The Lord revealed the laws of the covenant to his chosen people. You shall not have gay sex with another man! You shall not paint Mohammed! …Hm, maybe I should have a second look at what Torah says.
But why? Why are the rules to live by revealed? And what if the ten commandments don’t include the taboos of our time? Is it okay to call somebody the n-word? If it’s not included in the Torah there is something seriously wrong with this old swagger. In my righteousness I’m prepared to call the thing a racist, Nazi book if it does not condemn Holocaust denial.
So maybe we step back a little. The ten commandments address a similar situation to our own. A set of morals predated them. But where did those come from? The discussion that the ten commandments open is the discussion on ethics.
I borrow this terminology from the field of philosophy. From an etymological point of view the words “morals” and “ethics” have roots that mean the very same thing, namely habits. In the philosophical discourse, however, the word “ethics” has come to mean asking WHY we believe that this or that principle or rule is good, i.e. conducive to the public as a whole. Morals are the set of rules by which we judge whether somebody or some action is good. People look at their peer group, think they know what’s right and wrong and hate those who disagree. Morals are enforced with whip and sugar and most people are happy to engage in the enforcement process. In times of moral decline when good morals are replaced with bad habits and questionable criteria, majorities form roaming mobs. Sociologists call this a “moral panic.” It is colloquially referred to as witch hunts and manifests itself at the moment as “political correctness.”
Obviously some of the morals that are right today (e.g. taking issue with Holocaust denial) could not be addressed before. Other morals have lost their purpose. Some morals never had a point.
Where do pointless morals come from? Outrage culture produces them. They are made and upheld because people are shamed publicly. This can be the result of a power play. A person gets in the crosshairs of the power elites and is harmed by them. A cheap excuse follows and the power players nod to a random behavior of the person. Unsuspicious people just notice the seriousness of the overall mood and accept that the called out behavior is indeed bad although they wouldn’t have recognized it as bad before the outrage. This is a very common behavior and protects people from getting ostracised themselves. They will then enforce a punishment for the same behavior in future. (More in my article on Moses)
The Ten Commandments were an early attempt to cut through the wilderness of sound morals, obsolete morals and faux morals. This is not the standard Jewish reading. The Ten Commandments were revealed to the chosen people. This introduction was necessary because you need authority to present guidelines if you don’t rely on outrage mobs. Many people cannot reason morals and only take on a rulebook because of one (or both) of the two mentioned forces. This is why we must also refer to human rights or to the US constitution in public debates because they are accepted as an authority. Why the texts are right is a discussion too difficult for a wider audience. Still, I believe an explanation must come with rules in a second step and there are many Americans (and it pains me to say that I rarely see non-Americans do it) who explain why core values are conducive to the public good.
Now, the Ten Commandments, shortened – to add some commentary.
You shall have no other gods!
One thing that makes Judaism stand out is that worship of him is special. There are other monotheist religions (e.g. Zoroastrism), but the exclusivity is unique (I leave the offshot Islam aside). Judaism is based on a covenant, on practical rules, on a very specific deal. Unlike faith-based religions like Islam or Christianity, Judaism does not judge people on what they think. You can believe that other gods exist, but you are asked to only worship the Lord.
You shall not make an image of G-d!
If you don’t want that people constantly try to disprove what is a hard to grasp spiritual being, a priest working on that cow-chicken-lion-hybrid statue does not help. It will not represent anything in the local woods and might burn down with the next fire. Still, I’m a bit lax on this one. Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann once said, “A man sees G-d as a man and a donkey sees G-d as a donkey.” I think both are right. We are made in his image and some sort of mental representation helps to identify with him. We just should recognize that our image of his is subjective and does not represent the Lord in an objective way. Nonetheless, I might add my argument for G-d having a schlong: I believe in forgiveness.
You shall not use his name in vain!
This “in vain” bit deserves way more credit. The original idea was to avert a theocracy. If you speak in the name of G-d, you better be sure that you represent his will. It was about curtailing abuse. Torah does use the name of the Lord. There are even two: El/Elohim אלאֱלֹהִים/ (like “god” with a small g) and YHWH יהוה. Because the idea not to use his name in vain has been overstretched and become an obsession, the pronunciation of YHWH has gone lost. It is possible that the two names were the reason why people started to avoid using any name, making it a sanctuary. When reading Torah we replace the names with Adonai אֲדֹנָי (Lord) or stricter Hashem השם (the one who must not be named – like Voldemort). I would suggest also to remember not to speak in representation of the Lord with ill intentions no matter in what terms (See also: You shall not lie!).
Keep the Sabbath!
I think this started as a working rights issue. Torah emphasizes that slaves, animals and strangers shall also lay down their work for one day a week. Today, it gives us rhythm, traditions and time for spiritual reflections.
Honor father and mother!
And by extension also honor the elderly and ancestry! Successful cultures have always known this. The wisdom preceding you is always more and better tested than what you can accrue in the time frame of your existence. The entire idea of culture is based on this. I could get political again. What culture does is to remember mistakes. This is why evolution is so much slower than culture. In nature a mistake is culled out, but the other members of a species would not remember why one failed and died. So love your parents…and listen to them! They made all the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
You shall not murder!
Very often falsely translated with “You shall not kill!” Check out my article on pacifism.
Do not commit adultery!
As free love and sexual revolution ravaged Western nations we saw morals and families break apart with enormous speed. Children don’t see their fathers. Over-challenged single mothers become dependent on welfare programs. This can be averted. Commit to one partner, be faithful to him and get your act together!
You shall not steal!
Of course, this commandment comes with a subclause to ensure that the capitalist class and South African farmers can be expropriated to advance the communist revolution. Ooops. Sorry, I had a second look. It just says “not steal” and goes on with the next commandment.
You shall not give false testimony against thy neighbour!
If you don’t want people to get riled up for a bloody conflict, you better stay honest. Important decisions, particularly those that decide life and death, rely on clean information. We let our media and politicians get away with far too much dishonesty. I’m partisan about what political side does it more often, but I will give a brief example of two lies in American politics, one from each major party. 1) Madonna did not advocate to burn down the White House. There was an important “but” that was habitually edited out. 2) It is not an abuse to grab groupies by their pussies. “They let you do it.” (D. Trump on infamous tape).
You shall not desire what is your neighbours’!
I think this is about focussing on your own lot and to incrementally improve your situation. Your neighbour’s house does not matter unless you can learn from him how you get one.
The reading that the ten commandments were lifted out of a large set of rules is not always accepted. Many argue that the Lord did not only hand the commandments but the entire Torah to Moses. Today the most formal understanding is that not only the written Torah was revealed to Moses, but also all the habits. In the third century CE the details of the rites and habits, the oral Torah, were compiled in the Mishnah מִשְׁנָה. The discussion about both written and oral Torah is the Talmud תַּלְמוּד. The centrality of the ten commandments reflects that the struggle between traditionalism and liberation is almost as old as mankind itself.