This weekend, as Shabbat ends, the festival of Shavuot arrives. The Torah limits Shavuot to an agricultural festival marking the harvest of the first fruits of the growing season in the land of Israel. But later rabbinic Judaism declares Shavuot to be z’man matan Torateinu: the season of the giving of our Torah.
Whether the entire Torah or the Ten Commandments were the focus of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, it is surely the Ten Commandments that have become a cultural byword. The Ten Commandments function in American society as a stand-in for “the rule of God,” or “the difference between right and wrong,” or, somewhat more controversially, as a presumptive basis for “American morality.”
The appeal of the Ten Commandments as a basic barometer of behavior periodically receives endorsement from various quarters. Court cases regularly appear when attempts are made to place the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, classrooms, or other places that test the “separation of church and state.”
Curiously, the assumption that there is a shared meaning for this most basic of biblical texts is rarely tested. Jewish tradition has a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the centrality of the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. In the cycle of Torah readings, the text occurs three times each year, at the appearance in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, as well as being the designated reading for Shavuot morning. A special cantillation is used to denote the distinctive nature of the reading. And it is customary in many congregations for everyone to stand for the reading.
In ancient days, during the period of the Second Temple, the recitation of the Ten Commandments was apparently part of the Temple liturgy. At some point in the early Common Era, it ceased to be a part of Jewish liturgy. The Talmud suggests that this was to refute those who affirmed that only these 10 were of divine origin.
In the current clamor for a restoration of traditional values, it is not unusual for there to be an appeal to the universality of the Ten Commandments as a basis for a “moment of silence” or “prayer in the schools.” Remarkably, this usually well-intentioned suggestion overlooks the importance that Judaism attaches to the interpretation of sacred text.
What, exactly, does it mean when the text states: “You shall not murder”? What constitutes “murder,” and who decides? What is the penalty? What testimony is required of what types of witnesses? Mere appeal to moral principle does not substitute for a codification of procedure.
In the appeal to principle, we also lose the nuance of moral interpretation. For example, Jewish tradition holds that to shame someone publicly is equivalent to “murder,” although certainly this cannot be deduced from the “plain text.”
Judaism, from its inception as the religion of ancient Israel, has consistently sought to ground moral and ethical issues of behavior in the realm of law. For nearly two millennia, Judaism has been attacked as “legalistic,” overly concerned with the “letter of the law,” and “hairsplitting” in its devotion to nuance, specificity, and procedure.
In the 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 the assumption that the problems of society can be solved based on any “Ten-Point Plan,” political conservatives err by assuming that the imposition of absolute moral principles will suffice. The so-called “legalism” of Judaism teaches that the different points of view that inevitably derive from broad moral principles are resolved by a society only through the process of law that both allows for differing opinions to be voiced and respect for those laws which are established.