Prager University Ten Commandments Essay Contest For High School

IEW is teaming up with Dennis Prager for the Prager University Student Essay Contest. Your student could win up to $1500 while learning about the Ten Commandments. You can view complete information here.

What You Need to Write About

If you’re a listener to Dennis Prager Radio, you know he cares deeply about educating young people about their Judeo-Christian heritage. Students, you can download a free Prager University video series titled “The Ten Commandments.” Each commandment is explained in its own five-minute video. In less than an hour, you will have a better grasp of the Ten Commandments than many college students possess after a semester of Religion 101.

Contestants, then pick the one commandment that surprised you the most. Explain what you learned, and submit your essay. IEW students, you know the routine! Take notes, write a keyword outline, and write about that which you learned from the Prager University series. You could be a winner!

How Winners Are Chosen

Our staff is reviewing all submissions for this special essay contest. Following our initial analysis of contestants’ submissions, Dennis Prager has selected a panel of top university professors to review the final contestants’ pieces. Take a look at the list of professors at the website. The list is impressive!

There are cash prizes for the top three contestants in two categories. Students ages 15 to 22 will be awarded $1500, $200, and $100 prizes, and the top three contestants under 15 will be awarded $750, $200, and $100.

Click here for complete submission rules and information.

For those you may not be familiar with Dennis Prager, he is a nationallysyndicated radio talk show host,columnist, author, conductor, and public speaker. The author of several books, which include, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,Think a Second Time (44 Essays on 44 Subjects),Happiness Is a Serious Problem,Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism,Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, and his most recent book,The Ten Commandments: Still The Best Moral Code

Maher

You have said that The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code is the culmination of 45 years of study and teaching. Back then, as a graduate student at Columbia University you had an experience that shaped the direction of your life. Tell us about it.

Prager

Yes, I was at the graduate school Columbia, the School of International Affairs, as it was known then. I was a duck out of water. There were riots going on against the war in Vietnam, and there was a radicalism that pervaded the campus. To make things worse, the professors were saying things that I knew to be demonstrably false, and even simply foolish. For example, we were told – it was just assumed that we would believe – that there were no differences between men and women, that all apparent differences were culturally induced. I just knew that that was nonsense, which of course it turns to be. Their brains are even different, and so on.

So that was one.

Another one was that the United States was an imperialist power, among its other great sins, and that it was equally responsible with Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers in history, the second greatest one of the 20th century. (It goes Mao, Stalin, and Hitler.) That Stalin and the United States were equally responsible for the Cold War. I thought, “how’s that possible?” How could a free country and a genocidal tyranny be equally responsible for tensions between them? Did the United States have a cold war with Britain, with France? Of course not, free countries don’t have wars, whether they be cold or hot.

I was just told so much nonsense. Then one day, I was walking across campus. I remember rather clearly. I was looking up; I believe there are some busts, statues of the great thinkers. I was staring at them, and a verse from the Bible that I had grown up reciting in Hebrew since kindergarten, I went to a yeshiva until the age of 19 – that’s Jewish studies half the day and secular studies, of course in English, the other half. So I had a real immersion in the texts. But this one I had never bothered to think about. It was just something you recited by heart, and it didn’t mean anything, certainly not to a kindergartener or first grader. But it came back to me, and it was the verse, “Wisdom begins with fear of God.” And then I realized, that’s it, that’s it. There’s no wisdom at Columbia because there’s no God. No God, no wisdom, That was life changing. 

Maher

I assume that experience played a significant role in writing this book?

Prager

Of course, the whole God issue started to preoccupy me. I came out with a book, an introduction to Judaism at the age of 25. It’s titled TheNine Questions People Ask about Judaism. It became the bestselling introduction to Judaism in English. And the first question was, “Do you have to believe in God to be a good Jew?” These nine were real questions. These were not phony questions, just to make easy points. I wrote there that this is the most important question in life. I realized at a very young age that God is the most important issue.

