Rabbi David Walk
One of America's more cogent observers passed away a little over a month ago. Few social commentators had the impact of Christopher Hitchens who over many decades wrote thought provoking articles for Vanity Fair and many other magazines. However, he was very controversial. He joined Richard Dawkins in militant atheism, and infamously attacked Mother Teresa, as a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud. Although he was usually known for left wing positions, he angered liberals with his support for the war in Iraq. Perhaps his most troubling rants were against the State of Israel. He referred to himself as an Anti-Zionist of Jewish descent. I guess the name Christopher was camouflage. But this week I'm going to discuss his well known attacks on the Ten Commandments, which appear in this week's Torah reading. In 2003, his tirade was against Judge Roy Moore who as the elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, refused to remove a massive monument of the Ten Commandments from the state supreme courthouse despite orders to do so from a federal judge. He called Judge Moore a fool and publicity hound. However I'm more interested in his article of April 2010 called The New Commandments. He generally feels that the Ten Commandments need a rewrite. They are all either obsolete or obvious. He complains that they were addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. He suggests scrapping the old top ten list, and substituting genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, sexual repression, white-collar crime, the wanton destruction of the natural world, and people who yak on cell phones in restaurants. But he reserves his greatest angst for number ten, thou shalt not covet. So, I'll put my efforts to defend this abused commandment.
Before I get to the specific attack on the tenth commandment, I want to answer a general complaint concerning the entirety of the list. Mr. Hitchins wrote that these mitzvoth are obsolete or archaic. I discussed this issue with my eighth grade students recently, and they had no trouble updating the content of at least the tenth commandment in minutes. The list of items in the Torah which we shouldn't covet are home, wife, field, slave, maidservant, ox, donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor. The updated list offered by these bright young people read house, spouse, business, employees, nanny or housekeeper, business equipment, automobile, and toys. Included in this last category are things like electronic gadgets and home entertainment centers. We are rarely bothered by anachronisms in our Torah, we update them almost automatically. No one is offended by modernized productions of Shakespeare; we Jews do this with our beloved Torah.
Mr. Hitchens begins his assault on the tenth commandment by complaining that the prohibition against coveting isn't even a mitzvah because it never mentions a specific act. Plus, the nerve of the Torah to introduce the totalitarian concept of a thought crime. But the biggest objection is that it can't be moral to prohibit a fairer distribution of wealth according to liberals or why is it wicked to be ambitious and acquisitive according to conservatives?
The first objection in fact is an old one. Already the Sefer Hachinohe (13th century, anonymous) observed that the Hebrew word Tachmod (which we translate as covet) means more than just to want or to desire. It means to hatch a plot to acquire the property of another. Merely wanting another's stuff doesn't fall into the area of this commandment. This famous book specifies that there is no prohibition without an overt act. On the other hand, there is the position of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra. He suggests that the purpose of this mitzvah is not to protect the property of the neighbor, rather it is to train every Jew by means of self-education towards the proper religious consciousness and attitude, a person can look at "anything that is pleasant to his eyes" without such things arousing in him the desire to attain them. The goal is psychological rather than economic.
This last point by the Ibn Ezra begins the response to Hitchins' final issue, that the Torah shouldn't stifle economic growth by trying to limit consumerism. I believe strongly that we must differentiate between healthy consumerism from the unhealthy aspects of materialism, which this mitzvah addresses. We just had the advertising orgy of the Super Bowl. Many of those ads contribute to an unhealthy situation. I'm actually writing this article while flying to Israel with the eighth grade of Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, CT. So, I can report on my extensive research about which were the best commercials during the Super Bowl. Far and away the most popular ad amongst those students sitting within hailing distance of me on the plane was the M & M's commercial. However, honorable mention goes to Ferris Beuhler, Seinfeld, Coke's Polar Bears, and Silverado trucks which survived Armageddon together with Twinkies. Thank God no one mentioned the offensive ads which hinted that you could look like David Beckham if you wear the right underwear or would be surrounded by scantily clad beautiful girls if you drive the correct automobile. Here's the rule of thumb: healthy consumerism is based upon buying a product because it provides a service which you want done well. Unhealthy materialism is based upon the corrupt and ridiculous premise that I will be a different person (happier and sexier) because I drive a certain car or drink a particular beer. The purveying of products through that kind of propaganda is reprehensible and feeds a frenzy of jealousy and covetousness, often called keeping up with Joneses.
I wish Christopher Hitchens well in that new life of his, which he didn't believe in, but I strongly disagree with his views on the tenth commandment. Our world would be a much better place if we didn't think that we are what we own. And that's the real lesson of that mitzvah we call 'Thou shalt not covet.' .
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