Broken Tablets, Edited by Rabbi Rachel Mikva

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Broken Tablets,

Edited by Rabbi Rachel Mikva

Discussion Guide by Rabbi Dan Judson
Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said, “The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day.” Broken Tablets, edited by Rabbi Rachel Mikva, is an anthology of essays that wrestles with the meaning of these commandments in our own day.

The essays provoke and challenge us to explore the meaning of the Commandments for our own lives and raise such issues as: What are the idols we worship today? What does it mean to honor father and mother if we have had a difficult relationship with them? What did happen on Mt. Sinai? Are we honest in how we deal with others and ourselves?

This book is a contemporary reflection on what many people consider the foundation of Judeo-Christian values. It is an invitation to consider why these few verses from the Torah have made such an impact upon the world.

The following guide is arranged by chapter, briefly summarizing each essay and then raising questions.


In Rabbi Kushner’s introduction he looks at different interpretations of what God said at Mt. Sinai. He begins with the maximalist position—God spoke the entire written Torah—and ends with the minimalist position—God only spoke an aleph, “a letter whose only sound is the larynx clicking into gear.” There are profound theological implications between the two positions.

The maximalist position understands all the words of the Torah to have been divinely revealed. The minimalist position holds that the only content of revelation was “the softest yet still audible sound in the universe – so soft that any other sound will drown it out.” This sound is equated with ultimate unity, the idea that everything has at its basis the sound of the aleph. The Torah itself is just a midrash on that essential unity.

How would a maximalist interpretation of revelation differ from the minimalist interpretation in an understanding of Jewish law? How about ethics?

How would the two positions view the Ten Commandments themselves?

Rabbi Kushner writes, “According to the most popularly rehearsed tradition, God gave Moses the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai. Others, unwilling or unable to reconcile some of the obvious inconsistencies with such an assertion, claim that God gave Moses only the Ten Commandments themselves.” How would a maximalist and a minimalist address the inconsistencies of the Torah text?

Is there a way to harmonize the maximalist and the minimalist positions?

The First Commandment: I, Adonai, Your God, [am the one] who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

In her introduction to the first commandment, Rabbi Mikva addresses the question of why the leaving of Egypt is mentioned as part of the first commandment, when “I am the Lord your God” would seem to be enough. She cites Ibn Ezra, who says that the leaving of Egypt is mentioned because people need compelling first hand experience in order to believe.

In addressing this question, Dr. Eugene Borowitz points out that the reference to God taking Israel out of Egypt says something about God’s role in history. Central to Judaism is a God who acts in this world to redeem us from sickness or calamity.

By portraying God as One who redeems, Dr. Borowitz invites the question: Why doesn’t God always redeem from evil? Why does God allows evil to exist at all? In our time this question of theodicy almost always takes the following form: If God acts in history to redeem, why did God not act to prevent the Shoah? Dr. Borowitz addresses this complex question with the following observation: “More than a hundred Jewish generations have wondered why You do not intervene more quickly, how You can let the people of Israel suffer long years of Egyptian slavery before bringing them out. And the last couple of generations have brought us to a new level of anguish over your inscrutible time schedule. Yet we have also seen incomparable evidence of Your saving hand, though they cannot be said – vile thought – to compensate for the suffering that preceded them.” Thus, the Shoah does not negate God’s existence, it speaks more to the inhumanity of human beings than to the reality of God. Do you agree?

Do you agree that there is ample evidence of God’s saving hand in history?

The Second Commandment: Have no other god before me…

In his earlier days when Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, (Reb Zalman), was a “card carrying Lubavitcher” he considered all religious non-Jews as idolaters and all the non-orthodox Jews as heretics. After his encounters with other religions, meeting “real believers in the living God among them,” he writes, “real idolatry is the worship of money, technology, addictions, absolute personal systems—even of Judaism and of the personal ego. None of the religions of other people is avodat elilim (worship of idols).”

