Commandment #8: Can manipulation be a good thing?

Who says manipulating people is a bad thing? Let’s get into it. 

I’m convinced that the smartest members of our society, the most talented individuals on the whole planet — they aren’t working at Google, or Tesla, or Meta. 

No. They’re working at Cocomelon. And Disney. And Pixar. I know this because I have a 3-year-old daughter, Kira. And I see the ways in which the shows and movies produced by these companies can just…grab hold of her attention like nothing else can. 

Whenever I go to turn off the TV when “watching time” is over, it’s always a struggle. And Kira — she’s sweet. Oh my goodness is she sweet. But she’s also smart. Devilishly smart. Deviously smart, at times.

When she sees me reaching for the remote to shut off the TV, I can actually see her brain go into all-out survival mode. She’ll cozy up to me, put on those irresistible puppy eyes, and say, “Daddy, daddy — just one more. Please! I love you, Daddy!” 

And I’m not an idiot. I know what’s happening here. I know that I’m being manipulated by my 3-year-old. And I’m embarrassed to say how many times it works. (Only 100% of the time.) 

Isn’t it amazing? How from such a young age, we learn the powers of persuasion, of identifying each other’s weak spots and manipulating them to get what we want?

Now, I had a buddy in college who was fond of saying that “manipulation isn’t a dirty word.” Yes, you can manipulate with the intent to cause harm to others, and that’s not great. But manipulation isn’t inherently bad. It’s just how human beings operate in the world. Just like we manipulate natural resources to build things, we manipulate human resources to get what we want.

And so…I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Is it always bad to manipulate people? I found my answer to this question in what at first seemed like an unlikely place.

The eighth of the Ten Commandments is Lo tignov. Do not steal. Again, that seems like a pretty good one. Not taking stuff from people that isn’t your stuff. 

But what kind of “stealing” are we talking about here, exactly? Are we dealing with the run-of-the-mill, lift-a-candy-bar-from-the-store sort of thing? Or something more?

Well, as it turns out, there was a great Jewish thinker who lived in Italy in the 15th century, and he went by the name of Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno. And he said that this commandment, it actually includes three kinds of stealing:

One is theft — as in taking an object that isn’t yours. A second is kidnapping — as in taking a human that isn’t yours. And then the last one is something called “geneivat dat” — roughly, stealing thoughts

Stealing thoughts. Okay? Like, theft of intellectual property? Well, no, stealing intellectual property actually falls under that first category, of stealing objects.

So — what’s the deal with this third category, stealing thoughts? 

Well, there was another great Jewish thinker who lived in Safed in the 16th century, named Joseph Caro. He wrote what is until today the greatest codification of Jewish law that ever existed. And he clarifies that geneivat dat is about stealing — or leveraging, or manipulating — the positive impressions of others.

So for example, say you’re hosting a brunch at your apartment, and the invite list is getting a little long. But then you catch wind that your neighbor Frank is going to be out of town when the brunch is scheduled.

So you come up with a nice little plan: you’ll invite Frank to the brunch anyways, knowing full well that he’ll say no. That way you’ll score some brownie points with good old Frankey, and you won’t even have to put in the work of hosting him! 

That is a textbook case of gneivat dat. No, literally. Like in Caro’s compendium of Jewish law, that is actually the example that he gives. 

But here’s my question…why is that such a big deal? Yeah, it’s a little tricky, maybe a little “icky,” even. But remember, according to the Sforno, geneivat dat rises to the level of stealing an actual object, or kidnapping an actual person! It’s all included in commandment number eight. In other words, this is one of the huge, foundational, big-ticket items at the center of Judaism. 

But why — aren’t we all a little manipulative? Isn’t that, as we said before, just part of being human? 

Let me tell you a story. When I was 13, my home in Houston was broken into. They didn’t take anything from my parents, or from my sisters. They went straight for my room and took all my favorite gadgets. The police said they weren’t surprised, since electronics are the easiest kind of stolen goods to offload. 

Now, don’t go and cry me a river. “13 Year Old has Dell Jukebox and Canon Digital Camera Stolen From Home” isn’t exactly the tearjerker headline of the century.

But I remember, as a 13-year-old, feeling kind of…freaked out about the whole thing. I remember sitting on my bed and thinking…someone was in here. Someone came into this space, into my space, uninvited. Someone broke the societal pact, the implicit agreement about personal boundaries. I didn’t have the language for it as a teenager, but what I felt was a feeling of violation.

And as I think about it more all these years later, I realize what was so troubling about this. To be a thief, you sort of have to suspend your conceptualization of your victim as a human being. You have to objectify them. As in, reduce them to the objects that are in their possession, there for the taking. There’s nothing more dehumanizing — and frightening — than being objectified in that way. 

To my mind, THAT is the thread that binds the three things included in “Do Not Steal”: theft of objects, kidnapping, and geneivat dat, stealing someone’s thoughts or manipulating their positive impressions. 

They all require a fundamental objectification of the other. To steal someone’s wallet, you focus on the object in the human’s possession and ignore the human who will be impacted by that loss. 

To kidnap a person, you literally turn the human being themself into an object to be taken. 

And when you engage in geneivat da’at, when you manipulate someone, when you exploit their weak spot, when you take advantage of their good nature — you move from the domain of the human into the cold, calculated, objective world. The human being becomes an object to be manipulated, handled, transacted with. 

For all of you philosophy nerds, this is one of the main takeaways of the 20th-century Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s seminal work, I-Thou.

Buber lays out two paradigms of experience. One is “I-Thou” and the other is “I-It.” An “I-Thou” paradigm is empathetic. You approach others with an intent to form relationships, with an intent to care and to help.

But the I-It paradigm is one based on utilizing objects. It focuses on efficacy over empathy. If someone sees the world through an I-It paradigm, they have no problem tricking and manipulating others — after all, it’s for the best. Their own best. 

Buber argues that it is the I-Thou paradigm that leads to a more meaningful and happy life. An I-Thou outlook on life is a refusal to see other people as cogs, as means to an end, as tools to be used to get us what further our own aims. Just take a second to imagine what a world like that would look like — how much more meaningful and deep our relationships would be. How we’d feel about ourselves.

And long before Buber ever walked the Earth, this foundational principle was given to us in the form of the Ten Commandments, as part of the recipe of living a good and meaningful life. 

So is it ever okay to manipulate others? I know it’s really hard, and that we’re bound to fall short sometimes. But I think the Jewish tradition makes a case for resisting that manipulation as much as possible.

I think that one of the reasons that Lo tignov, Do not steal, is included in one of the Big Ten commandments in the Torah is to remind us what the good life is about. About seeing other people, the “thous” that walk amongst us, as human beings, created in the image of God, worthy of our care, deserving of our love, not as cogs to be manipulated, but as fellow souls ready to be connected with on a deeper level.

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