Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: Purim and Religious Coercion

In contrast to those stories that emphasize the romanticism surrounding the Israelites acceptance of the Torah, the Talmud in Shabbat 88a relates that God lifted Mount Sinai above the people and threatened to kill them unless they accepted it (like a shot gun wedding or as the Maharal claims, 'Divine rape').

In this case, questions Rav Acha Bar Yaacov, how can the Law obligate us, seeing as we only accepted it under duress?

The response provided by Rava – that the Jewish people accept the Torah and renew the covenant in the days of Purim (kiymu vekiblu) – is intriguing and raises as many questions as it provides answers. What does this mountain metaphor signify? What is unique about Megillat Esther that it's specifically chosen as a prooftext for why we voluntarily (re)accept the Torah? And what makes an individual today obligated to fulfill Mitzvot?

French philosopher Emannuel Levinas brings a beautiful idea regarding the mountain metaphor, explaining that certain things in life – such as the moral imperative towards the other – are imposed on us, whether we like it or not. According to Levinas, the idea of ‘Torah or death’ means the only alternative to accepting the Torah, to accepting the claim the Other makes on me, is ultimately violence.

Several commentators discuss the uniqueness of Purim.

David Hartman compares the Exodus / Sinai model (first part of the sugya) with the Purim model (second part), explaining that while the former encapsulates the manner in which history impressed itself upon the Israelite community in the past, the latter accords better with the Jewish historical experience in the Talmudic period and into the present. This is why it is chosen as an example of reaccepting the covenant – it reflects real life.

Norman Lamm argues that Purim is mentioned as it reflects a situation that facilitates authentic moral choice of whether to accept the covenant, as such choice only arises when its unclear as to whether God is present or not (for example, when God is so clearly present at Sinai, there isn’t really a choice).

Yitz Greenberg takes this one step further, writing that the Jews' reacceptance at Purim is done with greater knowledge and thus greater maturity than at Sinai, seeing as they (we) now accept the Torah "knowing that destruction can take place, that the sea will not be split for them, that the Divine has self-limited and they have additional responsibilities."

Finally, we discussed Esther Chapter 9 (the source text for kiymu vekiblu, the Jew's renewal of the covenant) and the question of what obligates us to continue to keep Torah. Rather than a top down argument of 'because God said so' (as represented by the mountain metaphor), I wonder whether the Gemara is subtly suggesting that there is another model for obligation – that of a grassroots bottom up process originating not with God or elected leaders, but with the people, who – even before Mordechai commands them how to celebrate the festival – have already begun to create customs themselves.

Click here for the source sheet and audio recording.

Chag Sameach


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Joe said...

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