What do you think Reb Zalman means by saying that the worship “even of Judaism” is idolatry? How could worshiping Judaism be idolatrous?

Reb Zalman says that the “spiritual tools” of other faiths can be helpful to Jews in pursuing their own sense of Jewishness. Some might chastise him for being syncretistic—that is trying to blend religions together. Do you agree with Reb Zalman that Judaism can borrow ideas from other faiths? At what point would Judaism stop being Judaism and become a different religion?

The Third Commandment: You shall not lift up the name of Adonai your God for vain purpose, for Adonai will not clear one who uses the Name in vain.

In a personal essay, Dr. Fuchs-Kreimer interprets the third commandment to suggest that not taking God’s name in vain means not being honest about God’s role in evil as well as good. In her concluding paragraph she writes, “Hold on to all of your joy—and to all of your hurt. Ignore mealy mouthed defenses of God that leave you taking the blame. Avoid people who have anything too quick or too pious to say about God.”

Dr. Fuchs-Kreimer says that her interpretation is not the p’shat (surface) level interpretation of the text. In what way, if any, do you think the text of the commandment supports her interpretation?

Underlying the entire essay is a particular theology that is somewhat paradoxical. She suggests that in saying the mi-shebearach prayer for a friend who has cancer, one should not believe that this could actually affect the objective outcome of the disease. God simply does not intervene in this way, and believing otherwise is bad theology. While she accepts Mordecai Kaplan’s teaching that God is the process which makes for good in the universe, she also believes that God is responsible for evil. How do you think Dr. Fuchs-Kreimer reconciles this seeming contradiction? Do you agree with her theology?

Dr. Fuchs-Kreimer discusses going out in the woods in anger to get out all of “junk”—her pent up emotions—by talking directly to God. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and one of the major hasidic thinkers, also suggests that every day we should go out into the woods and pour out our hearts directly to God. Having given voice to our anguish we are then free to live the rest of the day in joy. (See Arthur Green’s The Tormented Master, for further description). What do you think about Nachman of Bratslav’s notion of balance? Do you think the prayers in our siddur (prayer book) reflect the kind of “pouring out of the heart” that Dr. Fuchs-Kreimer and Nachman of Bratslav consider so important? Do you think pouring out your heart directly to God is necessary for a relationship with God?

The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…

Dr. Lawrence Hoffman takes us on a brief but ambitious history of how Jews have historically approached the fourth commandment. Dr. Hoffman suggests that there have been three ways of approaching Shabbat – through limits, through a search for truth, and through a search for meaning. The Torah and the Rabbis observed Shabbat primarily through limits: one observed the laws of Shabbat because if you didn’t God would punish you.

The early Reform rabbis no longer understood God as the dispenser of reward and punishment; they were instead interested in truth. The traditional observance of Shabbat—the following of the myriad rules and limits set out by Jewish law—was now second to the pursuit of the truth inherent in Shabbat.

In the present day, Dr. Hoffman contends we are no longer as concerned with finding truth as we are with meaning. “Meaning” he writes, “is not a quality of any single entity so much as it is an attribute that an entity has by virtue of its connection to another entity.” The key to meaning is connectedness.

In an age of alienation and isolation, “ Shabbat is an opportunity for meaning, a moment in time to forge connections and to belong…[Shabbat is] the way out of anomie.” Dr. Hoffman says meaning ultimately is seeing our connectedness with all other human beings, and when we see this connection, “we become aware of the ultimate connectedness of all that is because of the reality of God who sustains the vastness of it….”

Can you explain your own approach to Shabbat utilizing the three concepts of limits, truth, and meaning?

Dr. Hoffman describes the goal of Shabbat as seeing the connectedness and the unity in the world. Seeing this unity in all of its vastness and depth will lead us to a sense of God. Have you experienced a moment, either on Shabbat or at some point in your life where you have felt this profound sense of unity?

