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The Ten WHAT?!!: The Truth About the "Ten Commandments"

Gershon Winkler

The Ten Commandments comprise a sadly misunderstood and misinterpreted body
of ancient Jewish rules-to-live-by, twisted out of context by religious
cultures unfamiliar with the original Hebraic language and cosmology that
originally inspired it.

Ever since the Hebrew scriptures were translated from Hebrew to Greek to
Latin and finally into English, the ancient Decalogue of the Hebrews has
been a household word across the western cultural map. More recently, the
media have given The Ten Commandments further exposure when Cecil B.
DeMille titled his biblical epic "The Ten Commandments", and, when of late,
they aroused controversy surrounding the issue of separation of Church and
State in the case of a county judge who refused to remove them from the
front lawn of his court house. Ironically, the Ten Commandments remained
the stalwart of a European Christian culture that in all other respects was
founded upon an agenda of superceding the very scriptures that contained the
Ten Commandments: the Hebrew Scriptures, otherwise derogatorily known as the
"Old" Testament.

I would like to discuss here some of the original meaning and intent of
this popularly known but sorely misunderstood body of ancient Jewish laws.
For example, nowhere in the Decalogue does it state "Thou shalt not kill".
Rather, the Hebrew writ reads: "You will not murder" (Exodus 20:13). The
"thou shalt not", or "you may not", is an incorrect rendering of what more
accurately reads "you will not", implying that if one observes the
instructions of the first five "commandments" one will not be prone to
committing murder, sexual abuse, theft, slander, etc. After all, the Hebrew
ancestors did not need to be commanded not to murder or steal or slander as
if they were a nation of idiots oblivious to simple, basic morality. It
would otherwise be akin to an American law prohibiting the wanton slaughter
of fellow humans or the random trashing of parked vehicles. The laws in the
Ten Commandments were mostly duplicates of laws already in force and
articulated earlier in the Torah. They were laws long ago transmitted
to Abraham from his teacher Eber who received them from his father Shem
(a/k/a Malkitzedek) who in turn received them from his father Noah, the
famed hero of the Great Flood. They are repeated here in the new context
of relationship with the Creator as opposed to their original context of
mortal legal injunction. Thus, the first several "commandments" are about
the relationship between humans and God, while the last five are about
the relationship between humans and each other. The intention here is to
predicate one upon the other, rather than foster a sense of morality
shadowed by societal legislation alone.

"Noachian Law had been secured by the external safeguard of severe
punishment (Talmud, Baba Kama 38a), which nevertheless proved insufficient
(Talmud, Avot 3:5). Now these external safeguards were to be replaced by
the internal restraints provided by the chuqim of the Torah, laws which
make awareness of God a reality in human life [and a determinant factor in
wholesome human behavior]." - Philip Biberfeld: Universal Jewish History
[Feldheim, 1980], Vol. 4, p. 79

The first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3) is another example of a
misreading. It does not read: "Thou shalt have no other gods besides Me
[or before Me]", as it is usually translated; rather it reads: "You shall
have no other gods upon My face", meaning we ought to appropriate onto God
neither definition nor image, presuming to know what God is all about. As
God is described as saying in the Hebraic scriptural book of Isaiah the
Prophet: "'My thoughts are not like your thoughts, and My ways are not like
your ways', declares Infinite One. 'For as high as heavens are from earth,
so high are My ways from your ways, and My thoughts from your thoughts"
(Isaiah 55:8-9). Even the word God is a mistranslation of the Hebrew term
used: elo'heem, which is a plural word meaning literally All Powers
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1), and is used also to describe humans
who wield powers such as mortal judges (Exodus 21:6) and persons of high
spiritual standing, or angels (Psalm 82:6).

