MY RESPONSE TO HARVARD LAW PROFESSOR ALAN DERSHOWITZ'S CONDEMNATION OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS:

IN DEFENSE OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

 

And God spoke all these Words, saying:  

I am HaShem your God, Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery; you shall not have other gods in My Presence.

Do not make for yourself a carved image of any likeness that is in the Heavens above or that is on the Earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the Earth; do not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I, HaShem your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My Commandments.

Do not take the Name of HaShem your God in vain; for HaShem will not hold him guiltless that takes His Name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy; six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto HaShem your God; in it you shall not do any manner of work: [neither] you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; for in Six Days HaShem made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the Seventh Day; wherefore HaShem blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long upon the Land which HaShem your God gives to you.

Do not murder.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not bear false witness against your fellow.

Do not covet your fellow's house; do not covet your fellow's wife, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your fellow's. 

(Exodus 20:1-14)

 

HaShem spoke with you Face to face on the Mountain out of the midst of the Fire -- [but] I stood between HaShem and you at that time, to declare unto you the Word of HaShem, for you were afraid because of the Fire, and you did not go up onto the Mountain -- saying:  

I am HaShem your God, Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery; you shall not have other gods in My Presence.

Do not make for yourself a carved image of any likeness that is in the Heavens above, or that is on the Earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the Earth; do not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I, HaShem your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate Me, and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My Commandments.

Do not take the Name of HaShem your God in vain; for HaShem will not hold him guiltless that takes His Name in vain.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy, as HaShem your God commanded you; six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto HaShem your God; in it You shall not do any manner of work: [neither] you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you; and you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt, and that HaShem your God brought you out from there by a Mighty Hand and by an Outstretched Arm; therefore HaShem your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Honor your father and your mother, as HaShem your God commanded you, so that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you, upon the Land which HaShem your God gives to you.

Do not murder.

And do not commit adultery.

And do not steal.

And do not bear false witness against your fellow.

And do not covet your fellow's wife; and do not desire your fellow's house, his field, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your fellow's.

(Deuteronomy 5:4-18) 

 

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Nothing American About The Ten Commandments

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Alan Dershowitz

September 19, 2003

During the debate over removing a 2-ton monument featuring the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court, it has been repeatedly asserted that "America was built on the principles of the Ten Commandments" and that our system of government is based on the Decalogue. The opposite is much closer to the historical truth. As Thomas Jefferson -- who rejected the divine origin of the Ten Commandments and found them to be "defective and doubtful" -- recognized, our nation was founded on a rejection of much of what is in the actual content of the commandments.

Most Americans are unaware of what is included in the nearly 300 words that make up the Ten Commandments as set out in Exodus and Deuteronomy and translated in the King James (and other) versions of the Bible. They know only the Cliff's Notes version: "You shall not kill" (or "murder," depending on which translation one accepts); "You shall not commit adultery," which, in its time applied only to married women, not married men, who were free to have sex with unmarried women; and "You shall not steal" or "bear false witness."

In theory at least, all civilized societies recognize those ancient principles, which aren't original to Mosaic law. They are based on earlier laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Lipit-Ishtar. Can it be said then that the United States is based on pagan codes?

The complete text of the Ten Commandments, regardless of the translation, is much more controversial. It includes God's assertion that he is "a jealous God" and his threat to visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation" -- that is, to punish children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren for the sins of their ancestors.

Can anything be more un-American? Jefferson agreed with Thomas Paine that this commandment is "contrary to every principle of moral judgment." As my 13-year-old daughter has observed, how can a child be expected to "honor your father and your mother" if her evil parents are responsible for punishment she and her innocent children and grandchildren will suffer? The principle of intergenerational collective accountability is particularly unsuited to a nation that proclaimed itself a land of individual opportunity and rejected the European tradition of class based on parentage.

Nor does the United States accept the notion of having "no other gods" except the Judeo-Christian god. We have always welcomed people who have other gods, or no god. And we constantly take God's name in vain by invoking it at sporting events, on our money, in political campaigns and with all-American curses.

