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Book Review: Big Ten

The Commandments as a blueprint for humanity.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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The Ten Commandments

Book Review: Big Ten

Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’


How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life
by David Hazony
Scribner, 304 pp., $26

David Hazony’s study of the Ten Commandments is a worthy addition to an important genre—the close reading and serious analysis of biblical texts. In this respect his book is reminiscent of Leon Kass’s interpretation of Genesis (The Beginning of Wisdom) and the analysis by Yoram Hazony—David Hazony’s older brother—of the book of Esther (The Dawn). But in one obvious respect, David Hazony’s enterprise differs from Kass’s and Yoram Hazony’s: Genesis and Esther consist of stories that are replete with characters, whose motivations and actions can be analyzed—as well as plot and dialogue that lend themselves well to literary analysis. By contrast, the Ten Commandments is a comparatively brief legal text. Since several of the commandments are two words long in Hebrew or four words long in English (“Thou shalt not steal”), only a limited amount of exegesis would seem to be possible. How much explication can be offered for a texte consisting of two words?

Hazony responds to this difficulty by paying “special attention to .  .  . the ancient Jewish interpretations” of the commandments, many of which go beyond a close literal reading of the text. One merit of traditional Jewish analysis, Hazony claims, is that it tends to focus more on society than on
the individual:

Classical Christianity focused its teachings on, more than anything else, the moral and religious life of the individual. The Jewish teachings, broadly speaking, added a dimension we may call political. .  .  . When Jewish tradition came to speak of the Ten Commandments, .  .  . it looked at them not just as a basis for [individual] righteousness but also as the cornerstone of a good society. Looking at the Ten Commandments in this way can give them new meaning for Western life today.

Thus Hazony seeks, through his analysis, to show that “the Old Testament’s centerpiece, the Ten Commandments, is neither an archaic remnant of a dead past nor an arbitrary set of laws.” Instead they incorporate “a whole attitude to life, one that recognizes both the weaknesses and the unfathomable potential of humanity.” In particular, he aims to show how the commandments relate to one another, and why these specific commandments were proclaimed, instead of others that might have been put forth. His most striking contention is that “the Ten Commandments are not really a ‘religious’ text at all. .  .  . Although they do make statements about God .  .  . these are a small part of the text.” Hazony instead emphasizes “just how much more the Ten Commandments are really talking about us than him, about man’s role and purpose in the world rather than who God is or how we ought to relate to him.”

(In this respect, it should be noted, Hazony actually departs from the traditional Jewish understanding of the commandments. In the traditional understanding, the first four commandments—which proclaim that God took the Israelites out of Egypt and then forbid the worship of other gods, forbid the taking of God’s name in vain, and command the observance of the Sabbath—concern man’s relations with God. The last five commandments—which forbid murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and covetousness—concern man’s relations with his fellow men. The Fifth Commandment, commanding us to honor our parents, is seen as the bridge between these two subdivisions.)

To support his interpretation, Hazony notes that the First Commandment speaks of God not as the creator of the universe but as the liberator of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. (Like Hazony, I am using the Jewish rather than the Catholic or Protestant enumeration of the commandments, according to which God’s proclamation of His divinity constitutes the First Commandment—even though it is not, in fact, a commandment. But then the Hebrew name for what we call the Ten Commandments is actually the ten “statements” or “utterances.”)

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