What Does the God of Israel Demand?

Leon Kass endeavors to make the Decalogue both sensible and livable; on its own terms, it is stark and demanding in the highest degree.

Michael Fishbane
June 5 2013

Leon Kass’s concern in “The Ten Commandments” is to conduct a philosophical inquiry both into Scripture, with particular emphasis on the Ten Commandments as its paradigmatic core, and into Scripture’s fundamental values, in the conviction that its teachings are crucial for our civilization. It is thus necessary that he engage, as he does, both circles of inquiry: the spirit of wisdom in the sources and the political theology at play.

His project is crucial. There is no question that this text is dead-center, as it has been for ages, in the constitution of Israel as a covenant people; and there is no question that it is formative for all of the historical heirs of Israel, including Judaism, Christianity, and Western civilization overall. To attack or defend the Decalogue is thus tantamount to attacking or defending our historical culture. Simply recall the note, found in the diaries of the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Rippentrop, citing Hitler’s comment that the Ten Commandments are the enemy of civilization and must be eradicated. Remember, too, Thomas Mann’s countervailing defense of the Decalogue in his novella Das Gesetz (“The Tables of the Law”), written in 1944 and produced in 500 copies. The two contrasting documents ring in our ears. Even more deafening is a shocking text I read in 1990 that promulgated “ten commandments” justifying Hutu acts of genocide in Rwanda.

And so we must take the Decalogue as a formative document of all that we cherish. This makes its interpretation crucial. Attending to Kass’s formulations, I hope to be an honest respondent even as I push back on several points. 

My comments continue a philosophical discourse with a dear friend and colleague of over two decades. Much of what I have to say derives from a shared passion—our twin devotion to the classics of Western civilization as sources of wisdom and instruction, and especially the Hebrew Bible as a foundation document of our culture. But much also arises from a difference in our approach. My own interests include the primary ancient Near Eastern setting and grounding of the Hebrew Bible and its secondary (and massive) reinterpretation throughout the varieties of Jewish literature and thought over the millennia. Leon Kass’s wisdom-seeking enterprise has notable forebears in the intellectual-cultural projects of Philo, Maimonides, and Hermann Cohen. Just as these thinkers found some forms of philosophical wisdom more congenial than others (favoring Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and neo-Kantianism, respectively), Kass’s inquiry is similarly guided by particular notions of human value and modes of intellectual discourse. The wisdom-inquiring spirit hardly floats in amber; the shape of one’s questions and one’s concrete concerns affect the “meaning” of the text—even its philosophical ideas.

How all this plays out should become clear in the sequel. 


Leon Kass asserts that the Decalogue finds its primary setting in the Exodus, and that the polemical target of the text is the paganism of the land from which the people have been just been liberated. This is evident on its face, and I have no disagreement with it. The Decalogue opens with the statement that I, the Lord [or: I am the Lord who] took you out of the land of Egypt. Significantly, the divine epithet used here is not the “god of the fathers,” for the Lord God is no longer the ancestral god of familial clans and patriarchs but the God of a nation-in-formation. Hence, the pronoun “you” invokes a collectivity whose past has been transfigured in almost every way. Pivotal is a new type of “theological personalism.” There is a shift from local and private revelations vouchsafed to singular individuals (with emphasis on a unilateral land grant to them and their progeny) to a national and collective revelation to “all Israel” (with emphasis on bilateral obligations extending to all life) because of a divine beneficence enacted on the nation’s behalf.

For Kass, the Lord who so announces himself as liberator demands worship to the exclusion of all “other gods” (which Kass translates as “strange gods” so as to invoke the beetles and crocodiles and kings of Egyptian worship—this being a provocative assertion by him though he is no doubt correct to regard the proscription as a vigorous negation of the worship of natural powers). Such false worship has consequences in the text itself and thus also for Kass, since the Decalogue then states that God will punish, even to the third and fourth generation, those who engage in false worship. 

But what does this mean? Kass takes the passage to mean that the acts of the parents have consequences (his word is “reverberations”) for their children into a limited number of future generations. This is a sentiment I would certainly subscribe to as a moral meditation on or neutralization of a harsh judgment. But the fact that Kass reads the sequence of sin and punishment in terms of familial intergenerational life should not pass unnoticed; it signals his larger concerns for the human good, concerns he finds valorized by the text.