The full text of the commandments seems to accept slavery, given that in the original Hebrew it condemns coveting your neighbor's "slave" -- usually mistranslated as "servant" or "manservant." Moreover, coveting is as American as apple pie. Our entire market system encourages us to covet our neighbor's wealth.

The commandments also provide for a day of rest for "your slave." And speaking of a day of rest, the commandments are unambiguous about which day is mandated, as well as the reason for it:

It is the "seventh day" -- Saturday -- because God "rested the seventh day." It is not Sunday, the day selected centuries later by Christians because it is the day on which Jesus was resurrected. That choice was rejected by Jews and Seventh-day Adventists, while Muslims selected Friday as their day of rest.

Finally, there is the prohibition of "graven images" -- a phrase that seems to describe the large monument in Alabama before which so many people prostrated themselves in recent weeks.

So what is so American about the Ten Commandments? Nothing, I submit.

The rules we accept actually precede the Ten Commandments and are accepted by all civilized nations. The remaining provisions -- which call for punishing children for the sins of parents, acknowledge slavery, mark Saturday as the exclusive day of rest and were read as exempting married men from the prohibition against adultery -- the United States has generally rejected.

Not only do the Ten Commandments not belong in public courthouses or classrooms, they do not even belong -- at least without some amendments and explanatory footnotes -- in the hearts and minds of contemporary Americans.

Alan Dershowitz is a law professor at Harvard University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant

 

Subject: Aseret HaDevarim (The Ten Utterances)

Date: Sun, 28 Sep 2003 11:32:59 -0400

From: mark rosenblit <markrosenblit@comcast.net>

To: alder@law.harvard.edu

Professor Dershowitz:

I met you after a lecture at the West Hartford, CT JCC to promote your book on terrorism (-- we talked about our divergent views of the Altalena affair).

I applaud you for your eloquent support of Israel, but I have to take you to task for your views on Aseret HaDevarim (The Ten Utterances). Here is the article that I submitted to our local paper last week. L'Shana Tova!

-- Mark Rosenblit

 

Subject: In Defense Of The Ten Commandments

Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2003 22:55:46 -0400

From: mark rosenblit <markrosenblit@comcast.net>

To: Hartford Courant <letters@courant.com>

The Ten Commandments, as declared by the God of Israel in Exodus 20:1-14 and as recounted, with slight modifications, by Moses in Deuteronomy 5:4-18, were originally bestowed upon the nomadic Jewish people some 3,300 years ago to govern their prospective behavior, especially but not exclusively, in the Land of Israel. The fact that, millennia later, much of the rest of the World also deems the Ten Commandments to be a fount of high morality has evidently offended noted law professor Alan Dershowitz (per Hartford Courant, Sept. 19, 2003, "Nothing American About The Ten Commandments").

In support of his screed that the Decalogue is deserving of our repugnance rather than our reverence, Dershowitz charges, inter alia, that the Decalogue is unclear whether all killing or only murder is prohibited, that it condones slavery, that it winks at male licentiousness, and that it lauds intergenerational collective punishment.

Notwithstanding the most common translation therefor, "Lo Tirtzach", the phrase employed in the Decalogue, does not mean “Do not kill”.  On the contrary, that phrase precisely means "Do not murder", while "Lo Taharog" -- which is not employed in the Decalogue -- means "Do not kill". Moreover, the Torah elsewhere makes it clear that under the proper circumstances -- such as participating in a just war or punishing a murderer (see Deut. 20:10-18 and Gen. 9:5-6) -- taking a human life is, not only permissible, but obligatory.

