Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Fate of the Ten Commandments

Sometimes in Western Societies, people like to think that morality is somehwat transcribed by the Ten Commandments. There is an impression that in broad terms civilised cultures accord with this classic of the Judeo-Christian tradition. (I have serious issues with that phrase, but for this argument, it works.)

So this week, as we read the Ten Commandments, I began to wonder which of the Ten Commandments is the least kept in contemporary society... and I am thinking in the broadest of senses.

So let us begin from the top. 1. Belief in God - At some level we could claim that society still believes in a God. Yes there is widespread atheism and skepticism, and yet "In God we trust" - polls during the '90s and '00s suggest that over 90% of Americans believe in God. So do a widespread majority of Israelis.

As for idolatry in the classic sense, it is all but absent in Western Society.
The topic of Blasphemy may have been raised with the Salman Rushdie scandal and also those Islamic cartoons in the Van Gogh incident. There is definitely a tension between free speech or artistic expression on the one hand, and religious views on the other. And yet good civilised society does attempt to be respectful to religion.

The Sabbath? well - Western society has embraced the notion of a weekend and it is encoded in many labour laws.

Parental Respect we shall return to.

Society subscribes to Thou shall not Kill , Steal, bear False Witness, in a broad sense.

And so now we come to the problem ones! I think that contemporary society has given 3 of the Ten Commandments a really raw deal. [Let me add that it is modern society in particular that has developed these problems. There were other problems 100 years ago, but these 3 were upkept in general society then.]

First, adultery. On the books we still accept fidelity in marriage. However, we all know that marriage has seriously been hit over the past fifty years. A student leader was recently telling me that amongst university and post-college age students it is a rarity to find a person who has not cheated on their boy/girlfriend. I am not talking about "hooking up" and random sexual partnerships but rather any sense of fidelity within a committed relationship. apparently it barely exists. Homosexuality is a legitimate life choice and a source of pride. Any Hollywood movie will assume that adultery is absolutely justified if one person is in a loveless marriage. All this amounts to a veritable obliteration of any sense of crime in association with adultery. In this dimension we have a contemporary ethic that is incredibly at varience with Torah values.

Maybe along with the breakdown of family in terms of the marital unit comes the lack of any sense of "honour your father and mother." Respect for, not to speak of obedience to parents has been seriously corroded over the past fifty years. Many factors are to be taken into account, way beyond my ability in this post. But no one can doubt that "honour" in the traditional sense, is almost lost in a modern concept. (Many have documented that contemporary parents seek to be their childrens' friends rather than their parents, moral guides or disciplinarians. It is not simply children who don't have "Respect" for parents. Parents do not anticipate that the parent-child relationship be a hierarchical relationship. They want it to be horizontal, casual, intimate - an association of equals, of friends.)

But one virtue that seems to be an unbelievable casualty of contemporary capitalistic consumer culture is the notion of "Lo Tachmod" - Thou Shalt Not Covet - the notion of envy, and desiring things that belong to others. In the '80s Gordon Gecko proclaimed that "Greed is Good" and we haven't looked back. We have an insatiable consumer appetite fueled by slick images and marketing strategies that help us to fell unsatisfied with our lives if they are without this product or that "look." We are victims of an enormous commercial machine that charges ferociously in order to ensure that we are always unsatisfied with what we own and that we covet something else. Our contemporary mood is the opposite of איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. I fear that this value of not seeking the things that we do not own is almost lost to our society. "He who dares, wins" in todays world, and one is supposed to have drive, ambition in todays world. I am not saying that in today's world we condone a person who envies the next person. But yet, the underlying atmosphere runs, in a most deep manner, in a counter direction to the ethic of Torah. This problem pervades many "frum" communities too, and we should be watchful about rampant materialism as it is very much in contradiction to the spirit of Torah.

Feel free to add your comments.

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