No Other Gods, Ana Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018.
Summary: A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands.
It seems that the most attention the Ten Commandments have received of late are controversies about whether or not they may be displayed in court houses and other public settings. Most would perceive that these commandments are the property of the conservative elements of Judaism and Christianity and that more enlightened, secular, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious approaches liberate people from the oppressive laws and strictures of conservative religion. Yet, Ana Levy-Lyons, the author of this work and a minister of a progressive Unitarian congregation, contends that this freedom from religion hasn’t always been liberating, evidenced by record levels of anxiety and depression and an activism lacking in sustaining ethical foundations. She proposes in her introduction to this book:
“We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for such a moment as this. Now be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice–a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.”
Levy-Lyons offers an interpretation of these commandments as a radical manifesto of liberation rather than of oppression, empowering resistance to a materialistic, capitalistic society. Inspired by the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she offers a fresh interpretation of the commandments that she hopes both secular liberals and the progressive religious might engage in common.
Beginning with the first command, to have no other gods, she argues that the message of this command is to “dethrone the modern deities of political, social, and corporate power” that pervade our daily life, as well as all the private personal gods that vie for a place in our lives, whether they are ideals of beauty or what she calls the “tyranny of balance.” She argues that our relation as a community to the one who is “Being” itself demotes all these other pursuits. Likewise, we should accept no “sculpted images” (the second commandment) as substitutes, whether they be material objects or the sculpting of ourselves or being lured by the power of a brand. She contends, “real life, unfiltered by brands, is spectacular.” The third command, of not taking God’s name in vain calls upon us to defend God’s goodness by refusing to allow others to justify immorality in the name of God, or justifying a culture that celebrates guns or destroys the environment with the idea that this is how God has made the world, that this is just the way things are. It is a call to assert the goodness of God in matters of justice and care for the earth.
Against a 24/7 mentality and a rigid sabbatarianism, the fourth command is an invitation to squander one day every week. It seeks the liberation of those in wage slavery so they can also rest, it says “no” to a relentless consumerism and “yes” to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time” where we rejoice in enough and linger over meals with friends. It is a dangerously radical waste of time that threatens the “gods” of the other six days. Likewise, in a culture that fosters accountability only to ourselves and leaving home for the next new thing, the fifth commandment calls us to honor parents, and in so doing stay accountable to where we’ve come from. While not justifying the wrongs that may have been done to us, the command challenges us to honor what made us who we are, that none of us are self-made. Levy-Lyons also extends this to the earth itself, that our accountability to it is connected to our living long in the land.
To not kill is not merely to not murder, but to not let die, and challenges our involvement in systems that kill, whether they are the third world sweatshops that produce our clothes or the bureaucratic systems of a city like Flint that channel toxic water into the homes while diverting them from automotive plants. Our commitment to life may go so far as to abstain from meat or animal products, considering how animals live and die. The seventh command against adultery rejects the idolatry of consumer choice (and unchoosing) in the most intimate of human relationship, to instead turn our choices to protect innocence and to stay in for the long run. The eighth challenges us not only to refrain from taking what is ours directly, but in what we pay for things, and how our choices affect the availability of the world’s resources to others. The ninth is not about what counts as a lie but the pursuit of truth, whether in the courts, or in the marketplace or the political arena. She makes trenchant comments about “truthiness” — lies that sound like they could be true but undermine truth-telling.
She ends with the tenth commandment, to not covet, and recognizes the internal aspect of this command, how in fact coveting precedes all else. Coveting is subverted when we embrace a life of “enough”– that we have enough and we are enough. She recognizes that to cultivate a life of “enough,” that keeps the commands, takes a community (it was fascinating that as a liberal, she includes Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in her further reading list–perhaps this is why). Her concluding chapter contends that it matters, that pursuing goodness and love multiplies to a thousand generations and in the end, the commands transform into ten blessings, a paraphrase of which she concludes the book.
I found this attempt to interpret the commands to those seeking to escape the oppressiveness of conservative religion fascinating both for the recognition of how these commandments are in fact for our and the world’s good, and the radical demands that keeping these commands raise, particularly extending beyond personal and private morality to our concerns about systems and structures and ideologies. Yet as one who exists in a different social space than the author, the insistence on the value of human relations while keeping the deity as a very impersonal Being was puzzling. I was perhaps most troubled by an unwillingness to ask questions about the use of abortion as birth control or the warehousing of the aged among our concerns about killing. There seemed to be more concern about the warehousing of animals than people. Likewise, can we truly talk about adultery without also questioning cohabiting without commitment? There was nothing about how pornography destroys marriages. It felt at times that her reading of the commands comported with the values of progressive community with whom she ministers.
We all find it easier to challenge the transgressions of others than our own. This, actually, is what makes this a good book for me to read because I often do not hear in my faith community the challenges Levy-Lyons gives in this book. At the same time, what I would contend is that these commands are truly radical in challenging “off limits” subjects for all of us, whether this has to do with our consumerism, our exploitation of the planet, or all the ways we distort the wonderful gift of our sexuality, or even our attempts to keep the infinite yet personal God at arms length. What a fascinating conversation might be had, like Bill Moyers’ Genesis series, were scholars and ministers across the spectrum gathered to discuss these ten words, ten commandments, ten blessings!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.