This Weds, International Holocaust Memorial Day, was observed by the United Nations on Jan 27. The date was chosen to recall the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was one of the “homes” of our own Joe Alexander, as well as of the grandfather of last week’s Bar Mitzvah.
I personally greatly appreciate the appearance of President Obama at the Israeli Embassy to mark that date and make a stirring statement,” We are all Jews.’ It was very fitting, because on the same day, the Prime Minister of Canada, Trudeau, gave a statement on Holocaust day without a single mention of anti-Semitism or Jews! It was fitting because the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, used the date to justify why Palestinians are stabbing Jews—it is an outcome of frustration for living under oppression. I get it. Jews could live under oppression for nearly two thousand years, without stabbing their oppressors, but that’s for Jews, not for Arabs. OK. The President’s visit was also an important rebuff to those on the intolerant left and right, both the Ayatollah Khamanei of Iran on one end and our own brilliant American leftist activists who denounce the Holocaust as something that “ whites did to whites”.
Last weekend, I was viewing an older movie, about Hannah Arendt, who analyzed Adolf Eichmann as ‘the banality of evil”;a mere clerk, as a cog in the machine of evil, was drawn into the heart of evil. I don’t want to go into the issue here, but to say, that it led to a good debate between a friend and me on the topic of murder and execution. It’s a simple topic, very commonly heard, which goes right to our Torah reading, Yitro, and the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments.
--“Thou shalt not kill.” Can the State, the courts, ever execute someone, since this in turn violates “ Thou Shalt not Kill?”
--Oh, but it doesn’t say “ Kill.” I reply, It says “murder”.
---But murder and killing are the same. How can you decided that there is some rule greater than what is written in the Ten Commandments.
First- a word has to be defined. The Ten Commandments” uses “ Tirzakh”, murder, not ”taharog”, kill. But how can we determine what the word means?
You have to go outside the text. But how far outside?
A midrash? Some Rabbi? We often do so for a Drash, but the truth is, the Rabbis try not to go outside of the text. The answer has to be somewhere else in the text.
So you ask, where do you look? You start as closely as possible. The next portion,Mishpatim. It gives us clear examples of what is murder. Whoever strikes another and kills him shall in turn be killed. . .whoever kills his slave, and the slave dies, the slave shall be avenged and so forth. But what if the death is unintended. Say there is aggravated assault, for example, followed by death of the victim several days later? That’s not murder, as it is not directly proven that the assault led to the death. The death may have come from other causes. Yet later in the Torah, we are told that there has to be a known history of hatred by the murderer. “ s’nao mitmol shilshom”—he hated him “ the day before yesterday”.
In short, the very Torah in which we have the Ten Commandments gives us the terms whereby we can understand them.
There is the second answer: just ‘cause it says Ten Commandments, it ain’t necessarily so, as the famous song goes.
We love to talk of Ten Commandments, but you know the Torah doesn’t know of it. It knows only of “Aseret Hadibrot”. Ten Declarations , which serve as the preamble, introducing some general principles, which require, by their nature, explanation.
In fact, it is very rare that in the Torah, we find explicit declarations of law. Most of it is “Casuistic law”, from “case”. “If this, then that.” Most of Rabbinic reasoning is looking at the multiple “ ifs” and “thens”, and deriving from that , general principles that in turn generate more “if, then”.
So why so much emphasis on “ Ten Commandments”. After all,they are written by the finger of God and placed in the Ark. It would seem that certainly it was seen as a great foundation of Judaism. When the early Christians removed the observance of the Miztvoth, they kept the Ten Commandments.You know what we Jews do? If the Christians keep only the Ten Commandments, then we are going to emphasize all the rest. It’s only ten out of a total package deal. It’s like buying a car—you can’t buy just the engine-you need to buy the drive train, the gears, the steering, the seats, the frame. We got the whole car, and it is a Rolls Royce!
So know we know how many we have: 613.
Here is the debate in the Talmud:
How many Commandments are there? (Talmud Masekhet Makkoth 23b- 24 a)
R. Simlai : Six hundred and thirteen precepts were communicated to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative precepts, corresponding to the number of solar days [in the year], and two hundred and forty-eight positive precepts, corresponding to the number of the members of man's body.
