Dear Ten Commandments

Dear Ten Commandments,

It's no small responsibility- being the moral core of someone's life philosophy. And to hear people talk, you are the at the heart of almost everyone's world view; at least in the west. I've met people who've rejected almost all of Christianity or Judaism, but tell me that they still think the Ten Commandments sum up morality. I've run across amoral a-holes who haven't had a metaphysical thought in years, still mumbling in the subjunctive mood about the Ten commandments. Even a fair share of atheists seem to think you're a good idea. Not to be outdone, institutions of every stripe have enshrined you as the pinnacle of ethical aspiration. Churches, synagogues, and Charlton Heston movies are a given, but even the separation of church and state clause couldn't keep our third branch of government from going gaga over the Big Ten.

I don't care if Top Ten Lists did originate from the Ten Commandments. Moses' stone-tableted decalogue still gets a spot on my Top Ten List of Most Over-rated Things in Human History

Evidently, you are the bedrock of our judicial system, and that warrants an appearance in courtrooms across the nation. As far as the separation of church and state goes, it would seem that you have made a successful bid to transcend your own decidedly religious origins. You have soared above the earthly realm, far outside any one time-period or region or religion, into the pantheon of axiomatic, objective morality. But it's lonely at the top. And I suspect you're starting to feel it.

Far be it from me to stand in opposition to four thousand years of near-universally accepted moral authority and furthermore, I am the last person who would want to stem the tide of a hard-on Love Fest in mid torrent. Like Lloyd Christmas says in Dumb & Dumber, "I can't stop once I've started- it stings."

But the truth is, I'm starting to feel bad for you. The only thing more uncomfortable than receiving un-ending adulation is receiving un-ending undeserved adulation, and by this point you must be feeling a lot like Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. I mean, it seems like no matter what you do, you just can't convince people of the obvious truth that's right in front of them- that you're a crudely constructed, completely subjective, ethnocentric, incomplete, in some cases entirely arbitrary list of ten rules made by one of many middle-eastern tribes to help regulate their tiny, inbred, ignorant, superstitious, solipsistic, bronze-age society. And yet somehow, in some sort of a Prince and the Pauper scenario gone eternal, you've been coerced, against your will, to occupy a position you never deserved in the first place, and forced to play along, while the consequences of the discovery of your true nature mount higher with every passing year.

That's a lot of pressure. Let me take some of the load off. I'm sorry, Big Ten, but I think it's time to come clean. It's only going to get worse, the longer you wait. Trust me when I tell you that ultimately, I'm doing you a favor.

Let's take this commandment by commandment; paraphrased, of course.

1. The Judaic god Yahweh introduces himself, gives us a brief bio, and tells us why we should feel indebted to him- he delivered us out Egypt, a land of slavery. For those of us who aren't Jewish, it feels a little irrelevant. Point being, we should have no other gods except for Yahweh.

2. Commandment two goes into slightly more detail, but pretty much repeats commandment one. I think we get it. No other gods but Yahweh.

3. The third commandment tells us that we should not use Yahweh's name in vain. So we've blown through three commandments, and as far as I can see, we're not really even out of the gate yet. If you're going to boil down all of morality into only ten commands, I'd think you'd want to make more economical use of each one. This is the equivalent of James Madison using the first third of the U.S. Constitution to tell us why we should listen to him, how great of a guy he is personally, and to forbid anyone from disrespecting him at any time in the future. If these commandments are so great, shouldn't they be self-evident? Why do we need the first three to make a fallacious appeal to authority? Either they're wise edicts to be judged on their own merit or they're not; it shouldn't matter whether they come from the mouth of God or a three-year-old chimpanzee with down syndrome. And if we do consider these first three commands on their own merit, it's worth noting that not only are they not the basis of our constitution or our judicial system, they are in direct opposition to our American way of life. Our constitution guarantees the freedom to worship whichever and however many gods we please. We are also granted freedom of speech, which as I see it, should include as many God Damns and For Christ's Sakes as I choose to indulge in. If our society were really based upon the ten commandments, we'd be living like the Israelites did, in a totalitarian theocracy. But I digress.

4. Commandment number four- remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. I'm not sure this is top-ten-rules-of-morality worthy, (more like a good idea, or a smart suggestion) but it's the first good idea I've read off this tablet so far. At least the concept is commendable- take a break once in a while, remember what's it's all about. Step back from the daily grind and put things into perspective. Recharge the batteries. Of course, a forced day of remembrance every week wouldn't go over very well in a free society, which is why we don't threaten people with death by stoning here in the U.S. if they want to mow their lawn on Sunday or Saturday afternoon, but this commandment is a step in the right direction.

5. Honor your father and mother. Here's another good idea, but once again, not something that made the cut to get into our own legal system. Our take is generally that parents and children need to work out their own shit, and the state tries not to get involved if possible. If spankings, time-outs, and lost video-game privileges won't bring a child into line, I'm not sure a commandment is going to make any difference, but it was a nice thought.

6. You shall not murder. Good. Check. Next.

7. You shall not commit adultery. A good idea, but once again, a little invasive, and not something that's generally enforced by governments in free societies.

8. You shall not steal. Perfect.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. The neighbor part seems unnecessarily specific, but I like it otherwise. Perjury and lying under oath is out. Good one.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, slave, ox, etc, etc. This one is disturbing on several levels. First, it establishes a thought-crime, which seems chillingly Orwellian. Second, it institutionalizes slavery, which a more thoughtful list of ten ultimate moral laws would undoubtedly have addressed in the opposite manner, maybe in replacement of one of those three redundant duds at the beginning. This is why I admonished you to be more economical with each command. Here we are at the end already, and we haven't even touched slavery (except to tacitly accept it), rape, incest, gender and racial quality, genocide, war crimes, fair business practices, governmental transparency, basic freedoms, human rights, property rights, and how to deal with people who become total pricks the moment they get behind the wheel of an automobile. And as far the fabric of the American way of life goes, coveting your neighbor's stuff is arguably the back-bone of capitalism and the prime-mover of the American consumer society. At any length, coveting certainly isn't prohibited under our judicial system.

In summary- four of the ten commandments are antithetical to the American way of life, and directly opposed to our constitution. A grand total of three are prohibitions that are actually enforced within our own judicial system. We've got some glaring absences in this ultimate moral code- the silence on rape is particularly troubling. We have tacit support of the slavery system, and the first third of this exalted ethical treatise is dedicated to defending the street cred of an ancient Hebrew deity. And this is the declared foundation of a free, pluralistic, democratic society which "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Yahweh, the first three commandments would seem to suggest, feels differently about establishing religions and the free exercise thereof.

I know it might sting right now, Ten Commandments, but I hope that tomorrow you can breathe easier with all that weight removed from your shoulders. I hope that after being outed you can finally give up the pretensions and really enjoy being who you are- a historical document, and an interesting insight into the minds of an ancient society.

Sebastian Braff


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