Moses, the Supreme Judge, Receives the Ten
a.k.a. Parashat Yitro
Moses’ father-in-law and priest of Midian, heard about the Exodus and came to meet Moses at Rephidim. With him
he brought Moses’ wife, Zipporah and the couple’s sons Gershom and Eliezer. Jethro rejoiced at the news of the
people’s deliverance and officiated at a sacrificial feast attended by Aaron and all the elders of
day Jethro watched as Moses tried to attend to all legal matters and disputes within the community. He advised
Moses that he had taken on too much, and suggested that he appoint a hierarchy of judges who could do the bulk
of the work. They should be honest and God-fearing men. Only the most serious matters should be brought to Moses
for judgment. Moses saw the wisdom of this plan and implemented it. Jethro left for home.
third new moon after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel left Rephidim and camped in the wilderness beneath
Mount Sinai. Moses climbed the mountain and God spoke to him there. He told Moses to remind the people of how He
had delivered them. If they would obey Him and keep the covenant, He would be their God and they would be a holy
nation set apart from others.
assembled the elders and all the people, and they agreed to this covenant. Moses conveyed this commitment to
God. God said that he would come to Moses in a thick cloud and speak to him so that all the people could hear.
This would be proof that Moses had spoken the truth about his meetings with God. The people should prepare by
washing their clothes. Nobody was permitted to approach or touch the mountain on pain of death – only when the
trumpet sounded could they approach the mountain. Moses forbade them to have sexual relations during their
period of purification.
morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain. A loud trumpet
call followed and the people trembled with fear. Then Moses led the people to the foot of the mountain. God
descended in fire and the mountain became covered with smoke, and shook. The trumpet sound grew louder, Moses
called to God and God answered with thunder. God came down to the top of the mountain and called Moses up. God
told Moses to warn the people and the priests not to come near Him lest they be consumed by his majesty and
wrath. Moses could only bring Aaron to the summit with him.
delivered these Ten Commandments to the people.
people of Israel must worship no other God.
people should never make any other images of God, and no images of anything or anyone else should ever be used
people should never misuse the name of God.
people should keep the Sabbath day holy, and no household should do any work on the
person should honour their father and mother.
person should kill.
person should commit adultery.
person should steal.
person should testify falsely against their neighbours.
person should covet anything possessed by their neighbours.
shook with fear while these commandments were handed down amidst smoke, thunder and lightning and the trumpeting
of the shofar. They asked Moses to deliver God’s message as they did not feel able to survive within God’s
presence. Moses told them not to fear. He said God was revealing His power so that they would fear Him and not
fall into sin.
people stood far off, Moses approached the thick veil of darkness where God was. God warned again that no idols
of silver and gold were ever to be made by the children of Israel.
Commentary on the 17th
parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
A rabbi has called Jethro the world’s first management consultant. That’s apt. He provides
a blueprint for the administration of community affairs and it’s a good one. Power is devolved and placed in
the hands of capable, honest and zealous men. This kind of systematized approach, with a judicial hierarchy,
is a huge step forward from the one-man show Moses was running.
You forgot to say that the judges were also God-fearing men.
No, I didn’t. It isn’t important to me whether a legislator has ongoing fantasies about a
divine lawgiver, just as long as he or she dispenses human justice fairly and
The special attribute of the Jewish Law is its religious origin. Our laws come from God,
and include instructions on the worship of God as well as laws for our dealings with one
Yes, we Jews took as our model Ancient Near Eastern treaties between kings and their
subjects, but put God in the place of the king. Given our religious obsession, that’s hardly surprising. In
my view, however, laws do not – and never did – need divine sanction. They are rational expressions of a
community’s values and expectations of conduct.
Do you not find the Ten Commandments rational?
Not all of them. The Commandments were not handed down at Sinai, as you describe, but
existed in Semitic tribal law in different forms. They emerged within a deeply religious culture and their
religious basis makes it hard to take them seriously as a legal text. The first four commandments have
nothing to do with law per se – they’re about religion and
religious superstition. Our ancestors wanted our laws to have divine sanction, so they invented a story about
God giving Moses the Ten Commandments at Sinai. But they existed before that during a time when laws were
taught to the community by counting on fingers – one law for each finger. This game, played in tents, was the
real source of our Ten Commandments – not divine injunctions delivered from a
I reject your assertion that Sinai was a myth. God’s giving of the Ten Commandments there
was a pivotal event in our history.
It was, and is, a pivotal event in our literary history – and we have you and other
scribes to thank for that. What you have given us is an amalgam of theology and law combined in a creative
way. The theological parts can, and should, be ignored in any legal discussion of how Jews in the world
A good Jew is somehow who obeys the Law and walks in its light.
A good Jew is someone who values the community and lives in peace and cooperation with
fellow Jews. A good Jew might not believe in God at all – this would make the first two commandments
unimportant to him or her. A good Jew might meet fellow Jews on the Sabbath for a meal, but does not have to.
A good Jew might seldom go to a house of worship, instead doing household and office work on the Sabbath. A
good Jew might even swear using God’s name and be no less a Jew for that.
