The Covenant Reaffirmed
The Torah as the content of God’s covenant with Israel appears to have been forced upon the people, at least during the prophetic career of Moses. The very first words of the Decalogue are: “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out [hots’etikha] of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). God chooses Israel in the covenant, and that choice is totally free— from God’s side, that is. God no more had to choose Israel than God had to create the world.1 But did Israel have any real choice in responding to that covenantal election? Could Israel have stayed in Egypt instead? If not, how has Israel experienced the covenantal obligation as spelled out in its acceptance of the Torah in general and in its specific commandments? Did Israel really accept the Torah or was the Torah, in effect, accepted for Israel without its full consent? Were there any real alternatives? Is the Torah merely necessary, that is, when directly enforced, or is it a desideratum that the people would have surely chosen to accept for themselves despite there being real alternatives?
Answers to these questions must be sought if moral claims based on the covenant are to be cogently made, whether to Jews among themselves or to the outside world. It is hard, if not impossible, to persuade others to freely accept what one did not accept freely but only under duress. Of course, these sound like questions modern liberals might ask. Nevertheless, traditionalists cannot dismiss these questions as stemming from modern rejections of the tradition, since they have been asked, even since ancient times, by the most revered, authoritative personalities in the history of Judaism. They have been asked both by the prophets and the Rabbis. Thus they cannot be dismissed as heretical.
The first one to explicitly question whether Israel freely entered the Sinaitic covenant was the prophet Jeremiah. Thus when speaking of a new or renewed covenant (berit hadashah—Jeremiah 31:30), Jeremiah says it is “not like the covenant I made with our ancestors on the day I forced them [heheziqi be-yadam] to be taken out of the land of Egypt,
1 See Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, trans. M. Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 298–99.