Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The View From The Choir Loft

My first paying job was as a boy soprano in the choir at St Andrew's Episcopal church; a job I held until my voice changed, after which I stayed on a few more years as a teenaged alto. But this meant meant that I was paid to go to church, so there were no complaints from me about getting up early on a Sunday morning and having to miss Wonderama.

St Andrew's was where I got a lot of my musical training, as our organist and choir director, George Blake, himself a published composer, steered me in the right direction as I tried teaching myself how to play many of the hymns and anthems by ear.

But this isn't about the music. It's about the commandments.

Back in the "old days," unless you went to the 8.00a service, or it was a special occasion like Christmas or Easter, communion was only the first Sunday of the month; and on that first Sunday of the month, the liturgy included a complete reading of the 10 Commandments with the Kyrie, going something like this:
Rector: Remember the Sabbath day, and to keep it holy.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Rector: Honor thy father and mother.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Rector: Thou shalt do no murder.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
It's that last one that this is all about. Over the years, I've heard people refer to the 6th commandment (number 5 if you're Catholic or Lutheran) as "Thou shalt not kill." And what seems like a relatively innocuous word change has led to people coming out against things from war to capital punishment to even eating meat. Because, after all, the commandment says that you shouldn't kill. But my choir memories told me that maybe there was something else going on here. Maybe it wasn't as simple as all that. Maybe murder was a specific type of killing that wasn't allowed, while the others were actually sanctioned under the right conditions.

Indeed, when I checked the definition of murder, my suspicions were confirmed. But that wasn't enough for me. I had to know if the same difference between "murder" and "kill" existed in Hebrew. That would settle it once and for all. A quick check with a rabbi got me the answer to that question. There are a number of Hebrew words for killing, and the word used in the commandment is the one that corresponds to our English "murder."

Now mind you, I'm not saying that war is a good thing. Nor am I saying that capital punishment is always right (mistakes have been made). Sometimes they are both necessary evils. But if you're going to base your objection to something on a rule that you think everyone knows and is aware of, it would help if you took the time to understand what the rule is really saying.

And one thing I can tell you is that it's not about turning us all into vegans.

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