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No Other Gods
The Politics of the Ten Commandments
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The Ten Commandments are a spiritual resource for social justice. A politically and spiritually brazen prescription for living, the Ten Commandments would turn our world upside down if we actually followed them. Far from being only ethical norms on which everyone already agrees or a remnant of a bygone oppressive era, the Commandments are actually countercultural practices.
Today the Ten Commandments are a divisive part of American culture. Religious conservatives champion them, even if they don’t always practice them. Religious liberals and the nonreligious may bristle at what they perceive as antiquated moral restrictions. But, this ancient code still has vital contemporary relevance. Rev. Levy-Lyons explores ways the Commandments bring us meaning, illuminate our values, and help us navigate through the turbulent waters of social injustice, environmental crises, and societal inequity.
No Other Gods looks at each Commandment in new ways, moving beyond interpersonal morality to the global economy and our hyper-connected age. From the first, You Shall Have No Other Gods Besides Me (Dethrone the Modern Deities of Political, Social, and Corporate Power), to the tenth Do Not Covet (Practice Your Liberation-You Have Enough, You Are Enough)-and all those in between-she underscores how the Commandments can produce a bold spiritual consciousness.
Whether you are deeply religious or spiritual-but-not-religious, learn how the Ten Commandments can guide you to resist injustice, heal our earth, and find personal dignity amid the free-for-alls of modern life. “We don’t have to invent a bunch of new practices for a meaningful way to live out our spirituality and social justice politics,” says Levy-Lyons. “There is a perfectly good set of ten of them, all ready to go, with as much progressive firepower as any of us can handle, that has existed for some three thousand years.”
The Ten Commandments Are Practices of Liberation
A high school teacher of mine used to entertain his class by rattling off lists of oxymorons: pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, constant variable. Sometimes he would take the opportunity to editorialize a little: military intelligence, airplane food, liberal religion. Everybody would smirk and the class would go on. The joke relied on the notion that liberal religion couldn't exist because liberals are not religious and religious people are definitely not liberal. As if everyone knows there's an inverse correlation between religiosity and liberalism: the more liberal you are, the less religious… to the vanishing point.
As with most jokes and stereotypes, there's some truth to it. If you look at any of the traditional markers of religiosity, religious liberals are less religious than the conservative or orthodox. Liberal Jews tend to not keep kosher; liberal Muslims tend to not pray five times a day; liberal Christians have been known to have premarital sex. As religions have liberalized and modernized, communal religious practices have fallen away. Religious fervor has cooled. The logic of this may seem obvious, but there is no necessary correlation between the substance of a person's theology and the amplitude of her religiosity. We have erroneously forged this correlation.
I thought of this a number of years ago when I was asked to lead an exercise with a group of religious liberals. I had asked them to imagine a community, based on their faith tradition, that was tight-knit, "really religious," and "really observant." I asked them to envision what foods members of this hypothetical community would eat, what they would wear, how they would raise their children, and how they would spend their time and money. What practices would be required? What would be prohibited?
Category by category, the response was the same: nothing would be required, nothing prohibited. I challenged them on this point: No foods would be prohibited? Not even foods grown by migrant farm workers for slave wages? Not even foods made through extreme cruelty to animals? Not even foods whose manufacturing pollutes rivers or accelerates climate change? Nothing prohibited? The response they consistently gave was that while people in this community would be inclined to, for example, avoid such foods, there would be no community-wide laws governing their practices. People would opt to do the right thing presumably because they would be good people who always try to do the right thing within reason.
Whether or not good people left to our own devices generally do the right thing is debatable. The world is awash with good people. Religious traditions have developed detailed ethical laws and elaborate technologies for remembering those laws precisely because, even for good people, doing the right thing consistently is hard. We need support and structure and a community around us to give us even a fighting chance. And sometimes doing the right thing "within reason" is not enough; sometimes doing the right thing means going beyond what feels comfortable or reasonable. Doing the right thing may mean acting in counterpoint to what the wider culture deems normal or acceptable. But clearly, to many religious liberals, what we ultimately do with our freedom of choice is of less concern than that we have this freedom. Yes, we value community and social justice and caring for the earth, but freedom is a higher value still.
