by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Senior Rabbi
, Tucson, Arizona, and host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show” with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends
When I was a child my father tried very hard to get me to memorize certain central passages in Jewish tradition, believing that they would become a more important part of my education and identity if they were learned
, by heart.
The first of these, naturally, was the
, which I learned very young, as so many Jewish children have throughout history. Other important passages followed. Some were from Tanakh, some from Mishnah, some from liturgy. My ability to memorize has always been a little shaky; I even tend to forget lyrics of favorite songs. But I learned many passages by heart. And that early memorization created a base of knowledge that, as my dad intended, has served me very well over the years.
However, on one text I failed dismally. When I was nine years old my father tried to get me memorize the
, the Ten Commandments, in Hebrew and English. It was a logical assignment, for these are indeed
, spoken declarations, and putting them into memory permanently so they could be spoken at any time made sense.
I struggled with this assignment, for some reason, and so he eventually upped the ante: if I successfully memorized the Ten Commandments I would get to go to the L.A. Coliseum to see the up-and-coming L.A. Rams football team play the New York Jets, then the defending Super Bowl Champions, featuring star quarterback Joe Namath.
This was quite a bribe for a sports-obsessed boy of 9. And yet, in spite of that major inducement, I just couldn’t memorize the
. The first of the statements,
Anochi Adonai Elohechah
came easily. But the second commandment,
Lo yihiyeh lecha Elohim acheirim
was a nightmare, with its elaborate delineation of just how we are not to worship idols and what constitutes “other gods” and their “images.” I never did get the second commandment by heart. And somehow the passage about Shabbat kept getting confused in my mind with both the
section from Genesis that precedes each week’s Shabbat Kiddush and the
prayer from the Friday night service and Saturday’s Kiddush. Perhaps it was my focus on the
cookies that distracted me there.
I really tried to memorize the Ten Commandments. I copied them out in pencil in Hebrew and English, recited them repeatedly, made and used flash cards, all to no avail. I just could not get all Ten Statements by heart.
My dad was a caring but consistent father. We never did go to that game, and I learned an early, painful lesson about the consequences of failure. Somehow, when I found out that my Rams lost that game to the Jets I felt personally responsible. If only I had memorized the Ten Commandments we would have gone and surely my team would have won…
Over time I have come to realize that the Ten Commandments are a challenge for more than my nine year old self. Whether we have them by heart or not — and I strongly suspect most of us liberal Jews don’t — these Ten Statements, that are supposed to be the only words God ever spoke directly to our people unmediated, are not really at the heart of our Judaism. To a degree, this has been true traditionally throughout history. The
are not part of the regular liturgy in any Jewish
, are absent from most prayerbooks, and ChaZaL, the Talmudic rabbis, regularly explain that there are not 10 but 613 Commandments. No matter how many Torah breastplates we fashion in the image of the tablets, there exists a certain ambivalence about the centrality of the primary revelation even in our classical legal tradition, even among Orthodox Jews.
But this difficulty with the Ten Commandments is particularly true of progressive and liberal Jews. In point of fact, we have trouble with many of the Ten, and struggle to find relevant ways to observe them. Nearly every commandment brings with it a problem, even the most positively phrased. What does it mean to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” if we spend most of it working? I recall attending the URJ Biennial convention in Toronto and hearing Rabbi Eric Yoffie thank the delegates at services for celebrating a non-wired Shabbat, free of iPhones and Blackberries. His remarks were immediately posted on Facebook by many of the delegates using the same smartphones they were supposed to have put away for the Sabbath.
Nearly all of the commandments have complications. How are we to suitably honor our fathers and mothers if they are challenging people? Not murdering or stealing seems clear enough, but how can we possibly avoid being jealous of our neighbor’s better job or nicer car? And don’t we take God’s name in vain all the time without apparent repercussions?
I believe that the commandment Reform, Liberal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Progressive, and other non-Orthodox Jews have the gravest difficulty observing among is actually the first one. It is the simple statement that there is a God who commands us at all.
Classically this first statement, which contains no commandment at all, has been considered by Christians to be a kind of preamble to the Ten Commandments, and doesn’t even receive a number. But we Jews have always insisted on viewing it as a unique and critical statement. Why?
Because as logical as the
may seem as some sort of declaration of ethics, if we do not accept the existence of a
, a commander, they essentially lose their power. With no
, no commander, there is no
, no recipient, of the command—and in practical terms no real mitzvot, no commandments to be kept at all.
In philosophical terms, the warrant for the authority of the Ten Commandments is in this simple statement: God exists, acts, and commands. It is why they are not called the Ten Suggestions. Or the Ten Recommendations. Or the Ten Nice Ideas if You Can Manage Them.
For it is only when we accept the existence of God, when we diminish our own elaborate sense of self, that we are able to partner with God to create a moral world. Only when we engage with the Commander do we find the Commandments.
In spite of all the difficulties we have with the Ten Commandments, including our objection to their placement on the walls of courtrooms and classrooms, they remain central to our culture — and if we are to be Jews, and holy, they must remain so.
It is up to us, on this week of Parshat Yitro, to find for ourselves the One who commanded them, however we conceive of the Holy One, and to accept our role as recipients of ethical commandments. When we choose to do so we will find that then we can be moral beings, we can shape this world in good ways, and we can observe the Ten Commandments, just as they were intended to be observed: by heart.