While living in Jerusalem and in the midst of a conversion process to Judaism, I was invited to a wedding put on by my “host family,” a Haredi family. The bride’s sister told me that, “in the generation of her parents, a bride and a groom would not see each other for one week prior to the wedding, but the generations get stricter, thank God (ha’dorot mitchazkim, baruch ha’Shem), so we separate two weeks prior to the wedding.” I was puzzled. I had somehow assumed “the generations” do not strive consciously, willingly, for more stringency, a stringency not even mandated by halakha. Years later, back in Berlin, a friend of mine confronted me with the same sense of bewilderment. She could not understand, she said, how I could submit to the stringencies of Jewish law, how I could “choose water when I could have champagne.” Unable to articulate a compelling answer, I have been haunted by her question ever since: how to frame agency as something other than “resistance to” or “freedom from.” I will explore an answer from threads by anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Webb Keane, scholar of religion Mara Benjamin, and my own reading of a passage in the Talmud. Each thread circles around the process of self-formation in obligation, boundedness, and materiality and I hope to weave them into conversation.
The late Saba Mahmood fundamentally challenged a conceptualization of agency that is normative within the framework of secular-liberal politics: that of the “sovereign self.” In a pivotal 2001 article, Mahmood writes:
If the desire for freedom and/or subversion of norms is not an innate desire that motivates all beings at all times, regardless of their pursuits, projects, cultural and historical conditions, but is profoundly mediated by other capacities and desires, then the question arises how do we analyze operations of power that construct different kinds of desires, capacities and virtues that are historically and culturally specific, and whose trajectory does not follow the entelechy of liberatory politics? (…) Viewed in this way, what may appear to be a case of deplorably passivity and docility from a progressivist point of view, may well be a form of agency – one that must be understood in the context of the discourses and structures of subordination that create the conditions of its enactment. In this sense, agentival capacity is entailed not only in those acts, that result in (progressive) change, but also in those that aim toward continuity, stasis, and stability.
Mahmood untethers the concept of agency “from the goals of progressive politics,” neither employing the notion of “false consciousness” nor seeking to uncover how her subjects subtly (or subconsciously) use the tools of their oppression for liberatory ends.
The concept of agency that Mahmood challenges is both historically and ideologically tied to Enlightenment humanism and usually traced to the Paulinic critique of what became rabbinic Judaism: an “idolatry” of “dead letters” (the law), to be overcome through disembodied, interiorized belief (“the spirit of the law”), in which the boundaries of social, ethnic, historical, or gendered situatedness are presumably neutralized. In other words, the “sovereign self” — individualized, freed from bondage — is premised on a dichotomy that organizes freedom, truth, and belief on one side and law, coercion, and materiality on the other, ever striving to detach the latter from the former. All that constrains the individual self (including ethnicity, as the foundation of collectivity) becomes a problem to be solved rather than a condition to be affirmed.
And “solving” this problem is not politically innocent, built upon a neutral description of the world. There is a “moral narrative of modernity,” as Webb Keane puts it, in which
progress is not only a matter of technological mastery, economic organization, scientific knowledge, bureaucratic rationalization, democracy or totalitarianism, or environmental disaster. It is a story about human emancipation and self-mastery…If, in the past, humans were in thrall to illegitimate rulers such as kings, rigid traditions such as those given in scriptures, and unreal fetishes such as their religious rituals and relics, as they become modern they realize the true character of human agency. According to this moral narrative, modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishism that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns. (emphasis mine)
Saba Mahmood names this moral narrative as secularity, a particular set of concepts, norms, sensitivities, and dispositions that the modern subject embodies and enacts. Someone becomes “modern” when he coheres to a set of expectations through which he realizes his (or more pressing: her) agency. A subject with agency resists norms determined by history, genealogy, tradition, etc., instead giving life to their true, authentic, inner self. They do not actualize desires that conform with norms and do not aim at ethical self-formation in accordance with a normative order and its material conditions.