If there’s no God, then at least two things are missing. One is that there’s no ultimate meaning to life. Life is pointless. We’re just coincidences of material matter. And the other is that there’s no absolute morality; there’s no moral truth. “Good” and “evil” are just subjective terms for “I like” and “I don’t like.” I like ice cream; you like cake. I like treating people nicely, and you like cheating.

But I’ve been preoccupied with something else, and that is goodness, good and evil really, and what the Ten Commandments do is tell us the most important thing in life: It links God with goodness. Good is what God wants from you man, and this is the recipe for a good world. “I took you out of Egypt, but there’s nothing you can do for me. You can’t bring me a gift at the altar. I don’t want anything; I want you to be good.” Those are the origins of the Ten Commandments.

Maher

Let’s start with the first commandment. You begin this chapter by asking a rhetorical question, “What is the first of the Ten Commandments?” You then write, “It might seem like an odd question, but it’s not. Jews and Christians give different answers.” Could you talk about that difference?

Prager

Sure, the enumeration is not the same. The text is the same, and that’s all that matters. That’s why the book is for everybody, including the irreligious, and the open-minded atheist. But the enumeration, the one that existed from the beginning. The Jews predate Christ by 1,200 years, and during that whole time until today Jews enumerate the Ten Commandments with Commandment One being, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house in bondage.” Now, one would obviously say that’s not a commandment, it is a statement. That’s why in Hebrew, it’s not called the Ten Commandments; it’s called the Ten Statements. It’s interesting but not terribly significant. It’s only significant in the book, insofar as I begin with that as Commandment One.

Maher

You explain in this chapter that the first statement is “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” I had no idea the significance of that statement until I read your book. Could you talk about some of the things that are taught by that statement?

Prager

God is, in effect, saying: “I took you out of slavery to be free, and this is how you will be free. You can’t have a free society if the people in it don’t observe these commandments. So if you want to maintain your freedom, and not go back to bondage, here is the way to do it.”

This is the recipe not only for a moral world, but for a free society. Obviously, the more theft, murder, and lying, the less freedom people have. People don’t generally think about the connection between “I took you out of the house of bondage” and the rest of the Ten Commandments. But it’s very relevant: “I took you from bondage to be free, here’s how to be free.”

There is, in addition, another form of bondage. The Jews were in bondage to an external master – Pharaoh. If they do not keep the Ten Commandments, they will be in bondage to internal masters – their own weaknesses, appetites, etc.

Maher

I have observed that the societies, countries, and cultures that have the least amount of freedom also have little regard for the Ten Commandments. In comparison, the societies and cultures that value the Ten Commandments, most have produced societies with the greatest amount of liberty and freedom. Of course, the left would completely disagree with that. What are your thoughts on that proposition?

Prager

The United States is the best example. Until the 1960s, it revered the Ten Commandments. That’s why there’s a sculpture of it at the Supreme Court, and another inside Congress. It’s been central to American life, and to the founders of America. And you are right – I’m not even sure that the left could deny that the freest country in the world was produced here in the United States. The two facts – the reverence for the Ten Commandments and the freedom – are inextricably linked.

Maher

What impressed me most about the first commandment was its emphasis on freedom in Liberty. The Lord is saying, ok, if you want to be free, if you want liberty, then you must live by the laws I have revealed. Important as that principle is, I was hoping you might shed some light on the significance of the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.”

Prager

The verse right before the Ten Commandments is, “And God spoke the following words.” It is not often that the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) uses such a phrase. The purpose is to make it clear that God alone is the source of these Ten Commandments. Not Moses, not any other man, not a king. And since the source of these Commandments is not man, there is moral truth. Because if man gives man takes. But if Gods gives, man cannot undo it. Man can disobey, but he cannot undo these truths. 

Maher

There are several objections people give to your argument that without God, morality is subjective. One of the objections people give is that we don’t need a God to tell us that murder is wrong, or that we shouldn’t steal, but rather it’s something we know instinctively to be true.

