Sherwin Pomerantz

The 10 commandments, catalyst for antisemitism?  

Tonight, Tuesday, Jews worldwide will begin the one-day (two days outside of Israel) observance of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks often referred to by Christians as Pentecost because it occurs 49 “counted” days (i.e. seven weeks) from the start of Passover.  According to tradition, Shavuot commemorates the bringing down of the Law from Sinai by Moses, symbolized by the ten statements usually called “commandments,” an event we believe occurred 3,500 or so years ago.

What is contained in the above is truly remarkable. Consider the fact that the instructions to observe the Passover holiday, the obligation to physically count 49 days from the start of that holiday (the process is called Counting the Omer), and then an instruction to celebrate Shavuot which marks the giving of the law timed to coincide, as well, with the first fruits of the planting season in ancient Israel, all continues to be observed even today. The fact that Jews have followed those instructions for almost four millennia is something no other people on earth have been able to duplicate.

This, coupled with all of the other societal constructs contained in the Torah, the book of laws by which we are enjoined to live, has energized the destructive envy of other religious and ethnic groups ever since the events at Mt. Sinai and may very well make what we celebrate tomorrow one of the catalysts for antisemitism, the oldest hate that mankind has ever known.

What Moses brought down from Sinai that day so soon after the exodus from Egypt, was a series of concepts totally out of sync with the practices of the times but which laid out a code of conduct for humanity. If the world had followed them, none of the wars that have been fought could even have been considered as an option. Consider these one by one.

  1. I am the Lord thy God who took you out of the Land of Egypt. In a word, understand that all of us are who we are because and as a result of those who went before us and made it possible for us to be here. Give honor to your ancestors for without them you would not be the person you are. And remember to be true to the God that made it all possible.
  2. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.  Here God lays the foundation for monotheism in a world where people generally worshipped many gods. It is a model that has been followed even by those who rejected traditional Judaism and formed their own rituals and observances. Yet the concept of one God remained, the gift of the Jews to humanity.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. For those who believe in God, the name of God is holy and must be so respected and is not to be used furiously.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. This is a big one. Mankind needs a day of rest every week to rejuvenate the body and the spirit. Long before 24/7 news feeds, incessant emails and whatsapp messages and intrusive e mails, the Law says set aside one day a week to stop, to contemplate, to interface with your family and friends, to disconnect from the stresses of day-to-day life. Previously unheard of in those times and not even so common in western society as recently as 150 years ago when slaves, serfs and others were made to work seven days a week.  God knew, in making this demand, that humanity is gluttonous, and without some limits would work non-stop. Sound familiar?  Another gift to civilization from us.
  5. Honor thy father and mother. Respect parents as they age, understand that they are not to be put on an ice flow and sent out to the arctic to die. A reminder, yet again, that we did not get here on our own and, as such, have an obligation to honor those on whose shoulders we stand.
  6. Thou shalt not murder. The instruction is not to “murder.”  Killing is sometimes justified especially when someone is trying to kill us. But unjustified killing, or murder, is not permitted as it contributes to the destruction of society.    
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. The family is inviolate and adulterous relationships destroy the family which is the fabric of society. This was a novel concept at the time it was written because, once again, human beings have a tendency here as well to be gluttonous so this behavior had to have some limits.  
  8. Thou shalt not steal. The world tends to be in a permanent state of chaos where people and countries do whatever strikes their collective fancy. For example, the Law forbids the willful taking of the property of another. The extension of this law applies as well when one country decides it wants the property of another country. Witness Russia’s land grab in the Ukraine for the national aspect of the Law.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor. Society cannot function if lying is a normative form of conduct. When society slips into that mode and is accepting of people creating their own truths in the face of reality, society itself is threatened. 
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or servant, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. And here we return to where I started. We are told not to be envious of something that other people have because the good Lord understood what people might do if envy were left unchecked. One can find plenty of examples of how envy has led to robbery, defamation and very often even murder itself.

Through our traditions, our belief in the God who brought us out of Egyptian slavery, our long term commitment to the observance of biblical injunctions (to varying degrees, of course, as we are also still human) and the fact that ours is the only people in all of history who kept their faith even after their temple was destroyed, we should be the envy of the world, where that envy is positive.

But envy is often destructive as the 10th Commandment warns. So, it may be that our success after all the trials, tribulations, expulsions, pogroms and even the attempt to eradicate us from Europe in the middle of the 20th century, has led to a destructive envy that feeds antisemitism. There may be no other understandable reason for people to slip into antisemitic behavior patterns.

Journalist Douglas Murray does a better job of exploring all of this than I can do in a brief article and it would be worth watching him here…

But tomorrow, as we once again read the narrative of the ten commandments and rise to give honor to their words, let us hope that all of us will live long enough to see the scourge of antisemitism neutralized. We can only dream of what a really wonderful world all of us would be able to inhabit if people lived by those 172 Hebrew words that make up the original text.  172 words the form the basis of mutual respect, caring, concern and hope. May it be so. To all my Jewish readers, chag sameach, have a happy and meaningful holiday observance.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.