Off the Shelf: Exploring the Ten Commandments by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The ethics and rules featured in the Ten Commandments form the basis for much of Western legal culture, so much so that there are debates in the United States about whether they should be printed on public property, such as court houses and legislative buildings. Yet, at a time when the historical accuracy of religion is under dispute, there is a need to look closely at the 10 statements (as they are actually called in Hebrew) and explore their meaning through the lens of contemporary times. That’s the purpose behind “Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments” edited by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon (Central Conference of American Rabbis). The essays challenge readers to look anew at this part of the Bible.

The commandments, which are printed in Hebrew and translated into English, are considered from a Jewish perspective, meaning “I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” is listed as the first commandment. Hayon notes that his contributors represent “a wide variety of backgrounds. These authors reflect a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specializations: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents.” What they all have in common is the desire to make the commandments relevant to today’s world.

Those interested in philosophy and theology will enjoy in “God’s Identity: Perspectives from Jewish Philosophy” by Rabbi Kari Hifmaister Tuling, which offers various philosophers’ thoughts about the nature of God. More to my taste was “Revelation as Conversation” by Rabbi Joshua Feigleson, Ph.D, which includes the intriguing idea of God as a listener, meaning that rather than speaking to humans, God now listens to what we say. Those interested in history will appreciate the comparison of the 10 Commandments to a suzerain treaty in “Israel’s History of Enslavement as a Prerequisite for Revelation,” by Elsie R. Stern, Ph.D. Stern’s article suggests that “even for Jews who do not understand themselves to be in a covenantal relationship with God, our identity as freed slaves evokes a sense of obligation. This reminder that we were slaves in Egypt served as a goad and rallying call for Jewish social justice work for contemporary Jews.” 

My favorite section looked at the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Eternal your God is assigning to you.” Both Rabbi Laura Geller’s “Honoring Your Father and Mother” and Rabbi Richard F. Address’ “Navigating the New Stage of Caregiver” were excellent and should be read by those caring for elderly parents. However, it was Rabbi Annie Belford’s “Number Five” that made the most impact. Her personal look at the end of her mother’s life was so meaningful and moving that it left me in tears.

Although all of the essays were well done, the following also stood out:

  • Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., offers a historical view at idiolatry, discussing the belief that different divinities controlled specific parts of the natural world, in “Prohibition of Idolatry.” 
  • An exploration of “meaningful leisure” and the way Shabbat requires us to honor the dignity of all people can be found in “Permitted and Forbidden Labor: Legal and Ethical Dimensions” by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.
  • Tiffany Shlain gives an example of how to unplug during Shabbat in “‘Technology Shabbats’: Unplugging in a Hyper-Connected World.”
  • In “You Shall Not Murder,” Rabbi Harold L. Robinson offers the fascinating idea that the trauma soldiers feel after a battle is a “perfectly healthy – albeit very difficult – struggle for an individual to integrate the dissonance within oneself generated by the traumatic experience” of having to kill, even if done to save one’s own life. 
  • Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster challenges readers to look at the ethics of ownership in “‘You Shall Not Steal’ – Ethics of Consumption.” She focuses on how our purchasing power can have a negative impact on the lives of those who produce what we buy.
  • When discussing the meaning of not being a false witness, Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., ponders whether we can ever know the truth or if we only know the story we tell ourselves in “Don’t Be That Person,” while Batya Ungar-Sargon, Ph.D., asks us to question our impressions of the truth and to make certain we explore both sides of an issue in “‘Fake News’ and Its Challenges to Judaism.”
  • The essays dealing with coveting look at how guarding against our yeter harah (evil impulse) can prevent us from sinning in “Torah’s Thought Crime?” by Rabbi Barry H. Block, while Alan Morinis, Ph.D. offers practical suggestions on how not to covet in “Conquering and Transforming the Impulse to Want What Is Not Yours.”
  • The essays in “Inscribed” would be perfect for discussion groups and adult education classes. Readers who have not engaged in serious consideration of these commandments will learn just how relevant they are to contemporary lives. Those looking for additional ways to view the commandments or to challenge their current interpretations will also find this work has much to offer.