Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ten Commandments: I did not know that!

Well, I didn't think I could learn anything new about the Ten Commandments, but have been reading David Hazony's new The Ten Commandments, and looks like I was wrong. What's interesting - so far - about Hazony's book is that it goes in so many unexpected directions. So a chapter on the sabbath turns into a meditation on self-realization; 'Honor thy Father and Mother' a discussion of the nature of wisdom; and 'Thou Shalt not Murder' a set of reflections on permissible physical pleasures (apparently there are a lot of them) and the 'meaning of life.' What makes Hazony's approach so interesting is that what may look at first like digressions from the matter at hand leads - somehow, and in different ways each time - to the essence of each commandment.

One of the ways to the redeeming of the self - I'm currently reading Hazony's take on the sabbath - is Torah study. Where there has been so much discussion about Torah u'madda in the past generation - analysis, defense, advocacy of the importance of the relationship between Torah and secular wisdom - I found Hazony's approach disarmingly refreshing. We find the 'deepest truths' of ourselves through study; that study, in Hazony's read, can be wide-ranging. For him, one of the models is Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who spent his sabbath afternoons studying texts that included 'constellations and calculations, the sayings of launderers and the saying of foxkeepers, the conversation of demons and the conversation of palm-trees, the conversation of the ministering angels, the great things and the little things.'

Great things and little things! Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai does not have a special syllabus. But rather he is engaged in the world, making himself present to the people and the world in which he lives. You can, it seems, learn a lot from the conversations of launderers (sometimes I feel the same about conversations with Jerusalem taxi drivers). As Hazony puts it, we free our spirits on the sabbath 'reading literature, walking through the woods alone with our thoughts, studying philosophy, meditating, analyzing poetry with a friend, attending a moving and enlightening lecture, or spending time with people we consider wise.' This is all a very far cry from the defensive rejection or polemical advocacy of Torah u'madda. That is, this is not Torah u'madda as an agenda or a stance, but a life lived. Put another way, it entails nurturing a discerning openness to the world, as well as a commitment to cultivating ourselves in relationship to the wisdom - we find it in strange places sometimes admittedly - of others. I think Hazony is on to something here.

I am looking forward to reading more.

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