The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life
By David Hazony
Scribner, $26, 288 pages
Can anything new be said about the Ten Commandments? They are the essential moral building blocks of Western society. Even most people outside of the Jewish and Christian faiths recognize the importance of the Ten Commandments.
David Hazony, an American writer now living in Israel, believes the Ten Commandments have meaning beyond their narrow dictates. He contends that they suggest a “spirit of redemption” evident in both the Jewish and Christian faiths.
More provocatively, Mr. Hazony pulls the Ten Commandments out of their narrow theological context and ties them to broader life principles. He argues that “While the Ten Commandments may serve to deepen and enrich our faith, we do not need faith to think about them, understand them, or accept their teachings as true.”
As one would expect for godly commands, “They are, rather, a set of extremely concise statements about the best way to build a good, upright society,” writes Mr. Hazony. However, he goes further, claiming that “The Ten Commandments are therefore best understood not as a symbol of ancient laws about God and religion, but as a capsule containing profound ideas about human life.”
Disconnecting them from their historical and religious roots does risk pushing the analysis too far at times. For instance, Mr. Hazony contends that the principles represent “a kind of democratic spirit, one that continues to function at the deepest level of our lives.” It’s an attractive claim, but suggests a more modern sense than may be warranted.
Mr. Hazony explores the Ten Commandments one by one. He starts with God’s foundational claim: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.”
In introducing himself, God cites the exodus, and this is “the central story of redemption in the entire Bible,” writes Mr. Hazony. We see a God who “through all his anger, he continues to believe in the potential of humanity.”
The next commandment is, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” In a world full of presumed “gods,” it hardly surprises that God would inveigh against idolatry.
Mr. Hazony seeks to broaden the message. He writes: “Just as there is one God of Israel, who is not of this world and cannot be seen, so is there also one moral truth that cannot be seen.” It is an interesting leap, but nevertheless remains a leap.
The Third Commandment enjoins invoking “the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Mr. Hazony also broadens the meaning of this instruction: “The Third Commandment prohibits making false oaths, and in the process establishes personal integrity as a core value of the redemptive society.” The Jewish Scriptures and rabbinic tradition do emphasize honesty, but this interpretation remains a stretch.
Keep the Sabbath, directs the Fourth Commandment.Mr. Hazony’s discussion sheds light on what otherwise appears to be arbitrary rabbinic interpretations of what constitutes “work.” Mr. Hazony explains that the limits affect creativity more than work per se: “Our creations, while so central to our lives, are not the essence of who we are.”
The Sabbath, then, does more than simply commemorate God’s day of rest. It also urges us “to spend one day each week diverting the bulk of our energies away from creation and toward recognizing, exploring, and ultimately sanctifying the inner self.”
We are to honor our father and mother, according to the Fifth Commandment. Mr. Hazony stretches this requirement as well, contending: “Anyone who rejects the memory of his parents loses his inner moorings of right and wrong. In the end, his lack of inbred instincts makes him insensitive and cruel, outweighing anything he may have gained.”
The Sixth Commandment against murder is straightforward and brings forth an intensely personal reflection from Mr. Hazony, who lived in Jerusalem during the spate of suicide bombings a few years ago. He contends that it is not just simple physical life that is represented by the commandment, but the pleasures of physical existence: “It is a life where our own physical and spiritual health is not a source of guilt, where the self-expanding love of others does not contradict our own success.”
Equally emphatic is the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” The specific prohibition is obvious. Mr. Hazony goes on to make a much broader and more modern point, one that, he admits, we do not “usually associate with the Old Testament”: the importance of romantic love.
The Eighth Commandant prohibits theft. Mr. Hazony explains why what are commonly called “property rights” really are the rights of people to create and use property. Thus, the ban on theft is necessary to respect the humanity and dignity of others.
The Ninth Commandment bans bearing “false witness” against one’s neighbor. Mr. Hazony contends that the reference to neighbors emphasizes the impact of dishonesty on community. Making the Bible’s redemptive identities thrive, he adds, is “the key to ending most of the bloodshed and war in the world.” Unfortunately, this objective isn’t likely to be realized in this life.
The Tenth Commandment forbids covetousness. Envy always has been one of mankind’s most destructive emotions. Greed often is purely self-directed, while envy is destructive of community, since it can be satisfied only by tearing down others.
Mr. Hazony sees obedience with this commandment as the key to peace since it confronts “the sin of insecurity.” He acknowledges the unusual formulation, arguing that “to covet is to have lost our inner peace, our baseline satisfaction about who we are and what we have.” It’s another intriguing argument, worthy of reflection even if it moves beyond the obvious meaning of the text.
The Ten Commandments have an essential role in regulating the behavior of sinful human beings.But Mr. Hazony persuasively contends that the Ten Commandments represent much more.
On occasion his creativity outruns the most likely meaning of God’s instructions, but he persuasively argues that they embody “both the complexity and the possibilities of life.”Our lives would be so much richer … and we would be so much closer to God — if we better applied the deep human and spiritual principles embodied by the Ten Commandments.