c. 1999 Religion News Service
(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee).
UNDATED _ At this time each year the Torah portion containing the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-14) is read at Sabbath services in synagogues throughout the world.
Like many other youngsters, I memorized the original Hebrew words along with the English translation. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are probably the best known teachings of the Bible.
According to tradition, God revealed the Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai about 3,300 years ago. During the ensuing millennia, there have been countless interpretations and sermons of”The Bible’s Big Ten.”Never have so many commentaries been devoted for so long to so few words of text.
Why have the Commandments been given such prominence? Why does every synagogue contain an artistic representation of the twin tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai? Every year I try to read Exodus 20 as if I were encountering the text for the first time; no easy task because it seems there is nothing new to add to the many brilliant insights that have been collected for thirty-three centuries.
But as with every significant religious teaching, there is always something new. The words of Exodus may remain the same, but we are different each time we study them, and the process of discovery never ends.
Look at Mt. Sinai itself. The site of God’s revelation to Moses is not within the land of Israel. Rather, it is in a bleak wilderness, halfway between Egypt, the land of bondage, and Israel, the land of promise. For that reason, Mt. Sinai never became a Jewish holy site like Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and other sacred hills in Israel.
Unlike many other biblical commandments, there are no specific punishments attached to the Ten Commandments. Clearly, the Commandments represent a religious contract between God and the people of Israel, but why are there no”enforcement provisions”attached to the Commandments? In other places in the Bible, it is abundantly clear what the punishments will be for not fulfilling the divinely ordained ethical demands, but not in the Ten Commandments.
In the Fifth Commandment children are obliged to”honor,”not”love,”their parents. Yet”love”is applied to relationships with God (“You shall love the Lord your GodâÂ?¦”) and one’s neighbors (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). But why no commandment to”love”parents? Perhaps that kind of intimate love is something even God cannot order; it must emerge naturally within each child.
The Second Commandment declares:”You are not to have any other gods before My presence.”Each time I read these words, I expect a scathing refutation of idol worship and polytheism. Strangely, such a condemnation is absent, and instead, this Commandment’s message is that the false gods of other peoples do exist, but they are spiritually off-limits for Israel.
Unfortunately, the Sixth Commandment is frequently mistranslated as”You shall not kill,”even though the Hebrew says”murder.”There is a critical difference between”killing”in cases of personal and national self-defense, and”murder,”unauthorized homicide.
The strict prohibitions against stealing, adultery, murder, and testifying as a”false witness”are listed in stark simplicity with no accompanying language explaining why they are forbidden. They appear as non-negotiable commandments, but the biblical text provides no definition of stealing, adultery, or murder. Yet, as every person knows, the precise meaning of these sins is sometimes filled with ambiguity.
Is it forbidden to steal bread from the rich if one’s children are starving? Can one murder brutal tyrants if they threaten family or nation?
And the yearlong political morality play in Washington clearly reveals that different people often have different views of what constitutes adultery and bearing false witness.
The Sabbath was singled out for special inclusion in the Ten Commandments because the weekly day of rest is linked to the biblical account of six days of creation and the seventh day when even God refrained from labor. But why aren’t the Israelites commanded to observe all the holy days, especially the Passover event which freed them from Egypt? Commands that mandate holy day observances appear in other parts of the Bible, but why is only the Sabbath mentioned in the Ten Commandments?
Finally, any exploration of the Commandments must include a Hasidic rabbi’s wise warning:”Do not make idols out of the Ten Commandments. Their chief purpose is not the doing; that is only the outer form. What is truly important is the inner meaning, the devotion, with which the Commandments are to be followed.”
DEA END RUDIN