We learn about the Jewish people’s commitment to the Torah at Mount Sinai in Exodus, 19:17. The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount”.
The Talmud (Shabbos 88a:5) tells us that the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain. We are told that G-d overturned the mountain above the Jews, and said to us “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, you will be buried here”. The rabbis point to the circumstances of this choice as a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. Who wouldn’t accept the Torah if a mountain was being held over their head? Can’t we claim that we were coerced into accepting the Torah, thereby rejecting it’s binding authority over us?
Crucially, the rabbis do not reject this argument at all. It is obvious to them that an agreement made under duress is not a binding agreement. The sages then go on to explain that during the Purim story, the Jewish people accepted the Torah willingly – quoting the verse that says: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27).
The festival of Shavuos is often framed as a wedding. We count down to it. We decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers. In some Sephardi congregations, a special ketuba or marriage contract is read out. We are the bridegroom and the Torah is our bride.
Shavuos marks the wedding day when we, as a nation, married the Torah. We said ‘na’ase, venishma’ – we will do, and then we will hear what it is we said we will do.
Whilst this maxim is repeated to our children as an embodiment of faith, our rabbis recognised thousands of years ago that consent cannot be given freely when saying no involves losing so much. There are very few people today who would argue otherwise. Indeed, when discussing the topic of forced marriage, leaders and religious authorities will often emphasise how important personal and sexual autonomy are within halacha. The text cited above, or a similar example, might be drawn upon.
We will often tell the world that consent is a Jewish value and that anyone who says that forced marriage occurs in the Jewish community must not know the Jewish community very well. But this was not the message that I heard as a young bride. Nor is it what is said to many other young brides who I know in my Charedi community.
Organised opposition to the teaching of sex and relationships education in England, tells very a different story: one more familiar to me. Religious and educational authorities have refused to allow relationship and sex education to be taught in Charedi schools – denying children a basic understanding of autonomy and consent in relationships and marriage. Whilst it could be argued that these children are not engaging in romantic relationships before marriage, the irony here is that universal early marriage is the expectation for Charedi children – sometimes before their 18th birthday.
As an 18 year old bride, I was told that I could say no to my husband – but I should be prepared for him to go “elsewhere” if I did. Such was the mountain held above my head.
If consent is so fundamental to Jewish life, why can the new curriculum not be taught as part of our religious curriculum? What will our children lose by learning that Judaism supports the idea that their bodies belong to them, and only them? What motivates the desire to keep our teenagers ignorant of the facts of married life, when all of them are expected to get married as soon as possible? Surely, the reliance on mesorah, Jewish tradition, allows for the drawing on primary Jewish texts. Yet in some schools, the opposite is true, and scriptural verses that are considered explicit are censored out of the text. Is the Torah unholy, too?