Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The 10 Commandments and Morality

I recently saw, on YouTube, a clip from a talk given by Dr. Joel Hoffman. Some of you may remember Dr. Hoffman as our Scholar In Residence from last spring, and the author of the wonderful And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning*. In this clip, he’s talking about the 10 Commandments, and what makes them so special. He gave this same talk while he was here, and I found it intriguing, in part because it seemed to confirm something which I had previously heard, and found interesting, and important.

*I’ve been re-reading parts of Dr. Hoffman’s book, and I have to say that I find it utterly fascinating. If you have any interest in religion, OR if you have any interest in languages and, especially, translation, then you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

If you want a tiny example which shows how hard it is to translate an ancient (dead) language, let me give you a favorite example from the book (I think – it might have been from his talk. But, it’s in there, somewhere). If you didn’t already know, would there be any way to tell, from the words themselves, that a garbage truck takes away garbage, but an ice cream truck brings ice cream? And, if you didn’t know that difference, how confusing would it be to try to understand, and translate, a book which talked about both?

It’s well known by now that the 10 Commandments were not original or unique, as was once thought. We used to believe (I’m told) that, until the 10 Commandments were handed down, murder was not illegal. That was the great contribution that those laws made – the content of the laws themselves. But, we now have plenty of evidence that murder (and theft, and adultery, and so on) were outlawed in many ancient societies (if my memory is right, it was the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi which destroyed this myth about the originality of the 10 Commandments). The Big-10 (as I’ll call them) were just restating old, widely accepted laws.

But, it’s possible that they are unique (or, at least were unique, when they first came to us) in a different, more subtly important way. They state, categorically and absolutely, what is right, and what is wrong.

Ancient law codes worked very much like our modern law codes, in that they are “if-then” statements. If you commit murder, then you go to jail (or are put to death). If you steal, then you must return what you stole and pay a penalty. But, nowhere does the law make a moral statement. Nowhere does American law (or most/any civil legal codes, or ancient legal codes) say, “it’s wrong to kill. You shouldn’t do it. Even if you don’t get caught, it’s still wrong.”

In other words, the 10 Commandments might have been unique, and still might be quite exceptional, in that they separate the morality of an action from the results of the action. To use Dr. Hoffman’s example, in America, if you decide that the fine for illegal parking is worth it, then nowhere does American law tell you that you are wrong for parking there. If you’re willing to pay the fine, then you can do the crime! There is no moral problem.

But, according to the Torah, it is never ok to break certain laws. Even if you’re willing to pay the penalty, even if you think it’s “worth it,” it still remains, in an absolute way, wrong to do so. The wrongness of an act exists in and of itself. The penalties are there to highlight or enforce the morality; but, even in the absence of those penalties, the acts would still be wrong.

Now, leave aside, for the moment, the question of the originality of the Big-10. I would say that this distinction, between “allowed/not-allowed” and “right/wrong” is an incredibly important one. In fact, it’s really at the core of the entire discussion of what morality really is – some things are just wrong. Results be damned, there is such a thing as right and wrong. Or, to quote Frasier, “morality is what you do when no one is looking.”

But, at the same time, I do wonder about the role of the Big-10 in all of this. Were they really the first attempt to write down morality, as opposed to penalties? Is it true that most/all legal systems still live in the world of if/then, and not in absolutes? I know that I’ve got historians, lawyers and other smart people who sometimes read this blog, so I’m interested in their takes on this.

In the end, that’s just a footnote; from wherever this distinction came, it’s a fundamental one. To me, it might be the single most important distinction in the entire world of religion. But, that footnote is still an interesting one to me. Anyone have any insight?

1 comment:

michaelf said...

Reminds me of Alt's distinction between apodictic and casuistic law in Exodus. (casuistic = for reason X; apodictic = general and absolute principle, because "I am the Lord.") not sure they're precise parallels, though. Is divine authority necessarily synonymous with moral absolutes? What about things like milk and meat (all right, kid and mother goat), justified by "ani Adonai"? Hmm...