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The fast-moving times we live in call for a reevaluation of the traditional Ten Commandments.
By Stephen Bertman
When Moses descended from the heights of Mount Sinai, he held in his arms not two but three Tablets of the Covenant, with five commandments inscribed on each. At least that's how Mel Brooks tells it in his History of the World, Part I. "Hear me, o hear me! All pay heed!" the movie Moses proclaims. "The Lord, the Lord G-d, has given unto you these fifteen [One stone tablet drops and shatters. A perplexed Moses looks down and mutters "Oy!"]......ten, TEN commandments for all to obey!"
Of course, it never really happened that way. But what if it had? What if God had originally meant to give us fifteen commandments, and five got lost?
Indeed, have you ever wondered why there were only ten to begin with? According to the Talmud, the number of commandments and even their content corresponded to ten statements God had uttered during his creation of the world. A nice round number, to be sure, like the number of fingers and toes God later handed out in Eden. But, again, why the number ten?
Of course, we should note, the so-called "Ten" Commandments are just an abridged version of the Torah. The full count of mitzvot is 613. Reducing the commandments to ten thus constitutes an exercise in religious reductionism: a "Cliffs Notes" version of Judaism, if you would, with God playing the role of Cliff. But such reductionism has a long and distinguished rabbinic pedigree: when pressed, both Hillel and Akiva agreed that the whole of the Torah could be summed up in just one commandment: "Do not do to another human being what you yourself would find hateful." The rest, as Hillel said, is but commentary. Indeed, the history of Liberal Judaism itself exemplifies this reductionist tendency by eliminating ritual requirements so as to give greater prominence to Scripture's ethical demands.
But why a multiplicity of commandments to begin with, you might ask. Why not just one? Well, perhaps there's a virtue in specifics. If "the Devil is in the details," maybe God is in them too. Maybe as mere mortals we need the details spelled out. Maybe an ethics that lacks specifics is an ethics that won't work.
But getting back to Mel Brooks (Can we ever really avoid him?), the question remains: could there have been another five mitzvot? If ten is good, could fifteen have been better?
After all, the world has changed a lot since the days of Exodus. Perhaps God anticipated these changes and wanted to give humanity some extra help for the long road ahead. In fact, the Rabbis themselves believed there was more to God's message than was ever written down at Sinai. Our duty, they taught, is to study and interpret the written Torah in order to unfold its fullest truth, a truth that will inevitably illuminate our lives in whatever era we live.
So if we may be permitted to engage in an act of Chumashic chutzpah, what additional commandments might we propose to make the traditional set even more applicable to our times?
When our ancestors departed from Egypt, for instance, they left behind a land of many gods and idols: hence they were given commandments "one," "two," and "three" to keep them from spiritually regressing. But if we're no longer traversing the wilderness of Sinai, what new commandments might we need to guide us on our own moral journey?
In asking this, I don't mean to suggest that the first ten are no longer valid. As the auteur of The Ten Commandments (not God but Cecil B. DeMille) once aptly stated: "You cannot break the Ten Commandments; you can only break yourself against them." It is precisely their enduring human relevance that accounts for the Commandments durability down through the ages, for while our nation is no longer populated by images of pagan gods, ample opportunities for idolatry still exist. "You are what you own" declares the gospel of contemporary materialism, and the glib priests of advertising bid us bow down before its altar. In short, the Golden Calf is alive and well.
But how can you own things if you don't have money? Hence the abiding need for commandment number "four" (to remember the Sabbath) so we don't, in a compulsive pursuit of possessions and the means to obtain them, lose sight of our souls. Equally pertinent to materialism is commandment number "ten" that warns us of the danger of wanting things we cannot have, commandment number "eight" that forbids us from taking what is not ours to have, and commandment number "nine" that forbids us from lying to get what we want.
Also rampant in popular culture today are materialism's corollaries, selfishness and the quest for shallow pleasure, corollaries that can not only cheapen life but the respect for life as well. Hence commandments "five" (the need to honor one's parents), "six" (the prohibition against murder), and "seven" (the forbidding of adultery).
In summary, it seems God had us very much in mind in foreseeing the spiritual obstacles and temptations that would lie in our path.
But, to return to our original question, could He really have had more to say on the subject? Or, to put it another way, might He have wanted us to figuratively "add" to his list? After all, since the year 1789, twenty-seven amendments have been added to the U.S. Constitution, including the famous Bill of Rights, that were not originally foreseen by our nation's Founding Fathers. To be sure, they were human and God is not, but He did create us in his image, and wanted us to keep his Torah alive.
