João Zeferino da Costa - Moisés recebendo as tábuas da lei - 1868

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Introduction/Context:

I’ve decided to write a weekly blog post that provides a bit of commentary/interpretation of the week’s Torah Portion, partly for my learning but also because I want to contribute a little bit of my own perspective to the ongoing Jewish and Interfaith conversations about the week’s Torah portion.

In this first post, I did want to take a moment and share a bit of my own context (my life and experiences) as it will obviously affect my read of the text, but feel free to jump down to the actual commentary if you know me and don’t need/want this context.

I am a convert to Judaism (by way of the Society of Humanistic Judaism) who is a member of a Reform Jewish Temple, but I am also an Interfaith Minister who serves with the Oklahoma Objector Community (a small group of spiritually-minded peace activists).

My background growing up was Protestant Christian. I grew up in the acapella-only branch of the Churches of Christ, later being involved in charismatic non-denominational churches, before finally settling in a progressive Mennonite church, where I served in ministry for more than a decade, mostly with a focus on peace activism. I will always value what I learned as a Christian (particularly as it relates to the non-violent ethical teachings of Jesus) but these days I feel more at home in the progressive Jewish tradition.

Educationally, my bachelor’s degree was in Bible with a Christian ministry emphasis, but I later earned a law degree and a graduate-level Certificate of Theological Studies at a Mennonite seminary, so I bring all of these pieces (as well as my own self-study in Judaism) to this endeavor.

Finally I need to say that I approach these texts from a socialist perspective, (in that I see Torah as being largely a critique of the values of Empire, put into its current form by displaced people living in exile) but also from a humanist perspective (in that I think I think we need to read and interpret these texts with critical minds, focused on human needs). I strongly reject all forms of religious fundamentalism as being toxic.

The Text

My Commentary

For this post, I want to focus my attention on Deuteronomy 5, mostly because it contains the Decalogue (aka The Ten Commandments or the Ten Words).

The chapter begins with a look backward, a recounting of the time at Horeb (aka Mount Sinai), when the people of Israel had a direct encounter with the Divine, in which the Eternal One spoke to the people directly and entered into a covenant with the people, with the emphasis being that ALL of the people were present on this occasion.

Interestingly though, Moses goes on to say that, “It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today,” (Deut. 5:3) even though Moses is speaking to the second generation of the post-Exodus Israelites (of which most were not present themselves at Sinai), so it seems like Moses is speaking of a spiritual kind of presence at Sinai rather than a literal one, which I assume must be the basis for the ways that Jewish liturgy today speaks of us all, today, being present at the foot of Mount Sinai during the festival of Shavuot.

After this preface, we have the actual Decalogue itself, so I’m going to share a few observations about it.

1. One huge question immediately jumps out: how do we number this list?

The problem is that there is no easy answer. The text does not provide numbers or even a title (you won’t find “The Ten Commandments” as a title in the actual text), so different religious traditions over the millennia have made very different lists, with the traditional Jewish listing (in the Talmud) listing the first on the list as “I am the Lord your God…” (with most Christian lists seeing this as preface, and instead listing “You shall have no other gods before me” as the first).

2. With regards to the aim or direction of the teachings of the Decalogue, the first part focuses on vertical relationships (between God and the covenant people) with the second part focusing on horizontal relationships (between the people of the covenant and their neighbors as well as the strangers in their midst).

3. The Decalogue focuses very squarely on conduct rather than intentions, with only one of the commandments (the prohibition on coveting) being a purely mental commandment. This emphasis on orthopraxy (right action) is very Jewish.

4. I personally think the commandment to observe the Sabbath might be the most important of the teachings, in part because it gets quite a bit of ink (four verses) but mostly because Sabbath observance is a hallmark of Jewish identity (even when interpreted in many different ways). I also think that the social justice element of this commandment is central, as shown below:

... the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day. (Deut. 5:14-15).

This kind of thought and consideration for the rights of gerrim (residents aliens) as well as slaves was revolutionary for its time, particularly with the calls for the Israelites to remember their own days of slavery. Obviously, the text didn’t go far enough (because slavery is wrong) but it was planting the seeds for the eventual abolition of slavery in modern societies, in that there is no question that the text is reminding slave-owners of the fundamental humanity of those slaves.

5. The commandment to not covet is interesting to me, in that (if understood literally) it would seem to undermine the entire capitalist system, because it eliminates the role of envy in pushing us all towards greater consumption.

There is so much more that could be said about the Decalogue (and so many interesting questions to explore), but I think I will end this by saying that contrary to what many may think (particularly those who want to place ridiculous monuments to the Ten Commandments in government places), I think this text contains potent criticisms of our modern imperial capitalist society, in that greed and covetousness are very clearly depicted as vices not virtues, and that the rights of those on the bottom were lifted up.

More Resources

I have compiled a list of other resources at my website: Tango with Torah.