The Torah of Compulsion : based on an essay by Rav Shagar, of blessed memory, which appears in his book Chance and Providence

The well-known midrash found in the Talmud (b. 88b) describes a rather discomforting aspect of the Giving of the Torah which Jews worldwide will celebrate in two days time.

“They stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19). Rav Avdimi son of Chama son of Chasa said: This teaches us that the Holy One held the mountain over them like a barrel. He said: if you accept the Torah, fine; if not, your burial will be where you stand. Rav Acha son of Yaakov said: This is a great claim against the Torah.

The Hebrew literally reads:  he turned over the mountain over them like a large vessel. The homily bases itself upon the similarity of the Hebrew for under and at the foot of. The image is of a large empty vessel (a huge bell jar) entrapping the Jews underneath it. The verb used is kafa which means both to turn over (a vessel) in order to enclose something within it and also to force or compel someone against his will. The midrash uses this verb, kafa, in order to connote both of these meanings.

The Maharal of Prague, the sixteenth-century scholar and mystic, in his work Tiferet Yisrael (chapter 32), explained this compulsion in a shocking way: He asked why God needed to compel the Jews, threatening them with destruction, when the Torah records how they had already agreed to do as He commanded: na’aseh ve’nishmah—we will do what we are told. The Maharal answered by citing a midrash that compares this compulsion to the Biblical law (Deut. 22:29) which obligates a man who rapes a maiden not only to compensate her family financially by paying her “bride-price,” but also forbids him from ever divorcing her. (This discussion is meant as a reflection of the ideas behind this law on a textual level, and does not mean to lessen the cruel realities that actually stem from such behavior. It should be noted too that the Oral Law makes it clear that the woman need agree to this marriage and places other limitations upon its practice.)

While we understand that such an act is a measure of cruel violence (and the Torah itself likens it to murder—see Deut. 22:26), there is a trope found in the Bible which presents this forced intimacy in a different vein. The story of Amnon and Tamar (II Sam. 13) reflects the notion of conquest and disgust.

He cared not for her entreaties, overpowered her, injured her and lay with her. Yet immediately afterwards we read: Amnon despised her greatly; greater was his abhorrence of her than the love he had felt towards her; So Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and leave’.

It is with this model of lust-driven violation in mind that the Torah forbids the attacker from merely dismissing the woman once he has satisfied his own carnal desire. Rav Shagar described the idea behind the Torah’s law thus:

Feelings of guilt, accompanied by self-loathing, do not allow for love to flourish, and yet the villain is bound to his victim for all his days. As his hatred for her grows stronger, so does his guilt and his need to atone for his sins towards her. His crime creates its own internal trap, which binds him to his victim. This is his punishment. The sentence of the Torah is a reflection, then, of the internal punishment meted out by the psychological complex from which the offender suffers – a complex created by his own transgression.

For Rav Shagar, the Maharal’s comparison is meant to suggest that the compulsion with which God forced his Torah upon our nation creates an “essential bond, not given to release.” Almost paradoxically, even those who find the Torah constrictive and fight against its seeming strictures, are in fact asserting their inextricable connection to it. A certain level of personal opposition to the creation of a polity, for example, where some individual freedoms are relegated to the communal interest is almost natural. So too, the forced identity of Jew, given to each member of the nation seemingly through mere accident of birth, almost necessarily opens up the question of coercion. Who has ever indeed asked to be born, let alone here rather than there, in these rather than other circumstances?

The Bible describes the giving of the Torah again and again as an act of face-to-face intimacy. God speaks to Moses “face-to-face”. Can finite humankind, though, ever actually face the Infinite without the complete dissolution of the very concept of selfhood? How can an individual (or even a separate polity) retain any measure of independence when confronted by the Never-Ending-All-That-Is? Like a child who must be weaned from his mother’s breast to find any measure of individuation and fully mature, so too must there be a mechanism by which the nation standing at Sinai can both be nurtured but not engulfed by the meeting with the Almighty Creator. The notion of coercion allows for a line to be drawn between the individual receiver of the Law and its all-encompassing Giver. On a certain level, the abdication of free will expressed by absolute acceptance must be tempered by the idea of coercion—non-abdication, and non-acceptance—if there is to remain anything of the individual subject to whom the Torah is presented.

Yet Rav Shagar stresses something else in his referencing the Maharal. The drive for independence, is of necessity, reactive. Even the distancing of the subject is a distancing from something else. And this, in effect, creates a connection between that subject and that which he is fighting against. (I think of two boxers fighting—despite the intent of each to knock-out the other, they are completely bound to one another). And so, even the attempt to break free, is coercive for one need engage that which one would escape. (Rav Shagar had in mind the ideologically secular Israelis who set themselves the task of “secularizing” the Jewish tradition. As one well-known kibbutz intellectual once told me, well aware of the irony in his statement—“We stand for being against!”)

Rav Shagar believed in engagement—with post-modernity, the Jewish people and our land. The bond between the nation and its Torah is of necessity coerced and thus of necessity eternal. The Jewish people, despite instances of individual exception and despite protestations, are forever bound to the Torah through which they became a people and thus bound too to each other. “One nation, with one heart,” we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Let us recall this even in these more usual days of more usual strife.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.