The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?Posted on May 13th, 2013 1 comment
Often times I see the “Ten Commandments” displayed on boards in synagogues, above the Parochet, on walls of praying spaces, in religious school classes- each commandment followed by an exclamation mark, for example:
You shall not kill! ! לא תרצח
You shall not Still! לא תגנוב!
Even in places where the exclamation mark is not actually printed, it could be heard in the tone of the imperative form, as we are traditionally accustomed to read it.
Could it be read differently?
Placing a question mark
In her poem “We All Stood Together” , Merle Feld describes how in Sinai, men and women have witnessed the revelation and received the Torah together. However, as the poem continues, a voice of frustration arises; due to lack of time and availability (staying home and taking care of babies) women’s interpretations throughout Jewish history were not documented. This poem represents the first stage of what feminist theologians such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow (among others) describe as the realization of inequality which leads to critic. In the second stage, feminist readings of traditional texts try to reconstruct the lost voices; as readers of texts as well as writers of texts, giving voice to women in texts along with suggesting new ways of reading texts, or listening to them.
The first stage includes the realization that traditional texts are the product of male interpretation; reflecting their theological, social, cultural understandings. Feminist approach to those texts often places question marks on what is considered “facts” or the “truth” in order to create possibilities for different interpretations which represent women’s experiences. The interpretation of עשרת הדיברות as I would like to suggest here, puts such a question mark.
The “Ten Commandments”, and for that matter all commandments, are named in English “commandments”- meaning, orders that come from a hierarchal status, in this case from God. In Hebrew the word מצווה comes from the root צ.ו.ה meaning to order, however the use of the word mitzvah refers explicitly to God’s orders . The notion of commandment might be expected in a patriarchal theology where God is hierarchal; He is a Ruler, a King, Lord of Hosts. A God in those images can only speak to us in orders, in commandments. The power of figures such as kings and rulers lies in the ability to put sanctions and punishments on us, should we not follow the commandments.
Language is limiting human expressions of theological experience, as it is a representation of human experiences and knowledge and a reflection of those on the image of God. Jewish feminists, motivated to add women’s experiences and knowledge to the Jewish conversation , produced other images of God , suggesting mostly non-hierarchal ones. When viewing God as non-hierarchal I would like to place a question mark on the terminology of “commandments” and ask which word might be most fitting to replace it.
Taking away the exclamation mark
The “Ten Commandments” are not named “mitzvoth” in Hebrew but rather are called: דברים (in Shmot 20:1) or דיברות (for example in Bavli Shvuot 39a), meaning some form of speaking. God is speaking to all the people in Sinai and sets ten basic points to what might be considered ground rules for the affirmation of the covenant between us. These words are followed by Parashat Mishpatim, in which the words, that are very general, turn into more elaborating sentences- describing the ideal moral behavior.
In that light, God could be imagined more as a Guide, or as an Educator who is trying to teach us how to create a just and moral society, and how to become good-doing individuals of that society, rather than a Tyrant who orders us how to behave. The image of an Educator or Guide bears somewhat of the authority that I find easier to accept, since it suggests an authority that is based on experience or knowledge that I don’t share or understand, as well as the good intention for my well-being and that of society . God sets before us many more teachings throughout the Torah, and towards the end, in Parashat Re’eh, we are given the Choice ; we have learned what is right and what is wrong, we are aware of the consequences for following each path, but at end it is our choice to make and we are held responsible for it.
Using the terminology of “teachings” for “commandments” does not come to devalue their meaning or content. I used to say that as a religious person I feel commanded to follow God’s commandments. By changing the terminology I do not feel any less committed to follow the teachings; if anything it enhances my sense of partnership in the Covenant. Changing the terminology is simply asking to take away the exclamation marks that we supposedly have at their end. By doing so, we open new possibilities for reading the “Ten Teachings”.
Moving toward the point
In formal and informal education, we assume, or more accurately, hope that the seeds of values that we plant in the minds of children grow with them along the years. We sometimes see the results specifically in difficult situations; should the right choice be made we know the values have been well implemented and correctly applied.
Viewing God’s teachings in that light, a point takes the place of the exclamation mark, which enables us to read the “Ten teachings” not as orders but rather as a prophecy of our behavior. It may be perceived as if God shares with us our future selves, as if God says to us :
I am your God. (I took you out of Egypt as salves and now you are the People of Israel)
If you follow my teachings (and not the teachings and values of [American] Idols)
You will remember Shabbat. (that it is a sacred day as well as a social one).
You will honor your parents. (they are your Guides as well and want the best for you)
You will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Because whenever an instinct or a drive to do wrong appears, you will make the right choice).
With a point at the end.
We All Stood Together/ Merle Feld
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
as time passes
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
Rabbi Oshrat Morag currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is pursuing a doctorate in Feminist Theology at HUC-JIR.
One response to “The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?”
Larry Freedman May 14th, 2013 at 09:12
Interesting take. I appreciate the notion of guide and such. But may I suggest that you warm to the notion of Educator over Tyrant (and honestly, is there no word in a hierarchical system other than Tyrant?) because you already accept the Aseret Dibrot. You are in and now look to find a more compelling understanding to support what you already love. Out here where I am, the notion of a guide or educator connotes very quickly the sense of “optional.” Without anyone expecting me to live up to the 10 Commandments, at best we have someone simply hoping I will live up to them. Sure my Guide will point out positive reasons but it’s still just a suggestion. Indeed, you offer a clever “if-then” formulation of the Dibrot. But I could simply say, “no.” I could say this: I won’t accept the “if” part of your statement and don’t care about results that could come from it. Furthermore, I could simply deny any logic from it as well. If I don’t follow God’s teachings then I won’t honor my parents? I’ll steal? Surely not true at all. So I will find any number of reasons to honor my parents and not steal but a sense of obligation and acceptance of Jewish demands simply will not be one of them. As for Shabbat? Out here? M’eh. Thank you for your suggestion, I could say, but I’ll pass. The power of the exclamation points is not about being a Tyrant but about expectations that empower. People often thrill to living up to a high standard. They don’t find it tyrannical at all. A high demand like any tough challenge is empowering for having achieved it. I fear you want a nicer way of putting it before you engage. Many others engage and then, having lived up to those exclamation points, take pride in living Jewishly. Not just ethically, but Jewishly as well.
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