Perhaps the most common objection we hear is that we do not need a God, or religion to be a good person. But these arguments are nothing more than a distraction from the point you are trying to make. You’re saying that we cannot claim morality is factual if we don’t acknowledge that they come from God. Is that right? Is that is that the point you’re making?

Prager

Yes. Without God, there are no moral truths. There are only moral opinions. There are good atheists, there are bad religious people. Everyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear knows that. If an atheist has similar opinions to the Ten Commandments, I breathe a sigh of relief. But that’s irrelevant to the question of whether there is moral truth if there is no moral God. When I debated at Oxford, I debated an atheist professor of philosophy on this very issue. The first thing he said was, “Dennis Prager is right, if there is no God, ethics are subjective.”

Maher

The New York Times published a few articles around the time your book hit the shelves. One of those articles addressed the problems caused in our society because of moral relativism. A few days later, a philosophy professor wrote an article called, “Why our kids are not being taught their moral facts.” What I found fascinating about those two articles was that neither of them brought religion and the role it plays in developing morality. Also, they didn’t provide any arguments, especially the philosophy professor that would lead one to believe there are moral facts.

Prager

It was unbelievable; it is as if a man or a woman who has been trained their whole life in medicine sees some unbelievably obvious sign of skin cancer and just says, “This person has this lesion on his skin” and then describes every cancer symptom but not once mentions cancer. Nor does the oncologist note that the patient had been a lifeguard for 15 years, standing under the sun with their skin exposed to the sun all that time. And that’s not even as absurd as this professor not mentioning the absence of God and religion. It shows you how deep the rejection of God is in academia that you could see all the symptoms of absence of God and not mention God.

Maher

There are so many good people who know the country is facing a moral crisis, but they fail to recognize what the solution is.

Prager

The source and the solution are the same. God and the Judeo-Christian values upon which the country was founded. Every major battle comes down to God and divine authority. A lot of people don’t want God; they don’t want to be judged or to be told what not to do. That’s the issue.

Maher

I want to move onto the second commandment, “You shall have no other gods” before me. You make the point that the reason it’s so important to identify false Gods is that they become a barrier to producing a good society. If you could elaborate on that idea and perhaps provide some examples of the false gods you see today.

Prager

There is a phrase in the Talmud that I don’t think I put in the book. It’s found in an Encyclopedia Britannica size work produced by Jews between the years 200 and 600. It’s the second holiest work in Judaism, a compendium of law, philosophy, and theology. In it is a statement that whoever denies all false Gods is considered to affirm the one God. They are the opposite sides of the same coin. You shall have no other Gods is as important as having the one true God. And one leads to the other. God and goodness go together. False gods take you away from God and goodness.

Think about it: the Ten Commandments does contain a commandment to believe in God. There is only a commandment not to worship other gods. Obviously, then, the Talmus was right. Reject all other gods and you affirm the one God.

People ask me, “What God do you believe in?” I tell them that I believe in the God of the Ten Commandments. There’s rarely a response because more than any other response it enables people to understand what God I believe in. It’s a great answer.

People today don’t think they have false gods. After all, who among us has a statue of Baal or Zeus in our house?

Remember the false gods are not named in the Ten Commandments. Yet, they could easily have been named. It would have, add perfect sense for the Ten Commandments to say, “Don’t believe in Pharaoh, don’t believe in Osiris, don’t believe in Baal.” But it doesn’t because the Ten Commandments recognizes that in every era there will be false Gods. Today we have as many false gods as people did then.

I don’t take the easy way out by citing money as a false god. Money is not a false god. A false God is not only something people worship that is not God. Even people who worship money know it’s not a god. A false god is something that people really believe in. Like nature today among many environmentalists.

No matter how noble, everything must be regarded as a means to God and goodness, not as an end in itself.