Dr. Hoffman and Rabbi Mikva quote Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work The Sabbath, in which Heschel observes that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time. Heschel presents the world as a dichotomy between space and time. In Heschel’s language Shabbat is the one day of the week where we remove ourselves from the world of things and of conquering space and dwell in the world of time. In what way can we remove ourselves from the world of space? Can you take Heschel’s concept of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time and place it within Dr. Hoffman’s “rhetoric of meaning”?

Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother…

In his essay on the fifth commandment, Leonard Fein raises one of the central tensions of the commandment, how do you honor parents even if they do not deserve honor? Raising this question in many different guises, Fein acknowledges that children are doomed in many respects to break this commandment, to feel disappointment with their parents, but ultimately “…whether or not they [our parents] are loveable, we must honor them.” The fact that parents brought children into this world, that they gave life, writes Fein, is enough to deserve honor. Honor parents even if they do not deserve honor.

Fein cites Maimonides who says, “It is possible for a man to honor and revere and obey those whom he does not love.” Rachel Mikva in her introduction to this commandment writes, “…the mitzvah [of honoring] comes from God, and is binding upon us no matter what our relationship with our parents (although any immoral instructions should be ignored). Jewish tradition assumes that most parents remain worthy of honor, even though they are flawed.” But what does honoring entail exactly?

In the Sifra on Leviticus 19:3 [a work of midrash], the text defines honoring as: providing them with food and drink, clothing and protection and guiding their footsteps. Why do you think the midrash defines honoring in this very concrete way? What do you think “guiding their footsteps” means?

Maimonides writes in his Mishnah Torah, Laws of Rebels 6:7, “To what extent should parents be feared? Even if a son is attired in a costly outfit, sitting at the head of the community, and his parents come and tear his clothes, strike him on his head, and spit in his face, he must not shame them. He must remain silent, to fear and revere the King of Kings (God) who has decreed this.

Do you think there are limits or situations whereby a parent is no longer deserving of honor from his children?

Fein writes that our approach to child rearing has changed such that parents are more conscious of seeing their kids as people; this in turn leads to kids seeing their parents as people, with all of their frailties and errors. He suggests that this shift in child rearing may lead to less distance between parent and child as they grow older. Do you think Fein is correct or is every generation doomed to fall into the “generational gap?

Sixth Commandment: You shall not murder.

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman contends that, after the unimaginable murder committed against the Jewish people in the Holocaust, murderers like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir and the Jewish cultures that supported them, prove that the Jewish people has not learned the lesson of the sixth commandment. Rabbi Kelman reminds us that, “…no people has evolved completely beyond the capacity for killing. The Torah itself literally screams out the message that the murderous impulse is part of existential human experience.”

Although the sixth commandment tells us that murder is wrong, the Torah sanctions the death penalty for certain situations, such as the rebellious son. Can you articulate then the limits of the sixth commandment. Under what circumstances is it permissible to take a life?

In the “First Words” section Rabbi Mikva provides interpretations of the sixth commandment that equate murder to other transgressions, such as embarrassing someone. Do you think interpreting the commandments in such a way—metaphorically—reduces the impact of the prohibition?

Seventh Commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

In his essay on adultery, Rabbi Peter Knobel begins by placing marriage in a religious context. He notes that the Talmud calls marriage kedushin—the root of which, kuf-dalet-shin, means holiness. The relationship between a husband and wife is likened in Jewish tradition to the relationship between God and the Jewish people, “God acts as the husband and Israel as the wife, with the Torah as their ketubah, and Mt. Sinai stretched over their heads like a wedding canopy.” Like idolatery, adultery is a sin that involves the breaking of a covenantal relationship.

