Israel Under the Mountain: Emmanuel Levinas on Freedom and Constraint in the Revelation of the Torah


The time has come, I believe, to take the title and, even more important, the form of Emmanuel Levinas’s Lectures Talmudiques, Talmudic Readings1 seriously. That is, the essays comprising Levinas’s Talmudic Readings are just that–readings of the Talmud, and they ought to be read as such. Such a proposition may seem simplistic, even tautological; but however simplistic or tautological the proposition itself may or may not be, its implications, so I would claim, are profound and far reaching. For what this proposition means is that these essays, as Levinas himself states, are works of talmudic commentary 2 –philosophic commentary, if you will, commentary primarily on the talmudic aggadah, but, nevertheless, works of talmudic commentary–which consequently, and here we go beyond Levinas, ought to be read, studied, and understood within the context of that genre and tradition, that is, the genre and tradition of talmudic commentary. This further means that in studying these essays of Levinas the primary scholarly figures we ought to bring into dialogue with him should not be so much figures from the tradition of Western philosophy, but rather figures from the tradition of talmudic commentary. Hegel, Husserl, or Heidegger should thus not occupy the center of our attention (not that these philosophical giants need to be or should be excluded altogether from our purview), which should rather be occupied by such Talmudic giants among the rishonim as Rashi, the Tosafists, and the Ramban, by such great commentators on the aggadah as the Maharsha and the Maharal, as well as by a host of more recent rabbinic commentators and scholars who have commented upon and elucidated, oftentimes at considerable length and with considerable insight, those very talmudic sugyot which form the subject matter of Levinas’s essays. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that before reading one of these essays of Levinas, we should first study in depth the underlying talmudic sugya, together with a representative sample of the [End Page 35] standard and not-so-standard commentaries, both classic and more recent, and attempt to identify and classify the major problems, issues, and questions raised, and the major analyses and solutions put forth. Only then should we read Levinas’s essay and see how it fits or does not fit into the various lines of approach we have identified. Does Levinas raise new questions? or offer new answers to old questions? or perhaps just present variants of old approaches in philosophical “Greek” garb? Such a mode of procedure, if it accomplishes nothing else, ought to enable us to define more precisely Levinas’s place within the tradition and context of Jewish thought. It may even, as a not-so-insignificant fringe benefit, contribute to our understanding of talmudic aggadah and talmudic texts in general. This paper will examine one of Levinas’s lectures talmudiques from the above perspective.


Scripture, in relating the revelation of the Torah to the Israelites at Sinai, states: “And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17). If we choose to read the concluding phrase of this verse, be-tahtit ha-har, hyper-literally, the verse states that the Israelites, when receiving the Torah, stood underneath the mountain. Such a reading is proposed in the Babylonian Talmud (Sabbath 88a) by R. Abdimi bar Hama, who cites the verse and comments: “This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, inclined Mt. Sinai over [the Israelites] like a tilted tub and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, all is well; and if not, here will be your grave.'” This startling interpretation has not surprisingly been the object of much discussion by traditional rabbinic commentators, modern talmudic scholars, 3and Jewish thinkers in general. A particularly profound and challenging analysis of this statement and the talmudic sugya of which it forms a part may be found in Levinas’s talmudic essay, “The Temptation of Temptation,” 4 and, indeed this essay has been singled out for special attention by Levinas scholars. 5

Levinas argues that R. Abdimi’s statement means that “revelation [is] precisely a reminder of this consent prior to freedom and non-freedom” (37/82); it means that “the free choice of the Torah was made without any possibility of temptation” (38/83). Thus, for Levinas, as he makes explicit in the rest of the essay (41-46/91-100), the inclining of the mountain and the alternative of “Torah or death” (37-38/82-83) that the inclining posed to the Israelites do not in any way contradict the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah when they proclaimed, “We will do and we will hear” (Exod. 24:7). Rather, both the choice “Torah or death” and the utterance “We will do and we will hear” are expressions of temimut, of integrity, of a “prior fidelity” (48/105), an “adherence . . . [End Page 36] beyond-freedom-and-constraint” (40/87), as the Torah is “received outside any exploratory foray, outside any gradual development” (46/100). As stated above, this essay has been singled out by Levinas scholars, and these claims of his have been much discussed and well analyzed in the recent scholarly literature. Consequently, we need not elaborate upon them here but may immediately proceed to the main task of this paper, namely, to place this essay within the tradition of talmudic commentary by comparing Levinas’s approach to this sugya, as embodied in these claims, with those taken by a variety of representative commentators, medieval and modern, better and lesser known.