The giving of the Torah was a moment of spectacle:
On the third day, when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and an exceedingly loud voice of a horn; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the bottom of [b’tachtit] the mountain. (Shemot 19:16-17)
A midrash brought in Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud interprets the literal meaning of the word b’tachtit, or “beneath”:
And they stood at the bottom of the mountain. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, covered them with the mountain like an [overturned] barrel. And He said to them, If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, here will be your burial. (bShabbat 88a)
Held above the b’nei Yisrael, the mountain is compared to “a barrel.” Why a barrel? A barrel is hollow; a mountain is not. The vast commentary tradition on this passage does not directly problematize the figure of the barrel, instead addressing the b’nei Yisrael’s state of mind “beneath the barrel.” For example, the Meshech Chochmah (R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843–1926) writes:
And they stood at the bottom of the mountain. This teaches that [God] covered them with the mountain like an [overturned] barrel, which means that He showed them the glory of God in revealed and wonderful ways, until their natural ability to choose was actually nullified, and their souls departed due to the apprehension of the glory of God; and they were compelled, like angels who have no ability to discern; and they saw that all creations depended totally on the acceptance of the Torah.
I suggest to imagine the b’nei Yisrael beneath the barrel alongside another kind of “barrel”:
Rabbi Samlai taught: To what can one compare a fetus in its mother’s womb? To a folded notebook. And it [the fetus] rests its hands on its two sides of its head, its two arms on its two knees, and its two heels on its two buttocks, and its head rests between its knees, and its mouth is closed, and its navel is open. And it eats from what its mother eats, and it drinks from what its mother drinks, and it does not emit excrement lest it kill its mother…And a candle is lit for it above its head, and it gazes from one end of the world to the other…And do not wonder how one can see from one end of the world to the other, as a person can sleep here [in Palestine] and have a dream that takes place in Spain…And a fetus is taught the entire Torah [while in the womb]… (bNiddah 30b)
Hidden in an enclosed, protected space, a fetus is one with its mother. Halakhically, a fetus is considered its mother’s thigh “ubar yerekh imo” (bGittin 23b) — a teaching that has widespread ramifications in Jewish law, from conversion to abortion. A fetus does not know of any existence outside its space: the womb is its entire galaxy. It cannot choose for itself: “And it eats from what its mother eats, and it drinks from what its mother drinks.” The mountain was like such a barrel — in other words, a womb — because beneath it, b’nei Yisrael were one with Sinai, infused and wrapped up in the revelation of God’s glory. In this closed space, they were overwhelmed, unable to discern, without will and desire, angel-like, as the Meshech Chochmah explained, and without knowledge of a sphere beyond Sinai. As if inside a womb, b’nei Yisrael were bound by an unfiltered, immediate connection to the source that nurtures them. Stuck in a tiny, cramped space, warm, full of blood, fluids, voices, noises and smells, thunder and lightning, gazing from one end of the world to the other – b’nei Yisrael were “coerced” in the same sense that a fetus in a womb is: that is, they lacked personal sovereignty.
Mara Benjamin, in The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (2018), invites us to read obligatedness through the lenses of everyday maternal care. In an ethnographic section of the book, she recounts her time after becoming a mother, which I will quote at length:
In the early days and months of first having a baby, the raw, immediate assault on my freedom — a freedom I had not even known I had previously enjoyed — struck me with overwhelming force. No sooner had this baby, this stranger, appeared than she had a claim on me. I was now responsible for addressing her needs and wishes, for seeking out the meaning of her unfamiliar body and its often cryptic language.
The obligation, the ought, was so powerful in those early days that it, more than delight, often took center stage in my psyche. Indeed, I longed for the simple fact of the love I felt for her to lighten the load. It did not…the obligation to take care of the young creature preoccupied me to the exclusion of other emotions. I felt the terror of my power, of my vast and direct responsibility for this baby’s well-being. I was weighed down by the sheer inescapability of her.
My obligation was, on the most literal level, to locate myself in proximity to her and to do things for her, night and day. Her body demanded compliance. No longer was the usual calendar of night and day useful; a physically depleting cycle of half-wakefulness and short interrupted portions of sleep became routine…It no longer made sense to get myself ready for bed when I knew that just a short while later I would be up again. Again and again I found cold cups of tea scattered in every room, each time remembering what I had been doing when I had planned to sit down with a hot drink…
I could no longer unthinkingly walk out of the door with little but my own necessities, wearing my freedom lightly. I now noticed, savored, and sometimes maniacally sought out this temporary freedom when I left the baby with my partner or the babysitter. But ironically, although I longed for the unencumbered buoyancy of my previous freedom, that freedom was irretrievable: when I felt the house alone, my giddiness mingled inextricably with a sense of escape. Even when I was by myself, I could no longer feel truly solitary. My temporary lightness was utterly unlike what I had experienced before having a child.
