The Ten Words: The High Cost of Transgression

In the fall of 1989, the Toronto International Film Festival programmed a major retrospective of post-war Polish cinema titled “The Decalogue,” the classical name of the 10 Commandments. Later, the Brooklyn Academy of Music scheduled the North American premiere of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part series, each about an hour in length and based on one of the commandments, to be shown two at a time over five consecutive weeks.

The films were quiet, subtle, and often opaque. It was sometimes hard to tell which commandment was being addressed. The characters never spoke about the commandments directly. They were too busy, as we all are, coping with the duress of life. The commandments, Kieslowski understood, were not dusty relics of another age, but spoke in important ways to the human predicament. “For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right,” Kieslowski said of the commandments. “And yet we break them every day.”

In eight of the films there was a brief appearance by a young man, solemn and silent. Kieslowski said he did not know who he was. Perhaps he represented an unknown messenger, who observed with profound sadness the tragedy and folly we humans commit against others and ourselves. “He’s not very pleased with us,” the director said.

The commandments are a list of religious edicts, according to passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others.

Today, Protestants, Catholics and Jews have complied slightly different lists, but the core demands of the commandments remain the same. Muslims, while they do not list the commandments in the Koran, honor the laws of Moses, whom they view as a prophet.

Noted Rabbi J. H. Hertz gave us an articulate description of the Decalogue when he wrote:

“The Decalogue is a sublime summary of human duties binding upon all mankind; a summary unequalled for simplicity, comprehensiveness and solemnity; a summary which bears divinity on its face, and cannot be antiquated as long as the world endures. It is at the same time a Divine epitome of the fundamentals of Israel’s Creed and Life; and Jewish teachers, ancient and modern, have looked upon it as the fountain-head from which all Jewish truth and Jewish teachings could be derived.”

In 1946, juvenile judge E. J. Ruegemer of Minnesota offered to suspend the sentence of a 16-year-old boy who had stolen a car if he promised to keep the Ten Commandments. “What are the Ten Commandments?” the boy asked. Working with the civic group the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, Ruegemer distributed 100,000-framed prints of the Law of Moses around the country over the following years, along with 250,000 comic books that recount the story.

Famous Hollywood movie producer Cecil B. DeMille heard about Ruegemer’s effort while working on the blockbuster film “The Ten Commandants.”

DeMille contacted the Minnesota judge and offered to up the stakes. He then persuaded Paramount’s promotion department to pay for granite monoliths of the Ten Commandants to be place on courthouse lawns, in city halls, and in public squares in every city where the film played. More than 4,000 were made, and DeMille dispatched Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and other stars to attend the dedications.

Much later, one of these monuments, in Austin Texas, became the basis for the Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed the Ten Commandants on public property but banned them from courtrooms. A publicity stunt for Paramount became the basis of landmark US law.

The film, “The Ten Commandments,” released on October 5, 1956, earned $34 million in its first year, second only to “Ben-Hur” for the decade.

Cecil B. DeMille was decades ahead of his time when he included Islam in the list of great religions that belonged in the American public sphere. In the film, Moses repeatedly stresses the universality of God, who was “not the God of Israel or Ishmael alone, but of all men.” Ishmael is the progenitor of Muhammad and a central prophet in Islam. Also, DeMille had his cast and crew read the Koran and often said the strongest encouragement to make the film came from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, “who saw in the story of Moses, the prophet honored equally by Moslems, Jews, and Christians, a means of welding together adherents of all three faiths against the common enemy of all faiths, atheistic communism.”

DeMille’s genius was to make Moses a projection not just of American strength but also of American pluralism.

Among my favorite writers is journalist Chris Hedges. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans for 15 years for The New York Times. Holding degrees from Colgate University and Harvard University, he has taught at Columbia, NYU, Princeton, and the University of Toronto. In his provocative little book “Losing Moses on the Freeway” (New York Free Press, 2005), he delivers an impassioned and eloquent call to heed the wisdom of the Ten Commandants.

Hedges contends that the commandants can only be fully understood in moments when they are no longer abstractions; that they do not protect us from evil, but protect us from committing evil. The commandants are designed to check our darker impulses, warning us that pandering to impulses can have terrible consequences. They are guideposts. They bring us back, even when we stray as we all do, to the right path.

As I read through Hedges impassioned plea to understand how the commandments usually choose us and how rarely we choose them, and how we struggle from theft, greed, adultery, or envy, and other impulses that lead us to commit evil acts, I was reminded of Dr. James D. Tabor’s insightful explanation of the Decalogue in his wonderful book “Restoring Abrahamic Faith” (Genesis 2000, 2008. Note: a revised and expanded 4th Edition will be released soon).

Tabor writes: “These Ten Words as they are called, are much more than mere “commandments” which one might view in a superficial or legalistic way. The term “Word” in Hebrew literally means “matter” or “thing.” So the “Ten Commandments” are the Ten “Matters,” or categories. Each represents a topical heading, an entire way of living, broken down into logical subjects: e.g., idolatry, human sexuality, property rights, and sacredness of life, truthful speech, and so forth. They are amplified and expanded throughout the scriptures.”

Chris Hedges reminds us that the power of the commandments is not found in the writings of theologians, but in the pathos of human life. That all states and nations work to pervert religions into civic religions, ones where the goals of the state become the goals of the divine. Unfortunately, this is true in our own country today.

One story Hedges conveyed seemed to illustrate how lives can be turned upside down by an intense and overpowering experience with one of the commandments, of victims who know firsthand the sting of commandment violations.

It was in 1983, when Hedges found himself in a United Nations camp for Guatemalan refugees in Honduras. Those in the camp had fled fighting. Most had seen family members killed. When he arrived on a dreary January afternoon, the refugees were decorating the tents and wooden warehouses with colored paper. They told him they would celebrate the flight of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the children ordered by King Herod. “Why” he asked one of the peasants, “was this an important day? “It was on this day that Christ became a refugee,” he answered.

Hedges explained, “I knew this Bible passage by heart. I had heard my father read it every year. But until that moment, standing in a muddy refugee camp with a man who may not have been able to read, I did not understand it. The passage meant one thing to me and another to the parents who had swept children into their arms and fled to escape death. I learned more about this passage from a Salvadoran farmer that day than I ever could have from a theologian.”

About the Author
Ralph Buntyn is a retired marketing executive for a Fortune 500 company. He is executive vice-president and associate editor for United Israel World Union, a 78 year old Jewish organization dedicated to propagating the ideals of the Torah faith on a universal scale. An author and writer, his articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets including The Southern Shofar, The Jerusalem Post, and the United Israel Bulletin. He is the author of "The Book of David: David Horowitz: Dean of United Nations Press Corps and Founder: United Israel World Union."
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