The Tables of the Law - Thomas Mann, Marion Faber, Stephen Lehmann I need to reread this short (112 pages) book before I put pen to paper but if you can't wait for the reviews, trust me and read this remarkable interpretation of the Exodus myth.

I haven't done justice to The Tables of the Law in my review below but I hope that I've been able to convey enough of its brilliance to entice you to read it.

Thomas Mann wrote The Tables of the Law (Das Gesetz in the German) in 1943 as part of an anthology of stories (each addressing one of the Ten Commandments; Mann was supposed to tackle the first). The collection was born in response to an almost certainly apocryphal meeting of Hitler and some of his closest advisors. At the meeting, the Führer blasted Christianity as a Jewish sect and promised to free people from its slave morality: “We are fighting against the most ancient curse that humanity has brought upon itself. We are fighting against the perversion of our soundest instincts. Oh, the God of the deserts, that crazed, stupid, vengeful Asiatic despot with his powers to make laws! That slavekeeper’s whip!... It’s got to get out of our blood, that curse from Mount Sinai.” (p. 114) While the other nine entries are forgotten, Mann’s contribution rises above the limitations of its birth and explores the origins of Western morality and the power of one man’s mind and passion to effect change.

The story, no surprise, is based on the “Book of Exodus” and Mann opens with:

“His birth was irregular, and so he passionately loved regularity, the inviolable, commandment and taboo.

As a young man, he had killed in a fiery outburst, and so he knew better than those with no experience that to kill may be sweet, but to have killed is ghastly in the extreme, and that you should not kill.

His senses were hot, and so he yearned for spirituality, purity, and holiness – the invisible, which seemed to him spiritual, holy, and pure.”
(p. 3)

Moses is the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and a Hebrew slave she takes a fancy to one afternoon. The fruit of her passion is put out in a reed boat to be fortuitously found by her servants. Pharaoh’s daughter sends young Moses to a good Hebrew family to be raised but later she takes him back and educates him as an Egyptian, though the boy chafes at this and eventually returns to his father’s people. But even among them he can’t find what he’s looking for. So, fleeing the consequences of his murder, Moses travels to Midian in the Sinai and finds there “Yahweh,” an invisible god, one among many the Midianites worship. After long days in the desert, “shaken by inspirations and revelations” (p. 4), Moses comes to identify Yahweh with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He returns to Goshen and begins preaching with the goal of leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to a land apart where he can fashion them into his image of holiness, or God’s, depending upon how you understand what’s happening. Mann is ever ambiguous about who Yahweh is – a chimaera of Moses’ imagination or a deity working through him.

What follows is the rest of “Exodus” up to the point where Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. In it, Mann doesn’t care whether Moses is a crazed mystic or whether Yahweh is real and speaking to him; Mann’s point is that humans – in their natural state – are depraved. He delights in describing how the Hebrews will lie with their sisters, defecate anywhere they feel like it and eat whatever looks edible until Moses imposes his rules and regulations upon them (vigorously enforced by Joshua and a band of young men). These rules set the Hebrews apart from others and instill a sense of morality absent in all other nations. Even when a Hebrew breaks one of Yahweh’s injunctions, he knows he’s done something wrong and feels guilty. By making his father’s people obey, Moses gets them into the habit of living a nondepraved life, which becomes second nature over time:

“(T)he forbidden things soon came to seem dreadful to them – at first only in connection with the punishment; but that punishment soon led to their branding the deed as bad, and at its commission they felt bad themselves, without even thinking about punishment.” (p. 74)


“And even if it is only outward courtesy to do this and kiss your fingertips, nevertheless the gesture will instill in your heart something of what you should fee toward your neighbor.” (p. 77)

The inspiration for the Ten Commandments comes from Moses’ belief (or Yahweh’s) that the Israelites need a pithy, compact list of the basic guidelines so he goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and carves. First, though, he must invent a way of writing the commandments. He rejects hieroglyphs, cuneiform and the primitive syllabary of the Sinitic tribes, and creates the Hebrew alphabet, knowing that the versatility of these letters will allow everyone eventually, regardless of language, to read about Yahweh’s commandments and rise above their depravity:

“So with his head afire, Moses, borrowing loosely from the people of Sinai and using his graver, tried out on the rocky wall the signs for the babbling, banging, and bursting, the popping and hopping, slurring and purring sounds, and when he had artfully assembled the distinctive signs together – lo and behold, you could write the whole world with them, whatever occupied a space and whatever occupied no space, what was made and what was made up – absolutely everything.” p. 96

Moses comes down from the mountain with his alphabet and his commandments to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and destroys the tablets in a fit of rage. He then returns to the heights where he has an argument with Yahweh (or with himself) about what to do with these people. Moses finally convinces God (or himself) with this argument:

“Just imagine, Holy One: If You now kill these people as You would a man, then the heathen, on hearing their cry, would say: `Bah! There was no way the Lord could bring these people into the land promised to them; He wasn’t up to it. That’s why He slaughtered them in the desert.’ Is that what You want the peoples of the world to say about You? Therefore let the strength of the Lord grow great and by Your grace show mercy for the people’s transgression.” (p. 108)

Mann brings his tale to a close by reiterating the purpose of the Law:

“Thus the earth shall be the earth once more, a vale of misery, but not a field of depravity. Everyone say Amen to that!

And they all said Amen.”
(p. 112)

The Tables of the Law is a marvelous and subversive look at the bases of Western morality. Mann suggests that our notions of decency, courtesy and ethics are the fruit of a man similar to Hitler in his mania and violently enforced by a band of fanatic believers who bear a disquieting resemblance to the Sturmabteilung (aka Brown Shirts). But he also suggests that this may be unavoidable: Only by holding to an impossible ideal can humans develop a moral capacity and the ability to create and live in a (reasonably) just and humane society.

This is the first Mann that I’ve read though I’ve known about the man since my sophomore year in high school. Janet – a freshman I had a serious crush on – carried around a copy of Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family while Drama Club rehearsed for that semester’s play. I don’t have an urge to rush out for copies of Death in Venice or The Magic Mountain but on the basis of this book, I might read them (and other works) at a future date.

In any case, I have no compunctions about enthusiastically recommending The Tables of the Law to all and sundry.