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Under The Volcano

To balance out the topic of the last post, I thought I’d say a word about consent.

Tonight is the beginning of Shavuot, or Pentecost, the celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (and also the second of three harvest festivals). I don’t plan on doing much to celebrate this year, but I’ve done more in years past, when I was more religious, and picked up a tidbit or two from study sessions along the way. Here’s a favorite bit of mine.

Among the various embellishing accounts in the midrash regarding the events at Sinai are two radically opposed views of just how Israel received the Torah. Radically opposed – but with a key element in common.

First, when Israel received the Torah, they accept it by saying, na’aseh v’nishmah – “we will do, and we will hear.” How is it possible to do first and hear later? This is glossed by saying: the Torah was actually offered multiple times, to multiple peoples, and all rejected it because they found something in it that they objected to. Israel, by contrast, answered, “we will do and we will hear” – that is to say, we accept it without actually knowing (or understanding) what is in it. Acceptance was a leap of faith, not a contract.

The second midrash says almost the exact opposite. At the same point, the people of Israel are described as being camped tachat hahar – “under the mountain.” How could they have been “under” the mountain – surely they were camped beside it. Nope, goes the midrashic gloss. What happened was, Israel did not want to accept the yoke of the law. So God lifted the mountain and suspended it over the people, and a voice boomed out: accept the law, or this mountain will be your grave. So, faced with death, the people accepted.

In one account, the people accepted a binding covenant without reading it. In the other account, the people were coerced into a binding covenant. In neither reading, though, are we dealing with informed consent.

Which makes sense to me. My God is the God of reality. And you don’t make deals with reality; you just deal with it. I don’t always get along with God – these days, I am much less-interested in winning His favor. But I don’t go in much for raging against Him either, any more than I go in for raging against the ocean’s tides.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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