Forced acceptance

The Israelites may not have had a choice at Mt. Sinai, but later they adopted the Torah freely.

commandments 88 (photo credit: )
commandments 88
(photo credit: )
The ways in which we remember and frame an experience determine, to a great degree, the meaning that experience bears for us. It is therefore important that, in preparing for the festival of Shavout and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah, we carefully examine the ways in which this seminal moment in Jewish collective memory has been framed. How is Sinai remembered by tradition? Let us recall the scene as depicted in Exodus 19:16-17: "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of [b'tahtit] the mountain." In these two brief verses, the Torah effectively conveys the palpable awe and terror of this quintessential God-human encounter. Sinai here is no huppa, and Israel is not the bride gently kissed by her groom; rather, the tone of the passage is more loyally evoked by the Midrash (Shabbat, 88a): "'And they took their places at the foot of the mountain.' Said R. Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa: This teaches that God overturned the mountain upon them like a casket and said to them 'If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your burial.'" Playing on the term "b'tahtit," rendered literally as "at the foot of," this midrash reminds us that the Torah was in a sense forced upon Israel as she stood trembling underneath (tahat) the mountain. Choice in the face of such divine revelation was irrelevant and unintelligible, like the illumination of a candle in midday. We will return to this image; but first, I would like to present yet another rabbinic framing of the Sinai encounter, one which at first glance finds less resonance with the biblical text's tone. Maimonides (12th-century Spain, Egypt) introduces the laws of conversion with a historical note: "With three things Israel entered the covenant: with circumcision, immersion and sacrifice." (Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13:1-4; based on Keritot, 6a). Maimonides proceeds to explain that prior to receiving the Torah, the (male) Israelites went through each of these steps (thus, for example, he interprets the charges of sanctification found in Exodus 19:14-15 as a command to perform ritual immersion). In truth, however, Maimonides is not merely telling his-stories (as if storytelling itself is a trite engagement). Rather, the pre-Sinai process is understood as the prototype for all future conversions. "So too, whenever a non-Jew wishes to enter the covenant, and to take solace under the wings of the Shehina, and to accept the yoke of Torah, he must undergo circumcision, immersion, and sacrifice." (Maimonides, Ibid., 13:4). THE SINAI experience is framed here as an act of mass conversion, as a deep and fundamental turning point in the very identity of the Israelite people. It is thus paradigmatic of, and a legally binding precedent for, all such turning points, all conversions from one path onto the path of Torah. This latter act of framing - Sinai as conversion - works bidirectionally, influencing our understanding both of Sinai and of the phenomenon of conversion. On the one hand, understanding Sinai as conversion teaches us about what was (and is) entailed in an acceptance of the Torah. Conversion may not be forced, and we thus find that if a court converts an orphaned minor, the latter must be given the opportunity to renounce the conversion upon his reaching adulthood (see Ketubbot, 11a, and commentaries ad locum). It is this sensibility that informs the continuation of the aforementioned passage in Tractate Shabbat. The "forced conversion" of the Israelites at Sinai at "mountain-point" somewhat vitiated the legitimacy of the process. As R. Aha b. Yaakov put it, "from here (i.e. from the fact that God overturned the mountain upon Israel) is a great warning against the Torah." Rashi (11th-century France; ad locum) explains, "A great warning: For if they [Israel] would be summoned to judgment - "Why have you not kept that which you accepted?!"- they would have a response: 'We accepted it [the Torah] under duress!'" The Talmud therefore clarifies that it was only when Israel reached its own adulthood, in the time of Esther, that it willfully (and thus fully) accepted the Torah: "Said Rava: Even so, the generation (re)accepted it [the Torah] during the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written (Esther 9:27) 'the Jews undertook and accepted' - they undertook that which they had already accepted [at Sinai]." The analogy to conversion teaches us that at some moment, acceptance of the Torah involves an act of volition. The Sinai-conversion analogy works the other way as well, and opens up for us a more nuanced understanding of conversion itself. After all, what sense does it make to claim that Israel converted at the mountain? Unlike the literal convert, the majority of Israelites were born of Israelite stock, and were thus already "Jewish." In response to this question, we must generate a more refined definition of conversion, and indeed of the pre-converted state. Instead of understanding the latter state as genetically determined, the rabbis seem to be pushing us toward an existential definition. A "pre-convert" is one who is "pre-Torah"; and conversion is fundamentally a decision to dramatically shift one's life-direction. This shift is epitomized in the transition from a life of idolatry to one of Torah. It is in this sense that Abraham is fashioned the first of the converts (Hagiga, 3a) as he smashed the idols of his past and searched for his God. It is in this sense, too, that we can imagine Israel at the foot of Sinai as a nation of converts, prepared to drastically alter the course of their personal and collective narratives and to become a nation striving (though often failing) to be holy. And it is in this sense that we may all be converts, if we are but prepared to leave Egypt once again; to pave a new highway in our political, social and spiritual deserts; and to truly stand once more at Sinai this Shavout night.q Jonathan Kelsen is a faculty member of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and will be teaching at Pardes's Tikkun leil Shavuot program.