“Why G-d Cannot Share the Limelight”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, the Al-mighty reveals Himself to the People of Israel on Mt. Sinai and proclaims what is colloquially known as the “Ten Commandments.”

The name “Ten Commandments” is actually a misnomer, which is why traditionalists generally refer to these verses as the Aseret Hadibrot–the Ten Statements or the Decalogue. According to tradition, the first statement may not be a commandment. It reads (Exodus 20:2): “Ah’no’chee Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha, I am the Lord, thy G-d who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a commandment at all, but rather a factual historical statement.

The rabbis of the Talmud say (B’rachot, 33a),”Ha’kol bee’day sha’ma’yim, chutz mee’yir’aht sha’ma’yim,” Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for fear of heaven. The Al-mighty can make a person do anything, except believe in Him–because then it is coercion, not belief.

If the first statement is not a commandment, then these verses Exodus 20:2-14 are one Statement and nine Commandments, rather than Ten Commandments. Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942, leader of Babylonian Jewry) has stated that all 613 commandments are subsumed within the Ten Statements, and that each Statement contains the basis for many other commandments.

One of the most perplexing of the Ten Statements is the so-called “second commandment”–the prohibition of idolatry. The Torah states (Exodus 20:3-6). “Lo yee’yeh l’chah eh’lo’him ah’chay’rim ahl pah’nai.” You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make yourself a carved image or any other likeness of that which is in the heavens above or that is on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them, or worship them, for I the L-rd your G-d, am a jealous G-d, who visits the sins of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations for my enemies, but who shows kindness for thousands of generations to those who love Me and observe My commandments.

Even a cursory reading of this text raises many questions. Why isn’t the declaration of a monotheistic deity that is expressed in the first statement of the “Ten Commandments” sufficient? Why is it necessary to go into the “gory” details of the different types of idol worship–carved images, likenesses of that which is in the heavens, the earth or the water? Is the Al-mighty “afraid” of those who worship the sun, the moon, or the trees? What is the big danger involved in this kind of worship that renders idolatry a capital crime in Judaism? It does, after all, appear to be only a primitive form of simplistic worship.

I would like to suggest that there are actually two aspects of idolatry with which the Torah is concerned. The first is the primitive worship of sky or the earth, moon or water, which reduces the human being from Judaism’s exalted status of being created in the “image of G-d” and possessing G-d-like qualities. From the very outset, the Torah promotes the concept of a human being who is created (Genesis 1:27) B’tzeh’lem Eh’lo’kim--in the image of G-d, and is bidden to emulate the positive and charitable qualities of the Al-mighty, known in philosophy as Immitatio Dei. Just as G-d is compassionate, so are human beings bidden to be compassionate. Just as G-d is forgiving, so are human beings urged to be forgiving. As G-d is just, so are human beings called upon to be just (Shabbat, 133b). Of course when one worships a tree or a stone, one cannot emulate their “qualities.” And so, the fundamental element of righteous and moral behavior is absent from those who practice idolatry.

A second major issue that is raised by the second statement of the Ten Commandments, is the fact that once there are multiple deities–like sun or moon, then there are, of necessity, multiple sources of ethical truths. For Judaism, the idea of a monotheistic G-d is not only that there is a single Deity, but also that there is a single source of ethics that may not be challenged or impeached by any other source. Once there are multiple deities, there are multiple sources of ethics. One “god” can declare that killing under certain circumstances is murder. Another “god” may state that such actions are surely not murder and are, in fact, entirely justified.

Although most of us no longer live in environments that practice idolatry in the ancient manner, the question of absolute ethics is a burning question in our society. Those who live in democracies are in a position, made possible by democratic voting, to legislate changes in ethics. What may have been absolutely unacceptable for 50 years may suddenly be declared acceptable today by popular vote. In many instances, these changes are meant to advance society, like the prohibition of slavery and racial discrimination. In other instances, these changes are clearly a step backwards. The Scandinavian countries that recently legislated the right to perform euthanasia and permit physicians to assist in suicides raise very serious moral issues for us. With the second commandment, our Torah unequivocally posits that we may not subscribe to so-called “situational” ethics. For observant Jews, and for ethical monotheists in general, there are, in most instances, absolutes–such as the sanctity of family, property, and human life. These are the values upon which the Jewish people are not prepared to compromise.

And so we see that the declaration of a monotheistic Deity alone (the first commandment without the second commandment) is simply not sufficient. What is important for the Jew and for all civilized societies is to gain and maintain the awareness and the knowledge to reject any source that may compromise Judaism’s cherished absolute beliefs.

The profundity of these values can not be overstated. In fact, that is why the Al-mighty spoke them Himself on Sinai. They are values that we must continue to heed and practice until the end of days.

May you be blessed.