10 Commandments 2.0

November, 16 2011
Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai

For millennia, these ancient laws have been central to our way of life. Are they still relevant? Or is it time for an upgrade?

NEARLY 3,500 YEARS AGO, Exodus tells us, God inscribed the Ten Commandments onto two stone tablets for the Israelites. Although Jewish tradition counts 613 commandments in the Torah, the Ten have taken on a life of their own, inspiring millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims over the centuries and evolving into a symbol of morality that has influenced Western thinking. Over the past 50 years, they’ve become a contentious subject in the United States, emerging at the heart of the culture wars between conservatives and liberals who disagree over their role in American law and ethics. Moment speaks with a range of American scholars about the Ten Commandments’ contemporary relevance and meaning, and discovers—surprise, surprise—that their opinions differ dramatically.



an antidote to subjectivity

The Ten Commandments are at the heart of the Jewish mission in the 21st century, which is to provide a mature framework for thinking about objective morality. Our secular culture concludes that everything is relative and that all dilemmas need to be examined in context—there is very little that is always “right” or “wrong,” these voices claim. The Jewish tradition, through its framing of law in general, reminds us that while some parts of law are subjective and determined by the norms around us (particularly things like “what do words in a contract mean”), objective morality is the core of an ethical society. The Ten Commandments don’t change based on time or place but are instead statements of high-order moral sentiments that tell how ethical people should conduct themselves. Different generations will sometimes understand the details of law differently, but that’s not what is really at stake. For example, there are voices in our secular society urging us to re-examine our view of homosexuality and arguing that a changing moral consensus ought to make us re-evaluate our Jewish ethics. Jewish tradition thought homosexual conduct was immoral. It didn’t matter whether many people were or were not homosexual. Jewish tradition doesn’t look at the moral consensus of a particular time or place on these kinds of core value issues.

Michael J. Broyde is the academic director of the Law and Religion program at Emory University’s Law School in Atlanta, GA.

an obstacle to moral advancement

The commandments don’t strike me as ethically illuminating for today’s world, nor are they so inspired as to suggest divine authorship. Quite the contrary, they are readily explainable as deriving from a Bronze/Iron Age people who created rules that would promote internal cohesion. There is the reminder that there is a jealous and watchful God who has chosen this tribe, which is an effective way of establishing an intrinsic distinctness for the group and consequences for defying it. The awesomeness of the God is emphasized; not even his name is to be taken in vain. There is a sabbath day, requiring the sacrifice of productivity, another effective way of promoting an internal sense of group difference. Then there are basic rules needed to minimize internecine violence: no murder, no theft, no adultery, no coveting what belongs to your neighbor, including his women and his slaves. That women are treated as property and that slavery is regarded as morally unobjectionable stamp these commandments as of their time. It would have been impressive—more suggestive of divinity—if the commandments had included some concrete “thou shalt nots” that indicated a true leap beyond the ethos of the times, such as “thou shalt not rape,” “thou shalt keep no slaves,” and “thou shalt not torture.” Those additions could have prevented much suffering in the millennia to come. Hillel said: “What is hateful to thee, do not do unto thy fellow man.” Such a proscription has more ethical insight to offer us than the Commandments’ idea of a jealous God, who punishes the children of sinners to the third or fourth generation for sins that they did not commit—a morally odious idea. Reverence for the moral code of an ancient tribe at the dawn of civilization can be as much an obstacle to moral advance as reverence for their cosmology would be to scientific advance.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

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7 thoughts on “10 Commandments 2.0

  1. To avert this controversy I had professed to worship the word ‘LOVE’, the object of ‘LOVE’ and the very sentiment of ‘LOVE’ and the very source of ‘LOVE’.It has more power than any thing else as it is attributed to the supreme being itself.It is not a ship to sink in the midway like any other ships.It will survive the generation to come.

  2. Jim Bynum says:

    I am amazed at the comments, The Jewish priesthood was not allowed to put anyone to death during the time of Jesus. Yet, supposedly followers of Jesus have used the Ten Commandments to kill many people who violated them — even in early colonial times. It is impossible to separate the punishment from the Commandment, therefore they belong to the past.

  3. Baruch Cohon says:

    Should we rewrite the Big Ten? Discard them? Or should we take a mature look at them and realize that these ten statements from so many centuries ago have something valuable to tell us? Ten Statements, as they are called in Hebrew — “aseret hadibrot”– not commandments. If American leaders of a much more recent time saw fit to post them on public buildings, maybe they knew what they were doing. These statements are not an “establishment of religion” prohibited by the First Amendment. They are principles of right and wrong, ascribed to a supernatural source which is undefined. We will do well if we use them to guide our lives.

  4. Harry Freiberg says:

    I find it interesting and educational that of the Ten only 3 “Commandments” (aka Statements in the original) have become secular law…

    1. Bryan Berg says:

      And how would the other 7 possibly be made into law in a Country that upholds religious freedom? The first four are God and Religious observance based, so those can’t be a part of US Law. The fifth commandment would entail telling people how to parent, and is that a good idea? the 7th commandment has it’s own societal consequences, not to mention the reality of divorce, child support and child custody to go along with it. The 10th commandment would be a “thought police” type of law, wouldn’t it? So, it is interesting and educational, but maybe not in the way you might have been thinking?

  5. Davida Brown says:

    The most important point in this dialogue is: did God really say this? If we mean the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, aka The God of Israel, who is ageless, timeless and sovereign over the universe, as well as Creator, then it would be absurd to think of eliminating these rules of life and certainly self-destructive to want to modify them for a modern liberal thinking world that is itching to remove all restraints and drive us all back to Sodom and Gomorrah or worse – the time of Noah and the flood (Yes, Virginia, there is a God and His Word is relevant and immutable. ) In the Christian New Testament, Jesus addresses an “unrepentant city” (Capernaum) and compared it to Sodom, stating: “Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” Matthew 11:24. What would he say to the cities of today?

  6. Bryan Berg says:

    I would say that human beings wrote them. Nothing more than that. There is no “ageless, timeless creator”. That’s all part of human imagination, no different than the gods of the Romans, Greek, Dakota, Cree, Ojibwa, Aztecs, Egyptians, Myan, and and the myriad others that human beings have imagined and told stories about.

    Is there some human truth to some of it? Absolutely. Going around killing others doesn’t make for a helpful, healthy society (as a simple example), and it probably didn’t make sense to eat shellfish (or pork) if you didn’t know how to cook it properly. Though that begs the question – why weren’t those instructions included in the Bible?

    We have these “Commandments” and yet it seems like under the “right” circumstances, it’s OK to kill while wearing a belt in an army that has “God With Us” inscribed on it? Is that because some of us think we are more special than others that a commandment can be broken for some perceived greater good?

    So, to answer your question – what if there was no Noah and flood that completely wiped out everyone but one small nuclear family? What if there was no Moses (or Aaron, since he seemed to have been a convenient add-on to the Moses story for giving priests certain authorities), what if there was no Exodus? What if it’s all made up (the Noah Story, for one, was not a Christian or Jewish story originally, but it was turned into one), and none of it is divine?

    Does that make US Law any less important? I don’t think it does.

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