The Ten Commandments
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
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.”)
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
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
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.
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.