Lovely commentary, to show that we observe the commandments with all our body and all year long.
Good- so ,as I said, 613. Then, add the extras bells and whistles in the Talmud, Responsa, the codes of the Rambam and the the Shulkhan Arukh and later authorities—easily, a few thousands of thousands, occupying an entire library.
But, the Talmudic debate continues:
David came and reduced them to eleven [principles], as it is written, A Psalm of David” Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Thy holy mountain? .
OK, not ten , but eleven. Wait, The debate is not finished.
Isaiah came and reduced them to six [principles], as it is written, [i] He that walketh righteously, and [ii] speaketh uprightly. ( Isa. XXXIII, 15-16)
So we are down to six. No, not good enough.
Micah came and reduced them to three [principles], as it is written, It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: [i] only to do justly, and [ii] to love mercy and [iii] to walk humbly before thy God. (Micah VI, 8.) ‘To do justly,’ that is, maintaining justice; and to love mercy,’ that is, rendering every kind office; ‘and walking humbly before thy God,’ that is, walking in funeral and bridal processions.
OK, so only three things. But wait:
Again came Isaiah and reduced them to two [principles], as it is said, Thus saith the Lord,[i] Keep ye justice and [ii] do righteousness [etc.]. ( Isa. LVI, 1).
Two! This is like Abraham negotiating with God as Sodom! How far down can we negotiate?
Amos came and reduced them to one [principle], as it is said, For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye Me and live. (Amos V, 4).
One? Only one. Are we now agreed? No, not at all. Your choice is too general!
To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakuk who came and based them all on one [principle], as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith.(Hab. II, 4.)
It’s a funny quote, because it is the same quote that Martin Luther used to define the underlying principal of Christianity. The righteous shall live by faith. The difference is that the Talmud is reading the Hebrew understanding of Tsadik and Emunah, and Luther is reading the Greek or Latin translations and concepts. Different languages, different meanings.
So, is this the final one?
No. Along comes Rabbi Akiba, in another source:
Rabbi Akiba argued that the great principal of the Torah is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This is wonderful, and this too, we share with Christianity—Jesus states as much. The great principal is the Ve’ahavta of the Shama and the Ve ahavta of love of neighbor.
The entire Torah is built upon the idea of Immmanuel Kant. The categorical imperative. That we must apply to all others what we would apply to ourselves in all our dealings. Very abstract, very secular.
Then comes Rabbi Akiba’s student, Ben Azzai . Of course we must differ!
Ben Azzai said: "'This is the record of Adam's line. [-When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God . . . ] (Gen. 5:1)'-this is a great principle of the Torah."
What’s wrong with “Love your neighbor as yourself.”? Because maybe I hate myself! So, he continues.“You must not say: ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor also be put to shame, for if you do so, know that you are shaming someone who is made in the likeness of God.’”(Sifra on Kedoshim, in reverse order in Bereshit Rabbah)
In other words, a morality based on our self as the source of all values now depends on how we see ourselves. Sure, if we are loving and loved, we are happy to share the love. But what if we are miserable, angry, hurt, resentful, we have been dissed. Then, how else shall we treat our neighbor as ourselves? The same way.
No, our foundation of morality is not a universal mutual exchange. It is a recognized universal source of sanctity of each of us. Perhaps I am miserable and angry; nevertheless, I am in God’s image-and so is my neighbor. Time to shape up!
Is this the final say? No
Hillel has it:
Teach me all of Torah while I stand of one foot. Shammai chases away the petitioner. Hillel answers:
Dsani lach, lechavrech lo taavid- Don’t do to the other what you don’t want done to yourself. It’s the famous Golden rule, and hereto, something we share with Christians. The Christian sources use “ Do unto others”, and there are debates as to which version is the more noble. They are probably, though, in their origins, one and the same, much older than either .Now we have our final answer- the Golden rule—all the Torah is really the Golden Rule.
Not so fast. Did you think a Jewish lesson could stop so easily.
Hillel continues:v haidach perusha-zil gmir
Now, the rest of the Torah is the commentary to this. Go, and study! (Shabbat 31 a)
The final answer is that there is not one, not ten, not 613 , there are endless commandments and endless commentaries, as many as there are people alive, now and in the past. You do the math for that.The rest is commentary, go study.