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Published on April 12th, 2018 | by Natan Margalit


No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments

A Book Review of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments
By Ana Levy-Lyons
Published by  Center Street/Hachette 2018
Reviewed by Natan Margalit
Originally published in Tikkun Magazine (link)

It is evident from the first page that this book is swimming against the current in our contemporary political and spiritual landscape. Author Ana Levy-Lyons tells a story in her preface about how one of her teachers back in high school liked to entertain the kids by listing oxymorons: pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, etc, and he sometimes included: “liberal religion.”  The laughs that he got demonstrated the underlying assumption in our culture: liberal and religious don’t go together.  The task that the author takes on is to prove that assumption wrong. She does a very good job.

The book is structured around Ana Levy-Lyons’ modern commentary on the ten commandments. Adapting a series of sermons for her Brooklyn congregation, Levy-Lyons writes this book from the unusual position of being a Unitarian Universalist minister, but one with a proudly Jewish identity and relying heavily on Jewish sources and modes of interpretations. She correctly identifies her genre as a modern example of rabbinic midrash.  Straddling worlds as she does, Levy-Lyons is in a position to do something that many Jewish intellectuals hope to do: make the case that Jewish wisdom has something very valuable to contribute to humanity as a whole. At a moment in Jewish American history when the idea of Judaism as an ethnicity is arguably receding, and the idea of Judaism as a treasury of religious, moral, and political wisdom is on the rise, this book makes a strong case for the latter. It seamlessly incorporates Jewish wisdom into the universal struggle of justice, liberation, and human flourishing.

Integrating a progressive, liberal value system with religion does not involve only new interpretations of religion, it involves some hard looks at our liberal values themselves. I found it especially refreshing that she dives right in from the beginning of the first chapter with a clear-eyed critique of our hyper-individualism, and our “freedom fetish.”  She calls out her own contemporaries on the strong tendency to make the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions. She relates how she once asked a group of religious liberals what rules they could imagine would govern a hypothetical serious, tight knit, observant community that followed their faith tradition:

“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 manufacture 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 do the right thing presumably because they would be good people who always try to do the right thing within reason.”

I was reminded (and here my cultural references are showing my age) of the scene in the original Ghost Busters film from the 80s: Bill Murray’s character is tempted by the seductions of the demonically possessed, but still sexy, character played by Sigourney Weaver. He says, “I have a rule never to get involved with possessed people.” But, when she uses her supernatural strength to throw him on the bed, jumps on him and starts smothering him with kisses, he shifts to “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.”

Central to Levy-Lyon’s point is that without commitments, without communal support and agreed upon rules, it is very difficult to resist the temptations and seductions of modern life.  The seductions she writes about aren’t sexual (although that is a part of it as well) as much as the corporate driven consumer culture that is normalized by advertising, entertainment, and social norms.  We all want to be good people, but without some actual rules, upheld by a community that holds these rules above the clatter of consumerist society, we are hard pressed to resist just with our “guidelines.”  She correctly points out the addictive power of the corporate, consumerist systems that pervade our world:

“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, “quit 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.”

Levy-Lyons notes that not only does our “freedom fetish” fail to counter the overwhelming power of these economic and social systems, it has also failed to provide us with the meaning and sense of belonging that we need as human beings.

“… 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.”

The result is that we are even weaker and less able to muster the resolve and strength to hold onto our values and actually live lives that we believe to be good and purposeful.

Turning from the author’s critique of contemporary liberal values to her interpretations of biblical scripture, it is clear that her liberal/religious synthesis rests strongly on her handling of God.  In her interpretation of the first of the Ten Commandments

“I am YHVH, your God, who brought you out of the land from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods besides me.”

she draws heavily on contemporary Jewish mystical theologies which emphasize that the Hebrew word YHVH means “to be” in a unique grammatical anomaly that includes past, present and future. This is not the personal God that most of us grew up with, and in which many, if not most, liberal religionists no longer believe. This is God as Being; God as the spiritual grounding of the universe, the Soul of the world.

She notes that by itself, this understanding of God might lead to a quietist, passive recognition of Being.  The first commandment might have been a Buddhist-like warning not to confuse any of the changing manifestations of Being for the ever-present and ever-changing essence of Being itself. But, the first commandment is saved from this passivist interpretation by the next words, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.” The Soul of the World, the God of Being, wants something of us. This God is on the side of liberation, and it makes demands on us to continue the unfolding of liberation.

Beyond this important shift toward an immanent God of Being, Levy-Lyons doesn’t spend a lot of time on pure theology.  She doesn’t tell us whether she relates to this God of Being as a He, She or It; she doesn’t go into prayer or spiritual practice except as they relate to and contribute to our breaking free of the oppressive systems of our modern capitalist society and its malaises.  This is not a criticism. Her interest in this book is understanding the political, ecological, and social implications of the Ten Commandments, and, on a deeper level, of serving a God of Being who leads us to see that the world is essentially good; that pulls us and guides us toward justice and liberation.

Extending her theological discussion, I would say that the God that she writes about is not passive because She is the essence of a Wholeness/Holiness that emerges from all being, is greater than any of its parts, and desires to protect and extend that Wholeness/Holiness. This God manifests as that Presence which dwells within and hovers above all the unfathomable patterns, networks and beautiful balance of the world. The Living Spirit that emerges from all-that-is calls out to us to be a part of this beautiful Wholeness/Holiness.  This essence of Aliveness calls us to be truly alive ourselves and to protect and serve life.  God as Being is not neutral because She is the Living Spirit of the world, including and transcending all its many parts.  She takes “being” into “Being” and enlivens all. Though I cannot deny the Kabbalists who speak of the Eyn Sof, the Infinite Source that is beyond all and the Source of all, the God that manifests to us and can be known by us is the emergent Spirit of all Living Being.