Although the Decalogue prohibits coveting that which one's neighbor enjoys, including wife, servants and animals, this hardly constitutes a condonation of the horrific type of servitude that later came to define the American institution of slavery. A biblical Jew might indeed acquire a Jewish or Gentile slave, but, as the Torah elsewhere declares, a Jewish master would be put to death if he murdered his Gentile slave (see Ex. 21:20-21) and a Jewish master was required to free his Gentile slave if he disfigured that slave (see Ex. 21:26-27 regarding a Gentile slave’s loss of an eye or a tooth).  Moreover, a Jewish slave was to be freed, depending upon his status, at either the next Sabbatical Year (see Deut. 15:12-15) or, if earlier, the next Jubilee Year (see Lev. 25:39-43).  Furthermore, the Decalogue guaranteed that even slaves would have lawful respite on the Sabbath day (see Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15).  Moreover, a Gentile slave who managed to escape to the Land of Israel was not to be returned to his pagan master, but rather: “He shall dwell with you in your midst, in whatever place he will choose in one of your cities, which is beneficial to him; you shall not oppress him." (Deut. 23:17). This latter biblical statute anticipated -- by more than 3,000 years -- both the 1862 “Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves” enacted by the United States Congress and the 1951 “Convention relating to the Status of Refugees” approved by the United Nations.  Although the concept may sound oxymoronic to modern ears, biblical slaves were to be treated with a respect that forced Jewish masters to view them as human beings rather than as mere property; and, already several hundred years before the issuance of the Decalogue, Abraham's slave, Eliezer of Damascus, was so respected by Abraham that (before having sired children) he considered Eliezer worthy to become his heir (see Gen. 15:3), and he subsequently permitted Eliezer to become "the elder of his [Abraham's] household who controlled all that was his." (Gen. 24:2).

Hypocritically, while Dershowitz argues for rejecting the Decalogue because it acquiesced to the regulated existence of a nondenominational form of slavery 3,300 years ago, he has never exhibited any similar compulsion to repudiate the United States Constitution because it acquiesced to the unregulated existence of a much more virulent racially-based form of slavery only 200 years ago (see U.S. Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 2, Par. 3; Art. I, Sec. 9, Par. 1; and Art. IV, Sec. 2, Par. 3).

Dershowitz ridicules the Decalogue's prohibition of adultery, claiming that it hypocritically permitted adultery by "married men who were free to have sex with unmarried women". This claim is as disingenuous as it is inaccurate. Since polygamy was then a societal norm, a Jewish man was permitted to have more than one wife. Accordingly, the free sex of which Dershowitz complains was actually that between a husband and his (additional) wife.

Dershowitz also misconstrues the Decalogue's declaration that the God of Israel will visit "the iniquity of fathers upon children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate Me" (Ex. 20:5). This is indeed a declaration of intergenerational collective punishment, but not in the way that Dershowitz presumes, namely, that an innocent offspring will be punished for the individual Sin of his ancestor. On the contrary, as the Torah elsewhere declares, "Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, and sons shall not be put to death because of fathers; a man should be put to death [only] for his own Sin." (Deut. 24:16). Rather, the Decalogue speaks of a nation whose leadership and supportive population have perpetuated such collective Evil that the entire nation, including those generations too young to have participated in such Evil, becomes collectively liable for punishment. Nazi Germany and the justified fire-bombing of its civilian population centers -- which killed not only Nazi vermin but also their children and grandchildren -- comes to mind.

Finally, Dershowitz insists that, anyway, the precepts of the Decalogue are derived from -- and, consequently, the American ethos is actually based upon -- earlier pagan codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi. That legal code is indeed remarkable (although often draconian), regulating many aspects of the business, marriage, adoption, inheritance, and judicial systems of 18th Century BCE Babylon. Yet, as that code's self-adulatory prologue makes clear, its legitimizing source was not the Ruler of commoner and monarch alike but rather a megalomaniacal despot -- Hammurabi -- who believed that he had been chosen by his gods to rule the Earth. And, as that code's maledictory epilogue makes clear, the narcissistic and paranoid Hammurabi greatly feared that his successor might alter or even abrogate his code.

The Decalogue is of a different character. Its overriding message is that every human being, from the most downtrodden soul to the most powerful king (or enlightened elected leader), is subject to a higher transcendent law which cannot be altered or abrogated. It is a message which resonated well with the authors of America's Declaration of Independence, and it is a message which resonates still with the vast majority of the American people.

© Mark Rosenblit

[Note: Professor Dershowitz has not yet replied to my riposte. If and when he does, I will post his reply. -- Mark Rosenblit]

 

Note:  In order to directly compare the Morality of the Hebrew Bible with the “morality” of the United States Constitution, please consider the following two fundamental laws:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

(U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, Paragraph 3 --  ratified in 1778 C.E.)

