Interpreting the Peculiar Tenth Commandment

October, 10 2017
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The Ten Commandments are appropriately easy to understand, except for Number Ten. The prohibition on chamad (“coveting”) baffles. It bans lusting after another’s stuff—an internal crime, if it is a crime at all. It’s not aimed at behavior but at a feeling: envy. It prohibits emotions, not the actions they elicit. If I don’t act on those feelings, why should they matter? What is Number Ten really about?

It’s generally agreed that the first tablet defines an individual’s relationship with God, while the second tablet’s commands aim at keeping communal peace. Indeed, the second tablet might easily have been inscribed by Thomas Hobbes. Writing in turbulent times, Hobbes wanted, at all costs, to keep the peace. In Hobbes’ hypothetical pre-society, the only laws are the laws of nature: Newton’s laws, Boyle’s law, etc. Man, a body like any other, has no choice but to obey those laws. Hobbes refuses to place man above the animals; in his natural state, man is merely a physical object. He has no special rights, and others have no moral duty to respect him. Survival being the primary natural drive of all living things, men aim only at self-preservation. Natural law, therefore, “entitles” each to whatever he can lay his hands on for as long as he can, by brute force, keep possession. In this state, Hobbes famously observed, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Until natural creatures agree to make civil—artificial—laws, they cannot rest from their fear-induced vigilance and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Ultimately, men concede their natural rights to everything they can seize, and agree to obey a sovereign who can provide a secure peace. In a civil state, people live in terror of their sovereign but are secure in whatever benefits he allows them—a good enough bargain, Hobbes concludes.

The chief purpose of civil law, then, is to make people feel safe so society can go about its business. Do the second tablet’s commandments accomplish this? Each begins with the Hebrew word lo (“no”). They inhibit natural urges, ordering us to hold back from what, as self-preserving animals, we are likely to do. Don’t kill another, steal his property, take his spouse, spread nasty rumors about him or look longingly at his stuff. In the state Hobbes imagines, a mighty tyrant, Leviathan, enforces the law; in the case of the Israelites, the sovereign is God Himself, mighty enough to keep His people in line. Might, Hobbes declared, makes right.

The appeal of “other gods” is another major concern in the Torah. The Hebrews always had to guard against seduction by the glittering idols of surrounding peoples. Is the point of the Tenth Commandment to prohibit envy of other people’s gods? But two commandments on the first tablet already address that concern: The First Commandment prohibits any gods but the giver of the commandments Himself, and the Second prohibits worshipping gods that assume physical form. That’s enough to ban idolatry.

Perhaps the framer(s) of the Commandments wisely understood that even one misdirected heart could ultimately destroy a community. If I covet my neighbor’s ox, I’m more likely to steal it. If I covet her husband, I’m more likely to seduce him. If I envy her advancing career, I may arrange to have her killed. So many great crime stories begin with coveting, as do the great dramas of Shakespeare. Is Number Ten supposed to prevent all other crimes before they get started? If so, we should eliminate Commandments Six through Nine!

Is the Tenth Commandment, then, a command to proactively detach from desires that make me dissatisfied with my portion, a Buddhistic admonition to find peace within myself? It’s a nice thought, but the Torah takes the more Hobbesian view that humans are essentially self-interested creatures, unprepared to balance their inner souls.

“To keep peace, practice justice,” shout protesters everywhere. Unless we find a fair way of distributing benefits and burdens, we will have civil war. People who feel they’re being treated unfairly are always a threat to civil order, but a commandment that orders us to be satisfied with what we have takes no account of human nature. Where is the commandment that orders us as a society to practice justice? A commandment to give everyone a fair share does not appear on either tablet! When it does appear elsewhere in the Torah, it gives no clue as to what fairness is. “An eye for an eye” is found throughout the Torah. But that is about fair punishment for wrongdoing, retributive justice. Where is the command to practice distributive justice, to give to each his fair share?

I believe the Tenth Commandment is addressed not to individuals, but to society, to set itself up to minimize coveting. The Israelites could not endure as a community if envy arose like a poisonous weed in their ranks. At the conclusion of the second tablet’s list of antisocial acts, then, is this command that the community as a whole distribute its burdens and benefits so that such antisocial behavior is less likely to occur.

But the Torah never says how to set up a society in which all participants feel they are being treated no better and no worse than others. It is the openness, the ambiguity, of the Torah that has turned the Jewish people into a nation of philosophers, debaters and creative thinkers. In seeking an answer to the question of how to create a fair society, we’d do well to consult the contemporary philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls devoted his career to specifying not only a definition of “fairness,” but a means of putting it into practice. Rawls asks that we imagine ourselves, once again, in a state of nature. In this state, Rawls asks that we proceed under a “veil of ignorance,” none of us knowing what role we will occupy in the state we’ll eventually create. I don’t know if I will be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, brainy or mentally challenged, physically fit or disabled. I must decide whether a proposed arrangement is fair while I’m unaware what my particular status will be once things get started.

The genius of Rawls’ suggestion is that it eliminates the selfish bias that infects Hobbes’ Leviathan. As Rawlsian lawmakers, we are each motivated to ensure the laws favor no one because, if there is a favored position, we can’t know who will occupy it. For any benefit the society bestows, we would be sure to attach a burden to neutralize it.

This does not ultimately produce that crass equality in which everyone has “the same thing,” an arrangement we all regard as both impossible and undesirable. What we would have is a pragmatic equality based upon consent, a society in which each person could reasonably be deemed to have consented to the laws he is required to obey. If I had reason to believe I’d be rich, I’d provide favorable tax breaks for the wealthy but, not knowing my economic status, I’d favor a tax system that is… fair.

In practice, we do not need to re-create a “state of nature;” we need only ask, of any proposed law, if this is one I would have agreed to without knowing my position in society. Does this law do unto everyone as I would have others do unto me? This Golden Rule is the Torah message one can utter while standing on one foot. Such a rule for keeping peace certainly deserves a place in the Ten Commandments.

Lo tachmod. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt create a society where there is little reason to envy another, a society in which each is reasonably satisfied with his portion, a society ruled by fairness, based upon consent.

Susan Pashman holds a PhD in philosophy from Stony Brook University and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. She taught philosophy at Adelphi University and Harvard University, and practiced law at Cravath, Swaine and Moore in New York City. This article is excerpted from a book she has just completed: Journey To A Temple In Time: A Philosopher’s Quest For The Sabbath.



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One thought on “Interpreting the Peculiar Tenth Commandment

  1. Davida Brown says:

    It is sad to see, written by a Jewish woman, a treatise on the commandments given by a Holy God who happens to be her Creator as well as the One who wrote the very commandments she refers to (Exodus 31:18.) It is a shame that philosophy trumps faith in so many Jewish people. The very identity of the Jews comes from the pages of Torah and the Tanakh. The Bible itself is the Jewish Family Album. How I wish this was significant to the people that it was all intended for in the first place.

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