The Tenth Commandment and Thoughtcrime

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

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).

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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