News Release: Religion and Ethics

Nov. 5,  2009

Ten Commandments Illuminated by Emory Professor

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From Emory Report

“But if u luv me & obey my laws I will be kind 2 ur families 4 thous&s of generations.”

The Bible Society of Australia’s text-messaging version of the Ten Commandments reflects our appetite for easily digestible information at breakneck speed in a digital age.

But are we missing the point?

“When we speak about the Bible, many people know the stories,” said Shalom Goldman, professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies. “But they don’t know the text.”

Goldman seeks to illuminate the Ten Commandments — a list of moral and religious imperatives representing the guiding tenets of the monotheistic religions — in the context of both the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an, Hollywood and the Supreme Court. This semester, he is sharing his insights with the larger community as part of the Great Works Seminar series sponsored by the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry (FCHI).

Goldman, who initially envisioned the class as an undergraduate course, said he began reframing it as a community seminar in 2003 after hearing a BBC special poking fun at the lack of general knowledge about the Ten Commandments, even among Anglican priests.

“The humanities are under threat,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of prestige anymore. They don’t get a lot of funding. But they’re very much needed.”

Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Great Works series invites the community to join Emory’s outstanding faculty in studying a great work each semester, such as a pivotal text, symphony or painting. The series kicked off last year with a closed-out seminar on Jane Austen’s novels. This year, seminars will explore Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and the Ten Commandments. “The Arabian Nights” is on tap for late spring.

Developed and led by Emory faculty, the seminars are open free of charge to any member of the Atlanta community, and support the University’s strategic theme of “Creating Community, Engaging Society.” On Jan. 27, 2010, FCHI will again open its doors to the community at its annual faculty response forum.

“This gives people who are interested in talking about classic creative works a chance to hear from people who spent much of their lives studying them,” said FCHI Director Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English.

On a recent Wednesday evening, about 20 “students” — alumni, community members and faculty and staff from across the University — gathered in a Callaway seminar room with their Bibles in tow, dissecting passages from Exodus to Deuteronomy. The first class in the three-part series examined the Ten Commandments and their relationship to Judaism. Future sessions focus on Christianity, Islam and the commandments’ place in artistic and legal traditions.

Goldman began by rattling off some surprising statistics: 40 percent of the U.S. population visits a house of worship weekly. In Israel, however, that number drops to 20 percent.

“You are living in a Biblical country,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Known as the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments are not referred to explicitly as “commandments.” Rather, they are called “utterances.” There are 613 commandments sprinkled throughout the book, which fit under the rubric of the Ten Commandments, Goldman said. Given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments receive more weight than the rest in Jewish law, he added, because they are understood as “covenantal.”

Several students lingered after class, including the Rev. Carolyn Mobley, a partner of a Candler student, who said she was “thrilled” by the opportunity to hear Goldman speak and wanted to heal some of the misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity.

“If we understood more of the original ideas, the situation could get better,” she said.

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