A Reply to My Respondents, and My Friends

Beyond the distinctive insights offered by each respondent, the overall result is fascinating, not least because the four responses wind up unintentionally but profoundly disagreeing with one another.

June 26 2013
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

I thank Michael Fishbane, Peter Berkowitz, Gilbert Meilaender, and Meir Soloveichik for their generous treatment of my essay, for their serious engagement with its themes, and for their most interesting comments from which I have learned much—even where, as I will point out, I may still disagree with them. I am flattered by their kind remarks and, even more, gratified by the fact that they have for the most part not quarreled with my interpretation of the Decalogue. As it happens, I have known all four men for a long time (three of them for over twenty years), and I have worked with all of them in various contexts. It is thus more to friendship than to my essay’s merits that I attribute their gentle and solicitous ways of dealing with me and with it. For these double gifts of friendship I am most sincerely grateful.

The richness of the responses is owed partly to the unsurprising fact that each respondent has written from his own professional perspective and out of his own personal concerns and commitments—none of them exactly my own, yet all of them engaging my sympathetic interest. But beyond the distinctive insights offered by each, the overall result is fascinating, not least because the four responses, in differing somewhat with me, wind up unintentionally but profoundly disagreeing with one another.

Thus, Michael Fishbane, the distinguished scholar of Judaica whose interests include, in his own words, “the primary ancient Near Eastern setting and grounding of the Hebrew Bible and its secondary (and massive) reinterpretation . . . over the millennia,” uses the Near Eastern context and later texts and commentary to argue that the God of the Decalogue is essentially a god of absolute power and absolute will, who wants and demands the complete and abject surrender of independent human will. In contrast, Peter Berkowitz, a political theorist devoted to the defense of modern liberalism, emphasizes the points in my essay where the biblical teaching seems to share common ground with the founding ideas of liberal democracy, most notably the idea of human equality and the crucial principle of consent of the governed; and he sees in the Torah support for the ideas of human freedom and self-government.

For his part, Gilbert Meilaender writes as the thoughtful Christian ethicist that he is. Provoked by a side-comment of mine to probe more deeply the relationship between our love for, and obligations to, particular people near and dear and our love for and obligations to God, he argues that the ultimate justification of particular (e.g., familial) loves is that they can and should lead to a most universal love—“to know and to love all others as children of the one God who calls each of us in particular to Himself”—a goal that he calls “the end of the Abrahamic life.” In contrast, Meir Soloveichik writes as the thoughtful Orthodox rabbi and scholar that he is, rightly correcting my translation of the name of God but then using later biblical texts and rabbinic commentary to argue that God at Sinai is proposing marriage—an exclusive relationship, based on a special and exclusive love—between Himself and (only) His beloved children of Israel.


Is God a despot or a teacher of human freedom? Is the covenant with Israel based upon love or power? Is God’s relationship with and teaching to Israel parochial and exclusive, or universal and inclusive? Readers of the four comments will find no agreement on these monumental questions. I hope in these remarks to illuminate and address the disagreements. But before responding concretely, I wish to clarify a few matters about how I approached and read the biblical text.

First, although I chose to write about the Decalogue largely as an isolated and self-contained text, it is a mistake to do so, and not mainly because it means ignoring the Near Eastern context or later rabbinic commentaries. The Decalogue (and the entire Sinai experience) needs to be read in light of the unfolding narrative of which it is a part, one whose future outcomes are not known, either to the reader or to the participants in the story.

This means that we must pay the greatest attention not to what appears later in the Tanakh, but rather to everything that has come before, beginning with the prior early steps toward people-formation already reported in the book of Exodus (including not only the background experience of Egyptian servitude and divine emancipation on the moonlit Passover eve but also the song at the sea, the murmurings and the manna, the war against the Amalekites, and Jethro’s visit that points up the need for a divine-backed law). And we must also keep in mind the stories of Genesis, many of which will have alerted the reader to enduring human problems to which the law given at Sinai will, he hopes, offer a direct answer.

So, for example, readers of the Decalogue’s statement about the Sabbath must remember the rules for the gathering of manna, as well as the curse of unremitting toil laid upon Adam as he left the Garden of Eden. And readers of the statement about honoring father and mother should remember that the first divine-human covenant, made with Noah after the Flood, was glossed immediately by the story of Ham’s “patricidal” trafficking in Noah’s shameful drunken nakedness—to say the least, the very antithesis of honoring father and mother—a deed that exemplifies the threat posed by wayward parents and rebellious children to perpetuating any covenant that depends on awe and reverence.

