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Parashat Vaetchanan 5778: An example of morality’s evolution

The Ten Commandments are, without doubt, some of the best known  norms in Jewish tradition. As we know, they appear for the first time in the book of Exodus, in Parashat Yitro; and then a second time in the book of Deuteronomy, in our Parashah today.

These two sets of Ten Commandments are very similar, however they do have a few differences in their wording. Some small differences and others more significant.

Scholars of Biblical Studies mostly adhere to Biblical Criticism and its theory of several sources for the Torah. They have established that the Exodus version is earlier than the one in Devarim, as well as from a different geographic area.

I want to stop on the difference in the last Commandment לא תחמוד, you shall not covet. The Exodus version says לא תחמוד בית רעיך: לא תחמוד אשת רעך ועבדו ואמתו ושורו וחמורו וכל אשר לרעך; You shall not covet your fellow’s household: You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow.

My teacher in rabbinical school, Rabbi Dr. David Frankl, points out that this verse is interpreted as one instruction and its explanation. You shall not covet your fellow’s household is the instruction and then, to make it clear what is included in the household, we detail wife, servants, animals and so on.

On the other side, in our Parashah says ולא תחמוד אשת רעך ולא תתאוה בית רעך שדהו ועבדו ואמתו שורו וחמורו וכל אשר לרעך; And you shall not covet your fellow’s wife. You shall not desire your fellow’s household: his field, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, hus donkey or anything that belongs to your fellow.

Rabbi Frankl claims in this verse we have two instructions and one explanation. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife and you shall not covet his household are the instructions, and then household is again explained as field, servants, animals and so on.

It seems that in the Exodus version, the woman is part of the household, in the same way as other possessions In the Deuteronomy version, it seems that the woman has earned an independent status and she is not part of the household anymore. You shouldn’t covet your fellow’s wife, his partner, neither his material possessions. Not the same thing anymore!

As we said before, the Deuteronomy version is newer by a couple of centuries. And this is fascinating. Could it be that this subtle change in the text actually represents a deeper change in society? Could it be that our ancestors from Deuteronomy felt uncomfortable with the text of Exodus and didn’t believe represented their beliefs and values anymore? Could we be in front of an example of Halakhic evolution according to changes in society’s values, even before the Torah was fully redacted and completed?

This is also a fine example of how Masorti interpretation of the Torah can offer us points of view not available in orthodox or traditional exegesis. We can only comment and propose a moral evolution of our ancestors because we are willing to accept that there are different sources of the Torah, written at different times and places. Likewise, it’s inspiring to see how our ancestors were able to preserve the sacredness of the text and still slightly amend it to express new morality and a new understanding of women’s worth in society. How Masorti of them! No extreme reform, no discarding of the original text. Rather a profound respect for it, but with the courage and moral clarity to let it evolve just enough to better accommodate an improved and more just worldview.

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