There’s an oft-used exercise in religious school and other learning settings in which students/participants are invited by the instructor to “write their own ten commandments.” A number of teachers I know use this exercise to develop their class rules at the beginning of the school year. Rarely, if ever, have I seen this exercise used when the aseret hadibrot, the biblical ten commandments, were not taken as a given, with the intent being to create supplemental commandments.
What if such an exercise really intended to start from scratch? A possibly blasphemous thought, yet one no doubt considered by many throughout the ages. I somehow doubt that it is only the (supposed) freedom of intellectual thought that came with modernity and enlightenment which emboldens us to consider an alternative set of ten.
After all, the rabbis went to great lengths to insure that these ten commandments were of no greater or lesser import than any of the mitzvot (commandments.) Eventually, regular recitation of these ten commandments was expunged from the siddur (although now Artscroll has saw fit to put it back in the previous decade.) If no single mitzvah (commandment) is more important than any other, then we should be able to construct another set of ten from any of them. Of course, now we have a rather large number of mitzvot that, in the absence of Holy Temple and the sacrificial cult, cannot be observed. Yet, even leaving those out, we have a rather lengthy list from which to choose our own top ten.
One can choose to make the argument that all the other mitzvot except these ten are known only through rabbinic Judaism, though from a traditional point of view, they would be part of the the oral Torah that was received at Sinai along with the written Torah. Of course, the rabbis and scholars can’t even agree on all 613 mitzvot – not everyone is fully in step with the Rambam’s (Maimonides) definitive list.
Browsing through a list of all 613 mitzvot, it’s not hard to find other candidates for inclusion in the “top ten list.” In our deliberations, we might keep in mind that are plenty of human beings on this planet who pretty much use only “the” ten commandments as their guideposts for living (albeit far too many more often in the breech than in observing), so we must ask “are any ten we choose” sufficient to create a sustainable and civil society? (I, for one, don’t really think it’s possible. And of course there are those who want to winnow it down further. “Al shlosha d’varim,” on three things the world stands, we are taught. Of course, the prophets and sages disagree on which three. And Hillel taught that all the Torah was merely commentary on his version of the so-called “golden rule” (given by Hillel in a negative format, and by Christian tradition, in a positive format. It’s always important to remember the last part of Hillel’s answer: that we one must now “go and learn/study it”-referring to Torah.)
Despite my personal thesis that one is certainly inadequate, as are three, and as are ten, I’m still interested in the exercise. So which ten might I choose? Which ten might you choose.
Whiel I’m on the subject, and before I forget, I do want to recommend “not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor” as a strong candidate for being one of the big ten, along with “love your neighbor as yourself.”
And now we can add another wrinkle.
Let’s no longer limit ourselves to just the 613 miztvot identified in the Torah. What else might we include? Just in the Jewish literature along we can find many worthy ideas. The prophets had many. Job and Qohelet, Psalms, and Proverbs. Then the mishnaic and talmudic literature. Pirke Avot, in particular provides lots of possibilities.
Step outside the bounds of Judaism, and the world is our oyster. From the ancient Greek Philosophers, Shakespeare, Rumi, and so many, many more. I’d be remiss if I excluded the Christian’s New Testament and the Quran, the Ghitas, Lao-Tzu, and the writings of every religious faith.
Thousands of pithy aphorisms come to mind. Take your pick. “All I ever need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” “Wherever you go, there you are.” “Out of the nowhere and into the here.” “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” “Where’s the beef?” “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” “Always look on the bright side of life” or “No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.” Today’s pop songs are replete with all sorts of pithy content. Or we can turn to Broadway. Because I knew you I have been changed for good.” “The internet is for porn.” Not all great pearls of wisdom. On the other hand, consider this gem from South Pacific “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…” Or this from Damn Yankees: “A man doesn’t know what he has until he loses it.” Broadway knows how to do pithy.)
Now, many of these are, admittedly, trite, and at least some largely unworthy of consideration. Yet every day people by the millions post pithy little memes on Facebook. Bible quotes. Rumi. Maya Angelou. Gandhi. MLK. JFK. Oprah. Ellen. Colbert. (When I originally wrote this in 2006, I referred instead to people buying little books, posters, or chatchkas emblazoned with concise, supposedly insightful sayings.) These days, I suspect more people value “Who Moved My Cheese,” “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” or even “The Wit and Wisdom of Seinfeld” as much or more than the sacred texts of any religious faith. (We’ll take just a second to remind everyone just how many of these “modern” ideas actually can be found in Torah.)
As silly as some of these seem as candidates for replacements to the “big ten,” let’s also remember that we have this first commandment that doesn’t really sound like a commandment at all. “I am the L”rd your G”d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Of course, it all depends on how you divide up the verses and the create the first few commandments. And even on this, there is no agreement!
If you search the internet you’ll find plenty of atheist reframings of the ten commandments. They can be a fascinating read.
So, let’s have our little exercise. Choose which ten you might make your “top ten” commandments. You can decide for yourself whether to restrict the pool to only the other mitzvot, or expand to include whatever you think fits. I’d be curious with what people might come up with, so don’t hesitate to email me your list after Shabbat.
Looking for a concise list of all 613 mitzvot. Try this one: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm
I’ll go through the exercise myself, even though, truth be told, I think my first commandment might be:
“Life is complicated. You can’t distill the essence of what any human being needs to know and to do down into a top ten list, or a top three list, or even a single golden rule. Therefore this commandment is inherently oxymoronic.”
Now, being gadfly I am, I am sorely tempted to add “and I’m not sure you can distill it down at all.” However, my faith compels me to keep trying to “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” I am always amazed at the wisdom one can find in the many writings of our tradition. And even better-if it truly turns out that everything is indeed in it, then I will know that these truly are words received from G”d, whether directly, through intermediaries, or inspiration. For only G”d could make that possible.
©2016 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Yitro 5774 – The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revisted and Revised)
Yitro 5773 – From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 – Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 – Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 – Special Effects
Yitro 5769 – Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B’Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad”nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments