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Allah presses Israel to choose to be chosen

In a 2015 article titled “The Upraised Mountain and Israel’s Election in the Qurʾan and Talmud by Dr. Michael Wesley Graves of Wheaton College, he points out that in four passages in the Qurʾan (2:63, 2:93; 4:154; and 7:171), reference is made to God raising up a mountain. In each passage, the context is God’s covenant with Banu Israel at Sinai, and the text says that God lifted up Mount Sinai over the people of Israel.

A parallel to this Qur’an motif appears in early rabbinic sources, including a tradition cited twice in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 88a and Avodah Zarah 2b), which says that God threatened to drop Mount Sinai on Banu Israel if they refused to accept the Torah. In both Talmud passages, the discussion that unfolds probes the topic of God’s unique choice of Israel to receive the Torah.

In its own allusions to the Sinai event, the Qurʾan presumes a background narrative similar to the tradition found in the Talmud, in that the Qurʾan’s references to God raising up the mountain make best contextual sense as examples where God had to pressure Israel to accept their covenant with God. In the Qurʾan, the raising of the mountain represents one in a series of illustrations showing how many of the people were unwilling to make the commitment and ultimately broke their covenant with God by worshiping the golden calf.

The threat of the mountain serves as a reminder that humans should be in constant awareness of their accountability to God (taqwā). Moreover, the rhetoric surrounding the uplifted mountain theme in the Qurʾan emphasizes the universality of God’s command for all to become believers.

In both Talmud and Qurʾan, each text’s manner of handling the uplifted mountain motif reveals something about the community behind the text. For the Talmud the uplifted mountain and Israel’s election reflect the theological explorations we would expect to see in a developed religious culture lived out by a religious minority in an established empire. The motif of the uplifted mountain also appears in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 19:17, which might be as early as the fourth century CE. Other rabbinic sources that reflect this motif, along with their dates of final redaction, include: Song of Songs Rabbah 8.5 (6th or 7th century); Tanhuma, Noah, 3; and Tanhuma, Shofetim, 9 (late 7th–9th centuries).

The Qurʾan, in contrast, opposes Jewish and Christian concepts of election and uses the uplifted mountain motif to emphasize that everyone needs to show constant reverent awareness of the one and only God.

I offer a Jewish teaching about God’s giving the Torah to Moses and Banu Israel at Mount Sinai, beginning with a Rabbinic teaching (called a Midrash) which elucidates a Biblical verse about the Jewish people who were standing at Mount Sinai; which is also mentioned four times in the Qur’an.

For mystically inclined Jews, a Jewish wedding is a reenactment by two Jewish individuals of the holy covenant first entered into by God and Israel at Mount Sinai, when God and Israel first chose each other. God chose Israel saying, “You shall be a special treasure for me,,, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-5). The Jewish people chose God by answering: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do”. (Exodus 19:8).

Or as the Talmud puts it, “The groom, the Eternal One, is betrothed to the bride, the community of Israel.” (Talmud Pesachim 106b) Torah is the Ketubah (marriage contract) between the two covenanted partners. Mitsvot (commandments) are their daily loving interactions. Torah study and worship are the pillow talk between God and Israel. Tikunim: Kabbalistic mystical exercises, meditations and marital sexuality are the intimacies of married life.

Thus, when the Song of Songs refers to the “crown that Solomon’s mother made for him on the day of his wedding”; the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) glosses ‘his wedding day’ to mean ‘the day of the Giving of the Torah’ And when Rashi (Ta’anit 26b) glosses ‘his mother’ to mean ‘his people’; Rashi means Israel crowned God as God by saying “we will do” , just as the bride makes the groom into a husband by accepting a ring and saying ‘I do’.

Thus, every Jew, in every generation, can and should feel like he or she is a spiritual beloved and a spiritual lover of God, as Prophet Hosea proclaims: “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in loving kindness and in compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord”. (Hosea 3:21:22)

Most rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could have hesitated when God offered them the opportunity to become partners with God. But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by the Jewish people in the weeks following the Exodus from Egypt. God’s proposal at Mount Sinai was the most awesome offer they had ever received.

If many people today have a problem making a long term commitment, what about people who had been slaves only three months earlier. Some said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours. After close to a full day, almost all of them were ready to make a commitment, but a few were still undecided. A small minority still held out. So would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of a lifetime partnership?

Fortunately, God came to the rescue. According to Rav Avdimi: “The Holy One, who is blessed, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, here will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a) Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference.

The Qur’an refers to this incident: “We raised the Mountain over you saying: Hold firm to what we have given you, and study its commandments; so that you may attain piety towards God, (as God lovers) and His protection (as God’s beloveds).” (2:63)

The whole nation’s fate stands under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from angel Gabriel, but directly from Allah.

Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you can’t refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, everyone of the Children of Israel has to struggle for all generations to come, with living up to the covenant their ancestors chose to enter into at Mount Sinai.

This concept, of a chosen (by being pressed into becoming a) choosing people, can and among many ultra orthodox Jews has, lead to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride.

When the Qur’an (7:171) mentions this same event a second time, when the Mount was moved above the Children of Israel, this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that “children of Adam” were all made (to) bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, we do bear witness.” God Almighty made a covenant with all individuals “lest [they] should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were indeed unaware of this’”.

Thus, while loyalty to the commitment one’s ancestors made at Mount Sinai may inspire greater effort for Jews in following God’s will, when Jews, like Muslims, Christians and everyone else on earth; face judgement on the Day of Resurrection, we are all judged as individuals. As Prophet Abraham says: “Do not forsake me on the Day of Resurrection, a day where neither money nor children will benefit except whoever meets Allah with a sound heart” (26:87-89).

This reminder by the Qur’an that no religious community should be self-righteous; is similar to that of prophet Amos who tells the Children of Israel, “Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? says God. Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

I myself see the Torah’s description of the descendants of Prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel as destined to become the first chosen people, as a testimony about the significance of Prophet Abraham himself, who Islamic tradition asserts received a Sacred Scripture in Ramadan as the Qur’an states: ”Indeed, this is in the former scriptures; the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (87:19) and “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses and Abraham (53:36)

For very many centuries Abraham’s faithful descendants within the Children of Israel were the only monotheistic community that survived. Jews could have credited this situation to their own spiritual qualities. But the Torah teaches Jews not to be proud of themselves for being the first monotheistic community to survive long after their messenger was gone; because it was God’s choice to choose them.

Their only choice was to always be conscious of, and obligated by, God’s choice; to remain loyal to their ancestors pledge at Mount Sinai: “We will do.” In every generation a party failed and another party remained loyal. Thus it will be for all Jews and for all other religious communities until Judgement Day.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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