Meaning in Morality (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The importance of the Ten Commandments in their ethical dimensions lies not in their uniqueness but in their universality.

Human beings are social creatures. Separated from their kind at birth, they never become human; yet living with others, they are often barbaric. The need for morality stems from this double fact. Nobody likes moral rules any more than they like stop lights or “no left turn” signs. But without moral constraints, human relations would become as snarled as traffic in the Chicago loop if everyone drove at will. 

Without moral constraints, human relations would become very snarled.

The Jewish formulation of “those wise restraints that make men free” is contained in her Law. We shall have occasion to note that this Law contains ritualistic as well as ethical prescriptions, but for the present we are concerned with the latter. According to the rabbinic view, the Hebrew Bible contains no less than 613 commandments that regulate human behavior. Four of these will suffice for our purposes: the four ethical precepts of the Ten Commandments, for it is through these that Hebraic morality has had its greatest impact. Appropriated by Christianity and Islam, the Ten Commandments constitute the moral foundation of most of the Western world. 

The Ten Commandments constitute the moral foundation of most of the Western world. 

There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble if they get out of hand: force, wealth, sex, and speech. On the animal level these are well contained. Two scarcely surface as problems at all. The spoken word does not, for animals cannot communicate enough to seriously deceive. Neither, really, does wealth, for to become a serious social problem the drive for possessions requires foresight and sustained greed at levels unknown in the animal kingdom. As for sex and force, they too pose no serious problems. Periodicity keeps sex from becoming obsessive, and inbuilt restraints hold violence in check. With the curious exception of ants, intraspecial warfare is seldom found. Where it has broken out, the species has usually destroyed itself. 

There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble are: force, wealth, sex, and speech.

With human beings things are different. Jealousies, hatreds, and revenge can lead to violence that, unless checked, rips communities to pieces. Murder instigates blood feuds that drag on indefinitely. Sex, if it violates certain restraints, can rouse passions so intense as to destroy entire communities. Similarly with theft and prevarication. We can imagine societies in which people do exactly as they please on these counts, but none have been found and anthropologists have now covered the globe. Apparently, if total permissiveness has ever been tried, its inventors have not survived for anthropologists to study. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, we encounter human constants. Parisians are cousins to Bongolanders; twentieth-century sophisticates are related to aborigines. All must contain their appetites if history is to continue. 

No societies has been found where people did exactly as they pleased on these counts. There has always been moral restraints.

What the Ten Commandments prescribe in these areas are the minimum standards that make collective life possible. In this sense the Ten Commandments are to the social order what the opening chapter of Genesis is to the natural order; without each there is only a formless void. Whereas Genesis structures (and thereby creates) the physical world, the Ten Commandments structure (and thereby make possible) a social world. Regarding force, they say in effect: You can bicker and fight, but killing within the in-group will not be permitted, for it instigates blood feuds that shred community. Therefore thou shalt not murder. Similarly with sex. You can be a rounder, flirtatious, even promiscuous, and though we do not commend such behavior, we will not get the law after you. But at one point we draw the line: Sexual indulgence of married persons outside the nuptial bond will not be allowed, for it rouses passions the community cannot tolerate. Therefore thou shalt not commit adultery. As for possessions, you may make your pile as large as you please and be shrewd and cunning in the enterprise. One thing, though, you may not do, and that is pilfer directly off someone else’s pile, for this outrages the sense of fair play and builds animosities that become ungovernable. Therefore thou shalt not steal. Finally, regarding the spoken word, you may dissemble and equivocate, but there is one time when we require that you tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If a dispute reaches such proportions as to be brought before a tribunal, on such occasions the judges must know what happened. If you lie then, while under oath to tell the truth, the penalty will be severe. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

What the Ten Commandments prescribe in these areas are the minimum standards that make collective life possible.

The importance of the Ten Commandments in their ethical dimensions lies not in their uniqueness but in their universality, not in their finality but in their foundational priority. They do not speak the final word on the topics they touch; they speak the words that must be spoken if other words are to follow. This is why, over three thousand years after Mount Sinai, they continue as the “moral esperanto” of the world. This led Heine to exclaim of the man who received them: “How tiny does Sinai appear when Moses stands upon it,” and the biblical writers to assert categorically, “There arose not in Israel [another] prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

The importance of the Ten Commandments in their ethical dimensions lies not in their uniqueness but in their universality, not in their finality but in their foundational priority.

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Comments

  • Chris Thompson  On October 5, 2022 at 4:32 AM

    There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble are: force, wealth, sex, and speech.

    I am wondering at the human condition of abject poverty and why Huston Smith has left it out of the discussion.

    For that matter, why is there no reference to poverty in The Ten Commandments?

    Furthermore, The Golden Rule is one more approach to these necessary human constraints that is conspicuously missing from this discussion. Possibly Huston Smith simply hasn’t gotten to it yet in the materials that Vinaire is quoting? Possibly it will still come up.