Our Freedom Fetish
Our love of freedom has become a fetish. The honoring of individual freedom over communal flourishing is a ubiquitous and powerful norm in the United States among both progressives and conservatives, although in different ways. The trend in our culture has been inexorably toward a world of individuals, each doing his own thing. We elevate the self to an almost godlike status. This renders religion, in which the self is sublimated in the service of something larger, unpalatable at best.
One in five of us leave our birth religion, having found it soul-crushingly oppressive, mind-numbingly boring, or both. Increasingly we think of ourselves as "spiritual but not religious." We no longer rely on religious tradition for answers to life's big questions. We no longer feel that we need the Ten Commandments—or any commandments—in order to live an ethical life. We don't like being boxed in, we don't like being labeled, and we definitely do not like being "commanded."
But our triumphant world of freedom is failing us. It has not given us the personal fulfillment we seek. We have found ourselves adrift without a clear sense of purpose. Individualism has left us lonely. We spend longer and longer hours—cumulatively, even years—passively gazing at screens. Depression and anxiety are reaching epidemic proportions. "Deaths of despair"—deaths by suicide, opioids, and alcohol—are on the rise. When confronted with loss and suffering, we reach for rituals that once held meaning, only to find them empty, strange, and incongruous with our lives. We resort to "retail therapy." We have done ourselves a disservice by choosing freedom from religion and going no further in our seeking. We've refused the cumulative spiritual wisdom of the millennia. We've drifted into the moral and spiritual shallows. When anything goes, it's hard to actually go deep.
Our lack of spiritual grounding has not only impoverished us individually; it has global consequences. Environmental devastation, economic injustice, and the pervasive violence of our society are made possible by our mass acquiescence to the systems that propel them. Through countless tiny, daily, socially sanctioned acts, we reflexively create and re-create those systems. When we are spiritually vulnerable, we can't help but participate in them. We can't even imagine living differently. When we are isolated, communities are fragmented, and we have no shared sense of religious purpose; we lose the will to resist the wrongs we see around us. We feel powerless to do anything about them. We become anesthetized to the suffering in our world and we lack any outside vantage point from which to envision a better one. So we worship "other gods"—wealth, power, the approval of others, and the eternal spectacle served up on our screens—and these other gods gain unbridled power. This is the political moment in which we find ourselves today.
The greatest irony is that the postreligious world has not granted us its promised freedom. While it seems like we can now do "whatever we want," what we want is often invisibly shaped by powers beyond our awareness. There is always something that guides our aspirations—something for which we are willing to sacrifice. If we do not decide what that "something" is, it will be decided for us by the indifferent forces of the commercial marketplace. An observation on this point often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson reads,
Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.
We may feel today that we've outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for exactly such a moment as this. Now may be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice—a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.
Okay, Okay, but Why All the Rules?
Many of us concede that we need to do something to cool the feverish pace of our high-tech lives. We want a greater sense of community and connection. We know that we should try to carve out more "me" time or more time with our families. And perhaps we should give more to charity or do more to work for justice and healing in our world. But we are understandably skeptical about rules. Getting mired in arcane religious protocols seems counterproductive. Since we already reject some of the laws of religious traditions, why should we submit to any religious laws at all? If we should be free to marry someone of our same gender or to have sex before marriage, surely we should be free to do more seemingly trivial things like run an errand on a Sunday or eat a cheeseburger.
When talking about Sabbath rules, for example, here is what some of my congregants tell me:
"I do a Sabbath a little bit at a time—an hour here, an hour there. But I don't want anyone to tell me when to do it."
"I take time off when I can, but sometimes it's just not feasible."
"I prefer to just try to keep a Sabbath vibe—feeling connected with my higher power—all the time, not just once a week."
These are all ways of claiming that we are in control of our lives, our time, our choices. We are like the alcoholic who says, "I can stop anytime." But for most of us it's not that easy. The chronic anxiety with which so many of us live our lives today belies that claim. Our national epidemics of obesity and anorexia, drug addiction, and stress-related disorders in children and adults belie that claim. And our global runaway train of environmental destruction belies that claim. We are not in control.