Second, because the Torah is a book offering us at least national and personal self-understanding, and a book whose narrative is thus not merely a vehicle for conveying halakhic rules and obligations, it is useful when reading the text to try to forget what you know about what comes later in the Tanakh or still later in the rabbinic commentaries, and to try to imagine yourself in the position of the participants: in our case, that of the auditors at Sinai who were on the stage when the Decalogue was first spoken.

True, the things said to them there are hardly self-interpreting. But we should still try to begin with what they might have been able to apprehend on the spot, both from the language used and from their prior experience and understanding. When they are told, for example, to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy, it is very useful to start from what they might have known about the Sabbath day before they heard this injunction, as well as what they might have understood by the charge to “keep it holy.” Unlike the participants in the story, we readers have the advantage of having read the Torah up to that point; but like them, we can—and at least for a while should—encounter the text ignorant of everything that is to come later.

Finally, although it is difficult to do, and I know that I have not succeeded, I believe that it is very important to try to set aside one’s own concerns, sensibilities, and pre-judgments (prejudices) and to try to learn from this book, read many times over, how it asks you to read it and how it wants to be read. Unavoidably, we cannot help reading as the human beings we are, but we may not be able to learn what the book has to teach if our readings are colored by and filtered through those extraneous considerations. And on this point I wish to deny the suggestion, made by Fishbane, that I have brought to my reading of the Decalogue any utopian views of an egalitarian politics or my conservative concern for family values. In fact, the text has changed my mind about many of these matters, and although my interpretations can never be more than provisional and tentative, I do not think that my so-called wisdom-seeking reading is deformed by my wish to find my own ideas or concerns reflected or “valorized” there.


The primary purpose of my essay was to try to understand the inner meaning of the Decalogue, read not as a code of law but as a comprehensive statement of the core principles for the new Israelite people, enunciated by God as the prologue to the covenant with Him that will make them a people—indeed, a most special people. Although, as I wrote, I wanted “also to build a case for the enduring moral and political significance of the Decalogue—a universal significance that goes far beyond its opposition to murder, adultery, and theft,” it was beyond my purpose to explore connections between the Ten Commandments and modern life or to show how its principles and insights are compatible with the idea and practice of liberal democracy, American or other.

I am therefore especially pleased with the careful way in which Peter Berkowitz has done that job for us. Berkowitz goes through the Decalogue’s statements, one by one, explaining how they contribute to the moral preconditions of self-government and ordered liberty. He rightly sees the kinship between—though not the identity of—the Torah’s principle of the equal dignity of human beings, made in the image of God, and liberal democracy’s fundamental moral premise, which is the natural freedom and equality of every human being. He astutely sees how the family-promoting principle of honoring father and mother fits with liberalism’s view of the family as the nursery of the virtues of self-government. He stresses an absolutely crucial fact (overlooked by Michael Fishbane; see below) that the Ten “Commandments” are offered to the children of Israel as a choice, and that “they become authoritative [only] upon the free acceptance by the Israelites of the covenant with God”—not altogether different from the principle of consent of the governed. Perhaps most important, correcting the common misunderstanding that sees religious beliefs and duties as threats to the freedoms associated with liberal democracy, Berkowitz affirms the religious neutrality of liberal government while pointing out that the inclinations of citizens’ hearts and souls are morally and politically relevant to the health of liberal society. I welcome his suggestion that my reading of the Decalogue is “not only consistent with but also supports human freedom.”

Yet I hope it will not seem churlish, in the face of Berkowitz’s most generous treatment of my essay, to raise briefly some important difficulties for his otherwise welcome harmonization of the Decalogue and liberalism, difficulties that I am sure he appreciates even as his essay glides over them. First, the Israelites, although given a law that would enable them to govern themselves, were being summoned not to a life of freedom or simple self-determination but to a life of service—to God—expressed in the call to become, for God, a holy people and a kingdom of priests. Those who read the Exodus story as a tale of national liberation have thus missed the point: the Israelites’ deliverance from the tyranny of Pharaoh and the American rebellion against the tyranny of George III point the newly liberated in very different directions. 