To reconsider the issue, it is necessary to restate the context. There is an undoubted emphasis here on divine liberation, formulated via ancient Near Eastern conventions that laud protective kings. Such documents open with the self-presentation of a ruler (I am X) who has performed some beneficence to a people and consequently demands their loyalty and tribute under penalty of dire punishment. The pattern is widespread in old Hittite, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Akkadian literary sources, and the echoes in the Decalogue are legion: divine self-presentation in terms of a noble deed and then a demand for loyalty and service (here worship), followed by severe threats for disobedience. 

In my view, these factors affect the purport of the Decalogue and highlight the chief characteristic of God. Precisely this act of power evokes and justifies the demand for exclusive loyalty in terms of historical action. That being the case, we have reason to wonder where in Kass’s scheme is “history”—meaning, in this case, saving actions, fulfillment of promises, and protections. And this in turn gives us reason to ponder the precise import of the phrase “out of Egypt.” Does that phrase so certainly refer to the “strange gods” worshipped there? 

Another teacher of political theology, Eric Voegelin, deemed the counterpoint between Egypt and Israel to be “Order [versus] History”—the first term encoding the cyclical cosmos of natural cycles (of which the pagan gods are a part) and the second marking the linear, future focus of historical time (which is divinely guided). In general, the issue of history and redemption needs to be reprised as a core component of the opening words of the Decalogue. Not only is it a fundamental feature of ancient Israelite consciousness, but it has remained so for all of Israel’s historical heirs.

We may build on this. If a key concern of the Decalogue is loyalty to God for benefits given, might not the rejection of other gods be for the same reason? This does not deny the negative significance of Egypt and its gods in Scripture. Rather, it emphasizes that absolute allegiance to the Lord God is due to his power of historical deliverance. Indeed, the existence of other gods is not denied as such, only the Israelites’ loyalty to them, which includes worship through iconic forms. 

Such, then, is the force of the prohibition of all “other gods” in this context. It has a stark punch, with the punishments evoked seeming less a lesson in intergenerational legacies than a warning of vicarious or extended punishments for disloyalty. And this point is made in a striking manner. For compare the punishment clause used in the Decalogue with its more extensive exemplar in Exodus 34: 6-7. In the latter passage, which contains the so-called “Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy,” the recital of punishments follows explicit statements of divine forgiveness for sins. 

By contrast, the meaning of our passage in the Decalogue has long presented difficulties. Some interpreters propose that divine mercy can suspend a punishment, but only to transfer it to a later generation. This is troubling enough for those who seek humane lessons in the text. But the Decalogue’s wording in Exodus 20: 6 is more difficult still. For here God is not called El Rahum (God of Mercy), as in the later passage, but El Qana (God of Zeal)—and only the punishment clause is given, extending the dooms to later generations for earlier generations’ acts of apostasy! This is less a word of social wisdom than a blast of divine fury into the human heart. 

The long reach of punishment is hard to swallow; ancient generations found it unpalatable as well. For one, the preacher in Deuteronomy 7: 10 revised the old clause to state that God punishes only those who disobey, and does so swiftly; for another, the prophet in Ezekiel 18: 20 sharpens the issue further: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.” In short, even as it is understandable that Kass tries to save the text for us moderns through his rendition of limited intergenerational after-effects, the topic of extended punishment remains one that we cannot easily ignore.

I say this to stress that what matters in interpretation is where one enters the hermeneutical circle. By focusing, as we have done here, on the Lord of historical power and liberation, the polemic against idolatry comes to look different, and so does the nature of God; and that, in turn, suggests a different political theology for the covenant.  


Let us next consider Kass’s treatment of the Sabbath. In a moving presentation, he focuses on God and time and a social ethic that wants to extend Sabbath rest to all of one’s household. The arch-metaphor Kass employs is “desisting” (his gloss on “resting”), and his interpretation is that the Sabbath is an attempt to remove the laborer from the natural cycle of time and inculcate a dedication to the Lord of all. He even suggests that the Sabbath day provides a perception of eternity. This is a loaded observation; to explain what I mean by that, I shall focus on an aspect of the text that puts a different spin on his reading. 

The stress here is both on the positive command to “remember the Sabbath day,” a major issue for Kass, and the injunction not to work on it in any way—for it is a Shabbat la-Shem, a “Sabbath for the Lord.” This last phrase is a ritual formula recurring in Leviticus 23, where we also find such expressions as “a paschal sacrifice to/for the Lord,” “a matzah festival to the Lord,” and “a fire offering to the Lord.” In other words, the Sabbath rest is a day devoted to the Lord. This is its foremost ritual intention, and the action to be done in obedience to it requires an all-encompassing abandonment of work—certainly in the case of the male householder, who is addressed, but also any delegates or members of his household, including a slave or animal. 