Take education, for example. Education is magnificent. That’s the reason it’s a false God – because it is so wonderful and so valuable. But education as an end in and of itself produces well-educated barbarians. I’ll give you a very dramatic example. In 1941, there was a conference at Wannsee, outside of Berlin. The Wannsee Conference was where the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. There were 14 high-ranking Nazis there, deciding on the genocide of the Jews. Of the 14, seven had Ph.D.’s. That should be sobering.

Similarly, overwhelmingly the only people in the West who supported Stalin were intellectuals. The record of intellectuals, secular intellectuals, is a moral disaster. And yet to this day, people adore the Ph.D., and the recipient of a Nobel Prize. But morally and in terms of wisdom, it means nothing. All it means is that they know a lot about their subject.

Maher

After reading this chapter, I thought to myself, what’s the false God that is worshiped the most. But, I have concluded that the most influential false god of our day is political correctness. It’s not the false god that is worshiped the most, but it is the most influential in that it permeates the institutions that shape our culture. Tell me what you think?

Prager

Political correctness is not a false God in and of itself. It is the result of people having false gods. People will say “I really value education, I love nature,” but no one says “I revere political correctness.” Political correctness is the vocabulary of the false gods and not the false god itself.

Maher

The fourth commandment, which is, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” You talk about why the Sabbath is so significant. You write, “Many people who revere the Ten Commandments don’t think that the Fourth is particularly important, let alone binding. Once you understand it, however, you will recognize how life-changing, even world-changing” it is. What don’t people understand about this commandment?

Prager

Let me just say at the outset, this has been a very interesting journey for me. Even though I am a practicing Jew – not Orthodox, just practicing (I call myself a “religious non-orthodox Jew”), I spend most of my time around Christians. I have frequently asked pastors priests, lay leaders, and lay Christians of all denominations, “Do you believe that the Ten Commandments are binding upon Christians? Overwhelmingly they say yes. Then I ask them if that includes the Fourth Commandment.

In the course of a lifetime, the answer has been about 50/50. I only mention this as something for Christians to think about. I am not making any judgments, and I don’t have any judgment. I don’t judge people’s theology. I can only say, that the arguments for the Sabbath are compelling to anyone.

Taking a day of the week and de-secularizing it, trying to make that day holy, not doing what you do the rest of the week – business, work, shopping – is profoundly transforming of the human being. It’s the single most important religious practice in my life. I don’t broadcast on my Sabbath, which is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. I don’t write books, I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t watch TV. I just spend 24 hours with friends and family. In fact, I have had Sabbath lunch with the same two couples for 25 years.

I don’t say this in the book because I don’t personalize the book. I can say that it is an indescribable joy to have a day every week that you can’t wait until it comes, that you look forward to all week. I have written a book on happiness, I have lectured on this around the world, I broadcast one hour of my 15 weekly hours on the subject of happiness. Looking forward to something is a big deal in human happiness.

Friday afternoon is perhaps the happiest time of the week. The week is over, work is over, I just have friends to be with, my wife to be with. I will go to synagogues Saturday morning and see many of the same people I have been with for decades. It’s a very powerful, transformative, thing. I write in there how elevating it is. Remember, I said earlier that these are the commandments to live by if you want to be free. What is freer than not working one day a week? Slaves worked seven days a week. That is why I wrote in the book that a millionaire who works seven days a week is a wealthy slave.

Maher

Now, let’s move on to the fifth commandment, which is, “Honor thy father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” You make several points about this commandment that really impressed me.” I would like to read a section of this chapter and let you comment. The following quote discusses the meaning behind latter part of this verse, “that thy days may be long upon the land.” You write,

“Many people read that part of the Fifth Commandment as a reward. But while it may be regarded as a reward, the fact remains that it is a reason: If you build a society in which children honor their parents, your society will long survive. And the corollary is: A society in which children do not honor their parents is doomed to self-destruction.”

Prager

Yes, this is an example of an insight that I try to provide in every commandment. So that a secular person will say, “Wow, I never knew that, I never thought of that;” and so even a religious person will say, “Wow, I never thought of that, I never knew that.” This is an example. People think it’s a reward, when it says, “in order that you will have many days in the land that I bring you to.” But it’s not a reward; it’s a consequence.

