Imagine a country that says “we are going to get rid of all law enforcement agencies.” There will be no police, no army, and no coercion whatsoever. Sound like a hippie utopia? Can you hear John Lennon singing in the background?
Wait, it gets better.
Now assume the same country not only does all that, but also expects its citizens to continue abiding by the law for millennia. Don’t get me wrong, the law is not a lenient set of loose instructions but a stringent system that includes fasting, routines for praying and some minor, but painful bodily incisions. And that country expects people to follow the law, well, just because they want to.
Stop before rushing to call these people crazy or deluded, because that People is us.
One of the most fascinating facts of Jewish history, that we wrongly take for granted, is that without a land, an army or police, we kept our covenant voluntarily for more than 2,000 years. This is a unique feat in the history of humanity.
It is pertinent to reflect on this as we begin Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates, among other things, the giving of the Torah, our original covenant in Sinai.
Shavuot is linked to Passover by the count of the Omer. We count every day between the end of slavery and the reception of the Torah, creating a relation, an unbreakable bond between the two holidays that are like two sides of a barbell, one helplessly imbalanced without the other. On one end, there is freedom. On the other: interdependence.
Freedom is one of the main values of Judaism. We began our journey as a people in revolt against slavery and oppression. We base our values on the idea of free will. But Judaism was quick to realize that freedom is a paradoxical concept. We want to be free and independent, yet we are inescapably interdependent. We need each other to survive and to fulfill most of our needs; moreover, we believe in the critical importance of solidarity, community and peoplehood.
The classic solution for the problem of upholding freedom is to use force, as centralized in a state. But one innovation presented by the Hebrew Bible is that force is not the only –or best–alternative to get people to cooperate. A better way is trust. Trust happens when two parties–in full use of their freedom–establish a pact and partnership and respect their word. They create a “covenant,” a “brit.”
Not in vain, the Bible describes the ‘covenant’ as a marriage: a partnership that bases its strength not in force, but in love, loyalty and the willingness to undertake responsibilities and keep to them. It’s based on the idea that the other person’s interests need to be as sacred to me as my own.
What happened at Sinai was a revolutionary attempt to create a society bound together not by force, but the power of words. The Torah was given like an oasis of words in the desert. Its words created an open-ended mutual commitment to one another. Jews are the first culture of the word, whose most sacred object is a book; the first nation created by a covenant of words.
The Jewish idea of freedom doesn’t need force but moral obligation. Jews are supposed to adhere to the law not because of fear of arrest or punishment, but because of love and concern for one another, their shared sense of past and future and the basic moral discernment between right and wrong.
In the middle ages, Christian polemicists argued that Judaism was obsolete because the “religion of the law” had been replaced by the “religion of love.” However, they got it wrong, there’s no dichotomy between love and law. Judaism turns love into law and law into love. Not in vain, on Shavuot – the festival of the law – we read the history of Ruth and Boaz, one of the most moving love stories in the Bible.
All this is poignantly relevant today. There are those who believe the restriction of freedom – a fall into fundamentalism – is the solution for the woes of the Jewish People. On the other hand, there are those who doubt or can’t see the covenant that links us together.
In the holiday that celebrates the words that unite us, let us learn to speak to each other with gentleness and respect. While we read Ruth’s moving love story, let us commit yet again to keep freedom, love and commitment as the ultimate fundamentals of our community and our people.