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The Tenth Commandment and Thoughtcrime

The Ten Commandments lay out a blueprint for relations, first, between God and Israel and then, between God and humanity; the Shabbat serves as the hinge between the two.  The prohibitions on murder, theft, and adultery, and the principle of the inviolability of words, emerge as human society's fundamental building blocks.  Then comes one more commandment, which seeks to implant social boundaries within us: "You shall not covet your fellow's house; you shall not covet your fellow's wife, or his male servant, or female servant, or his ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to him" (Exodus 20:17).

Relevant Links
Counting the Ten Commandments  Ronald Isaacs, MyJewishLearning. Much depends on how different religious traditions have added up and allocated the thirteen—or is it seventeen?—sentences.
Why Not Covet?  Elchanan Samet, Virtual Beit Midrash. Reasons for the tenth commandment: practical, psychological, moral, spiritual.

It is hard for us not to squirm at this blithe equation of wife to slave to livestock, though we know such discomfort was unknown to the ancients and is ours.  But the ancients, like us, were troubled by the very beginning of the commandment.  The Hebrew word is tahmod, stronger than the bloodless English "covet," and well captured by Buber and Rosenzweig's translation: begehre nicht, "do not desire."  Deuteronomy's version of the Commandments (5:18) adds another phrase, lo titaveh, which they translate as "do not lust."   But can we really outlaw our thinking or feeling?

The classic 2nd-century midrash, the Mekhilta, reads lo tahmod in light of a parallel passage in Deuteronomy (7:25) that uses the same words, lo tahmod, to prohibit keeping silver and gold idols.  In that case, there is no violation "until one acts"; so, with the Commandment, there is no violation without an act.  The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 5a) suggests that the "act" required for a violation is convincing one's fellow to give up the desired object without compensation.

Some medieval halakhists continued to insist on action as an element of this seeming thought crime.  The 13th-century sage Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil ruled that, though there was a distinct prohibition on the thought itself, "even in the heart," one was not liable in the absence of action. Maimonides tried to have it both ways, writing that one violated the Commandment through the action of conning one's neighbor out of his possessions—but was not liable for punishment, since the act was a "transgression that has no deed."

The great exegete Abraham ibn Ezra put the problem squarely: "How can one not desire in his heart something beautiful?"  His answer: Just as a peasant knows he can never dream of marrying a princess, I must know that desiring another's wife is not just prohibited but inconceivable.  But ibn Ezra's bracing answer inadvertently points to a deeper seeming problem with the Commandment: its utter reification of existing social structures, allocations, and boundaries.  Do we really want a world in which peasants so unquestioningly know their place? Is criticism of social arrangements forbidden?  Does the same Torah that commands us to pursue justice also command passive acceptance of the given order of things?

Such sanctification of social order is not only anathema to socialists but a problem for capitalists.  As Adam Smith wrote, "To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world?  To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of . . . ."  Isn't the hope of material improvement the engine that drives economic development?  Isn't being "taken notice of" in the marketplace the heart of productive life?

Christopher Hitchens, of course, went further.  When he died, he was writing a book on the Tenth Commandment, which he denounced as "the first recorded instance of thought crime."  He explained, "It's totalitarian because it convicts you for what's in your head."  It is tempting to dismiss this as ranting.  But the ways in which Orwell's Big Brother seems at times a Satanic inversion of the omniscient God of classical theology—seen in phenomena like the far excesses of what Heschel criticized as, "pan-halakhism," or in the resort of some Hasidic groups to psychiatric drugs to keep their young men in line—suggest that the mad Hitch may have been on to something.

Still, there is a way of conceiving of the Commandment that neither reifies nor rails against social arrangements. There is no prohibition on moral imagination, which the geographer and social theorist Yi-Fu Tuan describes as the "effort to imagine the moral and the good, boldly and yet responsibly," with the imagination "disciplined by respect for the real." 

Jewish tradition already has a word for that kind of morally and metaphysically disciplined imagination: prophecy, which Maimonides (Guide II: 36) described as the perfection of the imaginative faculty—in the classic Hebrew rendition, ha-koah ha-medameh.  The perfected imagination receives divine knowledge through the mind and translates it into sensible images that become building blocks for action in the world.  The rabbis recognized that this synthesis of revelation with imaginatively inspired action could erase social distinctions.  "How do we know," the Mekhilta says, "that a maidservant at the Red Sea" saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel, the most aristocratic of prophets, did not see?  "It is written, uv'yad hanevi'im adameh (Hos. 12:11), through the prophets I spoke in parables, I was imagined."  To imagine God is, ultimately, to dissolve the idea that any current social order, however useful or provisionally just, is unchallengeable.

If imagination is the seedbed of prophecy what is the state of mind that the Commandment bids us avoid?   Perhaps the contemporary word that best captures it is resentment—or, for the sake of emphasis, what philosophers call ressentiment.  One of the deepest students of this stretch of psychic moonscape, Max Scheler, called it a "self-poisoning of the mind," leading to "revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite," originating in the repression of normal human emotions by injustice and oppression and spreading like a "psychological contagion."  Its antidote is not condescending benevolence or altruism but love, whose "direct and adequate expression" is the "act of helping."

In the terms of the Commandment, perhaps the means of transforming ressentiment into benevolence lies in the term "your fellow," rei'ekha.  A social order in which human beings are fellows—in which there is fundamental equality and solidarity—can justifiably demand that we discipline and even repress our natural resentments and desires.  Basic comradeship undoes ressentiment at the root; when we are committed to easing each other's sufferings, we can bear the world's inevitable, tragically uneven distribution of wealth and power.

