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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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From the First Commandment’s focus on human liberation, Hazony deduces that it is about “the principle of redemption.” As such, it “really is not about God at all.” Instead, it teaches us that “just as God is at heart a redeemer, so too are we, each of us, potential redeemers.” Similarly, Hazony holds that the Second Commandment—which ostensibly forbids idolatry—should in fact be understood as a defense of moral judgment: “The Bible’s assault on idolatry is derived from its broader concern for morality, a powerful idea that lies at the bedrock of the entire biblical approach to life.” The rejection of idolatry, in fact, rests on “a simple claim”—that “there exists an independent moral measure, a standard for right and wrong that is above our own wills and whims.” In short, our “wills and whims” are equated to idols—things that we choose to worship, even though they are far
from divine.

In the rest of his book Hazony comments on the subsequent eight commandments. Taken as a whole, he argues, the commandments’ power “derives not from their impossibly high standards but from the insistence that real human beings, with all their faults and failings, can improve themselves and the world around them.” The First Commandment “sets the tone” for the subsequent nine, “in which the redemptive spirit is explored and elaborated on and applied to every significant area of our lives—morality, integrity, the self, wisdom, life, love, wealth, community, and inner peace.” This sentence offers a useful précis of Hazony’s thesis, highlighting the key term that emerges from his explication of commandments two through ten.

Hazony’s glosses on the individual commandments are far from self-evident but are always, at least, plausible and intriguing. Particularly praiseworthy is the way in which he discerns a logical coherence to the order of the commandments, showing how each of them leads to the next. An example: in the Fifth Commandment, we are enjoined to honor our parents, who gave us “the gift of life, the brute physical fact of our being.” It therefore leads logically to the Sixth Commandment: the prohibition of murder. In that prohibition, “life gets its own commandment.”


Although this book offers a thoughtful overview of the commandments, I do have some qualms about it. I sometimes worry that Hazony’s interpretations may diverge excessively from the simple text of the commandments. For example, he sees the Third Commandment not as a narrow injunction against taking God’s name in vain but as a broad injunction against lying, at least in most circumstances: “It is in a context of lying .  .  . that false oaths become possible.” But that reading seems strained; as Hazony himself notes, “The Third Commandment does not say ‘You shall not lie’ but You shall not invoke the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Why is lying not prohibited? In Hazony’s words, “Lying is itself an ambiguous issue. We all know that there are lies, and there are lies.” He gives a wonderful example of a traditional Jewish example of an acceptable lie: “As the rabbis taught, you do not have to tell a groom on his wedding day what you really think about his new bride.”

Similarly, I am skeptical of Hazony’s interpretation of the Ninth Commandment. He construes its seemingly narrow prohibition of bearing “false witness against your neighbor” as a broader critique of slander: “By fostering a discourse of slander, the false witness threatens the foundations of community.” Now it is certainly true that the Jewish tradition vehemently attacks slander. Nevertheless, the Ninth Commandment enjoins not the broader but the narrower practice. Again to quote Hazony against himself, “The false witness .  .  . is not just slandering an innocent person. He is doing it in a court of law.” In both of these cases, I am open to the possibility that these two commandments have in mind the broader moral import that Hazony discerns. But if so, I would like to know why their plain sense seems to point to a reading that is narrower
than Hazony’s.

These discrepancies between the literal text of the third and ninth commandments and Hazony’s interpretations of them suggest that Hazony may aim not so much to interpret the Ten Commandments as to provide a broader understanding of Jewish ethics. The ethical admonitions to which he rightly points (for example, the prohibition of slander) can certainly be found in Jewish ethics—even if they are, in some cases, tied only loosely to their fountainhead in the Ten Commandments. Hazony speaks of paying “special attention to the Ten Commandments’ context as part of the Old Testament as a whole”; in other words, I believe that he ultimately views the commandments less as a text that stands on its own than as one particular manifestation (a vitally significant one, to be sure) of a broader Jewish ethical understanding.

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