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who has been rescued unto you from his master’s nation.  He shall dwell with you in your midst, in whatever place he will choose in one of your cities, which is beneficial to him; you shall not oppress him.

(Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 23:16-17 -- given to the Jewish people in 1300 B.C.E. +/-)

Which of these laws is truly “un-American”?

 

Note:  The Ancient World viewed national traditions such as holding indebted persons and captured enemies in slavery and raping women captured in War, not as a moral failing, but rather as the lawful result of its justified and/or successful behavior.  Similarly, a husband’s tendency to exercise favoritism among his several wives, although obviously destructive to family harmony, was nonetheless viewed by the Ancient World as his rightful patriarchal prerogative.  The God of Israel recognized the fact that the nations of Antiquity, including the nascent Jewish people, were definitively influenced by these as well as the other societal norms of their Time.  Accordingly, God knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Jewish people of 3,300 years ago to accept the fact that these universally-accepted traditions and tendencies were, in fact, manifestations of Evil.

Consequently, in order to successfully wean the Jewish people from such ingrained practices, God decided that it was better to regulate these practices into extinction rather than to prohibit them outright.  Due to such Divine regulation, the Jewish people would be persuaded to gradually modify their collective and individual behaviors, with the result that, over several generations, such evil practices -- although deemed normative by the surrounding nations -- would cease among the Jewish people.  And, eventually, the remainder of Humanity would also accept the moral imperatives declared by God in the Torah.

The Torah commands:  "When you go out to battle against your enemies, and HaShem your God delivers them into your hand and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a woman of beautiful form, and you desire [to have sexual intercourse with] her, then you may take her for yourself as a wife.  [However, first,] you shall bring her to the midst of your house, and she shall shave her head and grow her nails. She shall remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and she shall mourn her father and her mother for a full month; and afterwards you may come to her and be her husband, and she shall be for you a wife.  [However,] it shall be that if [after all of the foregoing] you no longer desire her, then you must let her go wherever she wishes; and you shall certainly not sell her for money; you shall not mistreat her, because you have afflicted her.” (Deut. 21:10:14)

As the preceding Commandment reveals, instead of instructing the Jewish soldier of 3,300 years ago that he could neither make a slave of nor rape his female captive -- prohibitions which that ancient soldier would never have comprehended -- the God of Israel fashioned a series of steps which would gradually dissipate that soldier’s domineering condescension and lust, and would thereby permit him, no longer being so influenced by his passions, to choose between: (1) elevating his captive to spousal status, and (2) freeing her unconditionally.

The Torah commands:  "If a man has two wives -- the one loved and the other unloved -- and both the loved one and the unloved one bear to him sons, and if the firstborn son is of the unloved one, then it shall be on the day that he causes his sons to inherit whatever will be his, he cannot bestow the inheritance rights of the firstborn upon the son of the loved one in the face of the son of the unloved one, [who is] the [actual] firstborn. Rather, he must acknowledge the [actual] firstborn, the son of the unloved one, by giving him the double portion in all that is found with him, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him is the right of the firstborn.” (Deut. 21:15-17)

As the preceding Commandment reveals, instead of instructing the Jewish husband of 3,300 years ago that he must eschew favoritism and thereby love and treat all of his wives equally -- an edict concerning that ancient husband’s emotional disposition which would have been virtually unenforceable -- the God of Israel declared that such man’s firstborn son’s inheritance rights would not be adversely affected by the fact that the child’s mother happened to be the disfavored wife.   In this way, the husband who had emotionally or physically mistreated a woman because he did not love her as much as he loved another woman as a wife, might nonetheless gradually come to treat her with the love and respect that she deserved because she was the mother of his firstborn son -- “the beginning of his strength”.

The God of Israel can hardly be charged with Immorality because, in bestowing His Laws upon the Jewish people of 3,300 years ago, He took into account their existing state of moral and social development.  On the contrary, by the genius of these Laws, God laid the foundation for the Jewish people and the larger World to abandon Evil and embrace Goodness.

© Mark Rosenblit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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