These shifts in my relationship to time, the material world, and my own autonomy comprised the becoming of an obligated self, a self radically bound up with someone else. In my child I recognized the one person from whom, I felt, I could not walk away… (my emphasis)
To be an obligated self was to be subject to the law of another: the Law of the Baby. The law could not be fulfilled in abstract, but only in active, embodied, material actions: soothing, feeding, cleaning, comforting, distracting, smiling and wiping. It became the law of the crying toddler who sought out not just any, but specifically our (or my), comfort…The Law of the Baby was not the Law of Any Baby but rather the Law of This Baby. This Baby had to be woken up throughout the night to eat because she was born small. This Baby responded with great interest to one particular plush toy. This Baby’s imperative was to hold her at a certain angle so she would fall asleep for a nap. The next day, the next week, This Baby no longer responded to that position or that toy…The Law of this Baby in Particular is continually shifting, and so her law is continually eluded and rediscovered. Only care for the baby, day in and day out, attunes a parent to the subtleties of this shifting ground.
The force of the Law of Another was greater than anything I could have anticipated or to which I could have assented. I had never explicitly agreed to be subject to it, although as an adult who was compos mentis, clearly I had some idea what I was getting into: I had pursued having a child…Nonetheless, I could not agree to the law before I was already subject to it. And once in place, I could only violate the law through inattention or frustration; I could not cast it off. I transgressed the law as often as I fulfilled it, leaving my crying baby or comfort seeking toddler to calm herself when I could not bring myself to respond. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that there was a law, and the law applied to me by virtue of being my child’s parent.
If we read the giving of the Torah on Sinai as entangled with the halakhic conception of gestation and childbirth, that is, the birth of an “obligated self” on the collective and individual level, then Mara Benjamin shows that not only children but also mothers are born into a world in which they are always already obligated. Benjamin reads the birth of a self determined by obligation through her own experience as a mother taking care of her newborn child: she lets her power as “lawgiver” correspond to that of the lawgiving God but also becomes a paradigmatic obligated self whose agency arises from her boundedness to the “Law of Another,” corresponding to the b’nei Yisrael at Sinai.
Akin to the labor of the commandments, labor for a child — such as to feed this baby, to wake up at this hour, to pick up this toy — is an obligation that cannot be performed or re-interpreted as an exclusively mental, disembodied task. This obligation, moreover, exists regardless of any obvious logic; the “why,” or ta’amei ha’mitzvot, so to speak, are often indecipherable. The obligation exists regardless of the benefit or meaning of the act and is utterly independent of a mother’s individual consent or desire. It is a mandatory body practice, restricting the self, inscribing itself into the self through everyday work, repetition, and intuitive action; the “Law of Another,” the child, becomes part of her self, a self formed by obligation. The time before boundedness is utterly unlike the time after: even a temporary phase of “not being responsible” does not bring her back to what she was before birth; she remains bound. Just as the b’nei Yisrael — from the moment of collective and individual birth onward — can no longer be born as something else.
Once it [the fetus] emerges into the airspace of the world, the closed [i.e. the mouth] opens, and the open [i.e. the navel] closes, as otherwise it cannot live for even one moment…[And] an angel comes and slaps it on its mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah… (bNiddah 30b)
Rava said: Even so [that the Jewish people were coerced into accepting the Torah at Sinai], they again accepted it in the days of Achashverosh, as it is written: The Jews fulfilled and received (Esther 9:27) — they fulfilled what they had already received. (bShabbat 88a)
Rava does not refute that Sinai was a moment without choice, but he adds that when b’nei Yisrael were no longer covered by a barrel — in the days of Achashverosh, a long time after Sinai — Israel freely confirms its earlier, coerced acceptance of the Torah. The reference to the days of Achashverosh is puzzling. The verse “the Jews fulfilled and received” does not — at the level of pshat, or straightforward meaning — relate to Sinai but to the obligation to celebrate Purim. Furthermore, the days of Ahashverosh were the precise opposite of Sinai: they are the days of a non-Jewish king, recorded in a scroll in which God’s name is absent and His actions entirely concealed. Sinai, with its unmediated experience of revelation, is far away in time, space, and logic.