Next, Berkowitz’s discussion of the family, while sound as far as it goes, misses a crucial point about the injunction to honor father and mother: the inculcation of a disposition to respect, awe, and even reverence, implicit in the notion of honoring. The experience of awe before parents is the germ of the religious disposition; for within God’s covenant, parents stand as representatives of divine authority and care, and the honor and reverence they are owed has purposes beyond family integrity and stability. Indeed, as I pointed out, honoring and fearing/revering mother and father are, at once, paths toward and manifestations of the holiness to which the children of Israel are called, in imitation of God Himself. Democracy, both in theory and increasingly in practice, is hostile to hierarchy, awe, authority, and ideas of superiority—even the superiority of roles. The modern democratic family tries to get along without them, although it is far from clear whether the family will survive the full flowering of democratic society, never mind lead us toward any higher fulfillments.

In addition, liberalism begins with the isolated human individual and celebrates his natural rights. The Torah begins instead with human beings in families and in community, and emphasizes their duties. The Declaration of Independence famously speaks of our (God-given) rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the only duty mentioned is the obligation to throw off any government that evinces a design of establishing an absolute despotism. If you look for the idea of “rights” in the Torah, you will look in vain.

Thus, while I agree with Berkowitz that the Decalogue “supports human freedom,” it is important to distinguish a polity (ancient Israel) of ordered liberty, based on internal self-command and encouraged by an awe-inspiring and demanding law prescribing duties, from a polity (the United States) that aims to secure the uninhibited exercise of a naturally given right to pursue happiness, however one defines it or sees fit. In this connection, it is also worth pointing out that, as Berkowitz neglects to mention, Federalist 10 and the modern commercial republic take a rather more positive view of “coveting” than does the Decalogue: the licensed acquisitiveness on which our society depends for its liberty and prosperity would not have us satisfied with what we already have, but rather encourages us to desire and acquire perhaps even more than have our neighbors. Needless to say, the Torah’s pursuit of holiness does not produce the same habits of heart and mind as does liberalism’s pursuit of happiness and prosperity.

Yet despite—indeed, because of—these last difficulties and complications, I want heartily to endorse the important question Berkowitz raises in closing: whether, paradoxically, the Decalogue is not indispensable to the preservation and improvement of liberal democracy. He is surely right in identifying the deep inquiries that would be required before an adequate answer can be given. But since the health of a free and self-governing people depends in large part on whether its citizens are internally self-governed, anyone who looks around at the state of American society cannot help wondering whether a people bent only on claiming their rights, satisfying their desires, and tweeting their every impulse can long remain a home to ordered liberty, never mind also a place whether the creature made in the image of God can answer his highest calling. Could the American soul not profit from Sabbath rest and honoring of parents?


In my wisdom-seeking reading of the Decalogue, and of the Torah altogether, I have wrestled with the question of whether and to what extent their teachings are intended solely for the people to whom they were first given and who are deliberately attached to them, or whether the wisdom of these teachings is open to, and even ultimately intended for, a wider, even universal, human audience.

In my essay I argued that the principles of the Decalogue, though announced only to the children of Israel, carry a deep wisdom that can be universally appreciated and affirmed. Yes, after the building of the city and tower of Babel, God chooses to establish His way of life for men on earth not by working with humankind united but (at least to begin with) only with the children of Abraham. But there are many hints that God has not become indifferent to the rest of humankind, and that the parochial ways of Israel—including many injunctions that produce and enforce separation from other nations and their ways—nevertheless make wonderful human sense, to the point that, as the billboard advertising Levi’s rye bread used to say, you do not have to be Jewish to embrace them.

In thinking about the issue of the universality of the Decalogue, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the statement about Sabbath-keeping, explained by a reason—God’s resting on the seventh day after creation—that is accessible to all human beings, with the statement about the need to honor—singularly, among all other creatures—one’s own particular father and mother. In this juxtaposition (“imitate God, Creator of all”; “honor your mortal sources”), I thought I saw a model for how the Torah holds together devotion to what is one’s own and devotion to what is everywhere and always true and good. Perhaps mistakenly, I then made a side comment about Jesus’ injunction to leave your father and mother and follow me, and I hinted that Judaism and Christianity might have different views on the right relation between these different devotions and attachments.

