The Ten Commandments: Introduction
Jewish Family Identity Forum
A series by Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
It would appear that the Ten Commandments have become quite popular lately. After all, you can go into any bookstore and find “The Ten Commandments of…” marriage bliss, fund raising, trimming tax bills, positive thinking, losing weight, and data security, just to name a few of the hundreds of titles.
While these topics have nothing to do with morality, the idea of a fixed set of guiding principles for decision-making has a powerful appeal.
Yet the upbeat tone of titles connecting the commandments with today’s secular pursuits isn’t mirrored in those of a more religious nature: Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments? (Ernest Reisinger), Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves (Rachel Mikva, ed.), Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (Philip Ryken), Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America (Chris Hedges), Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril (David Klinghoffer).
A popular topic, yes. But when the subject matter is moral decision-making, the tone is pessimistic.
Why have the commandments become such a popular theme today? What makes the Ten Commandments of biblical origin so unique? And how can a commitment to them help us in our dual missions to become better individuals (menschen) and to repair our world?
Also known as Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Statements) or the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments were popular in ancient times as well. During the Second Temple era, they were recited aloud in the daily prayers and comprised one of the passages in tefillin (prayer boxes worn on the head and arm).
Fearing that the commandments would become the only part of the Torah so honored, the early sages discontinued their appearance in the synagogue liturgy sometime during the first centuries of the common era. With the development of Christianity, the Decalogue — in modified form — became one of the only elements of the abrogated “Old Testament” to become part of the new religion’s framework.
Short and easy to remember by counting on one’s fingers, the Ten Commandments are a simple set of rules for relating to God and people.
Using a modern business analogy, Nathan Laufer (The Genesis of Leadership) explains, “God’s dream at creation had been to create beings in God’s own image who would act with sensitivity and responsibility toward God and other human beings…”
Left to their own devices, humans did not live up to the dream. So, Laufer continues, “the Bible begins to spell out in chapter 20 (Exodus) the fundamental strategic values necessary for achieving that vision…” — that is, the Ten Commandments.
In a world of endless competing choices, a framework of commandments identifies key values and provides direction for decision-making.
But what makes the Ten Commandments so unique? After all, many other cultures offer wisdom and ethical literature that have regulated individual behavior and human relationships across time: Mesopotamian magic texts, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and more. The Decalogue, however, is unparalleled in its assertion that God commands moral behavior, an idea known as ethical monotheism.
A second innovation in the Decalogue is that religious and secular/social obligations are inseparable: they all emanate from God. Religious life is not relegated to “synagogue on Saturday” but is experienced and commanded — as we speak out against genocide, return a lost object, or give testimony in court.
Being religious means acting ethically and morally in daily life as much as it means participating in religious worship. As Thomas Cahill writes in his Gifts of the Jews, “…the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations… The material and the spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one…”
A final unprecedented accomplishment of the Ten Sayings was to create a community united by common obligations rather than by common interests.
Security, culture, food production, beliefs, trade, and language all have provided the basis for forming communities throughout time.
When the Israelites asserted at Sinai, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do (Ex. 24:3)!” they founded the first recorded community based on obligation — to God and to one another — not based on security, nor on economics, nor on power.
What the Ten Sayings teach is that strong, ethical societies are formed around common moral obligations, rather than around needs or interests, around giving and doing for others rather than getting.
The significance of the Ten Commandments isn’t limited to prohibitions against idolatry or murder or adultery. Its radical messages aren’t just that ethical societies are formed around obligations; being religious is inseparable from being ethical; and morality is absolute, dictated by God.
With principles designed to bring about the vision of creating moral individuals and just societies, it is “…a body of law as revolutionary as the wheel, as influential as the plow, and as earth-shattering as any other major event in history…the Ten Commandments helped reshape not only the Jews but all civilized peoples (Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Jewish History and Culture).”
Reshaped, yes — in the past. But do the Ten Commandments continue to shape our lives, our communities, and our country?
In future columns, I’ll explore the significance of each of the commandments, their influence on us and on our communities today, and their usefulness as guides in our everyday lives.
Family Discussion: Can you name all Ten Commandments? In order? Which one do you think is most important and why? What do you think should have been included and wasn’t? How would the character of an individual or society change if one were eliminated?
Candace R. Kwiatek is a writer, educator and consultant in Jewish and secular education.
Literature to share
America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story by Bruce Feiler – Another winner from the popular Walking the Bible author, American Prophet traces the influence of the biblical Moses on America’s history and character. From the earliest pilgrims to the latest presidents, from the U.S. seal to Superman, Moses has been an endless source of quotation, inspiration, and emulation — a singular influence in the American story. Highly readable and thought provoking.
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Nobleman — With its comic-book art style, this clever biography for elementary ages captures the story of Superman’s creation and the lives of his creators through picture and word. A window into 20th-century history, the publishing world, and the Jewish influences on this American hero, Boys of Steel is sure to appeal to Superman fans and create a few more as well.