Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rami On the Eighth Commandment

I love your rewriting of the Seventh Commandment. In fact, I would suggest that we end our discussion of the Ten Commandments with each of us offering our own rewrites. But we have a bit more to discuss before we get to that point. So on to the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13).

This seems simple enough. Don’t steal. Got it. Now on to Number Nine. Unfortunately, when it comes to my rabbinic ancestors nothing is ever simple. Two things bothered my predecessors:

First, if the Eighth Commandment is just about stealing as ordinarily defined, why would God repeat Himself in Leviticus 19:11, “You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another”? Second, why list stealing in the same Ten Commandment verse as the prohibitions against murder and adultery? Murder and adultery are capital offenses carrying with them the death penalty. Stealing however is a much lower order of crime. And yet, there it is right alongside these two capital offences. This must mean something; if we could only uncover the inner logic of the verse....

Let’s look for the logic in Leviticus. The rabbis argued that linking stealing with denying falsely and lying makes perfect sense because people who steal will also deny that they did so, and then lie, even in court, in order to cover it up. So there is an intrinsic logic to God’s linking stealing, denying falsely, and lying in Leviticus. If there is logic in Leviticus there must be logic in Exodus, but what could it be? There can be only one answer: the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean “stealing” at all!

Since murder and adultery, the two crimes linked to stealing in Exodus 20:13, are capital offences, stealing, too, must be a capital offence. The only category of theft that carries the death penalty, however, is kidnapping. Hence, the Eighth Commandment should read, “You shall not kidnap” (Sanhedrin 86a). You can see how the Jewish mind, what we call Yiddishe kup (literally "Jewish head"), works: by taking matters literally we are forced to take them metaphorically. For us there is no distinction between the literal reading of the text and its metaphoric reading; the literal is the metaphoric. This allows us a lot of freedom in interpreting (or in many cases reinventing) it.

For the early rabbis kidnapping referred not to the crime of holding a person for ransom, though that was not unknown, but to the crime of stealing a person and forcing him or her into slavery. It is actually slavery that the Eighth Commandment opposes! Too bad this rabbinic insight never made it into the King James Bible; we might have avoided centuries of oppression and a bloody Civil War.

Ancient rabbinic exegesis aside, and in now way discounting the link between stealing and kidnapping, most rabbis hold to the simpler view that the Eighth Commandment deals with thefts of all kinds: both theft of property, and theft of one's good name, self-esteem, etc.

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