Imposing commandments

Imposing commandments

Yitro - Exodus 18:1-20:23

A highlight of this week’s Torah portion is the first appearance of what later Jewish tradition calls “the Ten Commandments.” (A second recension appears in Deuteronomy 5:6-18.)

The appeal of the Ten Commandments as a basic barometer of behavior periodically receives endorsement from various quarters, political as well as religious. Curiously, the assumption that the shared meaning of this most basic of texts is a source of interfaith agreement is rarely tested. The Hebrew words themselves are subject to nuances of interpretation, the order of counting the commandments is a subject of dispute, the practical and pragmatic implications of the principles are often differently interpreted by various religious traditions — and the parallel texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy do not align.

The recurrent cultural debate over “traditional values” often appeals to the universality of the Ten Commandments as a foundation. But what, exactly, does “You shall not murder” mean? (The first thing it means is that the text does not read: “You shall not kill,” a frequent error of translation or assumption.) What constitutes “murder” and who decides? What is the penalty? What testimony is required of what types of witnesses?

The importance of a prohibition against murder for a society is clear, but what happens when an accusation and a defense differ? A mere appeal to a general moral principle does not substitute for a codification of procedure.

Jewish tradition holds, for example, that to shame someone publicly is equivalent to “murder,” although certainly this cannot be deduced from the Torah text itself. Similarly, Judaism affirms that defaming someone’s reputation is equivalent to “stealing” — that is, stealing someone’s good name. This too cannot be derived from the text itself, but it remains an important moral insight.

Such metaphorical readings are not lim ited to Judaism. During his 1976 presidential campaign, the born-again Christian candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to transgressing the prohibition of adultery “in his heart,” raising the question of whether one could “sin” without “sinning.”

In their appeal to the Ten Commandments, those concerned with restoring our society to a sense of decency and responsibility appropriately identify the moral imperatives of the Torah as being central. But in making the assumption that the problems of society can be solved on the basis of a “Ten-point Plan,” people who urge a moral revival in American life err by assuming that the imposition of absolute moral principles will suffice.

Generations of interpretation in Jewish tradition teaches that the different points of view inevitably derive from broad moral principles. Questions of meaning are resolved by a society only through the process of debate and decision and ultimately of law, allowing for differing opinions to be voiced and for dissenting voices to be protected.

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