If then we are to begin a process of amendment, what commandments might we theoretically propose?
In the case of the U.S. Constitution, amendments were proposed in part to suit the evolving needs of a changing America. Perhaps that is a good place for us to start as well. Let's therefore explore the spiritual challenges of today's America, challenges that seemingly are not covered by the traditional Ten.
At least five major cultural forces can be identified that conspire to challenge our souls today: the influence of materialism, the power of technology, the impact of speed, the increase of artificiality, and the decline of historical memory.
The first of these, the influence of materialism, has already been alluded to. But why should we speak of it as something new? After all, materialism has been around for a long time, for Jews most notably in the era of the Hebrew prophets, who railed in their day against the moral obtuseness of the rich. Materialism deserves our special attention today because America's standard of living and the distribution of wealth has energized materialistic thinking as never before in history. In short, in no previous age have so many people had it so good, if by "good" we mean possessing not only the necessities of life but its luxuries as well. In fact, what most people around the globe would regard as luxuries most Americans would call simple necessities. Yet when the acquisition and use of costly objects becomes the central focus of people's existence, they become blind to those non-material things that are so desperately required if life is to have its deepest significance.
The second force that threatens our spirituality is the power of technology. Never before in history have the complexities of technology played such an intrusive role in people's private lives. Alas, when God wanted to get Moses' attention in the land of Midian, He had to resort to a low-tech burning bush instead of a pager or cell phone. Today, electronic technology has connected people as never before, but it has simultaneously robbed us of the solitude we need for peace of mind and spiritual reflection. In similar fashion, the computer has delivered an abundance of data but deluded us into thinking that information at our fingertips is as valuable as wisdom in our hearts. And so, like Biblical Esau, we have traded our spiritual birthright for a mess of instant pottage.
The third force is caused by technology. It is the impact of speed. Electronic devices operate at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. The problem physiologically and psychologically, of course, is that we do not. Yet because we must keep pace with our inventions, our culture has turned into a "hyperculture," a society pathologically addicted to speed. Ruled by a mindless surge of electrons that do not sleep, our lives are oppressed by a ceaseless urgency that demands our instantaneous response. The result is stress, stress that warps our daily existence, depriving us of patience and the time to enjoy our days under the sun. As our individual lives spin out of control, the centrifugal pull simultaneously tears at the structure of the Jewish family, fracturing the unity it once possessed.
Another product of technology is the increase of artificiality in our lives. Relying on technological surrogates, we have become less and less authentically human by substituting their presence for our own. Though we may be inclined to tell those we love "I'll be there for you," we're never really there at all, or in fact anywhere, with the wholeness of our being. Instead, we multitask and listen with half an ear, grudgingly offering only a part of our selves. Faceless avatars, we electronically interact with the avatars of others, while the TV screen amuses us with a counterfeit reality.
The fifth and last force is more subtle but no less damaging in its effects. It is the loss of historical memory, of our vital connection with a remembered past. Like the receding image in the rear-view mirror of a fast-moving car, the portrait of bygone times shrinks as our secular culture accelerates. As a consequence of rapid social change, we have lost touch with age-old traditions that could spiritually sustain us, and have become victims of "cultural amnesia," the social equivalent of Alzheimer's disease. As a result, the distant events and personalities of Jewish history fade from our minds. Mel Brooks we know; Maimonides and Micah lie forgotten, along with the guidance they could provide.
The combined effect all these forces is to erode not only our memory but our conscience. They succeed because they address not our brains but our nerve-endings, seducing us with pleasure at the price of our souls.
What moral directives, then, are there that could help us resist the combined momentum of these peculiarly modern forces? What additional "Thou shalt not"s or "Thou shalt"s could we find to lean on as Moses once leaned on his staff?
I am not presumptuous enough to play God. That role I leave to Mel Brooks. But perhaps together we can find the answers. In the light of our human predicament today, what new commandments would you propose that we add to the traditional ten to guide us to the promised land? Write the Editor or write to me c/o this magazine. I assure you we will listen.
Dr. Stephen Bertman is Professor Emeritus of Classics at Canada's University of Windsor. His books include Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed, Cultural Amnesia: America's Future and the Crisis of Memory, and Climbing Olympus: What You Can Learn from Greek Myth and Wisdom. This essay is adapted from a talk he presented at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, Michigan, on September 11, 2004.
from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine