It was not until I met David Hazony that I realized something odd about Orthodox Jewish life: We rarely talk about the Ten Commandments. Oh sure, we honor them in many ways.
We stand up when they are read in the Torah portion. We carve them out and display them on our synagogue walls. And our rabbis will occasionally touch on them — usually to accentuate a certain point or when speaking of Moses “coming down from the mountaintop with the tablets.”
But beyond these gestures, the Ten Commandments have played a bigger role in Hollywood than they have in many synagogues and Torah classes. This is not a coincidence.
The Sages of the Talmud were concerned that if they made too big a deal of these 10 overarching commandments, the 613 commandments that cover daily Jewish life would get lost. Judaism would become too universal, too watered down, too general. That makes sense to me. It’s one thing to follow general principles like “Thou shall not murder” and “Thou shall honor thy parents,” but it’s another to engage in the myriad daily rituals that enrich and deepen Jewish life.
David Hazony sees things differently. He thinks there’s a lot more in the Ten Commandments than meets the eye, and he’s written a book to make his point, “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.”
Hazony was in town recently to promote his book, which has gotten some generally positive reviews in the mainstream as well as the Jewish press. I heard him speak at Young Israel of Century City on Shabbat afternoon, and while I think he spoke beautifully and incisively, I think I was in the minority. I talked to some people afterward, and they just felt like they “already knew all this stuff.”
They seemed to get defensive about the idea of taking a whole new look at something so fundamental to Judaism. Would that mean that all this time they had taken for granted the most important words of the Bible? That there is something crucial about the Ten Commandments that they had somehow missed?
That’s certainly how I felt after listening to Hazony — that I have, in fact, missed something crucial about this climactic document of the Jewish story.
The first thing Hazony wants us to know is that the Ten Commandments are not really commandments. The Bible actually calls them aseret had’varim, or the “Ten Utterances.” Hazony describes them as “great, sweeping, paradigmatic statements about what the relationship between God, man and the universe ought to look like.” Read that way, he says, they reveal “a whole take on life that many of us had no idea was there, but which speaks to each of us as loving, acting, life-affirming, world-changing people.”
Because they are more than laws, they complement, rather than overshadow, the 613 laws of daily life. They inject a sense of biblical purpose. Hazony calls this the “Spirit of Redemption,” which teaches us “to love first of all ourselves with a fiery love that moves us to act — a bush that burns but is not consumed — and to expand that love to include others, beginning with our families and friends, extending to our communities and nations and ultimately to the whole world.”
This redemptive spirit permeates the book. Each commandment, or “utterance,” represents a world unto itself — a rich spiritual arena where ancient texts, biblical stories and moral enigmas play off each other to reveal lessons for modern life.
Hazony, who lives in Jerusalem and is the former editor of the Shalem Center’s acclaimed Azure magazine, sees his book as a personal mission to reignite a fascination for the Bible. In his own life, he told me over lunch, he’s often had to “go back before going forward.” Years ago, after a long period of studying Talmud, he had an urge to return to the Bible. So he spent three years reading every word, carefully. It’s become his personal treasure, and he wants to make it ours.
I sensed an additional agenda with Hazony. He’d like to build Jewish self-esteem. He says that each commandment makes a “bold statement about who we are, and you need all 10 to see the big picture of the kind of society the Bible had in mind.”
This is big stuff: arranging society, renewing modern life, finding a spirit of redemption. It’s obviously a big source of Jewish pride for Hazony, the kind of pride you just can’t get from a talmudic study of laws. Hazony is a warrior of the word. He’s taken 10 biblical “laws” that we often take for granted and turned them into 10 big ideas that he thinks can change the world.
When you hear him talk about all this, you get the satisfying impression that this is one scholar who doesn’t shy away from his visceral and emotional sides. In that respect, Hazony has indeed given the world 10 new fields of intellectual and moral inquiry; but if you’re Jewish, he’s also given you 10 new reasons to feel the goosebumps of Jewish pride.