The Hebrew says “in order that.” If I were to say to you, “Wear your seat belt,” and then you’re in a crash and it saves your life, that’s not a reward. That’s a consequence. If you don’t wear a seatbelt and you fly through the windshield, that’s not a punishment; that’s a consequence. So, long years is a consequence of living in a society in which children honor parents. That’s true of five-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 40-year-old. It doesn’t say “when you’re little.” A society that honors parenthood will have a long life. Societies will crumble if parental authority crumbles, and we are living through that now in the United States.

For more than a generation, many parents have not been authorities, have not even been figures to honor. Too many parents have been buddies, pals. Words matter and your child isn’t your “buddy.” Your child is your child. And they only get one crack at a mother and a father. They get a lot of chances to have buddies.

There’s another point that I make there, and that is the profundity of the biblical text, because we are told to love our neighbor, love the stranger, and to love God. But we are not told to love our parents. The Ten Commandments is, in effect, saying, “I God know that there are people who have ambivalent feelings toward parents. I am not going to tell you how to feel about your parents. I am only going to tell you how to act toward them and that is to honor them whether you love them or not. Because the parental role, if shattered, means the end to a free and good society.

If parents are not the authority; there are two other possible authorities: either the state or no authority, anarchy. That is why in the Western world, as Judeo-Christen religions have declined, the state has become bigger and bigger with more and more laws. This country was founded on the proposition that a free society is only possible when men are personally responsible to and feel themselves accountable to God. Then, you don’t have to have police everywhere to monitor people’s behavior.

Maher

I am sure there are many people like myself asking, what does it look to honor one’s parents?

Prager

I don’t deal with this in the book, but it’s a great idea. I should write an essay on this. Nearly all of life is composed of details and any one of which is not all that important. Or seems not that important, but really is. The way you speak to a parent should not going to be the same as the way you speak to your buddies in school. If you use expletives with your friends, you don’t use them with your parent. (I am not thrilled if you use it generally with anybody.) Our behavior to a parent should be anything that makes it clear that this is my parent.

Now, it’s important that you obey parents, unless of course they demand something that violates God’s law. Only God is higher than parents. These are your authorities on earth – your mother and father. It’s important that mother is included, the mother is equal in the Bible’s eyes.

People mock the Ten Commandments. “Three thousand years old; that’s antiquated.” But really, what’s antiquated about it? Is parental equality antiquated? No one would be shocked if the Ten Commandments said, “Honor thy father.” Nobody would be surprised. It’s amazing, when you think about it, that the mother is equal. In fact, it also says “a man should fear his mother and father.” In that verse, the mother is put first just to make it clear to you that the mother is as equal to the father. So this commandment is huge. Tyranny severs parental authority. That’s happening in this country, and that’s one of the major reasons I worry about our country. The state will take care of your child. You don’t have to do anything. We will take care of your children.

Maher

The life of Julia, right?

Prager

That’s right, the life of Julia, that’s correct. In California, kids are served breakfast and lunch in school. Parents don’t even need to do that. But parents can be arrested if they allow their children to walk home from the park. This just happened in Maryland. Child protective service visited the family and traumatized the kids. The kids were allowed to walk together for a mile outside the house. Parents are less and less authorities, and the state is bigger and bigger.

Maher

Let’s move on to the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Prager

We skipped murder. So, let me say very quickly that one of the most important things in the book – and again, I know from experience this is revelatory to many religious people – the prohibition is against murder, not killing. It says “Thou shalt not kill” in the King James Version. But Hebrew has two words for the taking of a life – as does the English. If it said “Do not kill,” then we would have to be pacifists. That means we couldn’t kill people who were killing innocent people, we couldn’t kill them a guy in a schoolyard shooting up kids or even a person who comes to kill you.

