On whose authority: The First Commandment

Jewish Family Identity Forum

A series by Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

March 2010

“If there is no God, all is permitted,” argues Ivan Karamazov in Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

After all, without God, who then has the authority to determine right and wrong? The state? Its laws only establish what is permitted and forbidden in a particular place at a particular time — and once you cross a border, the rules may be different.

Candace R. Kwiatek

The individual? Same problems — different people reach different conclusions about morality and behavior.

Judaism’s view is the mirror opposite of that of Karamazov: There is a God, and not all is permitted. This idea is perhaps best reflected in the Ten Commandments, which include the directives to observe the Sabbath and honor parents along with prohibitions against false testimony, murder, and adultery.

But it is the beginning of the Commandments that is of particular interest, for in Jewish tradition the opening statement is not actually a command at all.

“I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Ex. 20:1).”

Similar to the opening lines of royal proclamations and inscriptions in the ancient Near East, this statement establishes the sovereign authority behind the subsequent commands.

The author of the Decalogue is stating His identity, noting His right to make future demands. And as their source is divine, not human, they are thus eternal and unaffected by the secular world (Nachum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary).

Either ethics originate from the one true God, or they are subjectively created by multiple gods or humans. Those are the only possible sources.

One God as a source of morality was a novel concept to the ancients. In that world, multiple gods modeled competing behaviors, made contradictory demands, and generally allowed humans to make their own rules, blurring the distinction between right and wrong.

One God as a source of morality is an uncomfortable concept to moderns. In today’s secular world, parents, peers, professors, and others with whom we have contact every day often hold different views about what is good, right, or just, frequently coercing or demanding behaviors from others that conform to their views.

How is one to know what is right and good? That is the purpose of the First Commandment: to identify the authority, the source, for the objective standards of morality that will follow.

Some would argue that human reason is sufficient for morality. After all, isn’t it reasonable to create a society that establishes a day of rest and prohibits murder?

Perhaps not.

Egypt had no day of rest for its slaves, and it wasn’t that long ago when America’s “blue laws” were eliminated. In ancient Greece, it was common practice for Spartans to leave sick or disabled babies on hilltops to die. Similarly, the Dutch recently adopted guidelines to allow for euthanasia of severely disabled newborns, a position now being debated in Oregon where physician-assisted suicide is legal.

On the other hand, it certainly wasn’t reasonable for righteous gentiles to rescue Jews during the Holocaust nor is it reasonable to return the extra change to the cashier who makes an error; but it is moral.

In the words of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Unfortunately, the belief that reason will lead people to morality is itself unreasonable. Reason is amoral, and how can something amoral — something that can and has been used to justify good, evil, and amoral behavior alike (hence the word rationalization) — bring people to morality (A Code of Jewish Ethics I)?”

So what about atheists or agnostics? Without an objective standard of morality, are they doomed to be evil? No, many are highly moral individuals.

But what they believe to be right and good has no objective foundation and therefore little chance of being passed on to the next generation.

Their subjective morality is cut-flower ethics, a term inspired by American Jewish social philosopher Will Herberg: “Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die (Judaism and Modern Man).”

On a different note, there is some argument in the commentaries about whether the statement, “I the Lord am your God” should be considered a command.

After all, Maimonides counts faith in God as a mitzvah (commandment), citing the above verse as his biblical source. The majority of commentators disagree, however, viewing this verse as a statement of theological fact.

The medieval Spanish philosopher Rav Hasdai Crescas goes one step further, pointing out that it is circular reasoning to speak of God commanding us to believe in God.

After all, the believer doesn’t need to be commanded to believe and the non-believer will find the command irrelevant (Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, Is Belief in God a Miztvah? Maimonides on the First Commandment).

Rather than command belief, this first statement establishes God’s authority to make demands which otherwise would be mere suggestions.

But if this first statement isn’t a command, then why do we refer to these verses as the Ten Commandments?

Actually, in Jewish tradition, we don’t. In the Torah they are called Aseret ha-D’varim, while in rabbinic texts they are Aseret ha-Dibrot, two related phrases best translated as the Ten Statements.

The Greek Decalogue, “Ten Words,” is also an accurate rendering of the Hebrew term.  Altered divisions of the Commandments in the Christian tradition, most frequently by combining “I am the Lord your God” with “You shall have no other gods” and further dividing the other Commandments, led to the most commonly-used phrase “Ten Commandments.”

It turns out that the opening words of Aseret ha-Dibrot are neither a command nor a mere introductory phrase. Rather, they are the foundation of all that follows, for the Commandments have no power without first recognizing the authority of the Author.

In future columns, I’ll continue to explore the significance of each of the Ten Commandments, their influence on us and on our communities today, and their usefulness as guides in our everyday lives.

Family Discussion: How could reason lead to each of the Commandments – and its opposite? Can you find examples of each in the news?


Literature to share

Hidden Light: Science Secrets of the Bible by Dr. David Medved: The modern, scientific mind raises many critiques of the Bible’s veracity. However, Medved argues that the Bible is full of modern scientific concepts. From the physics of the origins of the universe to the chemistry of techelet, the biblical blue, the author explores the “hidden science” throughout the Bible’s 24 books. While the concepts are challenging, the author’s clear explanations and engaging style make this book accessible even to a science novice.

The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber: The Civil War has just ended and a Yankee soldier on leave has just appeared on your Confederate doorstep. What would you do? Based on a true story, this illustrated tale captures the true meaning of the freedom we celebrate each Passover. Share this one at your Seder.

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Even two is too many: The Second Commandment