of school counselors.

And SB 1515 and SB 1721 mandate the display of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom.

Parents, rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and neighbors share a profound responsibility to teach, inspire, guide and protect impressionable young people. We owe it to them. In a world that we did not create, we should treasure the power we’ve been given to inspire hope to build a better world. 

Where do we go from here? Reach your leaders in Texas and let them know that these Senate bills are anathema to our expectations for the separation of church and state, and that if basic dignity isn’t taught at home, it’s already too late. In Psalm 127 we’re taught, “If God doesn’t build the home, its builders toil in vain.” Let God’s presence build the home you wish to know for yourself, your family and everybody who will ever be touched by your words and your deeds. Remember, humanity begins at home. 

David A. Lyon is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.

By Andrew Williams, Anastasia Goodwin, Lesley Huang