Professor Zev Harvey has already pointed out 6 that Levinas’s approach to this sugya differs from what we may term the mainstream approach, as taken, for example, by the Tosafists. 7 Tosafists see the inclining of the mountain over the heads of the Israelites as giving rise to a coerced acceptance that does, in fact, undermine the force of their acceptance as expressed by their proclaiming “We will do and we will hear.” 8 To Harvey’s citation of the Tosafists, we may add the Ramban whose interpretation of the sugya we will examine later. Moving back in time, the mainstream approach had earlier been adumbrated by the Midrash Tanhuma9 which maintains that the Torah the Israelites accepted when they proclaimed “We will do and we will hear” was the written Torah, whereas the Torah they accepted as a result of the inclining of the mountain over their heads was the oral Torah. For the author of this midrash, then, there is an irreconcilable contradiction between free acceptance (“We will do and we will hear”) and coerced acceptance (resulting from the inclining of the mountain), and the only way these two modes of acceptance can coexist is by assuming they refer to two different Torahs. 10

What needs to be noted, however, is that the famous sixteenth-century commentator and scholar, the Maharal of Prague, in several places in his writings, 11 had already advanced an interpretation of R. Abdimi’s statement that is strikingly similar to that of Levinas. The Maharal contends that the inclining of the mountain over the heads of the Israelites symbolically represented their realization that the Torah is necessary for the existence of the world. Thus, for the Maharal, as later for Levinas, the inclining of the mountain does not contradict the Israelites’ proclamation “We will do and we will hear.” Rather, the Israelites’ free acceptance of the Torah arose precisely out of their profound recognition that the Torah is not some dispensable luxury, but is a vital–a cosmic–necessity, and this profound recognition is signified by the inclining of the mountain. 12

This similar understanding of R. Abdimi’s statement on the part of the Maharal and Levinas allows them, in turn, to understand the structure and connectedness of the sugya in strikingly similar ways. For the [End Page 37] sugya, after completing its discussion of R. Abdimi’s statement–a discussion to which we will return later–begins a new unit, at the heart of which is the following teaching of Resh Lakish: “What does the verse mean: ‘And it was evening and it was morning the sixth day’ (Gen. 1:31). The definite article is not necessary. But God established a covenant with the works of Creation: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; and if not, I will return you to chaos and the void.'” Thus, for Resh Lakish, the verse is to be read as follows: “And it was evening and it was morning [because] of the sixth day.” That is, the very existence of the ongoing cycle of evening and morning, of the works of Creation, depends upon “thesixth day” (yom ha-shishi), that famous sixth day of Sivan, the day on which the Torah was given, and, more important, the day on which the Torah was accepted. For both the Maharal and Levinas, Resh Lakish’s claim that the world’s continued existence depends upon Israel’s acceptance of the Torah and R. Abdimi’s claim that God inclined the mountain over the Israelites are one and the same claim; namely, both Israel and the world are confronted with the alternative–Torah or death. Thus, the Maharal, in explaining Resh Lakish, comments: “It is for this reason that God inclined the mountain over them, because the works of creation are dependent upon the acceptance of the Torah.” 13 Or as Levinas, reversing the order of the images, writes: “The mountain turned upside down like a tub above the Israelites thus threatened the universe” (41/90).

