Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 4th Post

I think I overstated my position, and appreciate your reigning me in. I agree with you that it is sometimes worthwhile taking action even when logic tells you that you are doomed to fail. There is something heroic in this, and, as you pointed out, you may trigger powers beyond your ken that shift things in the long run. I didn’t mean to imply that one could know in advance that success was assured, but that in some sense success was possible.

This makes me of think of God’s teaching, Be holy for I, HaShem, your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2), and Jesus’ saying, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48). If it is impossible for us to be holy and perfect that commanding this of us is sadistic. So, as difficult as it may be to achieve holiness and perfection, it must in some way be doable even if the act of doing it necessitates the death of the egoic self.

If I remember correctly, what triggered all of this was the notion that the Tenth Commandment was the only one of the ten that deals with thought and desire rather than solely with behavior. Commenting on the same observation, the 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the very thing that makes the tenth commandment unique among the Ten Commandments is the very thing that proves it is unmistakably the word of God. While any flesh and blood lawgiver would thing to prohibit blasphemy, murder, theft, and the like, Rabbi Hirsch argues, only God would think to command us to purify our thoughts.

Not everyone goes in this direction, of course. In Judaism, we find intellectual consensus to be suspect; there is always a contrarian view. Our pedagogical guideline is: three Jews, five opinions. So here it is:

The ancient rabbis noted that the Hebrew verb for “covet” can also mean “to scheme after.” They sight Exodus 34:24, “No man will covet your land when you go up to appear before YHVH, your God, three times a year.” At issue is the fear that when I leave my land to go to Jerusalem to worship God during the three annual pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot) some unscrupulous fellow might seek to steal it from me. Hence they read the Tenth Commandment as, “You shall not scheme to acquire your neighbor’s household: his wife, his servants, his oxen, his ass, or anything else belonging to your neighbor.”

This does away with our notion that the Commandments are seeking to regulate thought, and makes all ten of the Ten Commandments purely behavioral.

One last observation before we wrap up our discussion of the Ten Commandments. The Exodus version we have been using differs from the version in Deuteronomy in a way the rabbis found significant.

In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the tenth commandment opens with, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and then goes on to list what is associated with his house including his wife (Exodus 20:14). In the Deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments, the list of things a person should not covet mentions his wife first, and then his house: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his field, his slave, his maid, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:18). According to the rabbis, this separation means that the word house in the second clause actually refers to a physical structure and not to the household in general.

The difference they say is this: the Exodus version refers to the nomadic life of Israel where owning a house was unthinkable, while the Deuteronomy version addresses their life after settling in the Promised Land and building permanent homes of their own. God gave two versions for the two different situations in which the people would find themselves.

I think this may be it for the Ten Commandments. We said we would each posit our own version of the text ala The Message. I look forward to hearing yours.

No comments: