What was given on Shavuot? What does â€œreceiving Torahâ€ mean?
In one reading, it is aboutmitzvah, being commanded. On Shavuot we celebrate being part of a path and destiny which is larger than ourselves. We bow our head to the authority on the mountain which has chosen us as their tool. We shall obey and we shall hear.
In another reading, though, on Shavuot we received Text. With Divine Text came Human Interpretation: questioning, understanding, misinterpretation, debate. Text invites our full autonomous self to engage, study, challenge â€“ as a way of seeking (divine) truth. The authority of the text does not undermine my own authority, in fact it recognizes my autonomy, requires it, albeit challenging me to redeem myself from the vain and mundane. At its core lies a moment of personal choice.
These two readings play out â€“ famously â€“ in the Talmud (Shabbat 88), a text worth returning to each Sahvuot. The first opinion is that of Rav Avdimi. Mount Sinai hovering over my head, I have no choice. Accept the Torah â€“ or die. Generations later, I might never have stood at Sinai, but that is the whole point: it isnâ€™t about me. I am obligated.
Rava is having none of it though. â€œIf that is the case,â€ says Rava, â€œthen the binding nature of the Torah is like that of a contract signed under coercion â€“ unenforcable.â€ Since God gave us text and law to study, we have developed based on it a self understaning of the importance of choice in the legal process. The Torah is a contract like any other â€“ and must abide by the (human) rules set for it.
This classic discussion is played out in the essay â€œObligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Orderâ€ by the late and great Yale legal theorist Robert Cover. What is described about as an internal Talmudic debate, Cover takes as the basic difference between the â€œfundamental wordâ€ of the Western political tradition - â€œrightsâ€ - to that of Jewish law - â€œobligationâ€. Cover begins by playing out the two fundamental words of each tradition and the myths that fuel them:
Social movements in the United States organize around rights. When there is some urgently felt need to change the law or keep it in one way or another a â€œRightsâ€ movement is started. The story behind the term â€œrightsâ€ is the story of social contractâ€¦ making the collective arrangement the product of individual choice and thus secondary to the individual.
In Jewish law an entitlement without an obligation is a sad, almost pathetic thingâ€¦ A child does not become emancipated or â€œfreeâ€ when he or she reaches maturity, rather the child becomes bar or bat mitzvah â€“ literally, one who is of the obligationsâ€ The basic word of Judaism is obligation or mitzvah. It is intrinsically bound up in the myth of Sinai, a myth of heteronomy. The experience at Sinai is not chosen.
When I first read this, I thought Cover was positing the power of Obligation as a traditionalist Jewish apologetic or as a conservativeâ€™s yearning for a lost past. Yet as he deepens the discussion, it becomes clear that he is expressing the yearning of the Liberal to obligate himself and his society in distributive justice:
A jurisprudence of rights naturally solves certain problems while stumbling over others. It has proved singularly weak in providing for the material guarantees of life and dignity flowing from the community to the individual. While we make talk of a right to medical care, the right to subsistence, the right to an education, we are constantly met by the realization that such rhetorical tropes are empty in a way that the right to freedom of expression or the right to due process are notâ€¦ The â€œright to an educationâ€ is not even an intelligible principle unless we know to whom it is addressed. Taken alone it only speaks to a need. A distributional premise is missing which can only be supplied through a principle of â€œobligationâ€.
I believe that every child has a right to decent education and shelter, food and medical care; I believe that refugees from political oppression have a right to a haven in a free landâ€¦ I do believe and affirm the social contract that grounds those rights. But more to the point I also believe that I am commanded â€“ that we are obligated â€“ to realize those rights.
Cover invites us to seek out this Shavuot how we can reclaim commandedness and obligation in service of the projects we believe in. The language of rights is powerful, but insufficient (as is the language of Obligation). It is an American question, and a Jewish one. No one likes being commanded, and yet we seek to be obligated to the things that matter most. Otherwise we'll never make it from the foot of the mountain to the promised land.