From his own Christian perspective Gilbert Meilaender rose to the occasion, deftly exploring the crucial question of the relation between particular and universal loves and obligations. In his own writings a profound interpreter of the meaning and importance of our contingent and embodied existence, and of the significance of the familial and intergenerational ties that this existence entails, Meilaender is friendly to my attempt to defend the moral soundness of giving preferential attention and care to those who are near and dear. He offers a very useful analysis of how to connect the universal and particular in our loves, defending the path that (I claim) the Torah takes by “building up” from the particular to the universal; and he endorses my suggestion that Israel is a parochial community that bears a universal way.

Emphasizing what I might call “the strong hyphen” in our Judeo-Christian teachings (he calls the disciples of Jesus a group of Jews who, like the group that followed the rabbis, “accepted the Scriptures of ancient Israel as authoritative”), Meilaender provides evidence to suggest that the Torah, no less than Jesus, requires hard choices when ties to our own come into conflict with our duties to God. Although he defends the propriety of particular bonds of love, he justifies them ultimately as way-stations on the road to a more universal love, the selfless love denoted by the Greek term agape.

There is much in this account to like and learn from, and I am sympathetic to the entire thrust of the argument. And yet, because Meilaender has largely abstracted from the details of my essay in order to explore a fundamental question of ethics, there are subtle differences, not easily noticed, that add up to some significant points of divergence.

To begin with, the “vexed questions” I raised in my essay concerned the “universality versus the particularity of God’s teaching to Israel and of Israel’s special standing among the nations,” not  the vexed question Meilaender chooses to discuss, namely, “the relation between universal and particular obligations in the moral life” (my emphasis).

For me, the question—difficult for philosophy and the search for universal wisdom—is whether and why teachings and practices that belong solely to one peculiar little people can both be celebrated in and for themselves and also be regarded as “your wisdom in the eyes of the nations.” But for Meilaender, love and the possibility of conflicting loves is the heart of the matter. Thus, abstracting from all sorts of ways in which Christianity rejected Jewish parochialism in the name of the call to love, he points out that both Jesus and Torah teach that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves—and that there is a possibility that these two obligations might be in tension with each other. Although he joins in the defense of particular loves—of one’s own family members—he appears to do so largely because they are the path to making us love all other human beings as God loves them.

But in claiming this universal love as the “end of the Abrahamic life,” he departs from God’s specific call to Israel, which was a call to righteousness and (explicitly in the covenant at Sinai) to holiness, not to love. Holiness clearly embraces more than the love of neighbor—though that is surely a part of it. Keeping the Sabbath, observing the dietary laws, avoiding forbidden unions, and, pointedly, fearing/revering mother and father are all explicitly said to be part of the call to “Be ye holy as I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). By moving from honor and awe, dispositions that imply distinction (superiority) and distance, to love, a disposition that merges differences and overcomes distance, Meilaender has embraced a universal solvent that ultimately washes out the special standing of parochial and particular associations and ties.

This is not what I had in mind when I suggested that Israel is a parochial community that bears a universal way. When the messiah comes, all nations will worship God equally and lovingly on His holy mountain; but for the time being, upholding the awe-inspired covenantal obligations is a distinction that may make all the difference.


Love is also the central theme in Meir Soloveichik’s lovely commentary, though the love he speaks of remains exclusive and particular. I thank him again for correcting my translation of God’s opening words and for using the transliterated “YHVH” in place of “the Lord.” (Truth to tell, until I received his reply, I was loath to use the Tetragrammaton even in print, for fear of giving offense.) And I am more than willing to follow his and Michael Wyschogrod’s view that “the God of Israel has a proper name.”

Yet I cannot follow Soloveichik in his claim that the Tetragrammaton “does in fact capture His essence.” Forgive me, but what is that essence? Soloveichik says that Jews regard the divine name as “ineffable,” but which meaning has he in mind: just unspeakable, or also indefinable, or both? The question is important because he asserts, again quoting Wyschogrod, that the ineffable name “celebrate[s] the most terrible of recognitions, the personality of God.” Yet is God’s being a “personality” the same as His essence? Judaism, I would provocatively contend, does not really do “theology”—speech about the being of God—but observance: hearkening to God’s words.

But this is all by the way. The linguistic work about the divine name is, for Soloveichik, a preparation for the claim that the Decalogue is “a betrothal document between Divine Groom and mortal bride [Israel].”