Despite these striking similarities in their understandings of the sugya, three significant differences between the Maharal and Levinas should be noted. First, for Levinas, the moment of revelation is, as we have seen, a single moment of consent prior to and beyond the opposition between freedom and constraint. For the Maharal, by contrast, it is a dual moment in which the people’s free acceptance and the necessary nature of the Torah coexist in perfect harmony. 14 Second, for the Maharal, the notion that the world’s continued existence depends upon Israel’s acceptance of the Torah is to be taken literally: “Ki ba-Torah ha-colam talui.” For Levinas, this notion is to be understood metaphorically, namely, that Israel’s acceptance of the Torah “gives meaning to reality” (41/90). Finally, and perhaps most important, for the Maharal, the Torah, upon which the world’s existence depends, constitutes an intellectual order. For Levinas, the Torah, the acceptance of which “gives meaning to reality,” constitutes an “ethical order” (41/90). The Maharal then, despite his strong opposition to Jewish philosophy, still stands within the medieval Jewish intellectual tradition, while Levinas follows the practical turn taken by much of modern Jewish thought, as exemplified, for example, in the writings of Hermann Cohen or R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Indeed, it turns out that for Levinas, not so surprisingly, the lesson taught by both R. Abdimi and Resh Lakish is, if divested of [End Page 38] imaginative garb, the fundamental and familiar Levinasian lesson of the subordination of ontology to ethics.


The interpretation of R. Abdimi’s statement offered by both the Maharal and Levinas is certainly appealing, and, as we saw above, it enables them to make sense of the overall structure of the sugya. The validity of their interpretation, however, would appear to be placed in grave doubt by the discussion of the sugyaimmediately following R. Abdimi’s statement. The discussion begins with a challenge to R. Abdimi’s statement on the part of R. Aha bar Jacob. He observes: “This [namely, R. Abdimi’s view that the mountain was inclined over the heads of the Israelites] furnishes a serious legal objection to the [binding authority] of the Torah.” As Rashi explains: “For if God will summon them [the Israelites] to judgment [and ask them]: ‘Why did you not observe that which you accepted?,’ they can reply that they were coerced into accepting it.” Raba thereupon offers the following response to the objection of R. Aha: “They, nonetheless, re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written: ‘They [the Jews] fulfilled and accepted’ (Esther 9:27), [that is], they fulfilled what they had accepted previously.”

As is easily seen, both the question posed by R. Aha bar Jacob and the answer offered by Raba raise serious problems for the approach of the Maharal and Levinas, problems not encountered by the mainstream approach. First, does not R. Aha bar Jacob’s question appear to support the mainstream contention that the inclining of the mountain over the Israelites was, as Rashi indeed states, an act of coercion on the part of God, which thereby negated the validity of the acceptance of the Torah as indicated by their proclamation, “We will do and we will hear”? How can R. Aha’s question be squared with the contention of Levinas that the acceptance of the Torah is beyond the opposition between freedom and necessity, or with the contention of the Maharal that the acceptance of the Torah is a harmonious blend of freedom and necessity? Conversely, if the interpretation of R. Abdimi suggested by the Maharal and Levinas is correct, how can R. Aha claim that the inclining of the mountain constitutes a legal objection to the binding authority of the Torah? In addition, given the fact that for both the Maharal and Levinas, God’s inclining the mountain over the Israelites did not stand in contradiction to their proclamation “We will do and we will hear,” what new validity, according to Raba, did the Israelites’ renewed acceptance of the Torah in the time of Ahasuerus add to the Torah’s already binding authority? A more general question faced by the Maharal and Levinas and also by the commentators advocating the mainstream approach is the exact nature [End Page 39] of the connection between the events of Purim and the Israelites’ renewed acceptance of the Torah at that time.

It must be stated that the Maharal’s attempt to grapple with these questions is not particularly successful. 15 Consequently, we may dismiss his views from consideration and focus our attention on Levinas’s attempt to deal with the three problems above. Since Levinas, in my understanding, deals with the three questions as a unity, let us first examine the third question–the nature of the connection with the events of Purim and the Israelites’ renewed acceptance of the Torah, suggested by representatives of the mainstream approach, and return to Levinas afterwards. I wish first to examine the answer suggested by the Ramban and then the answer suggested by several contemporary modern Orthodox thinkers.

