The Ten Commandments: Universal or Particular?

 The Ten Commandments—better translated from the Hebrew as “The Ten Statements”—are a bedrock of Western Civilization. They represent universal justice and ethics embodied in such mandates as not to murder or steal. We often read in the American press over struggles to remove the Ten Statements from courthouses to protect the separation of Church and State. The Ten Statements are often cited as the epitome of what has become known as “Judeo-Christian Civilization.” But under closer scrutiny, the themes of these laws presented to Moses seem to be less universal than we might think.

The key to the particularism of The Ten Statements is the first, in many ways a justification of establishing these laws. As translated in the Etz Hayim Chumash the first statement is “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other Gods besides Me.” This is a prologue to the rest of the statements. This prologue is not universal at all and actually established the statements on a particular event—God’s liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. The prohibition on having other Gods—the core of monotheism—is not represented as a universal statement but one embedded in the very drama of Jewish history. As well, the later statement prohibiting work on the Shabbat is a uniquely Israelite statement and is not universal.

This all brings into question the concept of “Judeo-Christian Civilization.” Jews in the ancient and medieval world certainly saw Christianity—and Islam—as false faiths and likely would find it very strange that Jewish and Christian faith rested on the same bedrock. In 1096, some Jews chose to kill themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert to Christianity by crusading peasants. Furthermore, the way Jews and Christians read the Hebrew Bible is radically different. For Jews, the Hebrew Bible is a history of the relationship between God and His Chosen People. While there are universal texts in the Hebrew Bible such as Jonah or Wisdom Literature, the core of the Tanakh for Jews is a covenant history and a saga of Jewish destiny. For believing Christians, the Hebrew Bible is an old Testament that is a harbinger of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. The two readings—Christian and Jewish—are radically different and actually clash with each other.

The concept of “Judeo-Christian Civilization” is a modern one. Jewish Reformers in Germany in the 19th century wanted to legitimize Judaism as “ethical monotheism” by downgrading Jewish ritual and have Judaism be seen as a faith that could stand on its own with Lutheranism. As German Jews struggled for Emancipation and citizenship, the need not to seem alien to the German Fatherland focused on a Judaism that would adapt to the Christian world. Ethics was one area where Reformers believed Jews and Christians could live and believe on a level playing field. What would never have been accepted in the ancient and medieval Jewish world, was presented as legitimate in the modern epoch.

In the United States, there were similar concerns among Jews concerning a shared heritage that they possessed with all Americans. The Founding Fathers and Christian pastors and ministers in the colonial period and the early years of America often cited Hebrew Scripture in their vision for shaping the nation. American Jews, as well, wanted to have a secure place in American society where religion would not be a barrier to integration. Again, the focus for Jews was not on ritual but on ethics, including and highlighting the Ten Statements. Today, Jews and Christians are battling to curb the influence of Islamic law on American civil law and defend the nation against the call for Islamic jihad terrorism—so the theme of a united “Judeo-Christian Civilization” fits well into that struggle to keep America safe and free.

While ethics do unite Jews and Christians in the story of Western Civilization, we should not blind ourselves to the reality that Judaism and Christianity are different faiths with opposing views of reading the Bible. And certainly, ritual is one area where it is difficult to speak of a melding of civilizations. Even the preamble of the Ten Statements is particular and deals with the relationship between God and Israel alone. The statements do not present themselves as the bedrock of universal ethics and were not considered so by Jews till the modern epoch. Monotheism, in the Jewish worldview, is embedded in the relationship between God and Israel and not in the universal and the generic.