Book Review: The Ten Commandments Of Character

The Ten Commandments Of Character:  Essential Advice For Living An Honorable, Ethical, Honest Life, by Joseph Telushkin

This author provides about 300 pages of advice column material that is devoted around ten ethical principles that are clearly meant to parallel the ten commandments of the Hebrew scriptures.  There is little that can be said against these ten principles:  1. Know your weaknesses.  2. When ethics and other values conflict, choose ethics.  3. Treat all people with kindness in the understanding that they too were created in God’s image.  4. Be fair.  5.  Be courageous.  6. Be honest.  7. Be grateful.  8. Practice self-control.  9. Exercise common sense.  10. Admit when you have done wrong, seek forgiveness, and don’t rationalize bad behavior.  And while these principles are admittedly easy enough to understand and relate to, at the same time this book is not quite as solid as one would expect.  In general, I must admit that my ambivalence and lack of acceptance of the approach of pitting some aspects of God’s truth against others, and my dislike of rabbinical reasoning, makes this book less enjoyable to read than it otherwise would be, as there are definitely some cases where the author and I have very different interpretations of the law with very serious repercussions.

Despite being conceived as a book about ten principles, the book itself, after introducing the principles, is organized into eight unequally sized chapters that discuss the application of these principles in various aspects of life, namely family (1), children (2), friends (3), work (4), money (5), medical ethics (6), everyday dilemmas (7), and community (8).  In many cases, the author’s discussions are commonsensical.  In reading this advice column, one could picture yourself looking at a conservative Jewish version of Dear Abby or something like that.  At times the author will deal with issues that are personally relevant to him–in one case the author addresses a situation involving forgiveness that he was to blame for, handled elegantly by a couple that was upset that he went on a sabbatical and didn’t officiate their wedding after having counseled them.  At other times the author finds himself puzzled when his comments concerning the understandable lack of attraction a husband may have for a wife who let herself go are treated by angry readers with immense scorn.  At still other times, as when the author makes a bogus interpretation of the law concerning harm done to the unborn, the author demonstrates the gulf between the Bible (and Christianity) and Judaism when it comes to abortion issues that make a mockery of God’s command that mankind be fruitful and multiply and to do justice to those who murder those created in the image of God, there is a wide gulf between the author’s views and my own.

Despite these serious imperfections, though, in general the book is an enjoyable one to read.  If the author is not a particular authority whose views I would respect automatically, he is at least someone whose advice can be taken as interesting and who provides a thoughtful perspective that one can learn from.  And I can say that for all of the superficiality of much of these questions and answers, there are at least a few things that I was able to take from this book as habits worth applying for myself.  In particular, I thought the author did a good job at commenting on his own praying that emergency vehicles would safely reach the hospital as a way of being less annoyed at the disruptions they caused to traffic flow.  If I don’t read books of this kind that consist of advice columns, this is at least an enjoyable example of that genre and would probably be enjoyed for the most part by anyone with serious moral views and especially those who have a high degree of interest in and respect for interpretations based on biblical law and rabbinical tradition.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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