    The Golden Rule is unique in its self referencing frame. Possibly it is this uniqueness that make it golden. This self referencing quality deserves some discussion and understanding.

    • vinaire  On October 5, 2022 at 5:39 AM

      This is the beginning of the subject of HUMAN NATURE. It evolved as the civilization progressed.

      I am assuming that, in the beginning, poverty was not the issue among Jews. The disparity was mainly between the king/pharaoh and his subjects. Otherwise, the disparity between rich and poor among the Jews was probably not that great.

      • Chris Thompson  On October 5, 2022 at 8:39 AM

        Yes, we can say that there were 2 classes, King v people. But it may not be so simple. I do not think that human nature has evolved much or at all in recorded history. Having given this much thought. I have drawn my opinions from comparisons to the entire animal kingdom, and from the physical characteristics of objects. I think that human nature is an outgrowth of Nature in everything with little if any deviation.

        Human Nature is like climate whereas personalities are more like the weather. Human Nature is drawn as a Bell Curve with regard to the whole of humanity. Personalities fall mainly within the center but deviations always arise and be found away from the center and out toward the fringes. Genetics presents individuals as phenotypes and from this one can understand why particular phenotypes such as homosexuality do not “breed” themselves out of the genotype. This is not off-topic, rather it is an extrapolation from Human Nature as the overarching characteristics of mankind, which in my opinion are predictably outgrowths from all the animal kingdom.

        But what of mankind’s unique spiritual life? I am not a spiritual denier, I consider myself a spiritual understander.

        • vinaire  On October 5, 2022 at 9:14 AM

          The distinction between the rulers and the ruled was much simpler in the times of Moses than is now. It is the evolution of the circumstances in which the human nature finds itself.

          The first big disturbance took place at the beginning of industrialization where shift occurred from Kings to Bourgeois, and the subjects to proletariat. As a result Marxism came about.

          The second big disturbance is now at the beginning of the Information Age. The shift is from Bourgeois to big Tech Companies, and the proletariat to users of social media. As a result Trumpism has come about.

  • Chris Thompson  On October 5, 2022 at 5:01 AM

    The importance of the Ten Commandments in their ethical dimensions lies not in their uniqueness but in their universality, not in their finality but in their foundational priority.

    It is easy to see how our current culture is decaying through ignoring the lines drawn by these 10 laws. Moses must be twisting in his grave to see how degraded that our culture has become. Today’s society must appear as the Israelites appeared to Moses on his return to his clan after carving the first set of stone tablets.

    I wonder at something that is not written in the Old Testament about Moses’ anger and his breaking of that first set of commandments. I wonder if the second set of stone tablets were a needed expansion in scope from the first set? When I read the first four or possibly five commandments, and then compare them to the final six or five commandments, I can imagine them being an expanded afterthought and the reason why the story of Moses’ two trips up the mountain were necessary.

    • vinaire  On October 5, 2022 at 5:45 AM

      These Ten Commandments were developed by the ruled and not by the rulers. The elites seem to follow different set of “commandments”.

      Currently, our culture is evolving very fast, and that has its costs.

      • Chris Thompson  On October 5, 2022 at 8:21 AM

        Not sure why you write this. I don’t remember any reference, story or myth to support it. From the Torah, Moses chiseled what God directed him to write, and Moses ruled the Israelites. Maybe you know a different source.

        Yes, elite citizens seem to think that as they increase in wealth and power that they also graduate to greater free will with fewer stipulations.

        I don’t understand your last statement. Which costs are you referring to and do you mean they are deserved or inevitable?

        • vinaire  On October 5, 2022 at 8:47 AM

          Weren’t Jews under the captivity of Egyptians when Moses had his realization? This realization did not come to the Egyptians.

          In our current culture there are no distinct rulers and the ruled. The two classes are intricately mixed. So, there is a lot of confusion.

          Part of this confusion is that blacks are no longer “the ruled,” and whites are no longer “the rulers.” I am looking at this very broadly.

  • Chris Thompson  On October 5, 2022 at 8:52 AM

    Human beings are social creatures. Separated from their kind at birth, they never become human; yet living with others, they are often barbaric.

    This is a strong and I think a true comment about humans. We seem to never tire of comparing Nature and Nurture with the assumption that these two influences cover all the variables which derive a person.

    I am curious about these things. I am curious about mankind’s perpetual back-patting of ourselves for our wonderful! and unique! nature. I am curious if we are so very wonderful or unique. Never minding our very wrinkled brains, if it were not for our opposable thumbs, would mankind have ever become special?

    • vinaire  On October 5, 2022 at 2:46 PM

      We are wonderful and unique in the sense that our mental faculties are big jump from animals. But we have yet to learn to control these faculties and use them properly.

      The higher grade faculties actually become a curse when we do not know how to use them properly.

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