Where the customary rendition of the Ten Commandments describes a "God
of Vengeance" (Exodus 20:5) the Hebraic reading describes a God who is
master over vengeance, meaning is - on the contrary - a God who is not
subject to the human emotional reactions such as revenge and grudges:
It is written: "God is a God of vengeance and anger" [Nachum 1:2]. Said
Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi: "A mortal is overcome by vengeance and anger, but
the Holy Blessed One overcomes vengeance and anger, for it is red this
way - 'God is lord over vengeance and anger.'" It is written: "God is
a God of jealousy and vengeance" [Nachum 1:2]. Said Rabbi Natan: "Only
a mortal succumbs to jealousy and vengeance, but the Holy Blessed One
overcomes jealousy and vengeance, for it is red this way - 'God is lord
over jealousy and vengeance.'" - Midrash Tehilim 94:1
The commandment against adultery is another example, for in the Hebraic
language the wording is lo' tin'af - meaning "You will not commit sexual
abuse" as mentioned above. The implication extends to any wrong use of
one's sexual impulse. What exactly constitutes "wrong use" is relative to
one's belief system. In Jewish law, for example, a married man having sex
with a woman who is not married to anyone else does not constitute
adultery. {Scott note: it constitutes bigamy.} Conversely, a single woman
having sex with a married man does not constitute adultery. {No, marriage
as his
second wife.} Nonmarital sex, or premarital sex is not a prohibition in
Judaism whereas it is in Christianity. {More correctly, these are logical
impossibilities.} The prohibition extends beyond adultery and includes
incest. What constitutes incest, however, is relative again to one's belief
system. In Jewish law, sex with your child or parent is a severe crime, but
is allowed with your uncle or niece or cousin. Sex between siblings,
however, while forbidden, is not criminal. Rape in Judaism extends as well
to a man forcing his legally married wife, something still not illegal in
half the country. The extension also touches upon the issues of other
sexual situations such as homosexuality. While Christianity forbade all
homosexual activity, Judaism forbade only male homosexual acts, and even
then, only sodomy. Lesbianism was never forbidden in Jewish law, nor were
male homosexual acts short of sodomy. While the ancient rabbis considered
them lewd acts, nonetheless - as they aptly put it - "Since when did the
Torah forbid lewdness?" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 54a-56a; Yevamot, 55b, 76a;
Maimonides' Pirush ahl ha'mish'nayot, on Sanhedrin, Ch. 7).

Each of the commandments of the Decalogue, then, are rich with contextual
meanings and implications within and beyond the literal wording, and were
never understood by the people with whom they originated more than 3,000
years ago as some kind of curt and dry list of supposedly "golden rules".
Nor were they understood as some kind of dogma, the fulfillment of which
would bring rich rewards, and the violation of which would bring tragic
consequences. {Kabbalah differs somewhat on this.} As the famed philosopher
Martin Buber put it:

"One who rejects God is not struck down by lightning; one who elects God
does not find hidden treasures. Everything seems to remain just as it was.
Obviously, God does not wish to dispense either medals or prison sentences"
[from Literarische Welt, published in June 7, 1929, and "What Are We to Do
About the Ten Commandments?" published in Israel and the World, p. 85]

Finally, and most importantly, nowhere in the "Old" Testament or in
the entire Hebrew tradition are they called the "Ten Commandments".
Rather, in the Hebrew they are always referred to as Asseret Ha'dib'rot,
meaning literally: "ten of the resonances", meaning ten important
aphorisms out of all the hundreds of others recorded in the Torah.
They are also referred to as sh'nay lu'cho't ha'b'rit, meaning
literally: "two tablets of the covenant". In the classical Jewish
mystical writ known as the Zohar, they are called the ten "suggestions"
(Sefer Ha'Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 82b).

The rendering of "commandment" typically originates in a mindset that was
and remains unfamiliar with the Jewish vernacular and the ideology that
birthed it. It is an interpretation chosen by those unfamiliar with Judaism
who presume that the Hebrew Scriptures, or the "Old" Testament, is all
about laws, commandments, mandates, burdens of which Paul - the founder of
Christianity as we know it - claimed to have freed the followers of his
newfound religion. {This is a rather presumptive interpretation, though
extant versions, which don't clearly differentiate "Torah" (instruction)
and "fences", suggest that to some extent.} Accordingly, Torah was and
continues to be customarily translated as "The Law" when the word torah
really translates as "Guide", no differently than horah translates as
Parent and morah as Teacher. To the Jewish people, then, the Torah was
never burdensome and in fact fostered in them a potent sense of freedom,
which, in turn, has rendered them most prominent, in proportion to the
world population, in struggles for civil liberties. In fact, the very
revelatory experience that birthed the Ten Commandments in the first place
was preceded by the people's expression of personal freedom, of personal
choice (Exodus 19:8; see also 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki on
Exodus 21:6).