This is a beautiful idea, especially if it is true.

I have no difficulty with the suggestion that the meeting at Sinai is “the most intimate encounter between a people and God in human history.” But I think that the relationship is like a marriage only partially and tangentially. True, as I myself suggest, the statement “Thou shalt not have other gods before Me” calls for “an exclusive, intimate I-Thou relationship like that of a marriage, requiring unqualified fidelity and brooking no other that comes between the two partners.” And we might gain support for the marriage metaphor from the next statement, “I YHVH your God am a jealous [or zealous] god.” But beyond that I would not go.

The scene and mood at Sinai are hardly matrimonial. Even if God were moved to choose the Israelites out of His love of the patriarchs (as the passage from Deuteronomy 4 quoted by Soloveichik might suggest), that still does not mean that what we get at Sinai is a marriage. Surely, the tone and content of the delivered Decalogue are decidedly more like those of a suzerain speaking to his vassals than like a groom speaking to his beloved bride. And whatever latter-day prophets and edifying commentators may wish to think, the children of Israel on the spot did not regard it that way, and their reaction must be given primary place among the evidence. In reporting their reaction when God finishes speaking, the text says:

And the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off.  And they said unto Moses: “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us lest we die.” (Exodus 20: 15-16)

Perhaps, you will say, some brides once upon a time had just such a response to a proposal of marriage, but I don’t buy it. I am struck by the people’s awe, fear, and terror, and by their wish not to hear another word from the putative Divine Groom. Indeed, so overwhelmed are they by the spectacle that their senses are utterly befuddled (“saw the thunderings . . . and the voice of the horn”): the text does not report that they even heard a word God said. This immediate textual evidence, to my mind, trumps later and gentler rabbinic commentary.

Having made my rejoinders, I still want to align myself with Soloveichik in several important respects. For one thing, I agree that nothing in my account needs to be altered if it turns out that he is right and I am wrong about the matter of marriage. For another, we should note that the love of which Soloveichik speaks is different from the love so central to Meilaender’s comment. The love of groom for bride (and of bride for groom)—unlike the love of neighbor—is particular, singular, focused, and exclusive. Moreover, love codified in a marriage is lifted up to a higher plane, thanks to the voluntary acceptance of the obligations that flow from self-consciously choosing to bind oneself to one’s partner. In these respects, the relationship between Israel and YHVH described under the image of marriage strikes me as closer to the spirit of the Torah—with its celebration also of our particularistic obligations and loves—than is the spirit of universal love that, according to Meilaender, is the goal of all biblical religion.


Michael Fishbane’s powerful response I find most difficult to answer in short compass, not only because his criticisms of my interpretation are complicated and far-reaching, but also because, as he rightly says, we come at the text in such different ways. He claims that I read with humanistic glasses, in order to extract from the text edifying and livable moral and political teachings for the human race—whereas I think that I am “just reading the text” without presuppositions, except perhaps for the assumptions that God is philanthropic (even when He is being harsh) and that His injunctions to human beings and especially to Israel, though obligatory because commanded, are both intended for human benefit and have a meaning that is not utterly opaque to human reason. I, on the other hand, suspect that Fishbane’s extraordinary humanity—with its respect for the human person and free will, its compassion, and its preference for mercy over justice—is what leads him to see in God’s tough teachings a powerful autocrat who demands the full surrender of every human will.

Prompted by Fishbane’s critique, I am happy quickly to acknowledge—for I have always thought—that God’s law extends to all aspects of life and is in that sense “totalitarian,” and that the law received by Israel is, as Fishbane claims, surely theonomic (God-given) and not autonomic (self-given). In these respects, the Decalogue and the ordinances that follow are a far cry from the limited and self-determining legislation of liberal democracy.

But it is also true that the Israelites are given a choice, not about this or that principle or about this or that ordinance, but about whether to enter into the covenant that God is offering them. They voluntarily put their communal neck into the yoke that is the Torah. But—no surprise, at least to me—it thereby becomes for them a tree of life. And, as God recedes from overt intervention in their affairs, this sets a pattern for personal and national self-government, albeit one always pointed upward and lived not without fear and trembling. Fishbane’s account completely neglects the fact that God has not simply imposed His law but has offered it within the context of a covenant that Israel is free to accept or not.

