Sermon – Reading the sixth commandment with meaning

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 June 2011

What is the most insightful programme about religion on television? With apologies to my fabulous colleague, Laura, it is probably not The Big Questions. Nor is it the angry ravings of Richard Dawkins, or the simplistic deconstructions of Francesca Stavrakopoulou.

No, if you really want insight into religion, you should look no further than The Simpsons, the animated sitcom that tells the life of the Simpsons, an average working class American family in the fictional town of Springfield.  To quote its Wikipedia page, the show “lampoons American culture, society, television and many aspects of the human condition” – and this includes religion. And, whether it is pointing a finger at the deepest theological dilemmas of our time, or providing a cutting critique of organised religion, rewriting biblical stories or, indeed, showing the enormous value of communal togetherness, The Simpsons just gets it.

A good example is the earliest Simpsons episode to deal with religion: Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment, in which Homer gets illegal cable, and Lisa, his daughter, is troubled by the small instances of dishonesty that she sees around her.  One dream sequence finds the early ancestors of the Simpsons at the foot of Sinai.  Homer the Thief is talking with Azran the Carver of Graven Images and Zoar the Adulterer, when Moses comes down bearing the Ten Commandments.  To their horror, Moses proclaims: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, ‘thou shalt not make graven images’, ‘thou shalt not steal’ – the latter of which receives a resounding Doh!

This small scene points to something that we often forget – that the commandments, even these core ideas, were only necessary because people were doing the things they prohibited.  The Ten Commandments, indeed much of the law found in Torah was innovative – the legal codes of the Torah, along with some contemporaneous codes, were beginning to put in place structures to manage behaviour based on principles about how we value one another in a world in which these did not exist.

This was true even of the commandment we might consider the most obvious, the most intuitive – the prohibition on murder.  The Ten Commandments come from a time in which value was not placed on individual human life.  The biblical ideal that each life was of equal value was an extraordinary innovation.

We can see hints of the surrounding reality in the bible itself – not only in its need to manage human relations, but in allusions to traditions of human sacrifice in surrounding cultures.  Psalm 106 tells us that the Israelites learned the ways of the nations: “Their own sons and daughters they sacrificed to the demons, they shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan” Most famously, in Leviticus we read about the passing of children through fire as part of the cult of Molech.  As Milton, who makes Molech a fallen angel, puts it in Paradise Lost First Moloch, horrid King besmear’d with blood Of human sacrifice, and parents tears, Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud, Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire

Though the exact identity of Molech is unclear, and the passage from Psalms is more poetry than history, there is some evidence for human sacrifice in the region – in contemporaneous mythical narratives and in near Eastern and North African archeological artefacts.  There is strong evidence, for example, to suggest that in the Iron Age in Phoenicio-Punic culture, around north Africa, Malta and Spain – if not in Canaan – there was regular child sacrifice.  Even where human sacrifice were unusual, there is little doubt that in many prevailing cultures little value was placed on human life – any more than it was placed on others’ material possessions or their partners.  So the valuing of human life was an innovation.  It is found in other legal codes – the code of Hammurabi for example prohibits murder, but such concern was not universal.  Though we might think today that the statement ‘murder is wrong’ is self-evident, this was not always the case.

But this should not surprise us.  It is not even necessary to look beyond our own and recent times to know that the valuing of human life is not a given.  One need only think of the Jewish experience of the Twentieth Century, and that of others who were victims of Nazi atrocity.  Underlying the Nazi exercise was a fundamental rejection of the conception of individual human lives as mere sentimentality.  The title of one of the earliest German books on eugenics, a work which was to prove influential in the early euthanasia programme that preceded the final solution says it all: The Release and Destruction of Lives Devoid of Value.

And the arrest of Radko Mladic this week should serve as a reminder that even in our modern times – in a Europe theoretically shaped by Judeo-Christian values, a respect for the sanctity of human life is not a given.  The massacre at Srebenica was not only an atrocity, but represented a fundamental devaluing of the life of the other.  As the presiding judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, stated: The Bosnian Serb forces… targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica… They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity. The religious and national identity of their victims overcame any value that the perpetrators might once have placed on human life

So when we read the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning it is worth remembering that they are not a given.  They are not trivial.  They are not obvious.

The ideas found therein were radical then and they remain invaluable today. These great insights of the Torah – that we are all created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God – that each life is important – these are probably the most important contribution of Judaism to the world.  More than in perhaps any other tradition, the value of every human being irrespective of race, sex or ability is an underpinning value of Judaism – one which informs every aspect of Jewish ethics.

On Shavuot morning, whatever our understanding of revelation – we celebrate an important milestone in the life of humanity.  It is a tragedy of modern times that we might need the Simpsons to teach us that.