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Count to ten May 19, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.

The Shavuot issue of the Jerusalem Post contains an article by Raymond Apple about the Ten Commandments, and the subtitle declares them to be “Judaism’s greatest contribution to mankind.” This is ludicrous. First of all, those of the commandments that actually deal with moral issues – like the proscriptions against murder and theft – clearly predate Judaism, as acknowledged in the article itself: “There is no human group or society that did not formulate laws of this kind.” Okay, so at least he’s not claiming that we wouldn’t have come up with those on our own; is there some added value in having them carved in stone by God? Get this:

Not murdering […] has a higher motive, based on the principle that there is a God who has made man in His own image (a concept to be understood not in a literal but an ethical and intellectual sense).  Man is part of God, and to murder a human being is to diminish God.  Whatever the provocation, when a person is provoked and sorely tempted, the thought of God should hold them back from transgressing.

The problem is that based on the image of him portrayed in the Bible, the thought of God is more likely to lead to acts of violence and cruelty than away from them. Apparently, God himself doesn’t take commandment #6 too seriously. God commands the genocide of entire nations, including women, children and livestock. God sanctions the public murder of “fornicators” by Pinhas. How does God want us to treat homosexuals? Kill them! Women who have sex outside of marriage? Kill! And if anyone even talks about worshiping some other God (commandment #1)… you got it. Needless to say, there is no shortage of God-fearing people eager to follow his example in these matters. I don’t think we need to worry about diminishing God any further – it’s scarcely possible.

While we’re at it, let’s look a little more closely at the “contributions” of some of the other commandments, those not mentioned in the article. Commandment #3 forbids blasphemy – there’s a victimless crime if ever there was one. And yet, blasphemy remains a capital offense in many countries (just as the Bible demands), where my life would be in danger for writing a post like this. How about the commandment forbidding the making of idols? Perhaps you can recall the burning of embassies and the general eruption of murder and mayhem over cartoons. What were all those pious people so mad about? This is it: commandment #2. Truly, mankind owes a great debt to Judaism for contributing such pearls of moral wisdom.

Now that we have some free slots in our list of commandments, is it possible that we could come up with some better ones? I know it sounds hopeless, but let’s give it a try… How about, “Thou shalt not claim to know things for which thou hast no evidence?” Or what about, “Thou shalt not abuse children?” Or, “Thou shalt treat all human beings equally under law, regardless of gender, race and religion?” The plain truth is that the morality we have made for ourselves has far surpassed God’s commandments. Needless to say, there is much progress yet to be made – but it will not come from people who take their morality wholesale from Iron Age scripture. Oops, I think I just broke commandment #3 again. God damn it.



1. Nitsan - May 20, 2010

Nice. Obviously it shouldn’t take a great mind to invent “Thou shalt not murder”. It does take some special mindset, though, to associate this with mind greatness. From a logical point of view, I think the missing one is “Thou shalt not tell others what they shall not do if they can’t think of it themselves anyway”.

BTW – the numbering of the commandments is a bit different between different religioins.

— Nitsan

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