The Ten Commandments: A new take on old laws

The Ten Commandments: A new take on old laws

If Rabbi Simon Glustrom had his way, the Ten Commandments would be recited more often, and by more people.

Glustrom, who spoke to The Jewish Standard about "Timeless Tablets," his sixth and most recent book, pointed out the Ten Commandments — which, in ancient times, were recited each day — "received less than generous treatment by the rabbinic authorities" during talmudic times.

According to the Hackensack resident, who served as religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center for 41 years, the rabbis removed them from the daily service in an effort to refute the heretics who claimed that only those laws were revealed at Mount Sinai. Today, the "Ten Utterances" (the literal Hebrew translation) are read publicly only three times a year — on Shavuot and as part of the weekly Torah portions of Yitro and Va’ethanan.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom says the Ten Commandments have a lot to teach the current generation.

"The Ten Commandments are important because they speak to us of our obligations to one another, and in a tangible way. They make teaching values more accessible," said Glustrom, noting that the commandments, which he called "basic to the concept of revelation," are "more than just general principles."

According to the rabbi, the problem with humanism — which lacks a divine component — is that it leads to "boutique Judaism … where you can pick and choose" what you observe. While he acknowledges that "it’s hard to believe in an abstraction," he believes that "if you leave decision-making to yourself, you can rationalize" improper behavior.

Glustrom said that as a congregational rabbi, he tried to remind synagogue members (without "being preachy") "that we have a code of ethics," which helps the Jewish people, as well as individuals, to survive. "Individuals need to know that there’s a source and that man is not the measure of all things," he said.

While he opposes displaying the Ten Commandments in public places such as courtrooms, he said, he would make greater use of them in religious schools and institutions, calling them "both available and teachable."

"Saying it three times a year is not enough," he said. "We need to discuss it as a living document." He would like to see young families discuss the commandments around the dinner table and, he suggested, rabbis might use them as topics of discussion during weeks when the Torah portion is hard to expand and needs to be "stretched."

In his book — which he will discuss and autograph at a "New Publishing Event" sponsored by the adult education committee of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center on Sunday, Oct. ‘9 — Glustrom will speak about the continued relevance of the commandments, addressing such questions as "Are the Ten Commandments absolute or conditional? Is idolatry still a problem for people today? Does a child have an obligation to honor an abusive parent? Is assisted suicide a form of murder?

"Religion goes against nature," he said, pointing to rules such as the prohibition against adultery. "It may be that man was not made to be monogamous," he added, "yet you must hold yourself back." And if someone hurts or threatens your family, he noted, it’s natural to want to attack that person. Further, he said, "honoring your parents may be the most difficult commandment to follow," citing the teachings of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. "Kids want to be independent, and parents want to keep you under their wing."

The rabbi said that if forced to choose, he would call the commandment against murder the most important "because it is irrevocable — you cannot ask for teshuvah." He also noted that the first and last commandments are "linked," since they deal with feelings rather than acts. The first commandment, he said, "is the only one that commands you to believe." The tenth, which says not to covet, is like "an umbrella concept, underlying all the others," he said.

According to Glustrom, the Ten Commandments "provide the minimum essentials of civilization." They don’t say we have to love one another, he noted, but if everyone observed them, "there would be no suicide bombers."

The Jews, he said, have fleshed out the commandments by adding mitzvot, such as those that tell us how to observe Shabbat (although, he admits, the rabbis may have added too many details, which may intimidate people who have not yet adopted a Shabbat-observant lifestyle). "The commandments provide a trigger," he said, "building blocks from which other things can be constructed."

He cited the example of "lo tignot," commanding that one not steal. This has been expanded to include the concept of "genevat daat," stealing another’s mind, he said, therefore requiring truth in advertising. The commandment has also been interpreted to require that if one finds something on the ground, he is obligated to return it to its owner. "If you don’t return it, it’s like stealing," he said.

"Timeless Tablets," available at local bookstores, can be ordered from Schreiber Publishing Company or online from

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