Monthly Archives: November 2020

Biblical Fact-Check: 613 Commandments?

I’m not sure where it began, but someone started the tale that the Hebrew High Priest had a rope tied to his leg, so that if the sound of the bells attached to his robe stopped jingling in the Most Holy Place, the people on the other end of the rope would know he’d been struck dead and could haul him out. No one exactly knows who began this myth: it’s not in the Bible nor is it in the Talmud. Yet you’ll find it trotted out in sermons fairly regularly.

Another of those legends is the idea that there are 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law. In this case, we do know the origin of the legend: rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the number 613 was obtained through typical rabbinical logic. One way is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word Torah is 611, to which can be added the first two of the Ten Commandments. Another method was to say that there were 365 prohibitions – corresponding to the days in a year – and 248 commands – corresponding to the bones in the human body. But in fact, to obtain this number, commands or prohibitions are often counted twice, while others are subsumed. The number 613 was first suggested by a third century rabbi and mostly codified by Maimonides in the 11th century. Virtually all the commandments that Maimonides lists as commands are not explicitly in the Torah, but are rabbinic interpretations of the Torah. A later rabbi, Gersonides, counted 513. Another suggested 521. Eliezer ben Samuel listed 417 commandments. The number of 613 wasn’t really accepted until much later in rabbinic Judaism’s history.

However, you’ll find Christian teachers readily throwing out the number 613, as if it is as biblically codified as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28, Deut. 4:13). I’m sure I used the number myself, simply assuming that someone else counted correctly.

In fact, I haven’t come across a Christian teacher who has meticulously enumerated the commandments in the Law (without simply hijacking or modifying Maimonides’ list). And no wonder: it would be an elusive goal. You’d have to decide whether to count repeated commands in Deuteronomy twice. You’d have to determine if a sentence that commands three actions counts as one command or three. You’d have to determine whether a ritual command contains a moral imperative. And if you made the effort, you would almost certainly not land on the number 613, unless you had set it as a target before beginning.

Yes, it’s easier to take the rabbis’ word for it. But since they are often wrong about a great many things, I’d suggest saying “all the commandments of the Law” or “the entire Torah” or “every law of Moses”.

23. Judging Beauty in Creation (2)

We continue with the next three aspects of judging beauty in creation.

Immediate Response

After contemplating beauty receptively, we experience an immediate response, which is usually unpremeditated and almost instinctive. This immediate response is not the final judgement of the soul upon what it is encountering, only its initial reaction. To take this superficial reaction as determinative of something’s beauty or value is the mistake of the immature, untrained, or even obtuse. Immediate responses are not carefully planned responses, and are therefore indicative of the already-formed character. When Christlike character is present, the more or less immediate responses are those that love what God loves and hate what God hates.

After perception and immediate response, the process of interpretation begins.

Interpretation

Beauty communicates meaning, and meaning must be interpreted. That meaning is discerned and understood by the faculty we call imagination. Through imagination, we understand patterns, metaphors, analogies, symmetries and the like. We are able to interpret what the beauty signifies. This step leads to the final step.

Evaluation

Judgement is necessary once one has interpreted the meaning of something supposedly beautiful. Since meaning is always present, an interpretation of meaning must necessarily lead to an evaluation. Is it true? It is false? Is it trivial? Is it banal? Is it misleading? Is it manipulative? Is it ennobling? Is it transformative? In short, is it good and beautiful? To refer to an object as beautiful or ugly is to refer to the quality of the object, while also expressing a positive or negative response to it and suggesting that others ought to respond in the same way.

Judgement is important to a Christian because it is sin that prefers the epistemological, moral and aesthetic relativism that nullifies judgement. If humans are indeed fallen, then they may be prone to deceive themselves about pleasure. Humans may like what they should not like, and hate what they should love.

T. S. Eliot reminds those desirous of good literary judgement that they need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. These two levels of evaluation are crucial to distinguish. The first level has to do with a subject’s preferences. The second level has to do with the merits of a work. It is not inherently elitist to believe that some aesthetic judgements are better than others. Indeed, every artist, in striving for excellence, makes that assumption. An honest evaluation may recognise that a work of art is good, even though the subject finds no personal pleasure in it. This honest assessment allows those experiencing beauty to admit where their own preferences are perhaps immature or deformed, where some beauty appeals to parts of people that are underdeveloped in them.

Once this distinction is made, it follows that aesthetic discernment is something that can be learnt through diligent study, and even repentance. Just as no one is born wise, so no one is naturally aesthetically wise. Failing to see the necessity of growth in aesthetic discernment will keep people intractably committed to personal preferences, defending their likes and dislikes as if they are essential to their very identities. This explains why so many Christians have taught on the need for receptive perception, as discussed in the previous post. Without surrender to an artwork or a thing of beauty, one cannot see its merits; one sees only oneself and one’s own reactions. If those reactions are immature, one may prevent oneself from moving towards greater and more profound beauties, confusing superficial responses with the intrinsic truth, goodness, or beauty of a work (or lack thereof).