Rabbi Knobel also points out that in Jewish tradition, the fulfillment of marital obligations is a mitzvah. “Its purpose is two-fold: procreation and personal fulfillment. Marriage creates family, which is the locus for the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people. In this setting, sexual intercourse is a religious act equivalent to prayer or Torah study, and the home becomes a holy place.” By placing marriage in a sacred context, Rabbi Knobel asks us to take seriously the idea that adultery as a sin against God.

Rabbi Knobel points out that “…stressing the obligatory nature of marriage in Judaism is often interpreted as harmful to those who are not married, making them feel excluded.” What should liberal rabbis do about this inherent conflict?

Rabbi Knobel writes, “Today liberal Jews have eliminated the concept of sin from their vocabulary and especially from their moral reasoning. We tend to ‘understand’ or psycholigize adultery. We investigate the roots of the deteriorated relationship and provide emotional support for the parties involved, but rarely condemn the sinful behavior.” Rabbi Knobel is echoing a line of recent thinkers who have decried the liberal religious tendency to shy away from traditional categories of sin and repentence. Do you agree with Rabbi Knobel’s assertion that there is less of an emphasis upon sin in liberal Judaism? What accounts for this change? Can the psychological understanding of adultery be reconciled with a traditional religious understanding?

In an essay on the meaning of Yom Kippur Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel similarly argues against liberal Judaism’s failure to speak forthrightly about sin and repentence. He argues that at the root of any faith must be a profound sense of embarrassment, which comes from recognizing how often we fail to act justly. A profound sense of embarrassment will goad us into higher levels of moral behavior. Do you agree with Rabbi Heschel that faith proceeds from a profound sense of embarrassment?

Eighth Commandment: You shall not steal.

In Leviticus Rabbah the question is asked: who is a thief? The midrash answers: a thief is one who does not do the mitzvah of peot[corners], leaving the corners of our field unplowed so that the poor may come and glean from them. Interestingly, the midrash asserts that those who fail to do this mitzvah are not simply guilty of being uncharitable; rather, they are guilty of breaking the eighth commandment. Underlying this midrash is the rationale that ultimately all property is God’s. Rabbi Richard Levy writes in his essay on the eighth commandment, “Theft is wrong, a priori, because it takes from others and it takes from God, who has ordained a method for distributing Divine bounty. The Holy One apportions the land and wealth that belong to God to individuals who are commanded to share it with God’s agents, the poor.” The commandment against stealing is thus not simply a protection of private property; it is also a cry to share God’s bounty in this world.

In his response to the essays at the back of the book, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf questions Rabbi Levy: “You remind us that everything belongs to God. Is not all property, then, in some sense, theft? Are the Marxists right when they seek to expropriate from the expropriators?” Utilizing Rabbi Levy’s essay, how would you respond to Rabbi Wolf?

Rabbi Levy brings up the difficult but interesting passage in the Talmud concerning the catching of Jewish thieves by a rabbi. The story raises profoundly interesting questions of morality and politics. The background of the story is that the Jewish people are living as an oppressed minority under the Romans. Rabbi Eleazer is turning in to the Roman authorities Jews caught stealing. Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha sees this as an act of treason. For Joshua ben Korcha, the question is not whether stealing is wrong, but should the punishment be meted out by unjust rulers. For Rabbi Eleazer, the punishment for stealing must be observed, even under the conditions of political oppression. Do you agree with Rabbi Eleazer or Joshua ben Korcha?

Maimonides says that anyone who turns a Jew over to idolaterous rulers should be killed. On the other hand, there is a famous Talmudic dictum that the law of the kingdom is the law for Jews. What are the issues involved for making this decision?

