Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril
David Klinghoffer, Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95
David Klinghoffer’s Shattered Tablets is painful to read. First of all, as a writer I slapped myself on the forehead. Why didn’t I think of this! Second, his analysis of the decrepit condition of contemporary society is all too accurate.
We can be glad that Klinghoffer got the idea first because he brings a depth and color to his analysis of our moral ills that only an orthodox Jew can. As a real heir to Moses, he knows the commandments inside and out — not just as an ethical crib list for the big final quiz, but as an outline for cultural sanity here and now.
The great merit of Klinghoffer’s presentation consists in getting us to see the Ten Commandments in a new way, as a kind of analytic means to measure the ultimate moral fitness of any society. “How we think about God, which is the general topic of the first five commandments,” writes Klinghoffer, “determines a society’s moral health, which is the subject of the second five.” Precisely because we live in a “morally sick culture, the Ten Commandments is a desperately needed diagnostic tool.”
This is an exact prescription of Klinghoffer’s procedure, not a mere metaphor. Just as a doctor can trace the destruction of a person’s health by understanding the physical condition of the patient’s body, so also, claims Klinghoffer, we can trace the destruction of our society’s health by understanding the moral condition of the body politic. Both kinds of destruction leave characteristic signs of neglect and abuse in their respective bodies.
The merit of this approach — which is, by the way, the same one used by Socrates against the sophists of his day — is that it reminds us of an essential but forgotten fact. In both cases, health is an intrinsic standard of goodness independent of the vagaries of human will.
It doesn’t matter what we happen to think or do, the American diet is one of the worst in the world — high in fat and sugar, glutted with garbage calories, and brimming with unnatural chemicals. If we continue to eat this way, then as a nation we will waddle into dyspeptic and carcinogenic self-destruction.
It should be clear that we cannot act with impunity against the way that the body is made. Physical health is the standard, and the punishment, physical sickness, is built in. Why do we believe, then, that we can act with impunity against our moral nature? Why do we think that there isn’t such a thing as moral sickness?
These questions help us see more clearly why Klinghoffer rightly uses the language of medicine in regard to morality. If we have a moral nature, then our moral health is defined by that pre-defined nature. Therefore commandments such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery” are like a doctor’s command “Thou shalt not swallow arsenic.” Just as arsenic poisons the body and destroys the intrinsically good thing, physical health, so also adultery poisons a marriage and destroys the intrinsically good thing, the sacred union of a man and woman.
The problem is that we live in a society that rejects the notion that there is such a thing as moral health, because it has jettisoned the truth that we have a pre-defined moral nature. It is as if we said in regard to the body, “Physical health is relative. Nobody can tell me what to eat! I have a right to eat anything I want. The very idea of ‘health’ is oppressive anyway, and in fact, most of the evil in the world is caused by doctors — who, by the way, have almost always been men!”
Klinghoffer argues that secularism is at the heart of the rejection of a pre-defined moral nature, because secularism rejects the belief that there is a Creator who made us in a particular way, body and soul. To be more precise, what we are experiencing with secularism is “a resurgent pagan moral perspective,” one that, like the paganism faced by the Jews in Egypt and Canaan, is dead-set against a transcendent God Who establishes a moral order by creating human beings in His image. In modernity, this paganism takes the form of materialism, the belief that the only reality is material reality.
But whether in ancient or modern form, Klinghoffer maintains that the choice is and always has been stark. Indeed, there are only two: “God and ‘other gods’ — one true, the other the most terrible but seductive lie.” It is just as destructive to worship Moloch as it is to worship ourselves or pretty crystals. Both are forms of idolatry, and hence both are violations of the commandment against worshiping other gods. Both lead to the immolation of babies.
That allows us to see another important aspect of Klinghoffer’s argument. In Jewish tradition (and in Catholic as well, I should add), violations of the first set of commandments having to do with our relationship to God, always lead to violations of the second set of commandments having to do with our relationship with each other. The bulk of Klinghoffer’s analysis consists in showing, in depressing but illuminating detail, how the secularist rejection of God is making us a nation of murderers, adulterers, liars, and thieves, riddled with lust and consumed with envy.
The lesson: it is impossible to have benign paganism. “The smiling, compassionate countenance of modern-day paganism” is even now being “revealed as the feral, snarling face of our own worst selves.” Or in more familiar terms, the Enlightenment propaganda in regard to the “moral atheist” is a contradiction waiting to unhinge. The rejection of God must always result in the worship of something else, whether it be Baal, progress, or our own untethered will.