The Ten Commandments have a lot of “thou shalt nots”. Imagine if one of the “nots” was left out.
It actually happened in 1631 when the Royal printers made a mistake in Exodus 20:14, where they accidentally omitted a “not”, so that the command now read, “Thou shalt commit adultery”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury complained of inefficient proofreading and declining standards of public morality. The printers were fined 300 pounds and lost their licence, and the book became known as “The Wicked Bible”.
Now let’s turn to a contemporary Anglican priest in Yorkshire, Rev. Tim Jones, who in his Christmas sermon in 2009 offered a new take on the eighth commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”). Rev. Jones argued that stealing was not always stealing, and it was morally – if not legally – acceptable to shoplift if a person was desperate. However, it was better to shoplift from one of the big stores which can cover their losses by raising prices. Stealing from the little corner stores is problematic.
Church people in Yorkshire are still debating whether this argument is tantamount to the Wicked Bible philosophy.
Despite criticisms of Rev. Jones, there are several Christian precedents. Bishop Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century said, “If I have two pairs of shoes and a beggar has none, to keep both pairs is a form of theft”. Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century, “The wealth of the world is given for all”. In World War II, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Murder is wrong in most instances, but killing Hitler would be justified”.
The moral problem is whether there is any flexibility in extreme circumstances.
The Jewish response seems to be that the “not” in the Ten Commandments means what it says. There is a Yiddish version of this rule, “Lo mit an aleph” – “Not with a capital N”.
However, there are rabbinic statements that countenance flexibility. There is the principle of “hefsed m’rubbeh”, “great loss”, which condones certain transgressions where otherwise the detriment would be extreme.
There is “lif’nim mishurat ha-din”, “within the line of the law”, which says that if really necessary, one does not push their rights to the furthest red line permitted by the law.
There are takkanot, rabbinic ordinances, which accept apparent transgression for the sake of social harmony (“mip’nei dar’kei shalom”) or the avoidance of enmity (“mishum evah”).
In the Ten Commandments, No. 5 tells us to honour our parents, but there are times when honouring God comes first.
No. 6 tells us not to kill, but there are times when killing is warranted (a rabbinic rule is, “ha-ba l’hor’g’cha hashkem l’hor’go”, “If someone comes to kill you, you get in first and kill him”).
No. 7 tells us not to steal, but there are times when it is not an absolute rule.
Maybe Rev. Jones was saying. “The end justifies the means”. Judaism would prefer to say, “The circumstances are often relevant”.
However, the decision is not up to the individual. It must be brought to a sage, “the judge who shall be in those days”.
If he weighs up the considerations and declines to approve a lenient course of action, his word (tantamount to the word of the halachah) must prevail.
In that case a person should echo the rabbinic remark, “I am tempted, but what can I do since the Holy One, Blessed be He, has forbidden it.”
THE VOICE WENT ON.
No moment in history was so dramatic or meaningful.
The assembled hosts of Israel stood at the foot of the mountain. From above boomed the mighty voice: “I am the Lord your God”. As the Midrash says, not a creature moved, not a bird sang, the whole creation was hushed into silence.
But the moment came to an end. The Divine message had been completed. Moses went up upon Mount Sinai to be instructed in the Oral Law. Life in the Israelite camp returned to normal.
D’varim says, “These words God spoke with a loud voice to all your assembly in the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, ‘v’lo yasaf’ – and He added no more” (Deut. 5:19).
Rashi does not read these words in the obvious way. He first quotes the Targum, which renders the Hebrew “and He did not pause”, i.e. He did not stop for breath as human beings need to do, “for His voice is strong and goes on continuously”.
Next Rashi suggests that the Hebrew might mean, “He did not ever again reveal Himself with such publicity”.
From both interpretations there us much we can learn. From the first comes the assurance that there is no stopping for breath, no gap, in the Divine government of the universe. God is always King. No moment escapes His scrutiny, no creature lacks His compassion and care.
Yes, the believer sometimes questions God’s decisions or time table, but we know there is a Heavenly plan that operates constantly even though our perception of it is often only partial.
From the second interpretation we learn that the Divine revelation was a once-only event. There is one Torah, and its teachings are for ever. They are not rendered obsolete or outmoded by events or developments.
Those who want Judaism “brought up to date” are not nearly as clever as they think.
Has “Love your neighbour” really lost its relevance? Is “Do not bear false witness” really in need of reinvention?
Do you really want to cast on the scrap heap the command to have just weights and measures, to keep far from a false word, to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks?
No new revelation is necessary; humanity should take more notice of the old one!