Now it is true, as I indicate both above and in my essay, that although the Sinaitic covenant is equally entered into, the parties to it are anything but equal. It is also true that the new relationship is to be based entirely on the historical fact that “I YHVH am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” or, as God says earlier when proposing the covenant, “You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto Myself.” Therefore I agree with Fishbane (and not with Soloveichik) that the covenant is much more like an agreement between a suzerain and his vassals than like a marriage contract between groom and bride. But that does not mean that the model for such a relationship is to be found in the analogous agreements prominent among other cultures of the ancient Near East. Here, God’s power is crucial, but so are His solicitude and care for this nascent people, and His wish to make them more like Him.

The Torah is replete with examples where events, ideas, and practices of the ancient world are referenced only to be turned on their head, in order to highlight the difference between God’s way and the way of other peoples. The first Creation story and the story of the Flood are early and crucial examples of such “revisionist” treatments of the teachings of Mesopotamian cultures. Thus, when I examine this particular covenant between “ruler and vassals” with an eye to how it may conduce simultaneously to the human good and to the glory of God, I am not, as Fishbane suggests, imposing my “larger concerns for the human good, concerns he [Kass] finds valorized by the text.” Rather, simply following important clues offered by the text, I make bold to assert that no suzerain of the ancient world would ever urge his subjects to cease work on a given day, never mind to do so in imitation of his own day of rest. No Pharaoh or Hammurabi would invite his subjects to “Be ye holy for I am holy,” a call to be lifted up in partnership with the divine way.

In short, my view of these matters places me somewhere between Soloveichik and Fishbane: God’s covenant with Israel is based on power but not on arbitrary willfulness, and it manifests an enduring, tough-loving solicitude but not spousal love.

Fishbane objects to my treatment of the so-called second commandment, the one about making graven images and worshipping them, claiming that I have softened the “stark punch” of the statement and also imported a concern for intergenerational legacies that is foreign to the text. I gladly agree that I have wrongly underemphasized the painful fact that innocent children and grandchildren will have visited upon them the iniquities of their fathers, but I do not think that this omission vitiates my reading of the whole, taken in context. Perhaps because this offends Fishbane’s sense of justice and compassion, he misses some subtle points, both in the text and in my essay, that I believe support my interpretation.

First, God does not say, as Fishbane has it, that He will “punish, even to the third and fourth generation, those who engage in [the sin of] false worship”; He says that, being a jealous/zealous God, He “will visit/remember (poked) the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.” An iniquity (avon; a twistedness, a perversity) differs from a sin (het; a missing of the mark), and its consequences in the world and in law may therefore also differ. The twistedness of an Oedipus is visited upon his children, willy-nilly. As Robert Sacks puts it, speaking of iniquity, “Deeds get hidden away in rocks; they do not disappear.” The later Deuteronomic teaching that “every man shall be put to death for his own sin [only]” is not in conflict with, or a correction of, the Decalogue’s so-called harsher treatment of iniquity. God and the world really do “remember” iniquity, and the children suffer.

Second, what does God mean here by the “iniquity” of the fathers? And what would it mean for Him to visit that iniquity upon the children and grandchildren, if “visiting” means a punishment directly given by God, and especially if the iniquity were idolatry itself? Is God really saying that he will punish idolatry with idolatry? Or are there iniquities that are consequent to idol worship—incest, fratricide, patricide, rape, cannibalism, bestiality, wife-swapping, slavery—iniquities with which the reader of Genesis will be familiar and whose consequences God will see visited upon the descendants? Think of how the iniquity committed by Ham is visited upon his descendants, the Canaanites and the Egyptians, whose abominable sexual practices the Torah is zealous to condemn, in the central teaching of Israelite holiness.

Third, and most important, Fishbane completely ignores the immediate sequel to God’s remarks about visiting iniquity. Quite wonderfully—and utterly gratuitously, if the jealous/zealous God were here merely flexing His walloping muscles—God speaks about “bestowing hesed unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.” Is this not a teaching about Divine grace, and one that exceeds God’s retributive impulses and overreaching punitive power? What will the unsophisticated auditor conclude about God’s character from hearing the difference between “iniquity to the third or fourth generation” and “hesed to the thousandth”? (Please note, lovers of justice: what the children get in both cases is equally “unjust,” in the sense of equally undeserved.) Is there not also a teaching here about the intergenerational consequences of one’s deeds and one’s attitude toward God and His commandments? Granted that both “punishment” and “reward” are dependent upon God’s power, is it fair to say, as Fishbane does here, that these passages “highlight the chief characteristic of God”—his act of power that “evokes and justifies the demand for exclusive loyalty in terms of historical action”?

