A famous, often-quoted midrash depicts the Giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The midrash has God holding a mountain in his fist, and the Israelites are assembled beneath it. God asks them if they would like to get this Torah: If yes, He would keep on holding the mountain, if not, He would just let it tumble down.
According to this midrash, God obviously didn’t bother whether or not His children wanted to receive His commandments. Whether or not they “like” them, whether or not they can make sense of them – God really could not have been interested less. For the Israelites at Mount Sinai, there was no process of intellectual understanding, let alone choosing, but a flash of force, and no way back.
To be forced to do something (or not to do something) is, according to our modern intuition, a negative thing. We value deeds, when they are the result of a conscious, well-informed, reasoned choice, when they are a result of our freedom, and hence, an authentic expression of our innermost selves. A deed, which was “forced” upon you, has no such value; it is, at best, a superficial performance, but does not express any intrinsic “truth.” If you do something without understanding it, possibly without even wanting it, you will sooner or later “free” yourself from it: Such deed being no more than an empty vessel, a letter without spirit, is doomed to fade into oblivion.
I remember the morning after my wedding: I had to leave the house, and figured that I was expected to wrap my hair with some kind of scarf. Not that I’ve not thought about this before – yet, as long as matters remained abstract, as long as one is not really there, in that particular situation, the feeling is difficult to imagine: I was expected, from now on, no matter what, to wander around in public with my hair covered. It didn’t make sense to me at all: Why should all out of a sudden my hair be “nakedness”? Why should belief be related to my head looking like a potato wrapped in an unidentifiable pile of textiles? And why should women suffer yet another intrusion into their bodily autonomy? I do not let any fashion-magazine tell me that I should diet, so why should I let (male) religious authorities tell me what to put on my head? The only, really the only reason I covered my hair nonetheless was some dull sense of an obligation: I was a new religious Jew, and this is what was expected of me to do. Could I have rebelled against this? Yes I could. But I didn’t.
After a year of obligatory wrapping, we moved from Jerusalem to Berlin. I initially anticipated this move as a step into freedom: In contrast to Jerusalem, in Berlin no one would care for my head-covering and bestow religious significance to its presence or absence. At best, it would pass as some weird fashion-statement or hippie-thing. Whatever I would choose to do in Berlin, I thought, it would be my own free choice.
I simply continued: The wrap still looked awful, but it somehow, clandestinely, had sneaked into my self-image. Sometimes, as if to prove to myself that I was free, I took it off. But then, something was strangely missing, and it didn’t feel the right thing to do. Somehow, the way I saw myself in public now included some textile tossed on top of my head. I still argued that covering one’s hair does not have the same religious importance as the observance of the Shabbat – yet nonetheless, covering, at this point, gained more and more subjective importance: With a very active baby in the house, wrapping became one of the few daily “Jewish” things I would do. Other positive commandments got a little pale, but wrapping remained, possibly because it is such an exterior, visible marker – though now, it was no more a marker I carried so as to be recognized by others.
Going along with this, I also tried to make it look better (no, this is not a footnote): Our local department store’s “tichel-section” won me as its new faithful customer, and I acquired more colors and patterns, poufs, anti-slip headbands, experimented with a “half-wrap,” and had all kinds of hair-cuts. When trying to find a wrap-style that would look “ok” on me, and actively engaging this commandment, I also started to own it: I became its “managing director,” it became a tool I could use, maybe a little similar to the process of slowly internalizing a foreign language, and eventually mastering it, so that the sentences flow out without effort.
Today I’d not take off my wrap voluntarily – yet, I would have never ever come to this place had I rejected the idea of an “obligation” in the first place.
Did the mountain vanish? In a way, the mountain is still there: The obligatory nature of the commandments remains. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, if I “like” them, let alone understand them. But the mountain is no threat any longer: The subjugation to a commandment is the basis, upon which I can form an identity, and act in the world. It is because I do partake in this mitzvah, that I own it, and because I own it, I can also criticize certain aspects of it, and possibly, even make sense of it. It is mine. It is the place from which I can watch and interpret the world: A place that is not universal, but particular; a place that is not the end, but the very means (or: the tool?) through which I can be.