Fixing Sinai: Purim and Jewish Conscience: Barry Gelman

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” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Shabbat 88a. Thanks to Sefaria for providing the translation – https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.88a.5?lang=bi)

This account of what happened at Sinai is very different from what we read in the Torah. Besides the question that the Rabbis raise themselves – “ From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah”, this account raises another question.

The great Na’aseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) moment, when Bnei Yisrael accepted the torah unconditionally, is undermined by the Rabbinic version.

Why would the Rabbis offer this alternate account that makes Bnei Yisrael out to be reluctant to accept the Torah? Additionally, how were matters actually remedied on Purim? 

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg offers remarkable answers to these questions.  He notes that people are affected by their surroundings and that the Children of Israel were no different. As such, after experiencing the wonder and awe of Mount sinai (not to mention to plagues and the splitting of the sea), Bnei Yisrael were essentially “forced” to say Na’aseh V’Nishma. The events at Sinai had such a profound influence on them since God’s presence was so obvious, it was “as if” it was coerced, “as if” God held the mountain over their head. An acceptance of the Torah on those terms creates “substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah.

According to Rabbi Weinberger, the Talmudic narrative is not an alternative version, rather, it explains what was really behind “Na’aseh V’Nishma.”

Importantly, Rabbi Weinberg asserts that religion that is inspired by external conditions cannot last.  As soon as the external forces are gone, then the commitment will weaken. This is reminiscent of the statements in Pirkei Avot:

כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁהִיא תְלוּיָה בְדָבָר, בָּטֵל דָּבָר, בְּטֵלָה אַהֲבָה. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה

בְדָבָר, אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה לְעוֹלָם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא אַהֲבָה הַתְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, זוֹ אַהֲבַת אַמְנוֹן וְתָמָר. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, זוֹ אַהֲבַת דָּוִד וִיהוֹנָתָ

Any love that is dependent on something, when that thing perishes, the love perishes. But [a love] that is not dependent on something, does not ever perish. What’s [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? That’s the love of Amnon and Tamar. And [a love] that is not dependent on something? That’s the love of David and Jonathan.

Purim, on the other hand, represents the absence of God’s obvious presence.  The re-acceptance of the Torah after the dangers of Haman’s decree had passed without any clear Divine interaction was an internal, non coerced undertaking on the part of the Jews. Such an acknowledgement saved the “weak” Sinai acceptance from the undermining question of coercion raised by the Rabbis.

Rabbi Weinreb explains another gemara (Sanhedrin 20a) using the same approach.

שקר החן זה דורו של משה ויהושע והבל היופי זה דורו של חזקיה יראת ה’ היא תתהלל זה דורו של ר’ יהודה ברבי אילעאי

אמרו עליו על רבי יהודה ברבי אילעאי שהיו ששה תלמידים מתכסין בטלית אחת ועוסקין בתורה

‘Grace is deceitful’, refers to the generations of Moses and Joshua; ‘and beauty is vain’, to the generation of Hezekiah; while ‘she that feareth the Lord shall be praised’ refers to the generation of R. Judah son of R. Ila’i, of whose time it was said that [though the poverty was so great that] six of his disciples had to cover themselves with one garment between them, yet they studied the Torah.

The generations of Moshe and Yehoshua were marked by great miracles and Divine protection. On the hand, the generation of R. Yehuda Bar Ilai the people still studied torah, despite the great poverty and apparent absence of Divine protection. Such commitment, obviously inspired by pure commitment is the real thing and therefore deserves the appellation of “she that feareth the Lord shall be praised.”

This analysis of Rabbi Weinberg raises some questions.

1. Rabbi Weinberg seems to be speaking about conscience. Michael Wyschogrod (Judaism and Conscience) points out that there is no word for conscience in classical Hebrew. This is probably because, as he puts it: “Judaism is based on obedience to God. in conscience it is not after all God who is being heard but man. The Jew, however, is required to listen to God and not to man.”

What is Rabbi Weinberg after in his quest for motivation based on internal qualities only?

Wyschogrod ultimately accepts the existence of conscience within a Jewish framework when he notes: “ And yet, it is very difficult to teach that the Jew owes nothing to his conscience. Is not the very act of obedience to God ultimately dependent on a dictate of conscience. At the genesis of the God-man relationship there must somewhere be a recognition by man that it is right to obey him whose command he hears and whose word becomes binding…”Without such an autonomous act of submission, men are the puppets of God and the divine command a facade behind which a divine determinism orders the objects of the word, among which man is merely one.”

Is this Rabbi Weinreb’s point – that if we drill deep enough we can discover that one moment in time when a pure decision was made? Sinai was too overwhelming and so it obliterated that possibility.

2. Is the type of pure acceptance / love of God ever really possible? Doesn’t there always exist some type of external force leading one to choose a life of faith.  

Consider the typical religious Jew who was brought up in an observant home. Does such a person lack the purity of service that Rabbi Weinreb sees in Purim and the generation of R. Yehuda Bar Ilai? Mut one overcome near destruction or suffer debilitating poverty in order to be considered a real oved Hashem – servant of God?

Perhaps this is what the Rabbi meant when they said:

מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין

The place which the penitent occupy, the perfectly righteous are unable to occupy.

This is often taken to mean that since the penitent has tasted sin, the successful change of lifestyle elevates him to a higher level than the purely righteous.

In view of Rabbi Weinberg’s analysis, perhaps the penitent refers to someone who made a choice based on internal thought and insight without the help of a religious upbringing while the righteous person may have been following a path laid out for them by others. The purity of the penitents decision boosts his position in the eyes of the sages.

Wyschogrod attempts to solve these problems by admitting that pure conscience may not be possible and , from a Jewish perspective, not desireable. Conscience is good, but it must be trained. “First, there must be the genuine willingness to listen to conscience, not only to what we want to hear bit to what conscience is actually saying, however painful its message may be. And, second, there is the necessity for exposing conscience to those events and documents which constitute the record of Israel’s relation with God, immersion in which shapes the conscience of the Jews…we maintain that it [conscience] can be sensitized and developed by the tradition of revelation to which the people of Israel are witness and without which Jewish conscience is impoverished and isolated, cut off from its source of historic sustenance.

Purim, as understood by the Rabbis is our best opportunity to examine our relationship with God without the overwhelming experience of sinai spoiling the choice, yet, with the recognition that our choices, as pure as we wish them to be, are and should be colored by our tradition.

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