In one of its most fascinating narratives, the Talmud (Shabbath 88a) draws attention to the problem of religious coercion. The passage reports how God threatened the Jews standing at Mount Sinai and delivered an ultimatum. Lifting the mountain and holding it over their heads, He pronounced: “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, there will be your burial place.” This was nothing less than religious coercion by God Himself. Tosafoth (ad loc.), in their commentary on the Talmud, sensed a fundamental difficulty with this narrative. Did the Jews not already accept the Torah? Did they not promise they would observe the Torah even before knowing what it actually entailed? This is reflected in their famous words: “We shall do and we shall hear” (Shemoth 24:7), a clear indication that they were prepared to make the ultimate leap of faith and were fully committed to live by the commandments no matter what was demanded of them. So why was there a need for God to coerce them? They had already willingly accepted it!
It may quite well be that the Talmud is alluding to something very different from what is generally assumed by the classic commentators.
All men are fundamentally children of the time in which they live. It is hard, if not altogether impossible, for most people to think beyond their own limitations. It is the commonplace that stands out and holds sway over most of our thinking. To think outside the box requires courage, broad thinking and daring creativity.
When the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, willing to accept the Torah, as expressed in their immortal words “We shall do and we shall hear,” their understanding of what the Torah would consist of was within the framework of what the concept of Torah and commandments entailed for them at that specific moment. It was a-priori understood to consist of specific and well-defined concepts. As such, it was frozen in the framework of time in which they lived and therefore gave them a feeling of security. They were prepared to accept the Torah as understood within these limits, even though they did not know what that would mean in practical terms. We shall do and only later hear what it demands of us, but in terms we can now relate to.
Man is able to cope with a lot of pressure and many difficulties as long as his mental environment is not threatened. The ultimate goal is to stay emotionally and intellectually safe. They could, however, not imagine that one day a new world would challenge them with the need to understand the commandments in radically different terms and observe them under radically different circumstances.
But the Torah cannot be understood in these terms. Religious faith can be apprehended only through fidelity and loyalty to a faith that is never fully clear and is always open to radically new readings. And so it is with the Torah. Most religious tenets, including nearly all statements about God or the Torah, cannot be reduced to any one meaning and are essentially ambiguous. The really religious person feels that every given concept is more profound than any translation or definition can ever hope to be. He is aware that there is more to it, an infinite number of possibilities and interpretations. The man of faith senses, however dimly, that previous generations, and even his fellow believers today, attribute widely different meanings to the same tenets. What primarily determines his readiness to accept is not the adequacy of his own intentions and ideas but his conviction that there is much more under the surface. This is translated into his desire for continuity. For as soon as a particular understanding of a religious concept is accepted as completely adequate, the possibility of continuity disappears and real faith comes to an end.
It is for this reason that a situation could arise in which believers would find that non-believers are mentally far closer to them than some of their fellow believers. This is because non-believers are more open to new ideas within the world of thought, provided that we concentrate on what the real believers really believe. Too often, the conventional believer is incapable of leaving his secure faith environment in which he is certain that all matters are solved and finalized.
There is a close analogy between religion and marriage. We do not choose a partner by ensuring that we can agree on most issues. Vital to the will to stay together, in spite of any disagreement, is the unspoken knowledge that there is more to the marriage than specific and well-worked-out agreements, which instead of solidifying the marriage rob it of its very vitality.
It is this, we suggest, that the Talmud alludes to when it tells us that God coerced the Israelites to accept the Torah although they had already done so. The Jews accepted the Torah as understood in their present state of mind. It was that Torah they had agreed on and to which they said “We shall do and we shall hear.” But God had to warn them that such an approach to Torah would ultimately bury them since it did not include the Torah’s future potential. They had to become aware of the future necessity to leave the narrow boundaries of the moment and be open to other possibilities, which were as yet beyond the grasp of man at the time the Torah was actually given at Sinai. Sometimes, God would have to force man to realize His unlimited potential and that of the Torah before man would bury himself in his desire to serve Him within his current limitations.
The saintly Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1) took this a step further and argued that, based on kabbalistic sources, the Torah, without losing its essence, will so radically change in the days after the coming of the mashiach and the resurrection of the dead, that if the Israelites at Sinai had not accepted this fact, they would have been ineligible for the Torah of the future and therefore unable to rise at the time of the resurrection of the dead. This would be the deeper meaning of the statement in the Talmud: “If you accept the Torah [of the future], fine; if not, there [in the future] will be your burial place.”
This is alluded to in a most remarkable observation by the great kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai (1570-1643) (2):
In regard to the new interpretations of the Torah that God will reveal in the Messianic age, we may say that the Torah remains eternally the same but that in the beginning (after the fall of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden) it assumed the form of material combinations of letters, which were adapted to the material world. However, some day man will cast off his mere material body. At that time they will be transfigured and recover that spiritual body that was Adam’s before the fall. Then they will understand the mysteries of the Torah, and its hidden aspect will be made manifest….For the Torah, like man himself, put on a material garment in order to come into this world….Then (later) its spiritual essence will be apprehended in ever rising degrees….Yet, in all these stages the Torah will be the same as it was in the beginning; its essence will never change (3).
We would add that this does not apply only to the days of the mashiach, but to a lesser degree, any generation that narrows down the Jewish Tradition to a one-dimensional reading pronounces a death sentence on all of Judaism. Contemporary Orthodox leaders and authorities would do well to take note of this fact. Overzealousness to save Judaism from foreign ideas or incorrect interpretations can never give license to embalming Judaism in such a way that we still believe it alive when it has died long ago.
(1) Midbar Shur, “Shavuoth” (Orot, Inc., 2000)
(2) Chesed Le-Avraham (Amsterdam, Sulzbach, 1685), 2:11
(3) Ibid 2:27: See the fascinating example by the kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, quoted by Chesed Le-Avraham, in which he shows how the prohibition of shatnez—the combination of linen and wool in one’s garments—will become a higher, more spiritual prohibition in the messianic times. See, also, my booklet The Torah as God’s Mind: a Kabbalistic Look into the Pentateuch (New York, Bep-Ron Publications, 1988), republished in Between Silence and Speech, Nathan Lopes Cardozo, (Northvale, NJ, London, Jason Aronson Inc, 1995), chapter 7.