But murder is different. Murder is immoral killing. There is moral killing, and there’s immoral killing. Murder is immoral killing. And that’s what’s prohibited. No one says: “I murdered that mosquito.” Now, why not? If there is no difference between murder and killing, then you would say that.

Maher

One of the many impressions I had from reading your book was how much God values life. Some may think this is counter-intuitive, but the commandment to not kill, rather, to not murder. Is really a statement about how much Gods values life. Which is why the Law of Moses subjects those who murder to the most severe punishments. Do you care to comment on that?

Prager

Yes, that’s the amazing thing to me, that it’s not clear to everybody. Punishment is the only way to announce how bad a crime is. It’s very simple. Everyone understand that. Let us say that there was an expired parking meter. And let’s also say that there was a 100-dollar fine for murder. Society would be saying two thing:

  1. That overstaying your time at a meter and murder are equivalently wrong. Even a five-year-old could understand that. Punishment is what tells us the severity of the crime.
  1. That the society does not value human life. Everyone would understand that if that’s how trivial the punishment is for murder, then it’s clear that society did not value human life. If you embezzle a lot of money and get life in prison, and if you murder you get the same punishment, what we are saying is that taking money and taking a life are morally equivalent.

Therefore, you can’t deny that the society that takes a murderer’s life is saying that human life is more valuable than one that never does. We need to be honest. Some argue that an innocent may die. That is a separate issue, and I have answers (in my third book, Think a Second Time).

By the way, taking the life of a murderer is the only law found in each of the Five Books of Moses.

Maher

We are just about out of time, and unfortunately, we didn’t get through all of the commandments. I know you have some great insights into “thou shalt not steal”, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Why don’t you mention some of the teachings you feel are most important?

Prager

Stealing is, to a certain extent, the mother of all the ethical Commandments. Because all are a form of stealing. Murder is stealing a life. Adultery is stealing a spouse – after all, two single people cannot commit adultery; adultery by definition involves one or two of the people to be married. Do not bear false witness if means stealing truth and therefore stealing justice. And, of course, Do not covet involves wanting to steal.

One other point. The African slave trade could not have existed had there been an understanding of “Do not steal.” It means, first and foremost, not to steal a human being. That should have led every single believer in God and the Ten Commandments to oppose the trans-Atlantic slave trade because it was rooted in stealing people. That shows how important it is that religious people understand the Commandments.

Maher

I agree.

Prager

I will say a word about the two that are left.

Bearing false witness is not just about false testimony in court. A lot of religious people think its perjury. But it’s about all lies. Genocide, slavery – the greatest evils – all begin with lies. We  could not have had slavery if weren’t for the lie that blacks are inferior. You could not have had the Holocaust without the lie about the Jews being inferior.

And “Do not covet” is the only one of the Commandments prohibiting thought. Religious people and others need to know what it doesn’t mean as much as what it does mean. It doesn’t mean, “Do not want.” It doesn’t mean, “Do not envy.” And it doesn’t mean “Do not lust.” It’s very specific. Coveting means wanting to take away the specific thing or person that belongs to another.

So, if you say, “I would love a wife like my neighbors wife,” that’s not prohibited. You can even say, “I envy my neighbors terrific wife.” It may not be the healthiest thing psychologically. But it’s not banned by the Ten Commandments. Seeking to own that which does not belong to another is what is banned. It’s very rare in the Old Testament to prohibit a thought.

Maher

I know we are out of time, but I wanted to mention a few things to our readers that that we didn’t cover in our time together. First, you have written a children’s edition of The Ten Commandments, which is a great way to introduce these teachings to our children. Speaking of which, your book is ideal for family home evening, because at the end of each chapter you provide several discussion questions. I couldn’t think of a better way to engage our families in a thought-provoking discussion. Plus, you will have family home evening lessons planned for the next ten weeks, not bad.

Dennis, thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me today. I look forward to our next conversation.

Prager

Thank you. In addition to hopefully reading my book, I invite your readers to view these Ten Commandments at PragerUniversity.com.

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