How can you even entertain such thoughts? You’re saying a good Jew can be a Sabbath
profaner and blasphemer? You insult your own tradition!
Not true. You cannot hold a person accountable to a community on the basis of belief. Why
should the Jewish community deem it fit to sideline or excommunicate a person on the basis of not believing
in a being that no one has ever seen, that science has never detected, and whose existence is not needed to
explain the physical universe? Not to mention the fact that the character of God was so plainly made in man’s
Do you not see the hand of God in the Ten Commandments and the Torah? Do you truly believe
they reflect merely human wisdom? Can you, in all honesty, say you do not perceive a divine hand in their
The Torah is sound, and it contains unique elements compared with the codes of other Near
Eastern civilizations. Yet there is nothing there that human wisdom could not have produced. As for the Ten
Commandments specifically, every society eventually figured out that killing, theft and adultery were wrong,
and lying under oath an obstruction to justice and good governance. As for telling people not to covet, well
that failed as a commandment the moment it was uttered, because all people covet. For many people desiring
more for oneself is good, and measuring oneself against others is a normal way of assessing one’s progress in
life. In forbidding desire, God asked humanity to deny its very nature. There was never any prospect of the
10th commandment being obeyed, so put a line through that one. As for the first four
I’ve heard enough, Sigmund. This conversation proves how very far apart we
When it comes to beliefs, that’s true. Yet we both take our Jewish identities very
seriously. In that we are alike.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
Napoleon and the Jews
Whatever his motives, Napoleon distinguished himself as a liberator of the
Jews in Europe. Where his armies went in Europe, Jews were freed from the infamous ghettos to which they’d
been confined. This is not to say that all Jews regard him as an heroic figure. His domestic policies, after
all, were primarily aimed at integrating Jews into French society and some believe his primary agenda was to
create assimilation by intermarriage.
Freedom of religion in France was guaranteed by the French Revolution in
terms of 1789’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Napoleon spread the ideas of
revolutionary France throughout Europe. He also entrenched the ideals of the revolution at home in terms of
the Code Napoleon, which came into force on 21 March 1804.
All men were declared equal before the law, and religious freedom was
guaranteed. Napoleon’s Concordat of 1801 with the Pope guaranteed Catholicism primacy in France, but
Protestants, Jews and Freemasons were free to worship without restriction.
In 1799, during the siege of Acre, Napoleon had prepared a proclamation
announcing a Jewish state in Palestine. The proclamation was never issued and Napoleon abandoned the siege on
account of plague and a British blockade of harbours supplying the French ships.
It cannot be denied that Napoleon’s European forays brought freedom to many
ghetto communities. Historian Ben Weider believes Napoleon first encountered organised Jewish communities
during the Italian campaign of 1797. In Ancona, he ordered that yellow bonnets and arm bands worn by Jews be
replaced with the tricolour rosette. He closed the ghetto there, as he did in Rome, Venice, Verona and Padua.
He abolished Laws of the Inquisition too.
In the 19th century, many Jewish ghettos were
abolished, and their walls torn down, either because of Napoleonic conquest, or because of the spreading of
the ideals of the French Revolution. By the middle of the century, Jewish ghettos had either been razed to
the ground or integrated into cities. Jewish populations were no longer confined to particular regions of any
In Germany, where ghettos had existed in cities such as
Frankurt and Mainz, Napoleon abolished the special taxes placed on Jews and granted them equality before the
law. Here, particularly, Napoleon became a hero amongst the Jews.
In 1806, Napoleon called for a special assembly of
Jewish leaders and rabbis. This constituted, in effect, the recall of the Sanhedrin – a body that had not met
for 18 centuries. This august body was made up of Jewish leaders from France and Northern Italy. The
Sanhedrin met from August 1806 to March 1807 and addressed questions relating to the relationship between the
Jews and the French state. These included questions on marriage and inter-marriage, community organisation
and money-lending. The upshot was a new dispensation by which Judaism would be organised into consistories
and French Jews were viewed primarily as French citizens who happened to be of the Jewish
In 1807 Judaism became an official religion of France,
another policy that made Napoleon a hero amongst Jews. But the honeymoon period ended in 1808 when, bowing to
pressure from critics over his position on the Jewish question, Napoleon reversed some of his reforms and
annulled debts owing to Jews. This put the community in a parlous position but, fortunately, Napoleon eased
these restrictions in 1811.
Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815, but the Jews marched
onward in France, securing in 1831 an entitlement to state support for its synagogues and rabbis. Jews were
suddenly relieved of the burden of fully funding their own religious institutions. Judaism in France had well
and truly alived, and this breakthrough was largely the result of Napoleonic
It has been argued by Rabbi Berel Wein that Napoleon’s
ultimate aim was to see the Jews “disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage and
conversion”. In exile, however, Napoleon spoke of a desire to treat Jews like brothers. He admitted that he’d
hoped for an influx of Jews into France as a way to boost the local economy. This financial motive, however,
was accompanied by a desire to see them enjoying the legal rights of liberty, equality and
For the Jews of France and Italy who in 1807 composed
the Prayer of the Children of Israel, the motives of Napoleon meant little in comparison with his concrete
accomplishments. The prayer includes the words:
How fortunate we
are, how good is our lot, that from Thy hand glory and beauty were poured out upon the head of a powerful
man, full of vibrancy, Napoleon the Great, to sit on the Throne of France and Italy. Could another be found
as worthy as Napoleon …? Thou, God, has wondrously bestowed Thy kindness upon
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Wow! I have never heard a non-Jew being praised in such glowing terms – and in a prayer as
Yes, Ben, there’s no doubt that Napoleon achieved a lot for the Jews of Europe. His rise
to power changed the European landscape forever and we benefited in a number of ways. That’s not to say that
anti-Semitism disappeared along with him – far from it. But at least we could take our places as citizens of
countries like France and Italy, and feel safe from harassment. Not being confined to ghettos was also a
major aspect of our liberation.