The Ramban, in his comments on the sugya, offers the following explanation: 16 Let us grant that the acceptance of the Torah at or rather under Mt. Sinai was coerced and consequently possessed no validity. As long as the Israelites were living in the land of Israel the fact that their acceptance of the Torah was invalid was profoundly irrelevant to its binding authority. True, the Israelites did not have to observe the Torah as a result of their having accepted it, since that acceptance lacked legal validity; but they did have to observe the Torah simply as a result of their living in the land of Israel, because observing the Torah was a sine qua non for their continued existence in the land. If you are a guest in someone’s house, you have to observe the host’s house rules. Similarly, if you are living in the land of Israel you must–by virtue of that fact alone–observe the Torah. For the Torah, to cite the Ramban’s commentary on Leviticus 18:25, is “the law of the God of the land.” It was only when the Israelites were exiled from the land that they, in the view of the Ramban, could issue a formal legal objection to the binding authority of the Torah. For (so they claimed), since they were in exile they no longer had to observe the Torah on account of their being in the land, nor did they have to observe it on account of their having originally accepted it at Sinai (since that acceptance was coerced and consequently lacked any validity). This is the significance of the renewed acceptance of the Torah in the time of Ahasuerus, namely, that the Israelites freely agreed to observe the Torah even in exile. 17

The approach taken by several contemporary modern Orthodox thinkers is as follows: 18 What is significant about the events at the time of Ahasuerus, namely, the Purim story, is that the story is the prime example of a hidden miracle. That is, the Jews chose to see God’s hand in the concatenation of events, despite the fact that God’s presence was not evident–indeed, the name of God, as is well known, does not appear in the book of Esther–and they very easily could have viewed their narrow escape from certain death and their subsequent triumph as a fortuitous [End Page 40] set of circumstances. It is in this sense that their renewed acceptance of the Torah, stemming from a willing recognition of God’s saving, albeit hidden, presence, should be seen as a free mode of acceptance. By contrast, the revelation at Sinai is a prime example of an “open” miracle, for God’s presence at Sinai was overwhelming and undeniable. It is precisely this overwhelming and undeniable divine Presence that is symbolized by the imagery of the inclined mountain. Consequently, the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, stemming from the impact made upon them by that inescapable divine Presence, should be seen as a coerced mode of acceptance. 19

Now let us turn to Levinas. His approach to the questions we raised earlier, like much else in his writing, is obscure, and my deciphering of it is necessarily tentative. However, to the extent I understand him, he appears to be saying the following:

To elaborate on my earlier discussion, the inclining of the mountain over the heads of the Israelites means, for Levinas, that the moral imperative is imposed on me, that is, it originates not with me, but with the claim the Other makes on me. I am free either to accept, to ignore, or even to deny that claim. But the exercise of free will follows upon the moral imperative; it is not, contra Kant, that imperative’s source. 20 Flowing from this, the alternative “Torah or death” that God posed to the Israelites should be taken to mean not that the Torah is imposed through violence. To the contrary, the Torah is opposed to violence, and is, indeed, the only alternative to violence. That is to say, the only alternative to accepting the Torah, to accepting the claim the Other makes on me, to looking at the face of the Other in its infinity, is violence, whereby I seek to subject the Other to my control, my plans, my goals, whereby I seek forcibly to make him or her subject to my domination. In a word, the only alternative, for Levinas, to the “difficult liberty,” the stern justice, the infinite responsibility for the face of the Other demanded of us by the Torah is the violence of totality, ultimately resulting in war and death.

We are now in a position to understand what, for Levinas, was problematic about the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. Precisely because the Torah is opposed to violence, both the Torah and those who accept it are always exposed to threats of violence and death. Levinas states, “The Torah itself is exposed to danger because being in itself is nothing but violence, and nothing can be more exposed to violence than the Torah which says no to it. . . . Those who accept this Law also go from one danger to the next” (39/85). To truly accept the Torah, then, means to accept this exposure to danger, violence, and death. But at Mount Sinai this exposure was just an abstract future possibility. It is in this sense that Levinas believes the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai lacked full validity, since they lacked a full awareness of [End Page 41] what their acceptance entailed. It was only “in the days of Ahasuerus” that this abstract future possibility became a palpable, frightening reality. For the events related in the Purim story constitute the very first genocidal attempt to which the Jewish people were exposed in the course of their history. Only in the days of Ahasuerus did the Jews fully realize that to accept the Torah means that someday a Haman irritated by a Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him will seek “to destroy, to kill, and to wipe out all the Jews, young and old, children and women, in one day” (Esther 3:13). Consequently, it is only after the Jewish people’s renewed acceptance of the Torah “in the days of Ahasuerus,” when they had so narrowly escaped a genocidal attempt on their very existence, that constitutes the fully valid acceptance of the Torah. That acceptance, unlike the acceptance at Sinai, was made in full knowledge of all that acceptance would entail.

