The Decalogue and the law

The Decalogue and the law

Yitro | Exodus 18:1-20:23

The appeal of the Ten Commandments as the basic barometer of behavior periodically receives endorsement from various quarters. Curiously, there is an assumption that the shared meaning of this most basic of texts is a source of interfaith agreement. But that assumption is rarely tested. The Hebrew words themselves are subject to nuances of interpretation, the order of counting the commandments is a subject of dispute, and the practical and pragmatic implications of the principles are often differently interpreted by various religious traditions.

Jewish tradition has a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the centrality of the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue: If you identify one Torah passage over others, does this detract from the importance of the other passages? But a special cantillation is used to denote the distinctive nature of the reading. And although there is debate among religious authorities, it is customary in many congregations for everyone to stand for the reading.

In ancient days, during the Second Temple period, the recitation of the Ten Commandments was apparently part of the Temple liturgy. At some point in the early Common Era, the Decalogue ceased to be a part of Jewish liturgy. Some rabbinic texts suggests that this was to refute those who affirmed that only these Ten Commandments were of divine origin. 

It is hard to read the Decalogue without interpretation and commentary. What, exactly, does it mean when the text states: “You shall not murder”? (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 evident, but what happens when an accusation and a defense differ? Mere appeal to moral principle does not substitute for a codification of procedure.

In the appeal to “the plain meaning of the text,” we lose the nuance of 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.” 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.

The 10th commandment, “You shall not covet,” is a subject of debate in Jewish tradition, since it seems to suggest that attitude, rather than action, is a source of transgression. While there is some suggestion that mere desire is a condition requiring rectitude, the more significant opinion is on the side of “both/and” — that is, that the intention and the act must be present for there to be sin. Here again we see that the apparent simplicity of the Decalogue requires a more thoughtful understanding.

In the appeal to the Ten Commandments, those concerned with steering 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 on the basis of any “Ten-Point Plan,” we err by assuming that the imposition of absolute moral principles will suffice. 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 which both allows for differing opinions to be voiced, and requires of us respect for those laws which are established. 

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