Literacy and Lifecycle
The Ten Commandments has been the most influential
legal document in history; its directives have influenced the
legislation of every Western and Arabic society. It is also the
most famous document in the Hebrew Bible.
All this you know. So now a question. How
many of the Ten Commandments can you name?
If you can't come up with all ten, don't feel
too discouraged. Few people can. Studies of Americans routinely
show that half the people can name no more than two of the Ten
Commandments. When I've posed this question in front of Jewish
groups before whom I've lectured, I've generally found that about
15% of the people claim they know all ten, and most people say
they can name five or more.
Even among those who can name the commandments,
there often are misconceptions about their meaning. For example,
many people believe that the Sixth Commandment reads, "You
shall not kill." In actuality it reads, "You shall
not murder." This is not a minor semantic difference. A
prohibition on all killing would mean that the Torah believed
in pacifism, and even opposing killing in self-defense. But it
doesn't. The Torah gives one the right to kill in self-defense,
fight wars in self-defense, and legislates, in all five of its
books, that premeditated murderers should be executed.
Ignorance of, and misconceptions about, the
Ten Commandments, is just one small example of the knowledge
about Judaism that many Jews lack. To be a literateJew is, in
actuality, a somewhat daunting task. It involves acquiring a
knowledge of the Torah, other books of the Bible (particularly
the Psalms which are the backbone of the prayer book, and the
Five Scrolls, which are read each year in the synagogue), the
Oral Law (which encompasses the Mishnah and the Talmud) and the
Jewish legal codes (e.g., Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, and Joseph
Karo's Shulkhan Arukh. On a practical level, it involves acquiring
a knowledge of the prayer book, and Jewish lifecycle events (circumcision
and baby naming, bar and bat mitzvah, the wedding ceremony, and
rituals surrounding death). It also involves learning Jewish
history, from the biblical period onward. Twentieth century Jewish
history alone involves the rise of Zionism and the history of
Israel, the Holocaust, and the development of the Jewish community
of the United States.
But while it is possible to spend one's entire
life studying a small branch of Jewish knowledge (e.g., there
are Bible scholars who specialize in one biblical book), beginning
students of Judaism need not be alarmed. So much Jewish material
is now available in well written English translations that it
is not hard, no matter what your level of knowledge or non-knowledge
is, to systematically start studying Judaism.
The most famous story in the Talmud tells
of a non-Jew who asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the essence
of Judaism while he was standing on foot. "What is hateful
to you, don't do unto your neighbor," Hillel responded.
"The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." Two thousand
years later, no one has yet improved on Hillel's statement of
Judaism's essence, nor on his concluding suggestion. So, like
the great sages, I advise you too (as I daily advise myself),
"Now, go and study."
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is a widely known spiritual leader and
scholar. He lectures widely throughout North America, is an associate
of CLAL and serves as rabbi for the Synagogue of the Performing
Arts in Los Angeles. He lives with his wife, Dvorah, and their
four children in New York City.