It is clear that the differing explanations of the contrast the Talmud draws between the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the acceptance of the Torah in the days of Ahasuerus offered by the Ramban, the modern Orthodox thinkers, and Levinas reflect their differing ideologies and concerns. The Ramban’s explanation reflects his well-known emphasis on the central theological and metaphysical significance of the land of Israel. The explanation offered by the modern Orthodox thinkers reflects their belief that the profound process of secularization that the modern world has undergone in recent centuries, as a result of which both the mighty manifest acts of God and, indeed, His very presence appear to be no longer available, poses not just a challenge to Jewish faith but provides it with an opportunity, inasmuch as it allows for the possibility of increased human freedom, discovery, and responsibility within a covenantal framework. Finally, Levinas’s explanation reflects his fundamental perception of the Torah as the “No” said to violence, and his deep awareness of the inevitable price to be paid by those who, upholding the Torah, say “No.”

At the same time, I would suggest that there is a common denominator in these three explanations. For all three, the significance of the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah in the days of Ahasuerus consists in the fact that they freely chose to commit themselves to observing the Torah in exilic conditions. The Ramban understands exile geographically. To be in exile means to be outside the land of Israel. The modern Orthodox approach understands exile theologically. To be in exile means that God’s providence, even when operative, is no longer readily evident. Finally, Levinas understands exile politically. To be in exile means to be exposed to the threat of genocide. It is this commitment to observe the Torah in exilic conditions that, according to all three approaches, despite their differences, lends new force and validity to Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. If this is so, we have, then, a striking convergence [End Page 42] between these three interpretations of the talmudic sugya and the scholarly interpretation of the Book of Esther suggested by Jon Levenson, who contends that the purpose of the book is specifically to affirm the ongoing validity of Judaism in exile. 21


With this we have finished our explication of Levinas’s “The Temptation of Temptation” in light of and within the context of the tradition of talmudic commentary. But, in this concluding section, I wish to go beyond explication and to build on Levinas’s approach. That is, I wish to suggest that what may follow from Levinas’s analysis, as I have reconstructed it, is that only in our time, only in our post-Holocaust age, has a fully and truly valid acceptance of the Torah become possible. For only in our age have the Jewish people become fully and truly aware of the consequences of the acceptance of the Torah. Haman “sought to destroy all the Jews” (Esther 3:6), but his genocidal attempt was foiled at the last moment. A latter-day Haman, however, some fifty years ago, did succeed in murdering one-third of the Jewish people, of our people. Precisely because it is in our time that the Torah and its bearers were exposed to violence as never before, it is also only in our time that a renewed acceptance of the Torah as the ultimate “No” to violence becomes possible.

When I broached this suggestion to my friend Professor Zev Harvey, he immediately responded that I was offering a Fackenheimian reading of Levinas. 22Perhaps. But two comments are in order. First, whereas for Fackenheim, in his famous formulation, a new 614th Commandment arose out of Auschwitz, the commandment not to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory; for Levinas, in my extension of his position, it is the original 613 Commandments that have acquired new force and validity in our post-Holocaust age. Second, it is of interest that in his recent important work on Levinas, John Llewelyn, while discussing Levinas and the Holocaust, specifically refers to Fackenheim. 23 It may then not be wholly inappropriate to link these two major Jewish thinkers of our era together.

