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Should People Follow the Ten Commandments?

Judaism, Commandments, and Noahide Laws


In all of the political and cultural debates over the Ten Commandments, one question that receives far too little attention is whether anyone should be expected to adhere to the Ten Commandments in the first place. They are, after all, Jewish laws, so why should any non-Jews bother with them?

If people regard the Ten Commandments as simply basic behavioral rules that God expects of everyone, then of course they will expect everyone to follow them. What these people tend to miss, however, is that this is not how the Jews originally understood the Ten Commandments. Instead, the Ten Commandments were regarded as behavioral rules for Jews — the chosen people. They weren’t commandments for everyone else.

Indeed, this was the status of all the 623 commandments in ancient Hebrew law. They were God’s laws for God’s chosen people, not laws that applied to gentiles. So what were gentiles supposed to do? Jewish scholars came up with a set of laws that all of humanity should follow, especially those traveling through or living in areas controlled by Jews.

The lists vary to some degree, but most accepted the truth of seven basic rules known as the Noahide Laws. The name refers to the idea that all humans share a common descent from Noah after the Great Flood. Jews describe any group of gentiles following the Noahide Laws as B’nai Noach, or “Descendants of Noah,” and individuals are considered “Righteous Gentiles.” Adherence to these laws are the means by which non-Jews can best have a meaningful relationship with God. Neither following the Ten Commandments nor the rest of the halakha is necessary.

  • Do not murder.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not worship false gods.
  • Do not engage in sexual immorality (usually incest, sodomy, adultery, homosexuality).
  • Do not eat any part of an animal not slaughtered according to ritual requirements.
  • Do not blaspheme.
  • Establish courts of justice.

About half of the Noahide Laws are the same as what appears in the Ten Commandments — but not all of them. There are also some additions we find here that don’t appear in the Decalogue.

Although one might follow these laws for almost any reason, including many reasons unconnected with Judaism, it is commonly believed that only those gentiles who follow the laws specifically because of their divine origin will share in the fruits of the World to Come. Following the laws for this reason as opposed to some other reason demonstrates both a knowledge of God and a willingness to submit to God’s wishes.

Through the centuries various Jewish scholars have added other regulations they considered important, like forbidding castration or paying tithes, but the above laws have been retained in all lists and are regarded as generally authoritative in all schools of thought.

Most Americans who work for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings or creating Ten Commandments monuments are not Jews and thus not technically bound to follow the Ten Commandments. Even if one accepts the authoritative nature of the Bible (which is not something that the government can endorse), all that gentiles are obligated to follow are probably the Noahide Laws, but I haven’t seen anyone try to create a monument for them.

Should people follow the Ten Commandments? If one is a believing Jew, then it seems reasonable to conclude that one should indeed follow them — it wouldn’t make much sense to ignore them. If one is not a believing Jew, then it isn’t necessary to follow all of them. If one accepts the Old Testament as authoritative, then one should simply adhere to the Noahide Laws and that should be sufficient.

Even if we ignore all of this, it is unclear how adherence to the Ten Commandments could ever be anything more than a personal choice. Four of the commandments are religious in nature and there is no good reason to think that a civil government has the authority to tell people what god to worship, not to take a specific god’s name in vain, not to have idols, etc.

Even the less religious commandments have problems. Although honoring one’s parents is normally a good idea, many have been abused by their parents and it would not be reasonable to tell them to “honor” such people. The tenth commandment not only condones slavery, something modern society abandoned long ago, but can also be read as supportive of women having a second-class status. Once again it would not be reasonable for the government to even endorse such positions, much less impose it upon people.

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