Friday, May 23, 2008

Rami: First Thoughts on the Ninth Commandment

The simple meaning of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13) deals with swearing falsely in a courtroom. While it has other implications as well, let me start with this.

I mentioned earlier that the Ten Commandments don’t cover all contingencies, only those that undermine the very existence of society. This is clear with the Ninth Commandment. We learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) about the Seven Laws of Noah that God imposes on all humankind. The seventh of these Seven requires the establishment of just courts. A legal system that is fair and honest is essential to a just society. So the rabbis spend a lot of time expounding the courtroom aspect of this Commandment. Here are two examples:

First, even if you are convinced that a crime did take place, but did not witness it yourself, you are prohibited from testifying that it did in fact happen. This is true even if you were told something is true by an unimpeachable source, but did not witness the matter for yourself, you are still prohibited from testifying that it did in fact happen.

The rabbis even prohibit what is a staple of TV crime drama: bluffing. Let’s say there is only one eye witness to a crime, but you accompany the eye witness to court giving the impression that there are two such witnesses. Seeing the two witnesses and fearing conviction, the accused suddenly confesses to the crime and begs for leniency. While this may work on “Law & Order,” it is not allowed under Jewish law (Shavuot 31a).

In the Mechilta, an ancient rabbinic commentary on the Book of Exodus, the rabbis link the Ninth Commandment with the Fourth Commandment dealing with Shabbat. Since keeping the Sabbath witnesses to the truth of God as Creator (in the Exodus version of the Commandments) and Liberator (in the Deuteronomy version), one who lies in court may come to deny the existence of God and stop keeping the Sabbath, and in this way bear false witness regarding God.

I like this idea. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “My life is my message.” How you live attests to what you believe. This has always struck me as the best way to proselytize.

I attended a seminar once on how Christians can best proselytize Jews. We were taught to listen for openings in conversations. For example, if the Jewish person says, “Sometimes I feel so lost,” we are to counter with, “Christ came specifically for the lost sheep of Israel. Let me tell you about Him.” I never found this very compelling, and I said so during the seminar.

The teacher asked, “Well, then, what would move you to consider Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I said, “If I saw someone living a truly Christian life, a life devoted to loving God and loving one’s neighbor without pride or prejudice, then I would be impressed. If I saw someone actually caring for the “least of these” as Jesus put it (Matthew 25:40), I would be drawn to ask this person his secret, and then he could tell me about Jesus. Nothing else would work for me.”

Of course I neglected to say that I know many wise and compassionate Christians who do live as Jesus intended, and still I am not compelled to convert, but I didn’t want to be a total thorn the presenter’s side.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who call themselves religious are living lives that say something else; they are bearing false witness to the True God, or bearing true witness to a false god. So this commandment has resonance far beyond the obvious.

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