Moreover, if in the course of this essay I have worked my way forward from Sinai to our post-Holocaust age, it is striking that Llewelyn, in the very last sentence of his book, if we translate it from the Greek to the Hebrew, works his way back from our post-Holocaust age to Sinai. Llewelyn writes:

Yet the pointless, absurd, and obscene suffering of Auschwitz calls for suffering that is not without point when philosophy as the love of theoretical wisdom calls for philosophy as the practical wisdom of compassionate love, and when the genealogy of being, becoming, and [End Page 43] morals . . . is disturbed by Levinas’ genealogy of ethics traced back through phenomenology, thought, and question to the Other’s indeclinable request. 24

A translation of this sentence from Greek to Hebrew yields the following, which may, in turn, serve as the final sentence of this essay.

Yet the pointless, absurd, and obscene suffering of Auschwitz calls for suffering that is not without point when philosophy as the love of theoretical wisdom calls for philosophy as the practical wisdom of compassionate love, that is, calls for the acceptance of the Torah “the beginning of which is deeds of loving kindness and the end of which is deeds of loving kindness,” the Torah which constitutes the ultimate “no” to violence, and when the genealogy of being, becoming, and morals . . . is disturbed by Levinas’ genealogy of ethics traced back through phenomenology, thought, and question to the Other’s indeclinable request, that is, traced back to the indeclinable request made of Israelites when Mount Sinai was inclined over their heads, that indeclinable request to which they responded, like the angels on high, “We will do and we will hear,” “nacaseh ve-nishma.” 25

McGill University 

Lawrence Kaplan is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy at McGill University, Montreal. He has recently co-edited (together with David Shatz) and contributed to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jewish Spirituality (1995).


1. For bibliographical guidance to the Lectures Talmudiques in the original French, see Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton, 1992), p. 175. The Talmudic readings in English translation may be found in the following collections of Levinas’s essays: Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Séan Hand (Baltimore, 1990); Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington, 1990); Beyond the Verse, trans. Garry D. Mole (Bloomington, 1994); and In the Time of the Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloomington, 1994).

2. See Levinas’s “Introduction,” to his Quatre Lectures Talmudiques (Paris, 1968), pp. 9-25 [= “Introduction,” Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. 4-10]

3. See Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 327-329; J. Heinemann, Aggadot ve-Toldoteihen(Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 170-174; Gerald Blidstein, “Kafah ‘Aleihem Har Ke-Gigit: Mekorot Hadashim,” Bar Ilan Annual, vol. 26-27 (1995), pp. 131-134.

4. “The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. 30-50 [= “La Tentation de la Tentation,” Quatre Lectures Talmudiques, pp. 67-109]. All page references in parentheses in the text will be given in form of (English version/French original).

5. See Annette Aronowicz, “Translator’s Introduction,” Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. xvii, xxv, and xxxi; Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas, pp. 160-162; and, in particular, the essay of Zev Harvey cited in the next note.

6. Zev Harvey, “Levinas on Temimut, Naiveté, and Am ha-Aratsut” (in Hebrew), Daat 30 (1993), pp. 13-15, especially p. 15.

7. Tosafot Shabbat 88a, s.v. “Kafah aleihem har ke-gigit.”

8. It should be noted that there is an ambiguity in the midrash, and it appears to allow for two different interpretive possibilities. The midrash might be saying that there were two chronologically distinct moments of the acceptance of the Torah; one when the Israelites freely accepted the Torah by saying “We will do and we will hear,” and another when they were constrained to accept the Torah as a result of the inclination of the mountain. Or it might be saying that there was only one moment of acceptance; that is, the Israelites said “We will do and we will hear” while standing under the mountain. To the best of my knowledge, this ambiguity has not been explicitly pointed out by any of the commentators, though each, implicitly or explicitly, adopts one of the interpretive possibilities. Tosafot and, as we will see, the Midrash Tanhuma, explicitly adopt the first possibility, while all the rest of the commentators, scholars, and thinkers treated in this article implicitly adopt the second possibility. To a certain extent this question is dependent on the chronological sequence of Scripture’s narrative of revelation, but to discuss this question fully would take us too far afield.

9Midrash Tanhuma, Noah: 3.

10. For the Midrash Tanhuma, then, it is the written Law, namely, Exodus 24:7, which informs us about the Israelites’ free acceptance of the written Law, while it is the oral Law, namely R. Abdimi’s statement in Shabbat 88a, which informs us about the Israelites’ constrained acceptance of the oral Law–a very nice example of self-referentiality.

