The Ten Commandments

In a 1996 lecture on Exodus 20, Dennis Prager says: It’s called The Ten Words. The Ten Commandments is an English or Christian statement. The Hebrew Bible does not call this the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue is the Greek for ten words.

The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is brand new.

The second uniqueness is that it regulates the internal life of the recipient of the covenant, not just how you treat the suzerain.

These norms of covenant are expressions of divine will. That the God of the universe is behind these commandments is unique.

God creates order in Genesis…and again with these commandments.

From this day forth, there will be a center of reference, a line of conduct… This is a second act of creation. A separation of chaos from order.

The undoing of Judeo-Christian civilization is the resumption of chaos. One example is androgyny. To the Biblical mind, androgyny is chaos. Male is male and female is female. That is order.

That’s why there is a law against men wearing women’s clothing.

Creation is not merely creation. It is creating order. We’re creating social order out of chaos with the giving of the Law.

The ultimate chaos is moral chaos where there is no right and wrong.

Why were the Ten Commandments not given in the land of Israel? You’d think the Israelites would get their new code in the Promised Land where they are going to practice it.

This is to be practiced around the world. If it had been given in Israel, Jews outside of Israel would not have felt obligated to keep it. Who feels obligated to keep French law outside of France or American law outside of America?

This shows the Torah’s universal concern. The law is not confined to a land. It is understood it will be practiced around the world.

The law is given in the desert. Everybody owns the desert. Therefore, there’s an implication that not only is it given so that Jews will practice it anywhere, but that anyone can practice it. It is given to the Jews as a group but it is given to the world geographically. It might as well have been given on the moon.

* The Jews are defined by a code of law, not by race, ethnicity or geography. This is unheard of. You can not become an American living in another country. You can become a member of the Jewish people anywhere in the world. It’s the one group where admittance is by birth or naturalization.

The Ten Commandments is a formulation of those conditions required for membership in the community. One who does not hold to these imperatives excludes himself from the community of believers.

* It’s the only time in the Torah that God speaks to nobody.

* The Ten Commandments are formulated in basically negative terms.

* Allen Estrin and I have produced three films (about goodness, character and diversity) for a company headed by two Christians. The videos are on ethics. We had such a big debate on the character film. We kept couching the ideas of character on what you shouldn’t do. And they kept saying, no, you should keep telling people what you should do to be good. And we kept saying, no, if people will just desist from doing bad things, the world will be terrific. It was a classic Jewish-Christian debate.

As Hillel stated the most important principle of Judaism, that which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the way Jews think.

It’s a fascinating issue. Do you get a better world by telling people what they should not do or by telling people what they should do?

If people refrained from doing bad things, the world would be heavenly. There would be no crime.

What positive commandment can I give that will in any way equal in its impact do not murder?

“Revere life.” That’s a platitude. It’s not an action.

All codes of behavior are overwhelmingly don’t. To say “Drive safely” is a platitude but it doesn’t tell me what to do. To know how to behave, I have to know no.

As a parent, it kills me to see how often I say to my kid no, especially when they are very young. You don’t want to bury them under an avalanche of nos, you want to affirm that all right, you can beat up that kid today. Something has to be yes.

If you want to raise a good child, you tell him you cannot cross the street. What would you say that was positive? Be careful. That’s ludicrous.

* There are no abstract moral principles in the Ten Commandments, like be careful, love your neighbor as yourself, treat others as you would like to be treated. Do you know why? Because it doesn’t work. To do the right thing, you need specifics. From left to right in this country, people think they are doing the right thing. The only way to tell if they are doing the wrong thing is by specific behaviors.

Let’s say you’re studying piano and I’m your teacher and I tell you to play with your heart. If you do not have technique, it’s worthless. If you can’t do a D-major scale, your heart is pointless. You have to know the right behaviors.

There is in the human being an antinomianism — a hostility to law. We like platitudes. People talk about compassion and rights, but they don’t mean anything. What is the specific behavior? Then I can judge if it is compassionate and if rights are important.

Who’s against goodness and compassion? Did Hitler say he was pro-evil? Never. He was idealistic. Ideals are good but not enough. If the world lived by the Ten Commandments, I wouldn’t care what ideals they had.

I want to be disgusting, mean and miserable but I live by the Ten Commandments! Fine by me. Much better than someone saying I don’t need the Ten Commandments, but I want to be a fine kind human being.

* The Reform Jews say we are for loving the stranger and loving your neighbor and pursuing justice. The Orthodox response is — we are for not writing on the Sabbath, not eating this food.

It is the classic debate between the person of principles and the person of law. I am on the side of law. Principles without law are worthless. They are platitudes for doing nothing or for doing the wrong thing (like communism which built the gulag in the name of beautiful principles).

* The Hebrew word for faith, emunah, occurs once in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, and it describes God’s faith, not humans’ faith in God.

Faith in God is not part of Judaism’s vocabulary.

Judaism and the Torah don’t expect you to take God on faith. They expect you to believe because God did things. Because it is logical.

The leap of faith is a Christian idea, not a Jewish one. In Judaism, it is a leap of knowledge.

For ten years, I moderated Religion on the Line. There was one particular pastor who cracked me up. He was a very simple man.

Somebody would call up and say, I can’t believe in Jesus.

And every time the pastor was on, he’d say, Did you ever see George Washington?

The caller would go no. The pastor would say, how do you know he existed? How do you know he was first president?

His answer was that I know Jesus saved mankind the same way you know George Washington was the first president.

Not a compelling argument in my opinion. You have to be a Christian to believe that Jesus is the Christ. You don’t have to be American to believe that George Washington was the first president. It’s not a matter of faith with George Washington. But with all the non-compelling nature, Judaism holds almost exactly like this pastor does. I’ve heard this from some Orthodox rabbis.

I don’t believe that God took the Jews out of Egypt. It was handed down to me. That is a typical traditional Jewish response.

I’m not saying this convinces anybody.

* Hitler believed in God. Terrorists who blow up innocents believe in God. Prager believes in God. “I believe in God” is a meaningless phrase and that’s why Judaism doesn’t talk about it.

I know nothing more about you when I hear you believe in God. What I need to know is what do you mean?

Imagine if the pollsters asked, do you know God?

Everybody associates religion with faith and you don’t find the word “faith [in the existence God]” in the Torah. The Torah is about what God wants, not what you believe, because it doesn’t matter that you believe in God.

I believe there is a creator God but not as a matter of faith, but rather as a matter of logic.

Even God has to do something to earn our obedience.

Judaism is filled with non-entitlements. You are not even entitled to Heaven, which is a classic Christian rebuke to Judaism. We know we’re going to Heaven. Do you? No. I have to earn my way every day.

God says you repay me by doing good things for each other.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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