“We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
attributed to Isaac B. Singer, v’ikka d’amri Albert Einstein
Ma’amad Har Sinai is often likened to a marriage, with—of all things—the kfias har ke’gigis, the uprooting of Har Sinai and its hanging over the heads of Bnei Yisrael, serving as the chupa.
(Interesting method of proposal; imagine its employment on the Upper West Side. On the other hand, if a guy claimed to move mountains and could actually back it up...)
How to explain the explain the apparent the discrepancy between a “na’aseh v’nishma” and the obvious coercion involved in the kfias ha-har? The “kabbalas haTorah” Gemara (Shabbos 88a) even notes that R’ Aha bar Yaakov called this a “moda’a gedola d’oraisa”, loosely translated as: the Jews had an escape clause!!! (Of course, they obviated said ostensible escape clause at Purim—“Kimu veKiblu”).
The Medrash (Tanchuma Noach 3) clarifies: The aspect of Torah that had yet to be accepted was that of Torah She'b'al Peh (The Oral Torah).
Why would coercion need to be employed?
Rabbi Lipman Podolsky puts it: The Written Torah is much easier -- what you see is what you get. The Oral Torah on the other hand is a living, breathing, growing Torah. One must conquer it before one can truly fathom its True understanding. Thus, the Jews at Sinai accepted the Oral Torah only out of coercion.
Contrast that with this theoretical approach, from a vehemently right-wing educator:
Rabbi Heshy Grossman: It is not obedience that we want, but inspiration. Coercion can be maintained for a limited amount of time, while our youth are still under our thumb, but, more often, it creates a negative association with deeds we are striving to have them adopt. Without care and sensitivity, the hostility we create may last a lifetime.
From my experiences with Chareidi/Yeshivish hashkafa, Rabbi Grossman’s approach is, if not counterintuitive, certainly mostly untried in more stringent circles, no matter whether for good reason or not.
I think the tension between the two elements of Kabbalas HaTorah--the "naaseh-nishma" and the k'fias ha-har can be illustrated by what I would call the difference between and “fundamentalist” approach and, for lack of a better term, a, “adult” approach.
A “fundamentalist” approach would be characterized by a) the willingness to almost blindly follow orders and b) the readiness to give up one’s decisions making power/bechira (I use that as a colloquial catch-all of sorts here) to someone/something who knew better. This would have been exemplified by a Kabbalas Torah she’bi-ktav alone.
The idea of coercion, vis-à-vis Kabbalas HaTorah, in the simplest possible terms, was G-d telling Bnei Yisrael: you don’t get to be “Bnei” forever. This is gonna involve intellectual effort, intellectual responsibility, and a lot of growing up. G-d realizes it may not happen right away—which, to my mind, is why the the threat of the k’fias ha’har is couched in the terminology “sham teheh kevuraschem”—your grave will be there, i. e. eventual, down the road, when you need to be grown-up about these things.
In contemporary terms, this plays out in the educational approach to what we might call pop culture. Contemporary pop culture is strongly predicated nowadays on the perpetual adolescence and adolentification (I made that word up) of just about everybody, the strongest examples being the early sexualization of the way-too-young and the acting-as-teenage inclinations of those ostensibly way too old for that kind of behaviorMuch of Torah is a protest against this (part of Torah’s nature as a “sustained protest” against “pagan culture”, to paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks).
(Full disclosure: as I’ve written be-ferush on my Saw You At Sinai profile, I live and breathe pop culture. I actually turned down a potential date because her profile said “Denfinitely NOT Owning a TV.” Pum fahkert. So maybe I’m as guiltier of “profiling” than the “right-wing.” So much I will be modeh my biases. But again, I digress.)
The problem is, the chinuch “Establishment”—again, I use that as a catch-all, but a relevant one—seems to have employed the perpetual infantilization of its charges as a counter-tactic. Better that they never have to make a decision. Too much of what passes for “da’as Torah” and “emunas chachamim” nowadays falls into this category…and that’s when those concepts are actually textually and intellectually SALIENT. (And this is in “adult” education; never mind schools.)
The message of the k’fias ha-har is that infantilzing your charges is NEVER the answer. It might actually be a “chukkas ha-goy”: witness the “bibliolatry” (Yeshayahu Liebowitz’ term) of the "Biblical Inerrancy" of Christian right and Don't-Flush-Me Koraniacs. (Another reason for the frum to be wary of alliances woth doctrinaire conservative. But that’s another discussion.)
(As are issues surrounding daas Torah/emunas chachamim: believe me. I WILL get to that. Sooner than you might like. But not this week.)
I don't know what a more succesful "adult" approach to chinuch is, or would be.
But I'm not a mechanech.