Fishbane rightly points out that, in my discussion of the Sabbath, I neglected to stress that the seventh day is said to be “a Sabbath unto the Lord,” that “the Sabbath rest is a day devoted unto the Lord.” It is an important and welcome correction. Yet, although later tradition will describe and prescribe in great detail the content of Sabbath ritual devotion, what is striking to me is that the Decalogue’s statement “Sabbath unto the Lord” does not call for worship or specify sacrifices or even prayers or blessings, but simply the absolute cessation from work.¹

Even more striking, and crucial to my interpretation, is the reason God gives for Sabbath observance, a point that Fishbane does not deal with at all. If he is right that the whole covenant rests on God’s power and His deed of deliverance, why does God here—in the only utterance in the Decalogue that speaks about holiness, Israel’s special calling under the covenant—invite the Israelites, each in his own home, exactly to imitate God’s desisting from creating the world and His blessing and hallowing of the seventh day? Why does He not do as He does in Deuteronomy, and stipulate the deliverance from Egypt as the reason for keeping the Sabbath?

Finally, and most troubling, is Fishbane’s rather shocking interpretation of the reason why so many of the divine injunctions in the Decalogue are in the negative. In his view, it is not that unruly human beings are more in need of restraint than of encouragement (witness, among other things, the scene of Jethro’s visit when he sees Moses sitting all day every day settling disputes among the ex-slaves). Rather it is “the demand for a radical surrender of will and a radical offering of obedience according to the terms enunciated,” which “requires the self to replace self-will with divine will in virtually every area of life.”

This interpretation does not set my modern prejudices on edge, nor would my love of the human good recoil from such a demand, were it in fact true. But I do not think that it is.

I could point out any number of places where God has already encouraged the incipient nation of Israel to act on its own, from the need to “vote” for their own deliverance from Egypt by marking their doorposts in blood; to His rebuking Moses at the Sea of Reeds for telling them to stand still and let God save them, insisting that Moses instead tell the people to walk forward into the water (God helps those who help themselves); to His sitting on the sidelines as the Israelites defend themselves against the unprovoked attack of the Amalekites (descendants of Esau, perhaps visiting the iniquity of brother Jacob upon his descendants?). I could also point to God’s stated terrestrial purpose in producing the pyrotechnics on the mountain: “that the people may hear when I speak with thee [Moses], and may also believe thee forever” (Exodus 19: 9; emphasis added). The God of Israel is not another Pharaoh, seeking to break the human will, but a demanding teacher intent on enabling human beings to realize the highest possibilities of the creature made in the image of God. God wants the holiness of His people, not their abject surrender and submission.

All these differences notwithstanding, I would like to suggest that Fishbane and I may not in the end be so far apart. Following God’s way does indeed require self-restraint and self-denial. Yet precisely because, as Fishbane himself says, the “total way of covenant life [is] an inclusive practice of divine duty and human perfection” (emphasis added), it is also the path to human self-fulfillment, a way that can be readily embraced not only because it has been commanded but also because it can be understood to be good and good for us. The people who receive God’s law will surely find obedience less onerous to the extent that they can also see the law’s wisdom and beauty.

Although the auditors at Sinai were much more in terror of God’s power than of his beneficence, we who can actually read and ponder the text can discover its wisdom and its humanity. The beginning of wisdom may be in the fear of the Lord, but it is possible to come to see God as One whom we can learn to love with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.

Leon Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago and holds the Madden-Jewett chair at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served in 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. His books include The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature (1994), The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), and, with his wife Amy Kass, What So Proudly We Hail (2011) and the related e-anthologies on The Meaning of America and The American Calendar.


¹Interestingly, the injunction to build altars for sacrificial worship is added only in the sequel to the Decalogue, and then only as a concession to the frightened standoffishness of the people, who, unlike Moses, need a more tangible way of being in relationship with God. Notice too that those instructions come with warnings to avoid the orgiastic iniquities that are associated elsewhere with such sacrificial worship.

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