The Gift of the Torah Relied on its Receipt

The key to the survival of the Jews was less God’s giveness
of the Torah to the Jews than its receiptfulness
by them, although compelled, which led to God’s forgiveness
of violations due to their deceitfulness.

As philosophically explained by Levinas,
the fact that they accepted it without conditions, not demanding
relief from its great weight that’s caused by gravid heaviness,
reflected an enlightenment beyond their, and our, understanding.

This poem is based on Emmanuel Levinas’s interpretation of a story in b. Shabbat 88a):

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א”ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם

“And they took their places at the taḥtit (base/bottom) of the mountain”

—Rav Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: “This teaches us that the Holy Blessed One turned [10] the mountain over them (Israel) like a vat, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there should be your burial site.’”[11]

In “Introducing “The Temptation of Temptation”: Levinas and Europe,” Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, Annette Aronowicz of Franklin & Marshall College writes:

“The Temptation of Temptation” is only the fourth of the twenty-three Talmudic readings he was to deliver in the course of the thirty years he participated in the colloquia. They already evoked great admiration. One of the auditors, who regularly challenged him, nonetheless began his criticism by exclaiming: “It is enough just to behold the faces of the listeners, the internal jubilation on their faces. It would be wonderful to catch these expressions on camera, without them knowing it.” [12] Even in 1964, there were 250 people in the audience and the public was to become larger. Levinas apparently put many weeks and even months into his preparations. His purpose, beyond, any specific interpretation he gave of a given passage, was to reveal the depth of these texts, to illustrate the rigorous thinking they called for. To an audience that included many people convinced of the parochial, picayune nature of the Talmud, he demonstrated the rabbis’ breadth, their relevance and the complexity of their thought.

Two of the interlocutors at the 1964 colloquium make clear the obstacles he was facing. The chief rabbi of France reproached Levinas with intellectualizing. You may recall that the Talmudic passage that Levinas chose for this lesson was about the giving of the Torah. A curious expression in Exodus 24:7 intrigues the rabbis, and in turn intrigues Levinas. The children of Israel, instead of accepting the Torah by saying that they will hear its contents and then fulfill it, say that they will do and then hear, naase ve nishma. As we shall soon see, the rabbis underscore the oddity of accepting something without first hearing its contents, and Levinas, in turn, will find a way of reading the precedence of ethics over ontology into this reversal. For Chief Rabbi Jais, however, the meaning of this statement is straightforward. You have to practice Judaism before you can understand it. [14] Levinas’ reply is sharp: He wanted to liberate, he says, the text from “the truths of a catechism of the Torah.” [15] He doesn’t explain what he means but, it seems, he objected to having an authoritative, once and for all meaning. He also wanted it to speak not just about and to observant Jews, but to and about all human beings.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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