THE DISPLAY of the Ten Commandments, engraved on stone slabs, in front of courthouses and other public property - including in Cumberland and Frederick - has sparked angry debates in Maryland and nationwide, forcing the issue to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Opening statements were made before the court last week in cases involving displays of the Ten Commandments on government property in Kentucky and Texas. Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, was dismissed from the bench in November 2003 because he would not remove a 5,300-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the state courthouse.
Opponents to its display on public ground charge that the Decalogue is a sectarian document whose endorsement by government violates the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state as enshrined in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Advocates hold that the Decalogue, though originating in the Bible sacred to Jews and Christians, is no longer a strictly sectarian document. The core message of the Ten Commandments - that fundamental moral laws are divinely ordained - is the basis of Western civilization. Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Road to Mandalay" points to far corners of the world where morality is suspended because the Ten Commandments are unknown to them, a place "east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there aren't no Ten Commandments."
There probably is no country, no city on Earth, that is not familiar with the Ten Commandments. It is the world's best-known ethical and religious statement.
The controversy over the public display of the Ten Commandments may be of concern to constitutional lawyers. But for the people at large, it has little meaning.
It is a distraction from the real issue: How relevant are the Ten Commandments to our lives? Does knowledge of the Ten Commandments shape our moral and religious conduct? Unfortunately, knowing the Ten Commandments and living up to them are two different things.
The Rev. John Haynes Holmes once invited his good friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise, to speak in his church in New York. Rabbi Wise opened with the remark, "I feel at home in your church. After all, you took our Ten Commandments."
Pastor Holmes interrupted: "True, Rabbi, we Christians took your Ten Commandments, but we haven't kept them." Neither have all Jews kept them.
Imagine how much better our world would be if all of us observed but a few of the Ten Commandments, those that would keep marriage partners faithful and parents respected by their children, abolish thievery, put an end to murder and prevent the corruption of justice by falsehood and deception.
There is not a single word in the Ten Commandments that could offend a non-Jew or non-Christian. No statement is more representative of the moral and religious consensus of the vast majority of mankind.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a participant in a discussion on the Ten Commandments published in Redbook magazine in April 1962, suggested that the First Commandment, "I am the Lord your God," is far more than a religious doctrine. She believed the very idea of one God was an almost immediate preparation for the ideas of one world and one mankind: "If you believe in one God for all people, then all people are the children of God, and there can be no such thing as racial or national differences having any real importance."
I cannot see how the public display of the Ten Commandments represents "the establishment of religion" in violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
But I also believe that the mere display of the Decalogue will do little good.
We honor the Ten Commandments not by displaying them, but by living up to them in our conduct of life.
Joshua O. Haberman is the senior rabbi emeritus of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and chairman of the Washington-based Foundation for Jewish Studies.