We underestimate the tremendous, invisible power of our culture—the addictive pull of producing and consuming and the massive pressure to conform to social norms. We underestimate the capacity of the media (social and broadcast) to induce self-loathing—the feeling that we are never good enough. The seemingly perfect, glowing, beautiful families on Facebook and the ingenious ads for the latest shampoo or smartphone steadily feed our insecurities. And when we contemplate a full, committed religious practice, we quail at the social costs we would pay. For many of us, the whispered voices of fear are loud in our ears warning of our world spinning out of control, the threat of inadequacy and failures.
The cycle of producing and consuming is literally addictive and can often be pleasurable, yet it doesn't begin to exhaust the spectacular range of human experience and depth of meaning available to us. When we revolve forever in its orbit, we'll never know what we're missing. And we'll never know for sure whether we can, in fact, "stop anytime" until we try. If we're serious about reaching escape velocity, we need to bring some serious counterforce. The Ten Commandments can serve as that counterforce.
Just as secular culture offers freedom from religion's laws, religious law offers freedom from secular culture's laws. The question is not, Should we be bound by law or should we be free? The question is, In which law are we most unduly or unhappily bound? And in which freedom are we most truly free?
Wrestling with Old-Time Religion
Not everyone, of course, has embraced modernity's freedom from religion with enthusiasm. Some, like Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican congressman from Georgia, want to turn back the clock and promote commandments, a clear list of right and wrong, a set moral code. A number of years ago, Westmoreland agreed to go on The Colbert Report to be interviewed. He had been actively working to get the Ten Commandments installed in all courthouses in the United States. In the course of the interview, he explained, "The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and to respect. Where better place could you have something like that than in a judicial building?"
Colbert, in his inimitable way, replied, "That's an excellent question. Can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments in than in a public building?"
Westmoreland said, "No."
Then Colbert asked, "What are the Ten Commandments?"
Westmoreland looked like he had been hit by a two-by-four. "What are all of 'em? You want me to name 'em all?"
He couldn't do it. For Westmoreland, the Ten Commandments collectively have cultural meaning that far outweighs their content. The Ten Commandments in public buildings would legitimate the values of his culture, which are not identical to the values of the Ten Commandments. If the content were what mattered, he would know what the content was.
The Ten Commandments are used and abused in many ways for many different agendas. Like the Bible itself, they are a Rorschach test at this point, often revealing more about their viewer than about their own content. Conservative Christians like Westmoreland use them as a banner of so-called "traditionalism." Orthodox Jews extrapolate their meaning through long chains of legalistic reasoning, such that there is now a cottage industry of devices that allow a person to, for example, use a food processor on a Saturday by flipping a switch that breaks an electronic circuit, thus avoiding "lighting a fire," and thereby keeping the letter of the Sabbath commandment.
The spiritual-but-not-religious, on the other hand, make wry jokes and demote the Ten Commandments to the "ten suggestions." Atheists like Sam Harris relegate them, and religion generally, to the "cesspool of mythology." For many of us modern people in affluent nations, the commandments are a symbol of oppression, misogyny, and tribalism. They smell musty and old, cranky and inflexible. They've become linked with dogmatic, chauvinistic zeal. "You shall not kill" is used in antiabortion rhetoric. "You shall not commit adultery" is used in anti-gay rhetoric. This is a chilling association to those who have been hurt by conservative legislation or even personal attacks from the religious far right. Some of the commandments make sense to us; some seem arbitrary. At best, they seem to be self-evident ethical guidelines that require no religious imprimatur. But we reject their authority and religious authority generally.
In our cultural imagination, there seem to be only two options for relating to religious traditions like the Ten Commandments: either embrace them as they are understood by social conservatives like Lynn Westmoreland or write them off as irredeemable and abandon them. Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, offers a beautiful third alternative. He acknowledges the oppressive religious structures against which progressives have justifiably rebelled. Then he urges us not to abandon sacred texts because of how past generations have interpreted them. Rather, we should explore deeper to find the kernel of revelation buried within them.
The following passage suggests how feminists could interact with blatantly misogynist scriptural texts. The same principle could apply for anyone tempted to write off the Bible or religion entirely.
