On Shavuot morning next Friday, in synagogues around the world, we will read the Ten Commandments. It’s remarkable, when you think about it, what a success they’ve been. Over the past 3000 years the Jewish people has done an extraordinary marketing job on conveying these basic ethical and spiritual laws. Across the Western world today they are acknowledged as axioms of civilized life.
Well, mostly. My friend (Hazon Rabbinical Scholar) Steve Greenberg likes to qualify that success as follows.
We Jews have done a pretty good job in delivering nine and a half out of the Ten Commandments to the world. The half that we have delivered is the side of Shabbat that is about employment; the universal right to have one day off work each week. The half that we haven’t is the part of Shabbat that is about refraining from shopping, driving, flying – the part that deals with our relationship to the created world. We need to deliver that half of the Shabbat commandment to the world now.”
Rabbi Steve makes an important and timely point. Shabbat is a precious spiritual and ecological resource. It contains wisdom that is profoundly needed today by everyone about how to place limits on the untrammeled pursuit of wealth that is one of the drivers of ecological destruction.
However, reading through the big 10 this year, I realized that at best we can only claim to have delivered eight and a half. The last commandment, “lo tahmod” usually translated as “Thou shalt not covet” (your neighbor’s house, wife and property etc.) has been a hard sell. I would suggest “do not acquisitively desire” as a contemporary rendering.
Now, you’d have to agree that this one has not flown at all in the contemporary West. It’s not just that the commandment is ignored. Our economic system is built on the systemic violation of lo tahmod. A crucial driver of growth has been the mass engineering of desire for things that we don’t have. As the marketing guru Victor Lebow wrote over 50 years ago:
Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an every increasing rate.”
One way to create desire for a consumer product is to persuade someone that what he desires is an absolute necessity of life. This isn’t always a very convincing strategy when we’re talking about chewing gum, laser hair removal, a private yacht and other non-essentials. Another route is to persuade the person to want it because someone else has it. And that is inciting the consumer to flout lo tahmod.
(At least according to many commentators. There’s a fascinating argument in the sources about whether some acquisitive action must eventuate from the desire in order for it to count as a violation lo tahmod. According to Maimonides, it must. (Laws of Theft 1:9.) In his view the command is transgressed, only if the desire culminates in theft, murder, extortion or an aggressive campaign of persuasion leading to the sale of the object. But others including Ibn Ezra and Malbim, disagree. In their view the desire itself is enough to count as a violation.)
The lo Tahmod economy worked brilliantly. Until it didn’t. Today we can see that at least two of our biggest and most intractable problems have to a large extent, been driven by it.
Global climate change, which threatens to wreak havoc on the world’s weather within our life times is worsened by fanning the insatiable need for more stuff. Consider that in 2006, Americans spent over $3 billion on deodorants and $1 billion on chewing gum. The emission of greenhouse gases caused by manufacturing, transporting, marketing, managing and storing so many barely distinguishable items is immense.
More obviously still, the financial crisis was stoked by the same spiritual passions. The universal American dream of owning your very own sprawling suburban mansion with a 100% upfront mortgage undid the buyers, the banks, and very nearly the whole economy. Blame the Fed, the regulators, the investment bank managers, the mortgage lenders, or the poor suckers who lost their shirts and homes. In a sense it doesn’t matter. All colluded in seducing, cajoling and enabling people to borrow money they didn’t have to buy houses they couldn’t afford but felt they absolutely had to have.
Our leaders have been reluctant to speak about the stratum of our economic and ecological crises that is grounded in values. It’s been left to rock singers and occasional rabbis to articulate people’s inchoate sense that something deep is awry with our economy – something that even throwing three trillion dollars at the banks won’t fix. As Bono
from U2 wrote in the New York Times, “Is it me, Lord, people are starting to ask, across the US and Europe… Yes, it’s us.” The bank rescue plan, the stimulus, green jobs – they are all necessary and important, but without addressing the lo tahmod roots of the crisis, we’re just stumbling towards the next one.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch almost said it, 150 years ago at the dawn of the industrial age. In his commentary on the Ten
Commandments he wrote that lo tahmod is God’s seal on the Decalogue. A human law giver could perfectly well command “do not kill” and “do not steal.” But only God, who knows our most intimate thoughts and desires would say “do not covet.” As Hirsh puts it:
Men can only forbid crimes, and where necessary, bring committed crimes before their tribunals. But…the real breeding place and birthplace of crimes keeps beyond their cognition.
Consumerism isn’t an easy issue for American Jews. By dint of being relatively affluent, the conspicuous consumption that tends towards envious acquisitiveness is common in our communities. But it’s an issue that has to be addressed.
In previous eras, Jewish leaders imposed limits on public ostentation. This rule was enacted in Italy during the 15th Century: “In order that we may carry ourselves in modesty and humbleness before the Lord our God …no one may possess cloaks of any other color than black, sleeves may not have silk linings … so too cloaks of sable or ermine or expensively dyed material are forbidden.” In 1728, the community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive.” (See Meir Tamari, “Sins of the Marketplace,” 1996.)
The reason usually given for these “Sumptuary Laws” was to avoid inviting the hostility of goyim. You could make that argument today too. (Did you see the astonishing survey reported in the Boston Review which found that 24.6% of Americans blame Jews for the financial crisis “a moderate amount” or “a great deal?)
But I think that’s the wrong argument to make. The right argument today for Jewish leaders to enact voluntary norms limiting excessive, conspicuous consumption is that we should be striving to be part of the solution. We are starting to recognize the corrosive effects of consumerism on our families, our economy and our planet. The mitzvah of lo tahmod helps us to identify and act on the roots of the problem. Now is the time to deliver on the last of the ten commandments.