Yet it is precisely these days, in which one can no longer receive the Torah as an unfiltered experience but must accept and confirm by choice, that serve as the necessary complement to Sinai. When emerging into the airspace of the world, when the barrel is lifted from over their heads, the immediate, unfiltered connection to Sinai is severed. Their open limbs close, they no longer “eat what their mothers eat, drink what their mothers drink,” and they forget the entire Torah, becoming independent beings, desiring and willing, no longer a limb of their mother but capable to act, will, desire, choose and, therewith, be rewarded and punished.
Indeed, in the continuation of the midrash in Tractate Shabbat (bShabbat 89a), the b’nei Yisrael are depicted as receiving the Torah precisely because they eventually cease to be “angel-like” (as the Meshech Chochmah puts it), becoming instead embodied, desiring beings. In the midrash, the angels envy b’nei Yisrael for receiving the Torah, arguing that the Torah should not have been given to “flesh and blood,” to “someone born of woman.” Thereupon, God demands Moses defend God’s decision, and Moses does so by referring to various verses entailing embodiment:
‘I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt’ (Shemot 20:2). He [Moses] said [to the angels]: Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?…’You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Shemot 20:3). Do you dwell among the nations who worship idols that you require this special warning? ‘Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it’ (Shemot 20:8)…Do you perform labor that you require rest from it?…’Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Shemot 20:7). Do you conduct business with one another that may lead you to swear falsely?…’Honor your father and your mother’ (Shemot 20:12). Do you have a father or a mother that would render the commandment to honor them relevant to you? ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal’ (Shemot 20:13) Is there jealousy among you, or is there an evil inclination within you that would render these commandments relevant?
We can thus read the midrash on the “birth” of b’nei Yisrael at Sinai as entangled with the midrash on the life and birth of a fetus. Both b’nei Yisrael and the (Jewish) child enter the world always already obligated; their obligatedness precedes individual consent: it is pre-verbal and endures forever. They can transgress but not abrogate their obligatedness, and can never return to Sinai/their mother’s womb. And both, too, are tasked with the labor of forming “agentival capacity” that aims toward “continuity, stasis, and stability” (to use Mahmood’s terms again), the task of embodying and (self-)educating within a discursive tradition; that is, as Talal Asad explains, a tradition that’s not merely a “verbal process,” but “also and primarily an implicit continuity embodied in habit, feeling, and behavior that one acquires as a member of a shared way of life that is translated from one time to another.”
Both the midrash, which zooms into the “birth” of b’nei Yisrael at Sinai, and the practice of child-care challenge a conception of sovereign agency as it has become hegemonic in liberal-secular orders. In the midrash on Sinai, and in care-taking for a child, boundedness precedes and determines agency; or, as put by Mara Benjamin, the difference between the “Law of Another” and that of the self is blurred (just as during pregnancy, the difference between the body of another and that of the self is blurred). The self formed as bounded to another body and another’s law is incompatible with the notion of the true, free, godly self divorced from a fleshy body.
The capability to “overcome” one’s body when it is sick, hungry, or freezing is distributed unequally, and it is precisely that unequal distribution that underwrites contemporary forms of governance. As David Fredrick asserts, “The complex act of forcing people to live close to their bodies by denying them food, shelter, or medical care, by restricting or compelling their labor, by restricting their access to knowledge, by terrorizing them through physical or sexual assault, remains central to how the spaces of contemporary power — be they houses, cities or transnational economies — are organized.” And so, rather than striving to liberate everyone from the body and the condition of boundedness, rabbinic and maternal agencies and subjectivities may compel us to place precisely the labor of life — the unavoidably relational, bounded, embodied quality of humans’ lifeworlds, and the work of care that sustains these worlds — into the center of contemporary power.
The acknowledgment of agency in acts, desires, and aspirations that do not align with one’s own is part of this story. Yet, more substantially, this acknowledgement, I think, would entail an abandonment of the aspiration to sovereign agency, that is, the aspiration not to experience life among others as a source of vulnerability, as a site of possible alienation and self loss.