The text of the book of Sh’mot tells us that they said, na’aseh v’nishma – “we will observe and hearken to it”.
The sages, however, say that they had no choice; God upended the mountain over their heads and said, “If you accept the Torah it will be well and good, but if not, here will be your grave”.
The first version could be called the vote theory, the second, the veto theory.
History seems to endorse the first. Jewish law frequently defers to the custom of the people; Jewish communities were frequently governed by the decisions of the community council. It could almost be said that Jews were the pioneers of democracy.
But jump across the centuries to today and you find democracy gone mad. We seem to have a supermarket syndrome. A range of Jewish options are presented; one can accept any, all or none. Everyone is entitled to create their own style of Judaism and Jewish identity and all is equally kosher.
Shabbat or no Shabbat, kashrut or no kashrut, it makes no difference. Morally, intellectually, theologically too we may all choose our own path, though the paths lead in different directions.
What’s the point of having a Torah if everything in it can be sidelined? If we can ignore Shabbat, neglect Pesach, abolish b’rit milah, we can also abandon honesty, truth and justice too and say that everything goes and – as our Jewish press seems to imply – whatever any Jew does, thinks or says is equally pertinent and worthy of promotion.
Are there to be no constraints or controls? Maybe conscience? But conscience alone is unreliable and relativistic.
Shall we follow the so-called statistical theory of ethics and say that what the majority do is good enough for us? This would be like Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal; because the majority chose to worship idols, official Judaism would throw out God and become idolatrous.
Are we to heed the person or group with the loudest voice or strongest lobby? If so, what has happened to the kol d’mamah dakkah, the “thin small voice” of faithfulness to Torah?
Somewhere, somehow there must be a right to say “no”, a right of veto. It is significant that historically the community council needed the endorsement of the sage of the city, and when the sage said something was inappropriate, his word was law.
Today there are sages, but their voice of Torah is frequently disregarded because of the three I’s – ignorance (people without knowledge think they are qualified to make decisions), impertinence (people without derech eretz arrogate rights to themselves) and indolence (people who prefer a quiet life let themselves be disenfranchised).
If only people would be more open to deeper Jewish study and conduct themselves with greater respect! Otherwise Judaism could, God forbid, disintegrate and collapse.
If only people would realise that the “sages of the city” are not interested in self-promotion but are the medium for the voice of Torah, judge according to eternal, not ephemeral standards, and are pledged to the Tradition of yesterday and the destiny of tomorrow and not merely the fashions and feelings of the moment!
To give Torah only a vote but never a veto is to risk the end of Judaism, and that is surely a danger which no Jew would ever wish to see.