According to the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments were engraved on two separate tablets. Why? Was God so short of granite that He needed to use two tablets instead of one?
The answer-proposed by Talmudic sages two thousand years ago-is astounding. The Ten Commandments, they suggested, were engraved on two tablets, five on each stone, so that they would be read in two directions-vertically and horizontally. Read vertically, they follow the well-known order. But read horizontally, Commandment No. 1 is followed directly by Commandment No. 6: “I am the Lord your God-You shall not murder.” History has proven that this juxtaposition is critical.
Two groups have made an attempt to divorce Commandment No. 1 from Commandment No. 6-to sever the idea of a Creator who conceived the world for a moral purpose from the imperative to honor the life of another human being. The first group were the philosophers of the Enlightenment; the second group were religious leaders in many and diverse ages. The result for both was moral defeat.
The End of Enlightenment
The thinkers of the Enlightenment ushered in the Age of Reason and the modern secular era, founded on the ethos that the great ideal of “You shall not murder” did not require the prerequisite of “I am the Lord Your God” in order to be sustained. Faith in God was unnecessary to ensure moral behavior; faith in man was enough-reason alone could guide humanity into an age of liberty and toward the achievement of moral greatness.
The Holocaust spelled the end of this faith in human progress based on human reason. In Auschwitz, the belief that modern man felt a natural empathy for others was forever vanquished. The gas chambers were not invented by a primitive and illiterate people. On the contrary, this people excelled in sciences and the arts but nevertheless sent 1.5 million children and 4.5 million adults to their deaths solely because they were Jews. SS guards would spend a day in Auschwitz, gassing as many as 12,000 human beings, and then return home in the evening to pet their dogs and laugh with their wives. As the smoke of children ascended from the crematoriums, these charming romantics would enjoy good wine, beautiful women, and the moving music of Bach and Wagner. They murdered millions in the name of a developed ethic, and they justified genocide on purely rational grounds.
This is surely one of the legacies of Auschwitz. If morality is left to be determined exclusively by the human mind, it can become a morality that justifies the guillotine, the gulag, and the gas chamber. As Feodor Dostoevsky famously put it in The Brothers Karamazov: “Where there is no God, all is permitted.” Without God, we cannot objectively define any behavior as good or evil. No one can objectively claim that gassing a mother and her children is any more evil than killing a mouse. It is all a matter of taste and opinion. The validity and effectiveness of “You shall not murder” can thus only be sustained when predicated on the foundation of faith in a moral Creator who gave humanity an absolute and unwavering definition of what constitutes good vs. evil.
While the Enlightenment abandoned Commandment No. 1 in favor of No. 6, various religions over the ages abandoned No. 6 in favor of No. 1. Theirs has been the conviction that as long as you believe in the Lord, or in Allah, you can kill and maim whomever you brand an “infidel.” Whether it is a business executive in New York or a teenager eating a slice of pizza in Jerusalem, if the person is not a member of your faith, God wants him or her to die. For the religious fundamentalist, “I am the Lord your God” has nothing to do with “You shall not murder.”
Yet a religion that does not inculcate its followers with the sanctity of every single human life erodes the very purpose of faith, which is to elevate the human person to a state beyond personal instinct and prejudice. If you delete “You shall not murder” from religion, you have detached yourself from “I am the Lord your God.”
The juxtaposition of the two commandments implies that you can’t believe in God and murder. Conversely, if you truly believe that taking the life of another human is wrong, not just because you lack the means or motive to do so or are afraid of ending up in jail, but because you recognize the transcendent, inviolable value of life, that’s just another way of saying you believe in God. For what confers upon human life its radical grace, its transcendent sanctity, and its absolute value if not the living presence of God imprinted on the face of the human person?
Yosef Y. Jacobson, one of the most sought-after speakers in the Jewish world today, has lectured to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences on six continents.