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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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 Whatever doubts I may have about his interpretations of specific commandments, he succeeds remarkably in articulating this Jewish ethical understanding. My focus here on a specifically Jewish ethical view may also point to an opportunity that Hazony misses: After noting that the Jewish interpretation of the commandments is more political than what seems to him to be the more individualist Christian interpretation, he doesn’t say much about how Christians do or should understand them. That is an issue that he might particularly have addressed in discussing the Fourth Commandment, enjoining the observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath commandment is of unique interest in this context, since it is the only one that concerns the Jewish ritual or ceremonial law that Christianity abrogated. Focusing as he does on the commandments’ relevance to human behavior, Hazony concludes that the “aim of the Sabbath is 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.” If “the highest aim of the Sabbath is our spiritual advancement,” can Christians somehow achieve that goal, even though almost all of them reject the specifically Jewish means to that end—the banning of creative activity? I don’t know how Hazony would answer that question, and I’d be interested to see what his answer would be. In any event, at least nine of the Ten Commandments (and the Hebrew Bible as a whole) are accepted by Christians as well as Jews. And to paraphrase Meat Loaf, nine out of ten ain’t bad. For that reason, it might be better to refer to the worldview that Hazony articulates as broadly Judeo-Christian rather than specifically Jewish.

Summarizing his conclusions, he asserts that 

The Ten Commandments are the Bible’s most poignant symbol of both the complexity and the possibilities of life. Far from being a call for perfection, they embrace the nuance of humanity, the spectrum of real experience, the challenges of weakness and hope, and the need for human beings always to take responsibility for their lives.

Thus in Hazony’s reading, the Hebrew Bible—and in particular the Ten Commandments—is “a deeply optimistic text, and its optimism flows not in spite of human imperfection, but from it. .  .  . While the ancient Greek playwrights presented us with stories of tragic fate .  .  . the Israelites believed that each of us has the power to overcome fate, to rule over the sins that crouch at our door.” Despite our flaws, we are capable of improving the world, because we are capable of improving ourselves.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. 

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