Ninth Commandment: You shall not answer against your neighbor as a false witness

Rabbi Laura Geller explores the nature of truth telling and lying in her essay on the ninth commandment. She notes that the commandment itself is narrowly written to prohibit a specific type of lying, lying in a court of law, which is prohibited under all circumstances. She then goes on to explore a broader question of lying in general, and under what circumstances lying is permissible. Jewish tradition would reject Immanuel Kant’s notion that lying under all circumstances is wrong, favoring a more nuanced position. In Jewish tradition, it is permissible to tell “white lies” in order to preserve shalom bayit, peace in the home. Jewish tradition would also recognize that lying is permissible to save lives. Rabbi Geller concludes her essay by raising certain questions that might be considered when we choose to lie: What motivates the lie, a conflicting moral value or simply the desire to protect our own selfish interests? Does the lie protect or hurt? Are there unintended victims of the lie? And what are the consequences to the deceived, to the liar, and to the rest of us?”

Rabbi Geller points out that Jewish tradition holds shalom bayit, peace in the home, as a higher value than total honesty. Zelig Pliskin, a disciple of the Chafetz Chayim in a book called, Guarding Your Tongue, writes that there are three situations in which truth is more important than shalom between people. These are: when you are making a shidduch—a wedding arrangement—one should be totally truthful about the qualities of the prospective partners; when you are making a business partnership, one should be totally truthful as to the assets of the company; and finally, one should be totally truthful in evaluating a teacher. What about these three particular situations do you think merit complete honesty? Can you think of others where complete honesty is more important than shalom?

At the end of her essay, Rabbi Geller says that the ninth commandment forces us to ask ourselves about how honest we were with others and ultimately how honest we were with ourselves. Consider what honesty to ourselves means. Just as there are different types of lies we tell others, are there different types of lies we tell ourselves? Is self-deception an intractable part of life? How can we be sure we are acting authentically?
Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet…

Is it possible to legislate against desiring something? This is the question which Menachem Kellner raises in his essay on the tenth commandment. He suggests that this commandment has two goals: to legislate against acting on our covetousness and to train ourselves against being overly desirous. It is this second goal, which is perhaps the more remarkable part of the commandment. “The Torah does not want us to steal,” he writes. “Fine. But more than that, the Torah wants us to make ourselves into the kind of people who are not even tempted to steal…The tenth commandment thus teaches us that while mitzvot are a way of life, they are not the ends of themselves, but means to a further end: the formation of a holy character.”

Jewish tradition has long argued about whether the mitzvot are a means to an end as Menachem Kellner suggests above or are an end in and of themselves. Should one pray daily because prayer refines one’s character or should one pray simply because God demands that you pray? What about mitzvot which do not seem to lead to the formation of a holy character, like the prohibition against wearing shatnez (the mixing of linen and wool)? Should one do these mitzvot as well? Or only ones which clearly lead to the formation of a holy character?

If the doing of the mitzvot are an end in and of themselves, can you articulate the value of doing them?

Do you agree that the mitzvot are a means to the formation of a holy character?

Menachem Kellner says that the commandment legislates against covetous thoughts, not only because thoughts lead to actions, but because the Torah also wants us to be wary of desire that is out of control, for this sort of desire leads to discontent, “Desire is predatory; it eats at our own hearts. In its place God seeks to seal the passion of the covenant to make our hearts whole.” There is a simple teaching from the Mishna which makes the same point about desire and discontent. “Who is rich?” The Mishna asks. “The one is contented with his portion.” Can you articulate the way in which Judaism tries to teach this value? Is the Jewish way a path towards holiness or contentment? Are these two concepts different?

General Questions

Can you suggest a reason for the particular order of the commandments?

A few suggestions were given throughout the book of how the commandments could be grouped together. For example, Rabbi Kushner cites the midrash which says that the first five commandments could be grouped together because they serve as a mirror for the second five. Another midrash suggests that the fourth and fifth commandments belong together because they form the two great institutions of Jewish life (parenting & family). How would you group the commandments, and under what heading?

After reading this book, can you articulate why the Ten Commandments are given such centrality in Jewish and Christian life?

The subtitle of the book is “Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves.” The editor of the book believed that a reevaluation of the commandments could lead to deeper insight into our own lives. Did you have that experience after reading through this book? In what ways?

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