Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Case Against the Ten Commandments...indeed against all rules

A rabbi, Yisroel Cotlar (pictured right,) asked me if I agreed with him that the world is better if we live by absolute rights and wrongs: for example, the Ten Commandments. Here was my response.

I believe that living by absolute rights and wrongs will cause the masses to lead better lives, creating more net good within their sphere of influence. They, like the Simple Child of the Passover Four Questions, require rules to follow with minimal reasoning let alone discretion.

But in my view, absolutism will be dismissed as reductionistic by most of the intelligentsia, who so prize unrestricted analytic thinking. Such people believe, as I do, that absolutes impede wise decision-making.

For example, a core biblical absolute is "Thou shalt not kill." But, for example, at the point it became clear that Hitler was planning to exterminate millions of people, if a person thereby chose to assassinate Hitler, could one legitimately, unequivocally, as an absolute, insist that is bad or a sin?

"Thou shalt not steal" is another of the Bible's core absolutes. But if your wife desperately needs a drug but you cannot afford it, might it arguably be right for you to steal the drug? Insisting that people operate based on absolutes would, net, lead to greater injustice.

I believe the greatest good would accrue by having a continuum of "religion:" On one end, a deity-based, ritual-filled, absolutist approach, and on the other end, a situational-ethics-based "secular religion," no belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent deity required.


lisa b said...

The Hebrew commandment does not say "thou shalt not kill" it says "thou shalt not murder". The two words are understood very differently in Jewish law.

Punditarian said...

Thank you, Lisa!

That takes care of the first example . . .

As for the second: the fact that you must steal to save your wife's life does not make stealing any more "right" - stealing is still stealing.

Even the most absolute rules will sometimes be broken, which is why our merciful Creator provided us with the means to make up for our shortcomings -- sacrifices, charitable works, fasting, and prayer.

But to discard the absolutes in favor of neo-situationist ad-hoc decisions would be to attempt to navigate the very stormy and confused waters of this life with a compass that could never be trusted.

Very dangerous.

Far better to understand what the Creator's instructions actually are, and then to measure oneself against them honestly but compassionately. That's what makes you a man, or if you prefer, a mensch. And not an animal.

Thanks for letting me share.


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