Much to the disappointment of their Orthodox brethren, most of the Jewish people outside the Orthodox world probably do not believe that the Torah was literally received at Sinai. This creates something of a problem on Shavuot, the festival on which the giving of the Torah at Sinai is celebrated.
On Passover and Sukkot, even non-believers who reject the literal truth of the biblical stories on which these festivals are based, can find ways to connect to universal notions of freedom from slavery and the temporariness of the human condition that they inspire. On other holidays too (Rosh Hashana and Hanukah come to mind), it is possible to relate to broader themes and even to the symbols and rituals which seek to evoke them. Shavuot is different. It is limited in symbolic ritual, and it does not offer an easily identifiable, abstract idea worthy of celebration even by non-religious Jews.
What’s more, is that the rabbinic sages seem to make a point of exalting an aspect of the Mount Sinai story that is anathema to modern sensibilities. “Na’aseh v’nishmah” (“We will do and we will hear/understand.”), a phrase uttered, according to Exodus 24:7, as the Jewish people accept the Torah, is often glorified in our tradition as an act of blind obedience. The willingness to do first, and comprehend later, is seen as a readiness to receive the Torah unconditionally, regardless of its content. The Midrash praises the Jews for the commitment – unlike that of any other nation – to follow the scriptures without asking why. Had the attempt to alienate Jews of Western, liberal convictions been deliberate, it would not have been more successful.
What are those who question the merits of blind obedience to do with this tradition? How to reconcile teaching our children to question, when we are told to applaud the fact that the Children of Israel did not?
Fortunately, our sources — as always — offer alternatives to this particular approach. For one thing, the text of “na’aseh v’nishmah” provides less evidence of blind obedience than popular wisdom suggests. Chapter 24 of Exodus, where the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah” is cited, actually stipulates twice (in verses 3 and 7) that the Torah was first read in its entirety to the children of Israel. The result is a far less dramatic narrative of the Jewish people’s agreement to accept the Torah, after it was heard.
Others offer a softer reading of “na’aseh v’nishmah” to suggest that the Jewish people demonstrates through this phrase not unthinking acceptance of the Torah, but rather the view that it is through the act of doing – of actually fulfilling the commandments – that the Torah will be understood.
More significantly, there is a well-known, and contrary, Midrashic tradition that suggests that the Torah was not in fact willingly embraced by the Jewish people at Sinai, but instead coerced upon them. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 88a, drawing from the phrase in Exodus 19:17 that the Jewish people camped “b’tachtit ha’har” (“at the base/under the Mountain”) suggests the following:
This teaches us that the Holy One blessed be He covered the mountain over them like an [inverted] barrel, and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, fine, but if not, there will be your burial place.”
The Jewish tradition demonstrates a constant tension between unquestioning obedience to God, and struggle with Him. Both are valued, neither absolutely. We are told of the Abraham who obediently agreed to sacrifice Isaac, and of the Abraham who argued with God to spare the innocents of Sodom. And in the case of the Torah at Sinai, we are relayed two distinct rabbinic narratives – one, of a people eagerly accepting their canonical text, and the other, of that text being forced upon them.
When taken together, these conflicting narratives seem to be saying that we can either embrace the Torah or fight against it, but in either case we cannot escape that it is ours. In the same way as we cannot choose our parents, we cannot choose our spiritual ancestry. Whether out of choice or out of coercion, the Torah is our spiritual home. We can quarrel with it, turn from it, reinterpret it, or embrace it whole, but it is the unavoidable reference point from which we chart our path.
I have always been struck by the fact that the Gemara cited above strangely says that the Jewish people will be buried “there” rather than “here.” After all, if the message is about the coercion at Mount Sinai, wouldn’t the threat be to accept the Torah or to perish at the foot of the mountain? Instead, the implication of the text is that the risk of burial is at a later time and place, as if to suggest that the impact of rejecting the Torah will not be immediate.
In this sense, the text can be seen as a kind of warning. A people that is not familiar with its foundational texts, that is not engaged with them – whether in agreement or in argument – risks withering away. Our burial place is not at the moment of rejection; it is “there,” further down the road, when the connection of future generations with the conflicting and profound stories which shape our tradition is severed.
Shavuot need not only be seen as a celebration of the acceptance of the Torah. It also celebrates acceptance of the idea that who we were, is part of who we are. It is an embrace of, and reconnection with, our story and our texts, not necessarily because we accept them literally and wholeheartedly, but because they are part of the DNA of Jewish civilization.
We do not enter the earth free and clear to invent ourselves from naught. Like it or not, we are born into a legacy, a tradition, and a set of values that should draw us into a dialogue and shape our identity and sense of meaning. That dialogue may be one of reverence, or of rebellion, or of something in between. But at its heart, it prizes the idea that for the Jewish people to stake a claim to a truer and healthier future requires that we also be honest, learned, and engaged in the claim our heritage has upon us.