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Ten Commandments from the Past, Ten Principles for the Present
The theophany at Sinai is one of the grandest and most compelling stories of all time, a story written for the silver screen – before there was a silver screen or any screen for that matter. It is a story that is found in the weekly Torah portion (parashah) traditionally titled “Yitro” (Ex. 18:1-20:23). But it is a story that really deserves top billing.
The revelation of God to the people is one of the three core themes of traditional Jewish theology, along with creation and redemption. But it is more than even that. It is a story whose influence over the course of the last three thousand years or so cannot be overstated.
The thirteen verses announced at Sinai, in the form of Ten Commandments, according to parashah Yitro, are embedded in our broader political community as the essence of morality and social order. They are symbolized by tablets that are physically enshrined in multiple locations, including at least two places in the courthouse of the highest court of our land.
This story and these tablets are also enmeshed in our popular culture, in everything from a blockbuster Technicolor movie to a now common expression: “written in stone” meaning solid, durable, unalterable, everlasting.
Ironically, though, even in the Torah the Ten Commandments do not seem so firm and impervious to change. In parashah Ki Tisa we read that Moshe (Moses) destroys the divinely inscribed tablets he has received. (Ex. 32:19.) God then directs Moshe to climb the mountain yet again with new tablets that he should carve himself and on which God will, once more, write the Commandments. (Ex. 34:1.) Moshe dutifully carves the tablets, and climbs the mountain, only to hear God tell him (1) of a new covenant with ten commandments that are quite different than the first set of ten commandments God proclaimed at Sinai and (2) that God has changed his mind and now directs him (Moshe) to carve “eleh devarim,” “these words,” onto the tablets he brought with him. (Ki Tisa Ex. 34:27.)
At the end of Moshe’s journey, as related in Sefer Devarim, he will remind the people of the original Ten Commandments heard in parashah Yitro, but he will change them yet again, albeit slightly. (Deut. 5: 6-18.) Still later (Deut. 27:15-26), Moshe will issue a set of twelve commandments, in the form of curses, a few of which echo some of the original Big Ten. In this way, he seems to have anticipated the expansion of another Big Ten to include Penn State and Nebraska, if not Maryland and Rutgers.
Do the original Ten Commandments retain their force, as opposed to their familiarity, today? What might result if, as the Torah text itself suggests, we were to consider changing one or two or ten today?
Here, somewhat abbreviated, are the Ten as found in parashah Yitro (Ex. 20:2-14):
- I am HaShem your God who redeemed you from slavery in Mitzrayim. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
- You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image of any other god or bow down to them or serve them.
- You shall not swear falsely by the name of HaShem your God because HaShem will not absolve anyone who does.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy.
- Honor your father and mother, so that your days will be extended on the land which HaShem, your God, is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not testify against your neighbor as a lying witness.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or possessions.
For many, Jews and non-Jews alike, these statements seem quite reasonable. Yet critics abound. The principal dispute is with the premise of the Ten Commandments, specifically that they are from a Supreme Being who around 3,300 years ago proclaimed them to the Israelites at Sinai.
British scientist and prolific atheist Richard Dawkins is one such critic. He argues that what he calls the “God Hypothesis” is “untenable.” (See Dawkins, The God Delusion (Mariner Books 2008), at 189.)Of course, Dawkins theological analysis is based on a Biblical literalism and a supernaturalism that makes for a good straw Deity. (See, e.g., Id. at 36.) His may be a necessary critique, but it is hardly a sufficient one. In any event, it leads Dawkins to propose “amended Ten Commandments.” (Id. at 298-300.)
Dawkin’s friend and intellectual soul mate, the late social commentator and militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, was another such critic. In an essay he wrote for Vanity Fair, Hitchens offered his assessment of the Biblical Ten Commandments. He blithely dismissed the first three as “a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator.” Here Hitchens was at his snarkiest. But when he added that “(m)ere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics,” he made a more serious, if still incomplete, point. And, having critiqued the Biblical Ten, Hitchens could not resist wielding what he described as the “revisionist chisel,” and he offered, if too hastily, ten other guidelines, interestingly most beginning with negative phrasing.
Dawkins and Hitchens challenge us. Yet, one need not be a militant atheist to question the first three commandments, because the story of the revelation at Sinai is a story that is not only incredible in the sense of being awe inspiring, it is, for some, incredible in the sense of not being credible, not being believable. Even a cursory review of the structure of Mesopotamian covenant treaties and the Code of Hammurabi will reveal that neither the structure nor the majority of the non-theological content of the Ten Commandments is either dramatically original or unique, or, therefore, of divine or supernatural origin.
And the criticisms don’t stop there. As with any piece of legislation, there are those who would alter or abolish the Ten Commandments in whole or part. Capitalists might object to the Fourth Commandment and the Tenth. Why legislate a single day of rest? Isn’t our civilization dependent on commerce, 24/7, and isn’t jealousy a prime driver of that commerce? Besides, a ban on coveting is a prohibition on thought, not action, and should not be tolerated.
