In past years together, we have explored the lives of both well-known Biblical figures and lesser-known Talmudic personages. We have studied the biographies of many of Israel’s academic heroes, philosophers, and innovators. These were men and women who changed not only the course of Jewish history but in many cases also the course of Western history. They were people who stood for principles and whose lives, although lived thousands of years before ours, still speak to us today.
History is not composed, however, solely of people or facts. It is also a composition of ideas and ideals, moral compasses that challenge and guide us, eternal truths that live outside of the simple realms of time and place. Westerners know, but due to linguistic and cultural difficulties, rarely understand. One set of these historic ideals has formed much of the culture throughout the Judeo-Christian world. Westerns know these ethical standards by the name the Ten Commandments, although in reality they are not all commandments but rather pronouncements.
These ethical expressions found in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy (See Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5) form the basis of much of our common Western culture, jurisprudence and ethics. As we shall see during 2020, they are revolutionary and idealistic, yet at the same time these pronouncements are practical and specific. Because most people know these statements as “commandments,” for clarity and ease of language I will often use that word.
These 10 simple groundbreaking “commandments” have created the basis for almost all of our modern social legislation. As such, they form the basis of the fight for social justice and human equality. Those who read and comprehend Hebrew will note that the Ten Commandments are written in an extraordinary Hebrew, one that is both precise and flexible, absolutely clear and yet at the same time open to interpretation. For the Judeo-Christian world, these commandments form the kernel of civilization; for the Jewish world, they are the basis of Jewish law and the principles upon which Jewish civilization rests.
Ironically, for such an important set of principles, much is hidden below the text’s surface. The Hebrew text uses no punctuation. This fact means that we can see each Biblical book as one long run-on sentence. To cite chapter and verse is to err. In reality, we do not know when one sentence or commandment ends and another verse begins. In the case of the Ten Commandments, we cannot be certain that we know which commandments form the Decalogue and which do not; we are even uncertain of the correct way to number them.
It is for this reason that although Christians, like Jews, recognize these Ten Commandments as fundamental building blocks of ethics, Christian Bibles use a numbering system that slightly differs from that of the Jewish version.
During these coming months we will study these commandments using the classical Jewish numbering system. Hebrew Bibles number these commandments according to the following pattern:
1. I am the Lord your God
2. Have no other gods before Me; Make no graven images
3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain
4. Remember the Sabbath day
5. Honor your father and your mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not bear false witness
10. You shall not covet
From a Jewish perspective, the Decalogue forms an absolute level of morality. The Bible does not give the reader the choice of accepting or rejecting any particular commandment; they are absolutes and not open to debate. For example, we cannot debate the pros and cons of murder. To murder is simply is wrong. It is important to note that the Hebrew verb is “r.tz.ch” and not “h.r.g”. The latter verb, “h.r.g” means “to kill” but not necessarily to murder. Were the stated verb to have been “h.r.g” instead of “r.tz.ch” than those who defend others such as police or soldiers along with all meat-eaters would have broken this commandment. There are times when we are permitted to “kill,” but there are no times when we are permitted to “murder” (r.tz.ch).
As Dennis Prager has noted, there are unique and defining characteristics to the Decalogue. For example, although these commandments are absolute regarding our actions, they do not contain undefinable generalizations. Instead, they present us precise guidelines for a moral and ethical society.
For example, almost every clergyman (or clergywoman) has faced people who admit to having done bad things but then almost immediately tell their clergyman that despite their actions they are a good person. The Biblical text has no patience for these excuses. From a Biblical perspective, it is not a question of being a good or a bad person, but rather the central question is: Are the person’s actions good or not good? With few exceptions the Bible does not judge us on our intentions or feelings, but on our actions. As such the text emphasizes results over intentions, and substance over style. When we read the text we are reminded of the play My Fair Lady, in which Aliza Dolittle states: “Don’t talk of love; if you’re in love, show me!”
Unlike our modern political world, the Biblical text has little patience for a world in which style matters more than substance. The Bible is not concerned with the quality of a person’s rhetoric, but rather with the ideas contained in that person’s speech. The question that the Bible wants to know is if a person’s words become actions that result in accomplishments? Perhaps that is the reason that these commandments are never given in the plural but in the singular. The text does not address us in general terms but specifically addresses each person on an individual basis. It matters less what others do or think, but it does matter what each of us as an individual chooses to do or not to do.
With the exception of commandments four and five, the text presents these pronouncement as negative commands: the “do nots” rather than the dos. Is the text teaching us that stable societies demand that there are certain actions from which we must desist? Is this also the reason that these commandments are formulated not as rights but as obligations?
Jewish thought is not based on rights but on our obligations to a higher power. In a world where many people have come to believe that society owes them everything, and that they have no obligation to anyone or anything, the Biblical text says: No, life is not a right but a gift from God, and it is our obligation to use that gift wisely.
This de-emphasis on rights and emphasis on our obligations can change both our personal and national perspective. The Biblical text argues that it is not our right to receive but our obligation to give; it is not our right to demand but our obligation to create just and caring societies in which each person is able to use the gifts that God has given. The Decalogue argues that we are not entitled to anything, but rather we are obliged to do justly and to make the world a better place.
During this year, we shall go on a different type of journey from years past. Rather than studying the lives of people, we will learn about the philosophical and legal obligations that define our lives. In so doing, there will be times that we might feel uncomfortable or even a bit angry. Hopefully, as we emerge from these discussions we will learn something not only about human nature but also about ourselves. I hope that it will be a journey that you shall choose to remember and use for years to come.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.