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Arguably One of the Worst Ideas in Human History (Yitro – 01/26/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Arguably One of the Worst Ideas in Human History
The Ten Commandments brings to mind many disparate things: Charlton Heston, Mel Brooks, tablets over an Ark, and the founding laws for a few religions. In Jewish tradition, they’re actually called “The Aseret HaDibrot” the Ten Principles or Statements, as we have a belief that there are actually 613 Mitzvot (commandments). Rashi, commenting on Exodus 24:12, suggest that the 10 Statements are categories under which the rest of the Mitzvot can be organized, sort of a table of contents.
Others view “10” as a symbol for Holiness, for “10” seems to be one of those “magic numbers” we find in Torah. “Let there be…” is mentioned 10 times in the beginning of Genesis in the creation of the World.  There were 10 Plagues that liberated Israel from Egypt, that led us to the 10 “Commandments” at Sinai. We need 10 for a Minyan to conduct public services. The dimensions of the Holy of Holies in Temple in Jerusalem were 10 cubits by 10 cubits. Last but not least, a human being has 10 fingers and 10 toes.
Ten is therefore a numerical representation for holiness, the Creation, and the presence of God in our lives. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Judaism is about Sanctifying life”; therefore, the first commandments to the Jewish people come in a set of 10.
It be wonderful if we could say that these Ten Statements only brought holiness to the world, but I just read something from Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 lessons for the 21st century that greatly disturbed me.
He claims that monotheism, the first tenet of the Ten Commandments
(I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me), was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history.
Harari says, “Monotheism did little to improve the moral standards of humans—do you really think Muslims are inherently more ethical than Hindus just because Muslims believe in a single god while Hindus believe in many gods?
Were Christian conquistadores more ethical than pagan Native American tribes?
What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars.”[1]
Harari, in fact, defends the pagans, “Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people worshipped different gods and performed diverse rites and rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs.
Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience. Consequently, as Christianity and Islam spread around the world, so did the incidence of crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and religious discrimination.
When Christianity took over the Roman empire, the emperors adopted a very different approach to religion. Beginning with Constantine the Great and his son Constantius II, the emperors closed all non-Christian temples and forbade so-called pagan rituals on pain of death.
According to the new laws, one could be executed even for worshipping Jupiter or Mithras in the privacy of one’s own home.”
Now if you’ll say that’s only true for gentile monotheism, we had this intolerance in Jewish form as well, for in the book of Deuteronomy we were instructed to totally annihilate the pagans in Canaan when Joshua brought us into the land.
Today this “one doctrine” exclusivity continues in the modern State of Israel, as only Orthodox rabbis are recognized as legitimate religious leaders. Not only is there not a coed or pluralistic section by the Western Wall, but non-Orthodox rabbis are prohibited from performing religious rituals in Israel. Recently a Conservative rabbi in Tel Aviv was arrested in his house at five in morning for performing a wedding the previous night.
Nonetheless, I believe that ethical monotheism was not only not the worst idea in human history, but rather a correct and noble one. The belief in a Universal God that cares about the individual is important for all of humanity to know.
What is also clear is that religious tolerance needs to accompany this belief. The fact that our God created a world where overt godliness is hidden and free will abounds means we need to be open to others who do not believe as we do.
The Ten Commandments, with its emphasis on the belief in one God is enlightening. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” means that God is your God. God monitors what occurs in our lives and relates to us on the individual level. What teaching could be more uplifting?
On the other hand, the next few lines need to be treated with caution: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourselves a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” We would do well to embrace these words only a personal level and stay away from enforcing them on others.
Harari has a point: monotheism has brought tremendous suffering into the world. He should also see that it has brought tremendous inspiration and encouragement to the individual as well. The world would be best served if we could be open minded monotheists, embracing the One Loving Power of the Universe while respecting others’ rights to choose their own path.
[1] Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (pp. 195-198). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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