This, too, the rabbis already knew.  The 5th-to-6th-century Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, one of the most beguiling and morally demanding texts in the canon, tells us outright (24:5) that the Tenth Commandment is simply another way of announcing the book of Leviticus' central demand: V'ahavta l'rei'ekha kamokha, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

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Jacob Silver on May 29, 2012 at 9:12 am (Reply)
This is a good essay, and its analysis is thorough. But it commits a major prefatory error. There is nothing special about the ten commandments of Exodus 20. Any illusion of speciality is an illusion of Christian thinking, recently magnified by Cecil B. Demills. The commandments which occasioned the golden calf, and the breaking of the tablets is in Exodus 34. If the Jews singled out any of the ten commandments as special, before the Christian era, those are the ones. And they still are the Jewish ten commandments.
David Aharon Lindzon on May 29, 2012 at 11:20 am (Reply)
It seems to me that lo Tachmod is to be understood in a different way. To illustrete:

I want a wife that is like yours does NOT violate the law of Lo tachmod.

I want your wife does violate the law of Lo Tachmod.

In a deeper sense as was explained by PT Barnum, in The Art of Money Getting, the big sin is in 'the obseesion to keep up with the 'Jonses'
Your neighbour buys a new leather sofa so you gotta buy one too. If you didn't see it in their home you would not consider buying it in the first place.

You get a raise. so you buy a new sofa, but that doesn't match so you gotta buy matching chairs ... then you gotta paint up the room to match... then you gotta redo the whole house or even move to a bigger house...ALL because of that first desire to copy your neighbours. She wears a mink Stol. You gotta wear a Fur equal to her.

The Torah is reaching deep into your heart and thought to teach us how to live by not looking at everyone's else's things and letting it become an obsession.

Archie1954 on May 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm (Reply)
The Lord's original teachings can be instructive on a daily basis. For instance in my own life, I keep getting advertisements saying "buy this home that has been foreclosed upon at pennies on the dollar" but my reaction is "why would I want to do well because of someone else's pain?" As well When I go to sell some of my securities on the market, I will not sell them if I believe the company is doing poorly because I would just be transferring my problem to someone else. I only sell if I think the company is going forward with great promise. I prefer to think that some else will also do well from my sale. These are just moral decisions that everyone must make on a dialy basis but they are founded in the Lord's words.
Jacob Silver on May 29, 2012 at 7:28 pm (Reply)
I think the commandment lo tachmod relates to the pilgrimage festivals. If a farmer was going to Jerusalem to participate in a pilgrimage festival, he would need some assurance that his land and house, and his wife if she could not accompany him. The commandment not to desire these in the farmer's absence is, I believe, the core meaning of lo tachmod.
David Aharon Lindzon on May 30, 2012 at 1:56 am (Reply)
Jacob Silver, if that were the case, the law would have been included in the section dealing with the chagigat haregel where all males were required to come to the Beit Habechirah [the chosen place] or beit Hamikdash after David and Shlomo Hamelech. Lo tachmod was given at Sinai together with all the other 9 dibrot that Hashem spoke at Ma'amad Har Sinai 49 days after taking us out of Egypt. And to further test your remark what does Anochi Hashem elokecha have to do with the pilgrimage or kibud av v'em or lo tisa es shem hashem l'shav . See Sefer Shemot parshat beshalach and yisro and Mishpatim and if you can find a basis for your idea there I want to hear about it... the law of lo tachmod is included in the aseres Hadibros because hashem spoke these words at the beginning of the journey out of mitzrayim. It was the ONE amnd ONLY time Hashem spoke publicly to the ENTIRE NATION .. every other time he spoke it was vaydaber Hashem el Moshe Laimor or some variation ... in parshat Va-eschanon he furher tells moshe to remind the people to remember and Not to forget that a whole nation stood at Sinai and heard these words and to pass it down in an unbroken chain of tradition diligently to your children.... and recall here Moshe is speaking to the second generation who did hear this except through Moshe and all the people who died during the 40 years in Bamidbar. To be sure, there were many who did not perish as a result of the spies' false report [the women, and those who were under 20].
Jerry Blaz on May 30, 2012 at 3:48 am (Reply)
It is a fine essay, I agree. However, there is some evidence that I've read lately about the word "lahmod" that changes the meaning. The root "hmd" is related to owning as real estate, etc. So the original meaning of "lahmod eshet raexa" is to own or possess your neighbor's wife. So those who say that "lahmod" is a problem of thinking "bad thoughts" are completely off-base.
Placido Etzioni on May 30, 2012 at 9:39 am (Reply)
In light of passages like Isa 20 or Ezek 4, one has to expand the range of "discipline" or "morality" to allow for the characterization of prophecy as "morally and metaphysically disciplined imagination." Even the prophets themselves recognized that they were more than a bit undisciplined-- see Hos 9:7.
Mark Symons on June 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm (Reply)
Jacob and David - Interestingly, in Exodus 34:24 - part of the renewal of the covenant after the golden calf episode - there is an explicit link between Lo Tachmod and the pilgrim festivals ("lo yachmod ish et-artz'cha ba'alotcha lera'ot et-p'nei H eloheicha shalosh p'amim bashana" - "no-one will covet your land when you when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times a year"). The first half of that sentence does refer to the boundaries of the land being extended, so perhaps the main reference is to residents of neighboring nations doing the coveting, but "lo...ish" / "no-one" is a much broader expression.

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