In one of its most fascinating narratives the Talmud (Shabbath 88a) draws attention to the problem of religious coercion at the time when God planned to give the Torah to the Israelites. The passage reports how God threatened the Jews while standing at Sinai and delivered an ultimatum. Holding an inverted mountain Sinai over their heads, He pronounced: “If you accept the Torah, fine, if not, there will be your grave” Tosafoth (ad loc) in their great commentary on the Talmud sensed a fundamental difficulty with this narrative. Was it not true that the Jews had already accepted the Torah previously when they promised that they would observe the Torah even before knowing what it actually entailed? This is reflected in the famous words: “We shall do and we shall hear”( Shemoth 24:7). This was a clear indication that they were prepared to make an ultimate leap of faith and were fully committed to live by the commandments whatever was demanded from them. So why was there a need to coerce them?
It may quite well be that the Talmud is alluding to something very different than 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 borders. It is the commonplace which stands out and holds sway over most of our thinking. To think outside the box requires courage, boldness and above all broad thinking and daring creativity.
When the Israelites stood at Sinai and were willing to accept the Torah, (verbalized in the famous 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 very moment. It was a-priori understood to exist of specific propositions and well defined concepts. As such it was frozen in a framework of time and as such 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. They could however not imagine that one day a new world would open up in which there would be a need to understand and observe the commandments in radically different terms and under very different circumstances. Man is able to cope with a lot of pressure and difficulties as long as his mental environment is not threatened. The ultimate goal is to stay emotionally and intellectually safe.
But the Torah cannot be understood in these terms. Religious faith cannot be understood apart from faithfulness, fidelity and loyalty to a faith which is never fully clear and always open to radically new readings. And so it is with the Torah. Most religious propositions including nearly all statements about God or the Torah are not reducible to any one meaning and are essentially ambiguous. The really religious person feels that any given proposition is more profound than any translation or definition can ever hope to furnish. He is aware that there is somehow more to it, an indefinite number of other possibilities and interpretations. The man of faith senses, however dimly, that previous generations and even his fellow believer today associate wildly different meanings within the same propositions. What determines his readiness to accept is not primarily a kind of adequacy of his own intentions and ideas but his convictions that there is much more under the surface. This is translated into his desire for continuity. As soon as a particular translation of a religious proposition 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 can arise in which believers will find that non-believers are mentally far closer to them than some of their fellow believers. This is due to the fact that non-believers are more conducive 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 believes 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 propositions. Vital to the will to stay together, in spite of any disagreement, is the unspoken knowledge that there is more to our marriage than specific and well worked out agreements which, instead of solidifying the marriage, rob it from its very vitality.
It is this we suggest that the Talmud alludes to when it tells us about God coercing the Israelites to accept the Torah although they had previously 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 fact that it would be necessary 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 hour of the actual giving of the Torah at Sinai. Sometimes God would have to force man to realize his almost unlimited potential and that of the Torah before man would bury himself in his desire to serve Him.
The saintly Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1) took this a step further and argued that, based on kabbalistic sources, the Torah will, without losing its essence, so radically change in the days after the coming of the mashiach and the resurrection of the dead, that if the Israelites at Sinai would not accept this fact, they would be ineligible for the Torah of the future and would not rise from the dead. This would be the deeper meaning of the statement of the Talmud: If you accept the Torah of the future, fine, if not there (in the future) will be your grave.
We would add that this does not only apply to the days of the mashiach, but that any generation which narrows the Jewish Tradition down to an one dimensional reading pronounces a death verdict on all of Judaism. Contemporary orthodox leaders and authorities would do well to take note of this fact. Over zealousness to save Judaism from foreign ideas or incorrect interpretations can never give license to embalm Judaism in such a way that we still believe it is alive when it has died a long time ago.
1. Midbar Shur, “Shavuoth”