The… wholesale rejection of the corpus of biblical and rabbinic writings as irredeemably misogynous is an oversimplification that cuts women off from the trans-generational conversation that has been created and sustained for thousands of years. I would argue that… [the study of the Torah should] include a version of the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the traditional name for the commandment to redeem those held in captivity against their will. Indeed, by redeeming those passages and teachings of the Torah that are held captive by narrowness of vision, and by understanding that narrowness to be a function of the time and place in which they were formulated… we can breathe new life into texts that may seem dead to us.
In other words, Diamond teaches that the beautiful, truly inspired spiritual wisdom contained in the Bible is being "held captive" by the constraints of the time and place of its authors. It's buried. It's our job to excavate it, to set it free and give it new life for our day. It contains profound teachings for us. We are called to add our voices to that transgenerational conversation. Rather than cede the sole right of interpretation to the authorities of the past, we are empowered, by virtue of our spiritual inheritance as human beings, to contribute our own insights and vision, to separate out what is truly inspired from what is just a product of a particular historical moment. Rather than reject these ancient traditions sight unseen, we are invited to reclaim them.
And we should be very careful when consigning anything to the trash bin of history because we too are held captive by the constraints of our time and place. We know more than the ancients in some ways but we must remain open to the possibility that they may know more than we in others.
What Don't We Eat?
Everyone is struggling to find meaning in our secular age. Many of us who have rejected traditional religion are spiritually hungry nonetheless. A congregant of mine told me a story of her son, adopted from Ethiopia, who was trying to understand his new family's religion. He had come to her and said, "My friend Ahmed at school is Muslim and his family doesn't drink alcohol; Hannah is Jewish and her family doesn't eat pork; what don't we eat?" The mother wanted to be able to give him an answer, but she couldn't. I remembered again that group of religious liberals who insisted that there be nothing that they, for religious reasons, don't eat.
But many of us want meaningful answers to questions like this boy's—meaningful practices to help us live in light of our values. We crave a spiritual grounding for our political commitments and a way to connect our day-to-day lives to something larger than ourselves. We yearn for connection to a sense of history and a thread of continuity with tradition—to integrate the present and the past in a way that feels meaningful.
Religion has served as a bulwark of meaning in American society since Europeans began landing on these shores in the sixteenth century, and for native peoples since long before that. It has provided an overarching context whereby our actions in this life translate to the realm of ideals and spirit. Rituals of marriage and coming of age engender real, felt transformations. Acts of religious virtue—compassionate care, charity, and defending an ideal of the good—allow us to participate in divine work. Religion has been the primary social structure for the vast majority of Americans and it has grounded our communities for centuries. It has given us a holistic understanding of our shared human experience.
This stabilizing role of religion is well-known and has furnished religion with its reputation (leveraged by my high school teacher in his oxymoron joke) as a conservative force in society. But religion has also historically been a disruptive, countercultural force. In our day, it is this more radical edge of religion—proactive and passionate—that we need. At its best, religion provides an "outside" to the socially constructed world. Through religion, we can discover another place to be—a vantage point of imagination from which to see reality, critique society, and change what some believe can't be changed. Along with visionary clergy throughout history, we can read the Hebrew Bible as a politically radical manifesto, teaching the sharing of wealth, stewardship of the earth, and freedom from materialism. Through embracing its disciplines of spiritually engaged collective practice, we can gain moral authority in the public sphere. And we can all be called to a life of meaning.
The Ten Commandments are a resource for resistance. They are a politically and spiritually brazen prescription—one which, if actually followed, would turn our world upside down. Far from being merely a vestigial remnant of an oppressive era (though they are that) and far from being a simple rehearsal of ethical norms on which we already agree (though they are, on one level, that too), the Commandments are countercultural practices. They offer a bold spiritual consciousness in which we commit ourselves unconditionally to the force in the universe that makes transformation and love possible. We don't have to invent a bunch of new practices for a meaningful way to live out our spirituality and politics. There is a perfectly good set of ten of them, all ready to go, with as much progressive firepower as any of us can handle, that has existed for some three thousand years.
