Consent and power: these are loaded words. Hotly debated in recent years in popular culture, the topic of consent challenges us to examine the very nature of choice within relationships, especially when they are between parties of unequal standing. On Shavuot, the relationship taking center stage is between God and the Jewish people as they stand at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. It is the paradigm of an unequal power dynamic — even presuming that God, in His omnipotence, treats the human beings with benevolence.
The Gemara in Shabbat 88a says that when God offered the Torah to the Jewish people, He held Mount Sinai over their heads “like a barrel,” essentially forcing them to accept the Torah or die:
‘And they stood at the bottom of the mountain’ (Exodus 19:17) – Rabbi Avdimi the son of Chama the son of Chasa said, ‘This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, held the mountain over them like a barrel and said, “If you accept the Torah, it is good. And if not, here shall be your graves.”‘ Rav Acha Bar Yaakov said, ‘From here there is a great claim against the Torah!’
After all that the Jewish people had experienced — the witnessing of the plagues, the emancipation from slavery, the miraculous Exodus, the sustenance in the desert — they were completely indebted to God, and very consciously reliant on Him for survival. Because of the extremely dependent nature of this relationship, the “choice” to either accept or reject God’s offer was not really a choice at all. How could they say no? It was abundantly clear what the only acceptable answer would be. This is the mountain hanging over them.
The Gemara goes on to contrast this with the verse at the end of Megillat Esther, describing how the Jewish people then re-accepted the Torah of their own free will:
Rava said, ‘Even so, they accepted it again [willingly] in the days of Ahasuerus, as it is written, (Esther 9:27) “They upheld and accepted” — they upheld what they had already accepted.’
The Megillah closes with a snapshot of the Jewish nation having experienced victory in battle, achieving security in government and enjoying the fruits of self-determination. Only from a position of safety, autonomy and power could the Jewish people truly accept the Torah as willing agents.
This Gemara underscores an important principle about consent, one which is particularly relevant today in the wake of #MeToo: relationships of unequal power preclude consent, both legally and ethically. Consent is more than just an the answer of “yes” or “no” in a vacuum; its meaningfulness is entirely dependent on social hierarchies and imbalances of power serving as its backdrop.
Unequal power makes consent impossible — even when the threat of exercising that power is not immediate and even if the party with greater power behaves benevolently. The mountain held over the Jewish people was coercive not only because of God’s terrifying ability to mete out plagues, but also because of His magnanimity in making manna, the nourishing miracle food, fall from the sky.
Similarly, in Jewish marriage law, a man’s ability to cruelly withhold a get from his wife is no less an expression of his power than his ability to charitably grant one to her. The very structuring of their relationship as unequal — irrelevant to their behavior within that structure — renders consent conceptually impossible. Where does this leave us if we want to foster lives and relationships built on meaningful choice, positive participation and conscious agency?
The Gemara makes it clear that the Purim model of accepting the Torah out of free will was superior to that of Mount Sinai. Truly consenting to God’s offer on Purim forged an active covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people, one with the strength and integrity to outlast all others. The Midrash Mishlei notes, “All the festivals are destined to be cancelled (in the messianic age), but the days of Purim will never be cancelled, as it is written: ‘And the days of Purim will not pass away from among the Jews.’”
In our own religious communities, if we want to emulate this Purim model of Torah acceptance, we must also strive to minimize the structural imbalances that preclude us from acting as free agents. Empowering the disadvantaged, advancing equality, and seeking opportunities to neutralize social hierarchies are not alien or incompatible with Torah life; rather, they are the very key that facilitates Torah life on an ideal level.
On the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah, let us renew our covenant with God from a place of freedom, choice and love.