But what about the argument that Napoleon was only helping us for pragmatic reasons and
that he was quite happy for us to disappear off the pages of history forever. Such a view surely makes us
view him in a different light, and detracts from the idea that he was a hero to the
Well, no Jew would have expected Napoleon to champion the Jewish cause in the same way
that we would. The most that we could reasonably have expected was that he treated us according to the laws
of France that codified the ideals of the French Revolution. This he did.
He did more! He prepared a speech announcing that Palestine would become a Jewish
So we read, and this was 118 years before the Balfour Declaration. Again, his motives
aren’t clear, but the intention was there – for a short while anyway.
You two are upbeat about Napoleon, but I’m not. Look at his about-face in 1808. So much
for principle! Some influential people complain that the Jews are having it too good, and Napoleon cancels
all these gentile debts and reverses some reforms. That says a lot, as far as I’m concerned. You say Napoleon
treated us according to the new laws in France, dad, but between 1808-1811 he didn’t. It was expedient for
him to bring us down several pegs so he could please his French critics. Under different circumstances, if it
had suited him, he might have reversed our status completely and made us pariahs in France. That’s what
Fair enough, Chaya. But don’t forget this – we live in a real world, not an ideal
It’s ironic that his backsliding took place in the year after that glowing prayer was
composed for use in France and Italy. God obviously wasn’t listening to it.
You’re being too cynical, Chaya. For all his faults and his pragmatism, Napoleon saved the
Jews from many evils in Europe. For me, that makes him a hero.
I’ll side with Ben on this one.
CHAYA: I’ll do some more
reading before I join this cult of hero worship. Napoleon was a power-hungry warmonger, and it would surprise me
greatly if anything he did for us was motivated by idealism.
If you’re right, does it matter?
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s sayings:
- When luck enters, give him a seat.
- There is no excuse for not helping someone when you can.
- What the old chew, the young spit out.
- Ask about the neighbours, then buy the house.
- To you I’m an atheist … to
God I’m the loyal opposition. (Woody Allen)
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Denise Madeleine Bloch
Denise Bloch was born in Agen,
France, and died in Ravensbrück. Her codename in WW2 was Ambroise. She was
recruited to the Resistance in July 1942 in Lyons and was able to avoid arrest by the Germans. Because her group
was without direct communication with London, Denise and another agent Dupont set off for London via Spain.
After some narrow escapes, she got to London where she trained for 10 months as a wireless telegraph operator
and did parachute training. She returned to France by Lysander on 2 March 1944, accompanying Robert Benoist
(Lionel) to the Nantes area. She worked for three months, sending 31 messages and receiving 52. Benoist was
arrested on 18 June 1944 and Denise was picked up the next day. She was imprisoned in Ravensbrück, Torgau and
Konisberg where she suffered great hardship from exposure and cold. She was returned to Ravensbrück where she
was shot in January 1945. Bloch received the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, Légion d'honneur, French
Resistance Medal. She was 29 years old.
Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)
Wiener was born
Missouri, and was reading scientific books at the age of four. He received his
Ph.D. in Mathematics from Harvard University at the age of 18 for a thesis on mathematical logic.
He was a natural linguist and could speak thirteen languages. In 1933, Wiener won the Bôcher Prize for his
brilliant work on Tauberian theorems and generalized harmonic analysis. During World War II, Wiener worked on
guided missile technology, and studied how sophisticated electronics used the feedback principle – as when a
missile changes its flight in response to its current position and direction. He noticed that the feedback
principle is also a key feature of life forms from the simplest plants to the most complex animals, which
change their actions in response to their environment. Wiener developed this concept in the field of
cybernetics, which is concerned with the combination of man and electronics. In 1948 his book
Cybernetics was published. Norbert Wiener developed the field of cybernetics, inspiring a generation
of scientists to think of computer technology as a means to extend human capabilities. Wiener’s vision of
cybernetics had a powerful influence on later generations of scientists, and inspired further research, such
as the user interface studies conducted by the SAGE program.
Wiener is regarded as the founder of cybernetics, a field
that formalizes the notion of feedback and has
implications for engineering,
systems control, computer science, biology, philosophy, and the
organization of society. He was a strong advocate of automation as a way to improve the standard of living and
overcome economic underdevelopment. Wiener declined an invitation to join the Manhattan Project, and was arguably the most distinguished scientist to do so.