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.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE…
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.