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Contemporary Society and Judaism (Yitro – 02/15/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Contemporary Society and Judaism
What’s more uniquely Jewish than the Ten Commandment? The Children of Israel escape from Egypt, survive the entrapment at the Red Sea, and encamp as one at the base of Mt. Sinai. God asks them to be a treasured, devoted nation and they reply wholeheartedly, “Whatever God says, we will do.” God descends upon Mt. Sinai and initiates them into the covenant with a mix of religious and humanitarian laws.
Indeed, the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments upon them decorate nearly every synagogue and have become the symbol of Judaism around the world. Yet, what if I’d tell you that there is an element to the Ten Commandments that is not singularly Jewish?
One of the most fruitful discoveries of biblical research in the 1950s was the independent recognition by three scholars, E. Bickermann, G. Mendenhall, and K. Baltzer, that there is a striking similarity between the Israelite covenant and international legal documents of the ancient Near Eastern countries at that time.
Treaty documents, dictated by regional kings (suzerains) to the local city kings (vassals) who were subject to them, formalized the relationship between the two.
They regularly included a specific group of formal elements:
  1. The suzerain’s introduction of himself by name.
  2. An historical prologue, giving the history of the relations between the parties, generally showing what the suzerain had done for his vassal, and thus establishing that the vassal was in the suzerain’s debt.
  3. The prime stipulation of the treaty, namely that the vassal was to have allegiance to this suzerain and to no other.
  4. The rest of the stipulations, e.g., the vassal’s obligation to pay tribute, to come when summoned to the suzerain’s court, and to provide troops for the suzerain’s military defense.
If this structure sounds familiar, it’s because it’s precisely replicated in our Sinai Covenant:
  1. Introduction: I am YHWH your God
  2. Historical Prologue: who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of slaves
  3. Prime Stipulation: You shall not have other gods
  4. Other Stipulations: You shall not make a statue; You shall not bring up the name of YHWH, your God, for a falsehood; Remember the Sabbath; Honor your father and your mother …
Furthermore, Near Eastern suzerainty treaties also required another feature that appears in our covenant: that the signed document be guarded in a sacred place. In our case, the Children of Israel pledge their obedience (Exodus 24:3,7), and the Two Tablets are deposited in the Ark in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (25:16,21; 40:20).
Thus, our covenant with God was conceived in the legal terms of that world. The words of the Ten Commandments are not just a religious doctrine, rather, they are legal corpora, concluded contractually between the creator and our antecedents living at that time.[1]
What this discovery is telling us is that the Torah itself was influenced by the framework of contemporary society. This would, of course, explain why many of the laws of the Torah seem antiquated to us.
But there’s a positive side to this as well. If the word of God is influenced by societal norms back then, should it not be now as well?
This is certainly the reason Conservative Judaism has reinterpreted laws regarding Shabbat, sexual inequality, LGBTQ rights and much more.
Progress never stops. One of the things I’ve been considering is including people in a minyan via Zoom/Skype.
If in our day and age, one can attend a business meeting through Zoom and read a bedtime story to our child through Facebook Messenger, shouldn’t we also be able to connect to God by the same means? Wasn’t our covenant written according to the conventions of its time?
The Torah, and all of Judaism, was always influenced by the times, and for it to succeed, we must continue to thoughtfully adapt and progress.
Have a great week,
R’ Neil
[1] Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 16897-16916). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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