11. See Gur Aryeh on Rashi, “Betahtit ha-har” (Exod. 19:18), s.v. “shenitlash ha-har” [= Maharal, Humash Gur Aryeh, vol. 4, edited by Y. Hartman (Jerusalem, 1991), pp. 77-85]; and Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 32.

12. It is of particular interest that the explanation of R. Abdimi offered by J. Heinemann in Aggadot ve-Toldoteihen, pp. 173-174 (above, n. 3), is almost identical with that of the Maharal, though there is no indication that Heinemann was aware of the Maharal’s explanation.

13. Heinemann, Aggadot ve-Toldoteihen, p. 173, links the statements of R. Abdimi and Resh Lakish in a manner very similar to that of the Maharal.

14. I owe this observation to Gregory Bordan.

15. Heinemann, who, as we observed in notes 12 and 13, offers an explanation of R. Abdimi very similar to that of the Maharal, is constrained (p. 174) to assume that R. Aha simply missed the metaphorical point of R. Abdimi’s remark about the inclining of the mountain and mistakenly and rather superficially took it on its literal level. Whatever may be said in favor of Heinemann’s solution, it is, needless to say, not available to a traditional commentator such as the Maharal.

16. See Hiddushei Ha-Ramban on Shabbat 88a, s.v. “ve-ha de-amrinan be-cinyan aggadah.” Note the Ramban’s stress on the aggadic nature of this sugya and the implication that it consequently does not possess any possible halakhic significance.

17. I have offered a somewhat simplified paraphrase of the remarks of the Ramban, omitting a number of complicating factors. It is worth investigating to what extent these remarks of the Ramban contradict or complement his well-known comment on Leviticus 18:25.

18. See Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way (New York, 1988), pp. 249-252; David Hartman, A Living Covenant (New York, 1985), pp. 218-219; and Michael Rosenak, Commandments and Concerns (Philadelphia, 1987), pp. 267-268. Interestingly enough, a similar approach is also to be found among leading representatives of the mussar movement. See Yitzhak Mirsky, “Purim Lo Yibatel le-cAtid la-Vo,” Hegyonei Halakhah be-cInyenei Shabbat u-Mocadim, (Jerusalem, 1989), pp. 270-273.

19. A variant of this approach, based on the Midrash Tanhuma, may be found in R. Yaakov Kaminetsky, Titein Emet Le-Yaakov (New York and Cleveland, 1991), pp. 523-527. See, as well, the penetrating observations of R. Yitzhak Hutner, Pahad Yitzhak: Purim (New York, 1986), Essay 33 (pp. 84-85); contrast with Rosenak, Commandments and Concerns, pp. 130-131; and carefully examine Shacarei Teshuvah on Shulhan cArukh: Orah Hayyim, 693:3, s.v. “Ein korin bo Hallel.” In general, it might be said that this entire approach is already adumbrated in the Tosafot, s.v. “Modacah rabbah le-oraita,” where Rabbenu Tam argues that a direct divine command (cal pi ha-dibbur) may be viewed as constraint. We should finally take note of the insightful comment of the Meshekh Hokhmah on Exodus 19:17, s.v. “Va-yityatzvu be-tahtit ha-har,” which, despite its incomplete nature, blends together this approach with that of the Maharal.

20. See Levinas, “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” The Levinas Reader, ed. Séan Hand (Oxford, 1989), p. 206.

21. Jon Levenson, “The Scroll of Esther in Ecumenical Perspective,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1976), pp. 440-452.

22. I am not entirely certain whether Professor Harvey intended his remark as a criticism or a compliment.

23. John Llewelyn, Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics (London, 1995), p. 312.

24. Llewelyn, Levinas, p. 313.

25. See the statement of R. Eleazar in the sugya: “When the Israelites committed to doing before hearing, a voice from heaven cried out: ‘Who has revealed to my children this secret the angels make use of!'” Levinas observes: “They do before hearing. It is a secret of angels which is in question here, not the consciousness of children” (45/98); that is, it is a manifestation not of naiveté, but of temimut.