10 questions with ‘Ten Commandments’ author David Hazony

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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David Hazony is the author of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.”

The first time author is currently a doctoral student in Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and he regularly blogs for Commentary Magazine. His work has also appeared in publications like The New Republic and the Jerusalem Post.

Hazony recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his book, how Israelis view the Obama administration, and his upcoming debate with Christopher Hitchens, among other topics:

1.  Why did you write the book?

My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Israel in the 1960s, and I grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home, where the Old Testament was a crucial part of our cultural identity. When I was in my twenties, I felt a need to deepen that identity by reading through the whole Bible in the original Hebrew. Because America is a country rich in religious expression, I was really surprised to discover that the ancient Hebrew writings seemed to contain a whole outlook on life that had somehow been lost in the translation to American culture, both Jewish and Christian. Instead of seeing the cold, harsh, law-enforcing “Old-Testament God” that everyone spoke of, I saw a teaching of this-worldly love, a vibrant dream of redemption that begins with taking responsibility for our lives and communities — something that is less about which faith you choose than about the way you look at what it means to be human. Then a few years ago, a friend suggested that the key to all of it lay in reading the Ten Commandments not just as laws but as core values that spell out this whole outlook. Thus the project was born.

2.  Why are the 10 Commandments so important?

The Torah is filled with laws — 613 of them, according to tradition. Yet only these ten are set apart, representing the ten great statements that Moses brought the Israelites on the two tablets at Mount Sinai. Understanding the Ten Commandments means first realizing that the Bible doesn’t actually call them “commandments” at all. In the original Hebrew they’re called aseret had’varim, which means “Ten Utterances,” and it’s only with the King James translation that they became known as the Ten Commandments. The difference is crucial: They need to be read not simply as laws or commands, but as great, sweeping, paradigmatic statements about what the fundamental relationship between God, man, and the universe ought to look like. Read that way, they reveal a whole take on life that many of us had no idea was there, but which speaks to each of us as loving, acting, life-affirming, world-changing people.

3.  Your book subtitle says that the 10 Commandments can help “renew modern life.” How so?

We sometimes think of modernity as a time when reason and science rather than religious authority guide our lives. And indeed, this is a crucial part of modern life — what I call the Spirit of Reason, which we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, and which has given us political freedom and technological advancement. But reason and tolerance are not enough to give us the inner motivation to get up each morning and make the world better, to fight evil and militate our pride, strength, and love for the good. For that we need the Spirit of Redemption, which comes from the Old Testament — a spirit that, no less than the spirit of reason, has had a huge impact on who we are as modern Western people. The Spirit of Redemption teaches us to love first of all ourselves with a fiery love that moves us to act — a bush that burns but is not consumed — and to expand that love to include others, beginning with our families and friends, extending to our communities and nations, and ultimately to the whole world. This is why all the great movements for political change — like the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement — cited Old Testament figures and stories like the Exodus as a core inspiration.

We can’t fully understand modern life without tapping into the ancient Israelite spirit of self-affirmation, and looking at the individual as the source of all-important change.

4.  Are there Commandments that you think are more important than the rest? Or do you see them all as equally important?

Each of the Ten Commandments gives us a different piece of the redemptive puzzle, showing us how the Israelite spirit plays itself out in values like honesty, wisdom, self-investment, life, love, property, and community. True, the First Commandment gives us the whole redemptive framework when it tells us that our God is the one “who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” — suggesting that just as God can intervene and make the world better, so can we. The Fourth Commandment, about the Sabbath, shows us that just as God needed to “rest” — that is, to assert himself as being separate from his achievements — so do we as individuals have both the right and the responsibility to grow and learn and develop ourselves separately from our careers and projects. But each of the Commandments similarly makes a bold statement about who we are, and you need all ten of them to see the big picture of the kind of society the Bible had in mind.

5.  Are the 10 Commandments relevant to those who have no faith — or to those whose faith is not based in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Obviously the Ten Commandments will be more accessible, at first, to someone who identifies with, or at least is not set against, biblical faith. But the Commandments represent a whole approach to life — far more than they speak about faith. Anyone who can appreciate the Western idea of redemption will find meaning and relevance in the Ten Commandments, regardless of their faith.

6.  Let’s talk some current events. You live in Israel now. How do Israelis view President Obama?

For the last thirty years, Israelis have been encouraged by a fundamentally pro-Israel attitude among American administrations — and as a result have been emboldened not just to defend themselves but also to make sacrifices in the quest for long-range peace agreements with their neighbors. By and large, however, the president has failed to do what Bill Clinton, for example, did so well: To make it clear to Israelis that he is fundamentally on their side. He has refused to visit Israel; he has taken a position on Jerusalem that is more aggressive against the Israeli consensus than any previous administration; he has traveled the world giving encouragement to many nations and worldviews that Israelis perceive as hostile.

