Reflecting on Shavuot
The festival of Shavuot is when we commemorate and celebrate the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai some 3000 years ago. As any of our Primary students can explain, our tradition tells us that when Hashem asked the Jewish people if they wanted to receive the Torah, they answered with the words ‘Naaseh ve Nishma”, ‘we will do and we will listen’, indicating that they were willing to accept the Torah and its laws sight unseen; they consented to the obligations put forth prior to understanding the reasons for those obligations.
This narrative of submission and acceptance is taught to younger children with due reverence. But as our children mature, they start to question this narrative and its implications for their own religious beliefs and responsibilities. That the Dor Hamidbar, the generation of the desert readily agreed to accept the Torah was their right, but with regards to contracts and consent, how could their acceptance of the terms and conditions of Judaism obligate the generations that came after them? Apart from those of us who have actively chosen to join the Jewish religion, those born of the Jewish faith have not said ‘Naaseh ve Nishma’, we have not actively consented to be part of this people and to be obligated and constrained by Jewish law.
The notion of consent and its consequences for the legality of a contract is discussed at length by philosophers. Contracts are bound by moral limits; on their own, contracts are not self-sufficient moral instruments. The mere fact that a contract is drawn up and signed does not inherently make that contract fair. (Footy card swaps between older and younger students might be agreed to on both sides, but the fairness of that swap is definitely questionable given the age difference!) We also know that consent is not the only instrument that obligates parties to uphold their side of the contract; I’ve never signed a contract with the Australian government, and yet I am still obligated to pay my taxes and obey the laws of this great country.
In his book ‘Justice’, Michael Sandel succinctly summarises the place of consent with regards to contracts: “Consent is not a necessary condition of moral obligation. If the mutual benefit is clear enough, the moral claims of reciprocity may hold even without an act of consent”. In other words, when there is a benefit, it is as if consent is implied.
So here is the catch. While our students rightly question whether or not they agreed to all this ‘Jewish stuff’, it is our job as educators and parents to show them how much they benefit from Judaism and from being part of our Jewish community. Our children should not see Judaism as an obligation, but a privilege, something that enhances their life and wellbeing. It is something that they are (mostly) born in to but hopefully, through positive family and community experiences, as well as their years at Carmel School, Judaism will be something they choose to do too.
So as we gather around the Yom Tov table, that will be brimming with blintzes and cheesecake, it may be a good time to take stock and think about the things that Judaism brings to our lives. For me, Judaism is a source of intellectual stimulation, it has taught me restraint, has ingrained gratitude into my speech and thought and has forced me to set aside uninterrupted family time, something that I don’t think I would have without Shabbat.
So no, I didn’t ‘consent’ to being Jewish. But boy am I glad that I am!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
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