Social historians and psychotherapists might object to the directive to honor our parents. They would argue that progress comes about as a result of rebellion and revolution by the young against the institutions of the old. Moreover, can we really, effectively legislate honor? And why, if honor is or ought to be due, do we need the incentive of a potential inheritance of a particular piece of real estate?
To be sure, there are not a lot of interest groups publicly supporting murder, adultery, theft and perjury. One cannot really complain about an anti-theft statute, even if — and especially if – originally it may have been directed to kidnapping. Similarly, we depend on honesty in testimony so that judgments can be rendered on accurate evidence.
But how seriously shall we take the biblical command against murder when shortly after it is announced the Levites at Moshe’s direction slaughter 3,000 (Ex. 32:27-28) and more deaths are to come. And while adultery is bad behavior, should it be criminalized? Conversely, if we take seriously the prohibitions against adultery and murder, as well as coveting and theft, what do we do with King David (and that insipid song David Melech Yisrael)?
Of course, carping is easy, constructing something better not so much. As I contemplated the task, I encountered at least five hurdles, not including The Greenberg Hurdle. And, along the way, there was a great debate between me and myself on many points. Sometimes I won and, well, sometimes I lost. There is just no accounting for taste.
First, I had to deal with the theological problem raised by Dawkins, Hitchens and others. In one sense, the question is whether there can be mitzvot without a Metzaveh, that is, commandments without a Commander? My solution was relatively simple. Instead of devising a list of mitzvot, commandments, I elected to develop ikarim, principles, something that at least theoretically people could agree upon without regard to any theological bias.
Then I had to stop reading other lists of alternative Ten Commandments. This was not easy. Some like Jack Wertheimer’s recent effort entitled “The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews” are thought provoking. Others are more humorous. Some are plainly stupid. You just have to stop.
My review completed, the ikarim option also solved, sort of, the next challenge: to limit the list to ten concepts, even while allowing more than one variation on a theme within each of those concepts. It also helped me remember that I was not trying to redo Rambam’s Mishneh Torah or Yosef Karo‘s Shulchan Aruch. As we know, after Yitro comes Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-224:18). Someone else can deal with rules and regulations.
I also wanted the ikarim to be infused with Jewish flavor. It’s not that these principles could not apply to non-Jews. Rather, I wanted each of them to be rooted in the Jewish tradition. Some of those roots run deeper and may, perhaps, be more obvious than others. There are echoes of Hillel and Micah here, but also of Bradley Shavit Artson, Jeremy Kalmanovsky and Shmuly Yanklowitz, as well as of Danny Siegel and Elie Wiesel, among others.
Next, I had to separate out wishes and advice from ikarim. For instance, the Israelite priests would hope that you be blessed and granted Shalom and the Vulcan priests that you “live long and prosper,” and both are quite fine sentiments, but they are mere wishes and not on my list.
Similarly, I could have urged that everyone avoid at all times Eastern European food, which, though succulent, is heavy, laden with fat and cholesterol and deadly to consume. It should be forbidden to the community – the schmaltz, the gribenes, all of it – as it should have been to all of our ancestors, may they rest in peace. Good advice, but not at the level of an ikar. (But see, “The Finest of Fats”.)
Finally, after I drafted and reviewed and reconsidered and redrafted and re-redrafted, I realized that (1) I was not a consistent observer of the principles that I had developed and (2) I was fortunate that I was working with electrons that could be rearranged easily and not writing in stone. Mindful of Rabbi Tarfon’s dictum that I am not required to finish the task, I ceased from my work and rested (for now).
And here, appropriately without either thunder, lightning, the sound of the shofar or billowing smoke, is my list:
- Know that you and your neighbor and the stranger among you and the planet on which you live are all related, having emerged from the same Source. You are all stardust, with a shared history and a shared destiny. Be aware and in awe of the enormity, mystery and wonder of the Cosmos. As participants in this sacred reality, worship no false gods.
- Take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. Be worthy of the love of your parents, your partner, your children, your friends and your extended family.
- What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor or to the stranger in your community. Do no harm.
- Be a mensch. Respect your neighbor and the stranger. Respect each other’s thoughts, beliefs, expressions, dreams and privacy. Treat each person you meet as if he or she were the Mashiach. If you are wrong, it will not matter.
- For six days, work smart and responsibly. Then take a day to rest, relax, refresh. Do it again.
- Repair, preserve and protect the planet on which you live: the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil that feeds you. Plant a tree for the next generation. Then plant another.
- Listen quietly, observe closely, study seriously, remember wisely and think critically.
- Live with courage. Bear witness and be accountable. Speak truth to power, always and everywhere. Light a candle when and where you can. It is much more productive than cursing the darkness.
- Seek justice and love mercy. Walk humbly and be grateful.
- Leave your community a better place than you found it. Throughout your days, provide shelter and sustenance and access and opportunity to those in need. Die poor.
I recognize that neither this list, nor the process of developing it, is likely to be made into a major motion picture. But, if the drama is lacking, the exercise has still been worthwhile. If anyone wishes to add or subtract from the list, please let me know.