Religion is on the front-burner for many, particularly in the Jewish community, as we celebrate the birthday of creation through Rosh Hashanah, and then the more severe interlude of introspection and soul-cleansing of Yom Kippur. Religion doesn’t always work, but these days it is definitely working. And people are asking interesting questions.
In this world-environment of such searing religious divisiveness, even a question could invite a clash, an edict, or worse. But it’s an intellectual inquiry; when religion stops people from thinking and discussing, the result is, well, Iran or any of the smaller-in-scope but still tragically skewed broods of violence that spew from religious fundamentalism and tyranny manifest everywhere, including here in the United States.
Religion doesn’t always work, but these days it is definitely working.
I’ve been asked this question many times over the years—almost always by people who truly love the Bible exactly because they value and enjoy the opportunity to apply and interpret its subtleties and mysteries into their daily lives. “Which is the most important of the Ten Commandments, Rabbi?”
Many people put forth the sixth law, “You shall not murder,” as having the highest priority—and there is an immediate logic to that. We are made in God’s image, according to scriptural text, and human life is sacred. The “pro-life” movement (no judgment is being made here whatsoever) obviously points to this commandment with great emphasis since its adherents regard abortion at any stage as an act of homicide.
I have also heard the first law being heralded as “number one,” with the caveat that it appears first. Unlike most of the others, it is written in a positive configuration: “I am the Lord your God”—and then unconditionally bans any and all forms of idolatry. A strong argument can be made for this one, exactly because idol-worship, from dollars to BMWs to radical clerics to rock icons, has caused more anguish than anything else in human life. Moreover, and too often, the subjects of this maddening idol worship, from John Lennon to Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson, wound up being ravaged by others’ psychoses, or their own inability to find privacy and quietude and/or just plain self-destruction.
All ten laws are imperative and hallowed, of course, but just for the sake of discourse, the rabbinic tradition does offer that one of them stands out as a kind of primer for all the others. It is number five, “Honor your father and mother.” And it’s not because the rabbis, those wise and resourceful teachers of human life, actually believed that everybody was going to blessed with parents easy to revere. They even took that bittersweet reality into consideration when they somewhat seized upon this middle commandment as the one most loaded with psychological and empirical potential.
First off, it doesn’t command you to love your parents—not everybody gets parents who are, frankly, lovable. But it does decree that you honor—meaning your household, your heritage, your family name. The biblical tradition is more concerned that you not get disconnected from your own sense of self than it is with your parents’ success at parenting. This is the brilliance of the Hebrew wording of commandment five.
And if you honor your parents, and thereby your own legacy, you will likely be a better adjusted human being (less prone to self-loathing, guilt, and destructive tendencies), than if you get stuck in generational bickering, anger, and even dysfunction. The result of all this, candidly, is that you are more likely than not to observe the other nine commandments because you are more or less a normal person who enjoys good mental health.
Ah, yes—religion joined with good mental health. Now there’s a commanding idea.