Friday, January 21, 2011

The Ten Commandments

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, contains the first of two renditions of the Big Ten that appear in the Torah.  (The other is in the Book of Deuteronomy.) 

For many, the Ten Commandments provide the foundation for a Jewish (and sometimes even Christian) definition of what constitutes an ethical life.  According to this view, the 10 are serious - worthy of our reflection as we seek to be good people in the world.  Some Christians imbue these words with so much significance that they actively seek to have the Ten Commandments displayed in public spaces: in the belief that the display will convince more people to follow them.

Now, when it comes to important parts of the Torah - the Jewish response is always commentary, commentary, commentary.  For thousands of years, our scholars and rabbis have turned this text inside and out, attempting to explain every nuance of its language and meaning.  One example of this approach can be found here.

But I'd prefer, today, to sample some more contemporary and creative responses to the Ten Commandments.

There are the requisite standard film editions:

Here's the last part of "The Prince of Egypt" - it's interesting how they used the giving of the 10 as a sort of epilogue on the story (whereas I always thought of the giving of the 10 in the Heston movie as THE POINT of the movie itself).

We also have the requisite parodies (from Mel Brooks' "History of the World Part 1" and satires (the foul-mouthed but hilarious George Carlin):

As we return to the realm of the serious, it's also worthwhile to point out a significant new commentary on the Ten Commandments that was just published by Moment Magazine. In Moment's current cover story, the magazine features a series of responses from prominent Americans about the contemporary relevance of the Big 10.

Is there a part of the Big 10 that really speaks to you? Or is it an outdated list that no longer speaks to the ethical challenges that confront us?

More to the point: what are the basic fundamental values or rules that guide the way you live?  Where do those rule derive their authority from?  From the Torah?  From American law?  From a philosopher who has reasoned them out and convinced you that it is worth following?

For all of the jokes that George Carlin or Mel Brooks might be inclined to make about these commandments, let's not be so quick to throw them out the window.  They might not always speak to us.  And we certainly don't always follow them.  But, for better or worse as Jews: this is the best we've come up with so far....the best attempt at summarizing the basic expectations that we have one another.  Until we come up with something better, maybe these 10 deserve another look.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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