The Elusive First Commandment


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 5 p.m.

Torah: Exodus 18:1-20:23

Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-13; 7:1-6;

9:5-6 (Ashkenaz); 6:1-13 (Sephard)

Shabbat ends: 6:09 p.m.

‘Anochi Hashem Elokecha — I am The Lord your God.” When I went to school, many years ago, I was taught that this was the first of the Ten Commandments: to believe in God. Modern scholars, including Nachum Sarna, however, find the entire Ten Commandments to be in the form of ancient Middle Eastern royal land grant treaties. In those treaties, the first thing set forth is the king who is establishing the treaty, and the authority under which he acts. So according to modern scholars, “Anochi — I am the Lord,” is not a commandment at all but the assertion of kingship and authority.

This is not a heretical view. Abarbanel says that “I am the Lord” is not a commandment but merely a preface to subsequent commandments, a declaration.

Maimonides, the Rambam, insists that “I am the Lord” is indeed the first commandment and in “Sefer HaMitzvot,” his book outlining the 613 commandments, places it first: The commandment is to believe that there is a cause and motive-force behind all existing things, the Aristotelian “prime mover.”

However, Maimonides, in “Yad Ha’Chazaka,” his code of law, makes a significant change in his first formulation. He changes “believe” to “know, not faith but certainty. Maimonides states that it is a mitzvah for every person to look at the world until he reaches the conclusion, based on logic, not faith, that there must be a Creator. While faith cannot be commanded, we can be commanded to exercise the gift of logic to reach that conclusion.

Judaism has always been a religion that stresses actions, mitzvot, rather than dogma. We define religion in terms of practice. The Orthodox call themselves “Shomer Shabbat,” ones who keep the Sabbath. While Maimonides did postulate “Thirteen Articles of Faith,” many other Rabbis do not consider them binding. They gained their great acceptance by being incorporated into the famous hymn Yigdal, which generally concludes the Friday night davening.

But even granting the validity of the Rambam’s 13 principles, we have seen over the past years a growth of what can be called the “Christianization of Judaism,” the elevation of faith over practice. One example of these new tests of dogma is the belief in the age of the earth. While tradition has it that the world is 5770 years old, that belief is not found in Maimonides. Yet there are rabbis who have made it a litmus test of Judaism.

Some Orthodox rabbis have had their conversions invalidated, their converts left in an unholy limbo, because they cannot subscribe to the dogma of the age of the earth.

The principle of Das Torah, or faith in the judgment of rabbinic scholars, has become the Jewish version of papal infallibility. Instead of reasoned dialogue and debate through responsa we see letters of condemnation with no reasons attached, but large numbers of rabbinic signatories meant, by their numbers, to foreclose a discussion of the issues. One chasidic singer was banned from performing at a large charity concert, causing great loss to the charity, only to be reinstated the next year, both times without a reason. Jews worship God, we do not worship rabbis, no matter how many of them join hands and sign on. Abraham stood alone against the world. Numbers are no substitute for logical thinking and explanation.

But there is more to the first commandment than belief, or knowledge, of God. It is a special type of God. Some say that until about 250 years ago there were no real atheists, to speak of; everyone believed in a God of some sort, monotheistic or pagan. The first commandment demands belief in a special type of God, the God who intervenes in history, the God “who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is different from the first cause and mover of Maimonides and Aristotle. This is the immanent God, the God of the covenant. This is something new and different.  I think of the final scene of the musical “Man of LaMancha,” where the entire dungeon of cutthroats and thieves has been transformed through belief. The curtain comes down as everyone sings “The Impossible Dream,” the hymn of the power of goodness to transform our lives.

The first commandment should be transformative. The idea of a God who cares, who intervenes in history, who joins us in our fight for truth and justice, is one of the greatest ideas influencing all of world history. Let us realize that this is our idea, this is the first commandment, the basis for all commandments. God cares, God acts, and justice will triumph. If we believe that fully our lives will be transformed, and we will be the better or it.

Rabbi David Willig is the spiritual leader of Congregation Aviv Hadash in Staten Island.