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May 20 2010

Ten Commandments, Shavuot, Zen, Happiness and Relationship Success. by Dr. Belove

Published by at 12:39 pm under Knowing Relationships BLOG

Complex title, I know. But the pieces do fit.

This week I joined friends to celebrate Shavuot (Shah VOO oat) the Jewish holiday commemorating the day that Moses was said to have carried down from the mountain the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  The celebration was an all night study and discussion party, sort of like a pleasant version of a finals week all-nighter, with tea and cookies and singing.  Among other things we talked about something the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, had written about the Ten Commandments.  (Bear with me.  One point will lead to the next and will end up with me sharing something vital that I re-learned about how to be a good relationship partner. )

Buber’s whole thing was about the nature of the loving and intimate relationship between a person and God, what he called the “I – Thou” relationship.  The “I – Thou” relationship is an intimate relationship and therefore, Buber points out, there is no punishment. If you don’t want to follow the commandments, it’s up to you. Furthermore, there’s no hidden treasure you get for following them, either.  According to Buber, the only reason you follow the Commandments is because you have this intimate relationship with God.

Oh sure, there is plenty of moral censure and disapproval  for people who violate some of those Commandments.  In fact, there is even strict and legally justified punishment. There’s jail time.  But that has nothing to do with the “I Thou” relationship.

Why the punishments and rewards?

Buber said that since the Commandments were valuable guidelines for human communities, especially the second five (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie about your neighbor, and don’t envy what others have) communities also adopted those ideas except in an importantly different way. Whereas in the I-Thou relationship whether or not they were followed depended on what Buber called “a flimsy thing like faith,” in human communities whether or not they were followed depended on social sanctions and criminal punishments.

As you might imagine, some in the study group had a hard time with this idea. Essentially their position came down to this: I thought that if you were a good person you got rewarded for that.

No.  Buber was very clear on this point. Not the way he reads the Bible. He even went so far as to say that even the idea that you were rewarded in the afterlife (“I’ve been a good person and I’ll go to heaven.”) wasn’t part of the deal.

He said as far as God was concerned, He wanted us to simply follow the Commandments because we were in Love with God. Period.  That other stuff, the reward and punishments which communities and societies and individuals attach to it, that’s all a set of lesser and certainly not spiritual (or Holy) concerns.  In those lesser systems you practice doing The Good Thing in order to get certain results and to avoid others.

So of course I made the connection between this teaching and what I’ve observed in loving relationships between humans.  In those enviable relationships, the reason for being kind, loving, appreciative, attentive, sensitive, entertaining and generous during the day to your partner is not so that later that evening you will have great sex, or a great meal, or whatever. Partners do good toward each other (without expecting payback) simply because it makes them both happy.

People who act the other, doing good things to get good things back.   We say they are “ manipulative.”

The point is obvious and maybe also a bit strange.

It’s a tremendous challenge because it’s almost impossible not to keep score. It’s part of being a human animal. It’s a feature of being a mammal. Monkeys keep score. Dogs keep score.  We now are pretty sure that infants at the age of 12 months are able to keep score. The sense of what’s fair is deep in our hard wiring.  We naturally, automatically, unavoidably keep track of the balance between what we give and what we get.

This is where it gets Zen. Even though we keep score and can’t help but keep score, we are invited, or challenged, spiritually, to be generous without being attached to this or that result.

If and when we pull it off, what happens next is really interesting.  What a partner responds to is not a specific this or that, but the generosity itself. Your partner responds with generosity to your generosity and you respond in turn with more of  your generosity. And that builds a very spacious and supportive relationship.

Yes, there is a reward. Relationships will die from lack of generosity and they will thrive when generosity is restored. But that’s not the point.

For Buber, the reward of following the commandments was not a result. The reward was the pleasure of doing it. By extension, the reward of being loving is not a result, but the simple pleasure of loving. The reward of doing something Good is the pleasure of doing it. That’s the Zen part.

–  Philip  Belove, Ed.d.

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Ten Commandments, Shavuot, Zen, Happiness and Relationship Success. by Dr. Belove”

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