Practices of Liberation
This book is a work of midrash—a Jewish interpretive tradition that seeks to distill spiritual meaning from a Torah text. (The Torah is the central text of the Hebrew scriptures, called the "Old Testament" by Christians. I also use the word "midrash" throughout the book to refer to stories and interpretations drawn from the body of rabbinic writings about the commandments.) In keeping with postmodern etiquette, I do not claim that my interpretation of the Ten Commandments text is what it "actually" means or what its author meant. No one can know for sure the intention of people writing millennia ago. But I do claim a faith that in and among the parts of the Torah that are merely reflections of an ancient place and time, there is a through line of profound spiritual and political insight. The commandments are a channel for revelation. Each generation can set the text against the backdrop of its experience and find meaning.
The Ten Commandments were first written in ancient Hebrew on parchment or papyrus scrolls somewhere between 1400 and 586 BCE. They were undoubtedly circulating as part of the oral tradition of the Hebrew people long before they were written down, parts of them also having been borrowed from other peoples in the ancient Near East. They appear in slightly different versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy. While they are not the only commandments in the Torah—rabbis have identified a total of 613 commandments—they occupy a special place in the canon for Jews and Christians. The Hebrew word used to describe them—devarim— is notably not "commandments." More literal translations are "things" or "words" or "utterances." I gloss them as "concepts" or even "blessings."
Even more important for our purposes than the historical context of the Ten Commandments is their context within the sacred mythology of the Torah itself. The revelation of the Ten Commandments comes at a critical moment in the Exodus story. The Israelites had been liberated from slavery in Egypt just three months earlier, escaping through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) with Moses leading them. When they emerge in freedom on the other side, they don't know what to do with their freedom. They wander around the desert, sniping at each other and disobeying God multiple times. Finally ready to receive this public revelation, they assemble at the foot of Mount Sinai and Moses tells them to prepare themselves spiritually for three days. They are to wash themselves and their clothes and refrain from sex. If they so much as touch the base of the mountain, the electric charge will be too strong and they will die.
Before this moment, Moses had always been their prophetic messenger, relaying God's messages. This time is different. The whole mountain goes up in smoke, flames, and thunder and God speaks the commandments out loud directly to the people. For the first time, they receive a definition of God and a systematic description of their relationship with God. The sensory and spiritual overload is described as terrifying and overwhelming (as one midrash tells it, when the Israelites heard that "awful" voice, they "flew back in their horror twelve miles"). When God finishes speaking, the people beg Moses to not make them hear directly from God ever again. They say, "Don't let God speak with us or we will die!" Moses agrees to resume his place as the intermediary and goes up the mountain, "drawing near into the thick darkness where God was." God engraves the Ten Commandments with God's own finger on two stone tablets.
That the context of the Ten Commandments is so foreign to many of us today is part of what makes them a potent resource. They were written in a very different time in a language that is strange and terse and rich in symbolism and mythic archetypes. They exist outside of our social context (even as they were conceived within a social context of their own). Our hyperconnected world under global capitalism is different from that of nomadic desert economies millennia ago. Life and people are different. Unlike the Hebrew people, who were essentially tribal, we know very few of the people whom we affect. The keeping and breaking of commandments for us takes different forms and has further-reaching impacts. Today we can kill and steal indirectly as well as directly. Today we can make and worship idols collectively without even knowing it. Today we can lie and that lie can change reality.
- ". . . extending the meanings of the Ten Commandments to include the many idols and possible ways that a modern person could kill, break trust, or bear false witness, if not directly then with our purchases, our silences, our acquiescence in the corporate systems that surround us, the author has brought these three thousand-year-old commandments back as powerful iconoclastic tools for breaking free." —Natan Margalit, Tikkun magazine
- "NO OTHER GODS offers a passionate, biblically-grounded spiritual roadmap for Christians and others seeking a way forward in our age of individualism and materialism. Levy-Lyons translates the ancient ethical wisdom of the Ten Commandments into powerful practices for love, meaning, and impact today. Smart, pastoral, and practical, NO OTHER GODS should be on your shelf."—Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis, Senior Minister, Middle Collegiate Church
- "Ana Levy-Lyons has written the book we need right now, NO OTHER GODS: The Politics of the Ten Commandments. This easily accessible, thoughtful and fresh exploration of the ten commandments peels away the layers of conservative fundamentalism so that we can see with new eyes how the ancient wisdom of the ten commandments can support us best at a time when the world is literally on fire.
- On Sale
- Mar 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Center Street