The result is that instead of encouraging an atmosphere of compromise — which requires a sense of security rather than fear — he has only encouraged the very forces in Israeli society that he presumably had hoped to dampen: Those who see Israel as alone, assaulted from all sides, and fundamentally incapable of viewing others in anything but the most hostile of terms. Many Israelis see themselves as an isolated people facing a very hostile world; there is nothing more likely to push them towards increasingly extreme views than to give them the sense that they really are alone.

7.  What do you think of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations?

I’ve been watching the conflict from up close for nearly two decades, and I cannot recall a time that I was less optimistic about a peace agreement than today. The Palestinians are so deeply divided that the likelihood of achieving an agreement that would earn the approval of both the PA and Hamas and bring an end to the state of conflict seems impossible — but without such approval, Israelis face the prospect of again making concrete, painful sacrifices without getting peace in return — something they are too wary about to accept.

There is a deeper problem as well. The bottom line is that so long as one side is systemically dedicated to violence against the other side, there won’t be peace. And the only way to measure that is not through the agreements signed, but through the words that leaders and official institutions use in speaking to their own people. In the case of the Palestinians, there’s a very clear, easy litmus test: What are they teaching their kids in school? So long as Palestinian schools continue to de-legitimize Israel, lionize terrorists, and incite hatred for Jews and Israelis, any agreement their leaders reach will be temporary at best.

8.  As an Israeli citizen, do you fear a nuclear capable Iran?

I think most Westerners understand the intense danger inherent in any regime that, on the one hand, declares its implacable hostility to the Western way of life and uses every means to encourage violence against Western troops and citizens — whether it’s through their support of terror organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, or through their support of militias in Iraq dedicated to killing Western soldiers; and on the other hand is actively working to develop both nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery in the form of ever-longer-range missiles.

What few people have realized, I think, is the horrendous strategic shift that will result from Iran’s having nuclear weapons even if it never uses them. In the Middle East, everything goes according to momentum: If you’re on the way up, people will come to your side; if you’re perceived as being in decline or in retreat, you’ll lose a lot of support around the region. What’s made Iran such a powerful force throughout the Middle East is the sense that they’re always growing and expanding their power, and nobody’s stopping them: Whether it’s through the growth of Hezbollah, which in recent years has not only successfully fought off a massive assault by Israel but has entrenched itself as a part of the Lebanese government; or through America’s withdrawal from Iraq, which is perceived by many as an Iranian victory; or through Iran’s efforts to displace Saudi Arabia as the main funder of Hamas.

If Iran gets the bomb, the biggest trouble will not come from America’s enemies, but from its friends — especially those Arab emirates that look across the Persian Gulf, see Iran expanding in power, and keep waiting for America to keep its promise to contain it. If America fails, those emirates will take a long, hard look at whether it’s really in their long-term interests to stay on America’s side rather than Iran’s. The same is true for Egypt, which is permanently trying to fend off a possible Islamist overthrow of the regime. The day Iran gets the bomb, you are likely to see a big shift across the Middle East from strong official support of the US to at best an ambiguous ambivalence, and at worst some regimes will be threatened by pro-Iranian forces that convince their ruling elites that Iran is the right horse to bet on.

9.  While in the U.S., you will be debating Christopher Hitchens. What are you debating him about and what do you think of his passionate anti-theism (as he terms it)?

The debate was originally titled “Are the Ten Commandments Still Relevant?” Hitchens recently wrote a piece on the subject in Vanity Fair, and he’s working on a book on the Ten Commandments. His main point is that we no longer need the Ten Commandments as they were originally formulated — that we have moved beyond many of their outdated ordinances, and the rest of them can be updated to make more sense in modern times.

I think Hitchens has fallen into a trap common among many Westerners — both those who fight for religion and those who attack it — of relating to the Bible purely as a holy text rather than as one containing ancient, but nonetheless eminently relevant, wisdom. In doing so, they fail to recognize the both literary and philosophical richness of the Old Testament, and largely miss the point of the Ten Commandments. You can take any ancient text and poke fun at it — from the I-Ching to Plato’s Republic — dismissing its antiquated statements as primitive folly. A bigger challenge is trying to understand the real human wisdom they contain, and to translate it into modern terms. This is something that Hitchens absolutely refuses to do when relating to the Bible or anything else he calls “religious.” It’s a missed opportunity.

10.  Any plans to write another book anytime soon? If so, about what?

Right now I’m just trying to help build the discussion around the Ten Commandments, because I believe they can be a platform for a shared Western approach to life. At the same time, I know I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to really delving into the Hebrew Bible. There are so many fascinating biblical books, teachings, prophecies, heroes, proverbs, psalms and above all stories — that with God’s help I will definitely keep writing about it.