This theology of emergence is not something that Levy-Lyons explores, but in my perspective, recognizing the power of emergence, helps us to see more clearly some of the things that are important to her: her critique of hyper-individualism, the power of community, and the pervasiveness of the social worlds that we create, for good or for bad, and which we live in and recreate with our voices and actions.

But this is my interest, and it is not a weakness of her book that Levy-Lyons puts her focus elsewhere.  Her modern interpretations of the Ten Commandments are brilliant and compelling.  Following in the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she extends the narrow, literal meanings into creative new perspectives on countering the traps and dangers of our modern, corporate world.  Her treatment of the fifth commandment, “honor your parents” for example, is extended to “honor where you came from.”  This is no sleight-of-hand, but a deep meditation on the idea that we don’t invent ourselves, we are not isolated, free floating individuals but we are indebted to not only our parents, but our culture, our traditions, and the earth. She writes:

“…the fifth commandment calls us to cultivate a very un-American quality of humility. It asks us to acknowledge that we are not self-made. We are the products of all that came before us, including the flawed love of our parents, the successes and failures of our ancestors, the teachers of all kinds who have shaped us throughout our lives.”

She brilliantly connects this insight to the unusual wording of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother so that your days will be long in the land the YHVH, your God, is giving you.”   She asks why there would be a connection between honoring one’s parents and living long on the land, and she answers that in fact, the earth is also our mother.

With this understanding of “parent,” the fifth commandment addresses our relationship to the earth itself. We are to cherish the oceans that birth life; the soil that grows all our food; the rain forests that serve as the breath of the planet; the unfathomable array of animals, plants, and insects that all work together in delicate balance; and the ecosystems and atmosphere that creates the perfect conditions—the only possible conditions—for our survival. . . The explanation “so that your days might be long in the land” now makes more sense. If we treat Mother Earth with the quality of care and respect due to our own human mother, treading gently, replanting, helping her to heal, and living within our ecological means, the earth will shower us with her abundance and we will be able to live and thrive for many years to come.

Similarly, the seventh commandment: Do not commit adultery becomes “commit for the long haul.” It is a profoundly accurate critique of the ways that consumerism and commodification have invaded and poisoned our most personal relationships:

“Loyalty to something imperfect is almost foreign to us today. Under corporate capitalism, we are expected to trade in and trade up our goods and services at every opportunity. Repairing something broken is also foreign. We are expected to buy a new one instead. People, too, are to be valued for their attractiveness and usefulness and to be discarded when those qualities fade. This commandment challenges us to de-commodify and re-enchant the people in our lives.”

It is in her discussion of this seventh commandment that Levy-Lyons introduces one of the modes of interpretation that I found especially delightful: reading of the two tablets as informing one another across and not simply up and down.  So, for example, the first commandment is seen as parallel to the sixth, the second to the seventh and so on. The first tablet, numbers one through five, are the theological ones, and the second tablet, six though ten, are their manifestations in the human, social world.  So, the first commandment, to recognize and never reduce the sacredness of God, is paralleled by the six, no killing, which would be destroying the image of God in the world.

Along the same lines, the seventh commandment, the prohibition of adultery, is parallel to the second commandment, not to worship idols – both focusing on the quality of loyalty and commitment. Her analysis of this parallel deepens our understanding of adultery while it also connects it to all the idols that we worship today:

“When we worship an idol we invest something artificial with the power of the real. We locate our faith and loyalty in something false. . . We commit adultery for the same reasons we serve other idols—we believe wrongly that by investing ourselves in another person or object or goal that we will finally get the ineffable powers that we’re looking for.”

I’m reminded of when I recently went to a professional basketball game with my son. The gift shop featured jerseys with players names and numbers.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I did do a double take when I saw prices like $120 for a normal looking jersey with the top star’s name and number on the back. It is exactly as Levy-Lyons explains: the socially manufactured power of the name and number of a star can change a $20 jersey into a $120 one. The billion-dollar sports industries as well as many other modern fetishes are built on the manufactured feelings of power and well-being that come with latching onto some star athlete, brand name, or logo. Yet, as she points out, at the end of the day, we are left with ourselves and our real relationships; always imperfect, always requiring work and commitment—but compared to the many tempting Golden Calves beckoning us—these are real, and it is here that we find true value and fulfillment.

Stepping back for a moment, we see that this interpretive tool of looking at the Ten Commandments vertically, comparing the first five with the second five, brings out a quality that I believe is deeply embedded in both the original biblical context and our modern needs: to connect the theological with the social and political.  The ancient biblical authors didn’t separate these categories and their connection is built into the structure of the ten commandments. It is also important in that it is an example of the way that patterns in the biblical texts can reveal meaning, in the same way that the patterns of the world reveal meaning. Destroying those patterns or dissecting them into smallest parts kills meaning.

By midrashically 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. It is a tall order and she admits herself that none of us will be able to completely fulfill their demands. But as the rabbis said, it is not for us to complete the task, but neither are we permitted to stop trying.

Rabbi Natan Margalit is President of Organic Torah Institute, a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society.  His article on “The Magic of Emergence” appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Tikkun magazine. View the original article here.

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