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Jewish World Review
August 22, 2007
/ 8 Elul, 5767
The Decalogue, dangerous? Advice for a society that cringes at commandments
Everybody with male children this summer seems to be reading the wonderful retro guidebook The Dangerous Book for Boys. I was startled, and pleased, to find amid the knot-tying, semaphore-reading, poker playing and all things the Dennis the Menace set needs to know a page dedicated to, of all things, the Ten Commandments.
The Decalogue, dangerous? The commandments certainly are regarded as hazardous by the Irritable-American community, which successfully petitions the courts to banish them from public life. At least these stalwart secularists give the Decalogue its due; most of us admire the Ten Commandments just enough to avoid taking them seriously. If we grasped how radical they truly are, we'd find them an offensive stumbling block to us middle-class moderns, who live in a rebellious age characterized by sociologist Daniel Bell as "the rejection of a revealed order, or natural order, and the substitution of the ego, the self, as the lodestar of consciousness."
We have lost the fear of the Lord and the absence of 'holy fear' makes us terrors unto ourselves and one another. Why? Because we know what humans who recognize no authority but themselves are capable of.
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Another dangerous book this summer, this one for grown-ups, is David Klinghoffer's marvelously lucid Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore The Ten Commandments at Our Peril. It weaves theological insight with the author's reflections on living in a society (ours, alas) that has cast off the Decalogue's authority.
Mr. Klinghoffer is a religious Jew, but his argument is as sociological as it is theological. The Ten Commandments are far more than a list of taboos, Mr. Klinghoffer explains. They reveal what it means to live a fully human life, both as individuals and in community and as commandments (not suggestions), they provide us with the psychological means of doing so.
That is, the justice of the commandments is guaranteed by the G-d who issued them an all-powerful being who will judge individuals and cultures by these laws. The old-fashioned phrase "the fear of the Lord" meant precisely the respect men owed to G-d and his laws a respect that, properly understood, bound their consciences and compelled their obedience.
Mr. Klinghoffer cites the work of noted Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, who found that across global cultures, the degree to which individuals believe in a personal G-d indicates how likely they are to behave morally. You don't have to believe in G-d to be good, but it demonstrably helps. Mr. Klinghoffer identifies the loss of the Ten Commandments' as responsible for America's cultural crises.
No surprise there: What else would you expect a believing Jew (or Christian) to say?
But here's the thing: This is essentially the same conclusion reached by the late Philip Rieff, an agnostic who was one of the 20th century's most important social critics.
Mr. Rieff, a sociologist whose most important work dealt with psychology and religion, taught that all cultures develop from prohibitions, that is, the creative tension between the commanding "Thou shalt not" and the assertive "I will." We now dwell in an anti-culture, according to Mr. Rieff, in which we no longer feel the pull of old prohibitions against the expression of individual instinct and will to power.
In biblical terms, we have lost the fear of the Lord and in Mr. Rieff's telling, the absence of "holy fear" makes us terrors unto ourselves and one another.
By placing the Self in the place of G-d, said Mr. Rieff, Western man has passed into a perilous state in which his fear, anxiety and loss of ultimate meaning can only be endured through pleasure-seeking and other therapeutic means. We latter-day Americans are wealthy and cultured, but we quickly approach a state of barbarism, which Mr. Rieff defined as "the sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past." Popular American Christianity, with its Jesus-As-Best-Friend rather than Sovereign Lord, is in Mr. Rieff's view an ersatz substitute.
What both the believing Jew Klinghoffer and the unbelieving Jew Rieff affirm is the absolute requirement of religious grounding to maintain a moral culture. We will live in holy terror the fear of the Lord or we will live in terror of ourselves and one another. Why? Because we know what humans who recognize no authority but themselves are capable of.
"How a culture thinks about G-d will go a long way toward determining how it thinks about other people," writes Mr. Klinghoffer. For all our historical crimes and failings, no culture in the history of the world has treated the individual with as much respect as the Western civilization, which derived its worldview largely from the Bible. If we lose the image of G-d as revealed in the laws He declared on Sinai, we will lose the Western image of the human person.
Many of us think of the Ten Commandments as noble sentiments from simpler days, worthy but naive concepts we left behind in Sunday school. Funny how the older you get especially if you have children the ideas you once dismissed or forgot about turn out to be the most important ones of all.
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Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of the forthcoming "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum).
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