Thou Shalt Not Take These Names in Vain

Thou shalt not take these names in vain

During the Festival of the Giving of the Torah tomorrow, the Ten Commandments, one of the most familiar texts in human history, will be read in the synagogue. If you were to try to find out which commandments are the most well-known, or perhaps which are thought to be the most frequently broken, it would probably be the last five - those that tell us not to commit acts like murder, adultery and theft. At best, people might also mention the commandments instructing us to remember the Sabbath and honor our parents.

The first three commandments are hardly remembered at all because, unlike the others, they are taken to have a narrow, religious meaning rather than an inclusive, human one. But the one that is probably violated more than all the others, although it is no less important, is the third commandment, which in its narrow literal meaning tells us not to take God's name in vain. However, the religious authorities have given it a broader ethical meaning, prohibiting the use of God's name for any false purpose, not just when swearing an oath.

True, even in this broader sense, this commandment is directed at religious people, in fact only those who believe in Hashem - that is to say, Jews. And regrettably, among religious Jews there are cases in which the name of God is taken in vain and religion is exploited for ulterior purposes, even those that fundamentally distort it.

Those who do this include believers who take advantage of their faith in order to claim exemption from sharing the social burden with the rest of society, whether the burden relates to military service or participating in the labor force. Then there are those believers who, in the name of the Torah, violate the dignity and the rights of others, like converts and women who have been refused a divorce. All this is done even though the "toolbox" at the disposal of believers contains halakhic means that are humane and respectful. Pursuing the draconian option is a decision that reflects one's humanitarianism, not one's faith.

If we seek to venture outside the original religious meaning of the third commandment and into the universal phenomenon it embodies, it becomes clear that the commandment relates to something that is far more prevalent than one would suppose. All ideologies and belief systems, not only religions, push many of their adherents to use those ideologies to cover up injustice.

Take trade unionists, for example, who in the name of socialism sometimes cover up a low and mendacious work ethic, or practice unfair discrimination between workers, or commit an unreasonable and disproportionate infringement on the rights of those whom they are supposed to be serving.

Or take members of the media, who in the name of freedom of expression permit themselves to run rampant and violate the privacy of individuals. Take those who in the name of Zionism, or of their so-called "birthright," permit themselves to inflict damage or harm to the land, the property, dignity, and sometimes the persons of Arabs residing in their proximity. And those who, in the name of preserving a "demographic balance," permit themselves to violate the dignity of migrant workers. And also those who, in the name of liberal values, permit themselves to ignore the necessity of preserving human dignity and even to abuse other people - in commercials, reality shows and their support for legalizing prostitution - as long as the violation is done with the "consent" of the victims.

The list is long, and the conclusions are clear. Firstly, the injustice that is done under the guise of values is more prevalent and more dangerous than other forms of injustice, precisely because of the legitimacy attributed to it. The perpetrator of the injustice doesn't feel like a rogue, but like someone who is acting out of exalted values. For this reason, identifying the injustice and acting to stop it become more difficult. Secondly and most importantly, the supreme test of whether a certain action or policy is right cannot be the lofty values in whose name it is executed, but the outcome: what it actually does to people.

True, sometime there is no alternative to harming other people in order to act on a legitimate value, but even in such cases it is incumbent upon the perpetrator to limit the harm in accordance with the test of proportionality: Cause harm only when there is no other way of achieving the goal and only if the harm is not greater than the damage it seeks to prevent.

What is true of taking God's name in vain is certainly true of actions taken in the name of socialism, Zionism, freedom of expression, liberalism or any other humanitarian value.