The mandate of rest—of no work—is thus absolute and total. If this celebration is at some level an imitatio dei (of God’s rest on the seventh day), it is one whose remembrance of divine creation is absolute and hardly a family foretaste of a social-egalitarian kingdom on earth. I am not saying that the Sabbath cannot have a utopian gloss. I emphasize only that, as a spiritual ideal, the act of desisting from labor is consequent to the obedience enjoined. To say it again, the primary intention of the Sabbath law is the periodic ritual re-devoting of the world back to God.


Finally, Kass makes the striking point that motivation clauses—that is, explanations and promises of reward and punishment—occur in the “first table” of the Decalogue in order to enjoin behaviors that are not entirely natural but require both fiat and instruction. They thus stand in contrast to the statements in the “second table,” which are without such clauses; instead, this second cluster lists ethical norms whose rationale one might reasonably deduce as necessary for the sake of societal life. The observation needs nuance, but stands overall, and leads me to reflect on Kass’s point that most of the commandments are formulated in the negative, save the Sabbath law and honoring one’s parents (though, as noted above, I think the first of these is also essentially a negative prohibition and Kass himself hints that a darker negative matter is hidden in the second).

What I wish to emphasize is this. Jewish legal tradition distinguishes between positive and negative commandments—between commandments that say “do” this and commandments that say “don’t” do that. For the rabbinic sages, this means that the negative commandments are also a duty, and must therefore be incorporated into one’s positive consciousness of covenant. The negative commands are more than modes of ritual inaction (what the sages dub sitting by and doing nothing, shev v’al ta’aseh); they are components of the positive loyalty of obedience enjoined by the Decalogue. 

In this regard, agreeing with Kass but again with a different emphasis, I would point up the Decalogue’s nearly comprehensive expression of norms in the negative as one of its most striking and significant features. Obedience and loyalty demand massive negations and self-restraint. One must not worship other gods, speak false oaths, work on the Sabbath, or misappropriate social goods and other lives. One must not even have desires for such goods and property. The political theology of the Decalogue elevates a divine suzerain—transcendent to all earthly forms—who demands total fealty in all respects. Absolutely nothing on the earth may be worshiped apart from this God, and nothing, up to and including inappropriate thoughts or urges, may be wrongly taken or begotten.

This amounts to a most austere religious ethos, overruling the inner and outer person. And we must acknowledge the consequences. The absolute commands in the Decalogue include a feature that may set moderns on edge, even those who might otherwise look favorably upon its prescriptions. That feature is this: the demand for a radical surrender of will and a radical offering of obedience according to the terms enunciated. This is not solely a demand to comply with a strong legal structure. It also requires the self to replace self-will with divine will in virtually every area of life.

Old Roman law distinguishes between fas and ne fas, between sacred and secular law; the division is in fact much older, being found in ancient Mesopotamian laws. The Decalogue makes no such separation. Worship of the Lord involves every area of life and thought—religious, civil, and criminal—and propounds an ethic that is both legal and also meta-legal (meta-legal in that no specific punishment is mandated either for failing to honor one’s parents or for desiring one’s friend’s cow and rare books). The Lord who intervenes in history demands such complete devotion, inner and outer. The two tables thus propose “theonomy” as a total way of covenant life, an inclusive practice of divine duty and human perfection.


By contrast, Leon Kass has endeavored to make the Decalogue both sensible and livable from a perspective of philosophical wisdom and moral thoughtfulness. The ancient rabbinic sages also tried to make it livable and sensible, though on different terms. And this effort is all to the good—for, on its own terms, as I have tried to show, the Decalogue is stark and demanding in the highest degree. So thank God for God’s oral tradition, and also for the spirit of wisdom that, we are told, was created at the beginning of creation itself to be God’s heavenly companion (Proverbs 8: 22). Through these, we may ponder our earthly purposes and devote them to a God-oriented life. 

When the new tablets were brought to earth, the old ones having been smashed on account of the Israelites’ apostasy and disloyalty in the sin of the golden calf, they were heard in a human voice quite different from the thundering divine voice at Sinai, resounding from heaven in an awesome fire and conveying the terror of death to the people. The further formulations and explications imparted by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy similarly cultivate the still-urgent task of finding in each jot and tittle of Torah a way to “choose life,” with livable sobriety and moral rectitude. Leon Kass stands in this noble tradition of interpretation.

Michael Fishbane is Nathan Cummings Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago and the author of, among other books, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (1985) and Sacred Attunement (2008). In somewhat different form, this response to Leon Kass was originally presented in a Tikvah Graduate Seminar at Princeton, July 2009.

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