First of all, I’m not the first to point out that Exodus 20:13 reads You shall not murder, not: You shall not kill.
Secondly, the Jews believe that the Torah has been given to the Jews not for their pastime (it’s actually a bit too laborious to call it a hobby) but rather to live accordingly and pass on its lessons to the rest of humanity. The Torah is not the private property of the Chosen People. Therefore it was given in no-man’s land, the desert. Jews deserve credit as its teachers but not as its owners.
Thirdly, one could rightfully ask what was supposed to be so special in the Jews that they got to do this. Many answers are possible.
One is that we are a stubborn People. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to convince us of anything (Exodus 32:9, 33:3, 33:5, Deuteronomy 9:6, 9:13, 31:27). But once convinced, we will stick with it (Exodus 34:9). We are loyal to our beliefs.
Another answer is told by the Rabbis of Old (in the Midrash Sifri, Deuteronomy 343) who explain that G-d actually first presented the Torah to all the other Peoples of the world. And this is how it went.
He presented the Torah to a People famous for its murderousness. They said. What’s in it? He said: Though shall not commit murder. They said: This does not fit us because we are known for going through life holding knives. And He left them.
Then He presented the Torah to a People famous for its thievery. They said. What’s in it? He said: Though shall not steal. They said: This does not fit us because we are known for having our hands in everyone’s pockets. This is our livelihood. And He left them.
Then He presented the Torah to a People famous for its adultery. They said. What’s in it? He said: Though shall not commit adultery. They said: This does not fit us because that’s our whole famous lineage. And He left them.
And then He presented the Torah to the Jews and we said: We’ll do it, whatever it says. (Exodus 24:7). (When we said it, is a whole story.)
The puzzling thing is that He didn’t correct the other Peoples. He didn’t say: Don’t worry about it. You can keep the Torah, going through life holding knives, but not to murder but to protect everyone from murderers. He didn’t say: Don’t worry about it. When you keep the Torah, you don’t need to steal anymore. I’ll provide for you. He didn’t say: Don’t worry about it. When you keep the Torah’s Laws on sexual conduct, I’ll provide offspring for you. You can leave your adulterous practices in the past. Why didn’t G-d counter their objections?
One answer could be: He just wanted to show that the Jews were ready even to give a blank cheque, while the other Nations were not. Another explanation could be, so that when the Peoples of the world will come to complain that it’s not fair that the Jews became Chosen, G-d can say: You had your chance. But another reason could be that He wanted to give the Torah to a Nation that was not so attached to murder, theft or sexual immorality. Nice people.
Whatever the case, don’t assume that the nice Jews are above murder, somehow genetically. Statistically, in many countries, yes, Jews are less likely to murder. Also in Israel. But that doesn’t mean that we are fundamentally above murder. To preserve our habit not to murder needs to be taught anew to every generation. Here are some examples of how this plays out.
Specifically to the recitation of the Ten Commandments there are two ways, two sets Cantilations, which indicate melodies, syntax and punctuation. One way is sang at the few times a year we read this text publicly and the other is used when we learn about this text at home. The private one sounds: You shall not murder. The public one sounds: You shall not … murder. The pause can be filled in parenthetically by the words: but sometimes you shall. For instance, when you see a would-be murderer in hot pursuit of a victim, and the only way to stop him is to kill him, you kill him. Apparently, it’s not safe for us to always focus on this stipulation. A few times a year in a quick reading in the synagogue is all we get. The general take-away should be not to murder, period.
Golda Meir said famously that one day we may be able to forgive our enemies for having killed our finest, but will we ever be able to forgive them for making us kill?
Many Jews have pondered how we can celebrate the mass murder on our arch-enemies who wanted to exterminate the Jewish People (Purim). This can be compared to killing off all active ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters. While every Nation in the world would find stopping the threat of genocide enough justification, many Jews are still upset about it.
One of the most powerful anti-Semitic myths is that Jews are murderers. For haters of Jews this is especially important to off-set the higher murder statistics from Gentiles and their murder on Jews. But, most importantly, I believe, this accusation is designed by the most rabid Jew haters to neutralize the Divine call via Jews not to murder. If they (the IDF) are murderers themselves, no one needs to listen to that appeal.
The Torah obligates Jews to carry out capital punishment in certain cases. However, this responsibility should not be met with enthusiasm. The Sages explain how many delicate conditions must be met in order to have to execute anyone. The Great Court needed to search for the smallest excuse not to implement the death penalty. The Talmud even warns that such a respectable Court that put to death more than one person in seven years is a no more than a bunch of murderers, and one opinion is that more than once in 70 years makes them slaughterers. The Sages ruled a stop to capital punishment 2000 years ago, when life became so cheap that death through the Court did not shock anyone anymore. From then on, G-d should take out murderers because the Holy Courts are powerless. You can’t teach sanctity of life by executing murderers if that is met by a yawn.
When Jews load themselves with alcohol, they become as murderous as everyone else, as sadly often we saw around pubs on the weekends in Israel. That vulnerability might also lie at the root of the old Jewish custom not to drink alcohol excessively (yet another statistic).
In summary, Jews are not unimpressionable to committing murder. We are still shocked when people die in a pub or on the roads, or “of old age” for that matter, but don’t arrogantly / admiringly assume that that is intrinsic. This sensitivity for the holiness of life needs to be maintained from generation to generation. We’d better.