Of all the old-and-dusty-sounding commandments in the Hebrew Bible, the commandment to not “take God’s name in vain” seems oldest and dustiest. We can’t help but picture nuns rapping school kids on their knuckles for the sin of swearing. And yet if we look deeply into this commandment, it’s not about four-letter words at all. This commandment is truly among the most radical. It calls us to earn our own rewards and admit our own failings without dragging God into it.

In his beautiful series on Jewish ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that the Third Commandment was violated routinely by the nineteenth-century Southerners who justified slavery by saying that it was approved of in the Bible and by God. Yet to say that the Bible approves of slavery is a manipulation of the truth, which is that the Bible does not explicitly allow...

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