January 23, 2008

A Theory of the Ten Commandments

IN 2003, ALABAMA Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore attained brief fame when he placed and refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments in the State Supreme Court building. Moore’s actions and his subsequent removal from office by a unanimous decision of Alabama’s Court of the Judiciary were just another part of the American debate about the role of religion in the United States.

The Alabama court’s decision unfortunately was not unique, as there have been many other decisions by American courts ordering the removal of monuments of the Ten Commandments on state property. Such decisions exemplify how secularists view religion generally, and Judaism especially – with its many intricate rules, among which are the Ten Commandments – as no more than mindless and superstitious rituals. But as the U.S. Supreme Court has found in other decisions regarding freedom of religion and speech, it is not so easy to label anything as “mere worship.”

In reality, the Torah, like any great work of literature recognized as a classic by the secular world, whether fiction (like Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Odyssey or the possibly fictional Iliad) or non-fiction (like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War), presents a worldview with profound implications for society.

For example, the Torah establishes the Jewish people’s nationhood and their rightful ownership of Eretz Yisrael, while the Nevi’im present a vision of world peace, in which the nations live in harmony.

The world has taken both these lessons seriously with the creation of the State of Israel (the Palestine Mandate states, “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine”) and the United Nations (across from which is the Isaiah Wall, which bears the inscription of Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare”).

The Ten Commandments found in Parshat Yitro are more than a unique presentation of a set of basic laws. They are a prime example of the Torah’s presentation of a philosophy on civilization, which the Western secular world has adopted.

Many Western political philosophers have theorized about the “state of nature” – what things looked like before civilization – in an effort to discern the proper form of government. In this thought experiment, they could propose the reasons people entered into civilized society, and by implication, the form that society and its government should take.

Hobbs thought the state of nature was a “war of all against all.” In order to escape “such a miserable condition of war,” people consented to governmental force to keep everyone in line. The implication of such a theory is that it is important to have an immensely powerful “leviathan” in the form of an all-powerful government, like the King of England, to keep the peace.

The Mishna in Pirkevi Avot similarly states that people should pray for the government because without it, people would swallow each other whole (3:2), even though at that time the government was oppressive Rome, which destroyed the Second Beit Hamikdash.

Locke, on the other hand, thought that because in the state of nature all people were equal, the government had an obligation to treat people equally and allow them to retain their liberty.

The Torah is not a mere set of cold laws. It includes events and stories, with lessons about the spirit of its laws and how we should live our lives. The settings in Bereishit – such as Gan Eden, the generation of the Flood, even Creation itself – also represent such theoretical states of nature. Locke himself referred to Adam in his Second Treatise. Indeed, everything that occurs in the Torah is a presentation of Judaism’s primary contribution to the theory of civilization: the idea that there is one God in heaven and on earth.

Monotheism implies several interrelated ideas relevant to civilization. The first is that there is a Being who will judge people for their actions. Like Hobbs’ leviathan – God is the ultimate power that keeps people in check. The second is that there is a single ultimate morality; it does not depend on which god on the pantheon is being looked to. Nor does it depend on different people’s conceptions of what is right. It’s not relativistic and cannot therefore be rationalized or interpreted away. So, for instance, Locke thought that people couldn’t “quit their own station” or “harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent.”

A belief in God thus provides a person with a reason to act properly even when society isn’t looking.

Monotheism and its implications are presented in the dichotomy of the Ten Commandments, which distinguish between a first set of rules, “bein adam l’Makom” (between man and the Omnipresent), and a second set, which are “bein adam l’chaveroh” (between man and his friend).

The Torah mentions two distinct signs or proofs between God and the Jewish people. The first is God’s creation of the universe. The idea of creation is significant because there are two possible views of the universe’s origin. The first is that the universe was created at a definite point in time, as the Big Bang theory and the fact that the universe is expanding at an increasing, not decreasing, pace suggest. The alternative is that the universe, as Aristotle believed, was always here and always will be, which fails to explain how “existence” could exist at all.

Creation implies that there was a force greater than everything in the universe to create that universe – i.e., God. (As Descartes states in his Meditations on First Philosophy, “the stone that is not yet in existence, . . . only commence[s] to be, . . . [if] produced by that . . . which contains in itself the same properties that are in the stone, or others superior to them.”)

The Torah, by opening with Bereishit, presents Creation as a proof for God’s existence and a basis for Judaism. It therefore commands the Jewish people, in the fourth of the Ten Commandments, to keep Shabbat in order to memorialize this central point of Judaism.

The second sign is the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus is a symbol of God’s interaction with the Jewish people. Not only is God the master of the universe, He is our master, as we swear in the Shema, God is both “one” and “our God.” The first of the Ten Commandments thus states, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt” (20:2).

The second and third Commandments further protect the monotheistic idea by prohibiting worship of other gods, and prohibiting the use of God’s name in vain which would lessen God’s sanctity in our own minds (as if to say, “that’s my name, don’t wear it out”).

The fifth Commandment, to honor one’s parents, seems to apply to human relations, but this too relates to God. This is because the person who loves and respects his parents will more often love, respect, and therefore preserve his parents’ traditions, culture and beliefs. This is how the belief systems of any culture are preserved from generation to generation. The person who does not respect his parents, however, is more likely to reject their belief system. Thus, the fifth Commandment is important not only as a guide for family life, but as a guard for the preservation of the national culture of the Jewish people and their belief in the One God.

The next five commandments, “between man and his friend,” contain the basics of civilization – prohibitions against killing, stealing, coveting another person’s belongings, committing adultery, and giving false testimony (which lies at the heart of any judicial system). But it was only after belief in the Holy Leviathan of God was secured in the initial Commandments that these could follow.

Belief in God as the reason to keep the Commandments is the foundation upon which the basics of civilization rest.

The Ten Commandments thus present not only a legal code but a political and social philosophy that lies at the base of Western civilization. The Commandments are a microcosm of Judaism’s philosophy, reminding us that its genius should not be underestimated or disregarded.

Originally published in The Jewish Press as A Theory of the Ten Commandments (Jan. 23 2008).