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    God is the difference

    Revelation at Sinai, painting by Zely Smekhov

    The Ten Commandments are justly acclaimed as the foundation of civilisation.

    The Jewish people are rightly acknowledged as the nation that brought them to mankind.

    But there is a question that any historian wants to ask. Why make such a fuss about these commandments when other peoples, other cultures, other systems, also have their ethical rules?

    Were the Israelites the first or only people to teach, “Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery”?

    Surely every people develops a social contract founded on similar principles. Every society accepts basic constraints in order to ensure, as Pirkei Avot puts it, that people do not eat each other alive.

    But, as Adin Steinsaltz remarks, “Do not kill” is not “a ruling set by some local chief or council to avoid vengeful blood feuds. It is the command of the Almighty God”.

    Yet why does that matter so much? Is it not enough that a person obeys out of respect to the common good?

    The answer is no. Without God there is no guarantee that ethics will be objective, immutable and eternal. Without God there is no guarantee that a good person will be inspired to become a saint.

    Without God there is no assurance that the day will come when “every person shall sit under his own vine or fig-tree with none to make him afraid”.

    The tragic truth of these observations is seen in the beautiful naivete of Hermann Cohen, the early 20th century German Jewish thinker, who lauded what he thought to be an ethos shared between German and Jewish culture.

    “The Jew,” he said, “saw his Messianic idea revitalised in and through the German spirit”, and there was a “kindred spirit linking Germanism and Judaism”. He thought that “both German ethics and Jewish religiosity have their foundation in God”.

    History has shown how little of God there was in German “ethics”. Immense tragedy might have been averted had the German regime acknowledged a Ruler who rules over the rulers.

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