a call to improve the world
The Ten Commandments are not just an ancient legal code, but rather a whole approach to life that has come down to us, both as Jews and as Westerners, becoming a crucial part of what it means to be a modern person. Modern Western life draws upon two very distinct ancient spirits. One is the spirit of reason, which comes from ancient Greece and teaches that all of us have the right to formulate our own opinions about life, politics and ethics. This has given us the most open discourse and the greatest political freedoms in human history. But reason alone is not enough to get you out of bed in the morning and take decisive action to change your life and your community and improve the world. For that we need the second spirit, the spirit of redemption, which comes from ancient Israel via the Hebrew Bible. Every biblical hero—even God—is first of all a world-improver, either through words or deeds. The Ten Commandments encapsulate this redemptive spirit, with each of them offering a different aspect of how to turn that spirit into reality. The Second Commandment, for example, addresses the idea of morality that goes beyond the pull of power and wealth, which is really what idolatry is all about. The Fourth, which concerns the Sabbath, is about deepening ourselves as independent beings separated from creative activity and our achievements. The Fifth, which is about honoring our parents, is fundamentally about a certain kind of profound human life-wisdom that’s transmitted from generation to generation. And so on. We find each commandment expressing a different aspect of redemption in a different part of life—each one a pillar of civilization that is every bit as vital today as it was back then.
David Hazony is the author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.
in need of a makeover
It is odd that some people are so determined to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, when these laws offer little guidance to student conduct, since few third graders are married and hence in a position to commit adultery. And do even the most recalcitrant kids need to be told not to lie, steal or murder? Seems obvious enough. The first four commandments—40 percent!—concern religious obligations, not general behavior, rather squandering an opportunity to tell us how to be good. Curiously for a monotheistic faith, the existence of other gods is okay, as long as ours gets top priority, which makes him seem a little jittery and insecure. And there really aren’t many graven images around these days, except perhaps for what we download from the Internet. Those four aside, all but one of the rest—honor our parents—are “nots,” a list of forbidden acts, not an encouragement to virtuous deeds. The tenth—no coveting—describes an attitude, a state of mind, not an action at all. Instead of the First, I would like to see a commandment to build an egalitarian society; for the Second, I would substitute the Golden Rule, and I would replace the Third with environmental ethics, the injunction not to destroy the earth but to create a green and healthy world.
Randy Cohen writes “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine and is the author of The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations.
more meaningful than U.S. law
The Ten Commandments are as important today as they were in antiquity because they represent the crucial distinction of right versus wrong. Perhaps surprisingly, nothing in our modern legal code does that. Rather, our laws simply provide consequences for actions: Park at an expired parking meter, pay a small fine; kill someone, go to jail, and so forth. No provision of American law differentiates between parking and killing. And no law suggests that some crimes are immoral and are to be avoided regardless of any consequences. For example, it doesn’t say anywhere that a person willing to go to jail still shouldn’t commit murder. This is the real power of the Ten Commandments. They list some actions that, no matter what, are wrong. Even people who don’t think they’ll get caught, even people willing to do the time (as they say) still shouldn’t commit some crimes. In this context a common mistranslation in the Ten Commandments is particularly unfortunate. The commandment usually translated “do not covet” originally meant “do not take,” in keeping with the original view that only overt actions can be moral or immoral. The Ten Commandments take no position on internal states such as desiring. Our laws are important for maintaining order. And the Ten Commandments are important for maintaining morality. We need them both.
Joel M. Hoffman is an expert in translation, Hebrew and the Bible and author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.