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Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 8/9

Toward a Theory of Covenant for Contemporary Jews
By S. Daniel Breslauer

Fact, Theory, and Covenant

In the middle of the twelfth century Judah Halevi (1085-1141 C.E.) wrote an impassioned defense of Judaism, "a despised faith," The Kuzari. Unlike Jewish thinkers who preceded or followed him, for example Saadia of Fayyumi and Moses Maimonides, Halevi turned not to philosophical theory but to experience as the foundation of his argument. His book sets up a debate in which the king of the Khazars seeks to discover which religion to follow. After interviewing a philosopher, Muslim, and Christian, the king turns to a rabbi who explains Judaism. The rabbi surprises the king by referring neither to doctrine or belief but to the history of the Jewish people.

The experience of the Jews, Halevi suggests, particularly that of the revelation given at Mount Sinai, verifies Jewish religious claims. Since a large group of people witnessed God entering into a covenant with Jews, he argues, one cannot doubt the veracity of the event described. For Halevi the truth of the Jews' covenant with the divine is factual: Biblical testimony provides evidence of God's miraculous interaction in history. This witness testifies to the truth of the Jewish legal code and its claim to divine sanction. A covenant between a God whose factual deeds in history and a people whose factual experience the Bible describes is validated by the facts of covenant law transmitted across the centuries.

But many contemporary Jews doubt not only the facticity of Halevi's examples but also its theoretical underpinning. This skepticism stems from more than just the technological and scientific changes evident in contemporary life. An altered consciousness, rather than new facts underlies the doubts many Jews entertain about the possibility of an active divinity who assigns duties to a chosen people. These doubters do more than point to realities such as a global consciousness, the existence of the internet, or even historical events such as the Holocaust or the restoration of an independent Israel. They reject an appeal to "fact" as convincing evidence. Their modern--or even postmodern--point of view suggests that human understanding depends not on "facts"--which always come to us through unreliable sense data and equally suspect intellectual constructs--but on the persuasiveness of hypotheses that, at least for a certain time, give meaning to facts.

Because the theory of covenant that Halevi supports seems inadequate to the experience of these contemporary Jews, they seek a new way of comprehending facts, to design a covenant that honors a past precedent and adapts to modern experience and sensibility, both plausible and useful in an ambiguous world. A persuasive theory would enable many modern Jews to affirm covenant and maintain their universalism, globalism, and transformed historical consciousness.

The concept of "covenant" is often misunderstood. It covers a complex and diverse content.[1] Some modern Jews feel that covenant is no longer a viable hypothesis. Rabbi Steven L. Jacobs reflects on the Holocaust and its survivors and decides that covenantal theology is untenable. Although once a "source of strength and inspiration," he comments, a covenant between God and the Jews "is now nonexistent, whether or not it has ever been existent."[2] Many contemporary Jews, however, do not agree. Even if they may be described as "children of the halfway covenant," they still try to rehabilitate the idea for Jews today.[3] Several Jewish thinkers have devised proposed solutions including Leo Baeck (1873-1928), Martin Buber (1878-1965), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), Abraham Joshua Heschel (1905-1972), Eugene Borowitz (b. 1924), Arthur A. Cohen (1928-1986), and David Hartman (b. 1931). Drawing on the these thinkers makes it possible to move beyond seeking a "factual" basis for covenant.

Halevi assumed an active divinity as he developed his idea of covenant based on a factual revelation that transmitted a legal corpus binding upon Jews. Many modern Jews seek a hypothesis and a different idea of divinity that make sense out of the varied tasks they see when asserting a Jewish identity--tasks that may include selective rather than absolute halakhic observance. Finally, Halevi assumes a factual "Jewish people," a static identity of Jewish belonging. But many modern Jews seek an identity that allows them to include a variety of others different from themselves. Moving from fact to a theory of covenant will integrate views of the divine, Jewish law, and Jewish identity into a means by which Jews today can comprehend the experiences they encounter. What follows is offered as one possibility of how covenant might be a useful hypothesis or theory by which some modern Jews may understand themselves. This discussion draws heavily on the approaches of Martin Buber, Maurice Friedman, and David Hartman.

Martin Buber's Philosophy of "I and Thou" and a Covenantal Divinity

A modern theory of covenant might begin by reconsidering the term "God." The traditional view of Jewish covenant assumes monotheism--the God of the covenant - must be accessible to all humanity, not just to Jews. A modern theory would move from this assertion to the discovery of a common human experience that leads people beyond ordinary sensibilities. Martin Buber offers an intriguingly modern understanding of such a view of divinity in his classic study I and Thou.[4] Buber identifies God as the third partner in every human relationship, as the Eternal Thou underlying all human meetings. When people manipulate things around them they create a dualistic reality of subject and object. While necessary, this type of "I-It" relationship remains stagnant and sterile. In contrast, Buber points to a condition of unmediated relationship in which participants share a single and reciprocal reality. This meeting dissolves the distinction between "subject" and "object" without removing the individuality.

Wondering at the possibility of such "I-Thou" meetings, Buber finds the divine as the foundation and active element. "Extended," he writes, "the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You. Every single You is a glimpse of that, The mediatorship of the You of all beings accounts for the fullness of our relationships to them."[5] In other words, God appears when people truly meet others. Calling God "the Eternal Thou" may seem strange and awkward but identifying the divine with a dimension in ordinary life may be an extraordinary strategy.

Buber admits that different people have addressed God by different names. He claims, however, that these names should not obscure the reality that makes possible encounters that go beyond manipulation. The constant presence of the divine testifies to the on-going potential for true meeting. This view of divinity suggests a theory of covenant in which the divine establishes the groundwork for all that follows. Covenant awareness begins in the wonder and surprise of human experiences that transcend manipulation and self-interest.

The term "God" here points to a natural rather than "supernatural" aspect of the world. While this naturalistic approach might seem to break down resistance to the idea of the divine, Buber acknowledges that humans often avoid recognizing this reality. He suggests that people are uncomfortable giving up their control of objects. The subject/object distinction allows us to manipulate things, a power without which we feel vulnerable and weak. Buber claims that we "encase" ourselves in an armor so as to avoid recognizing I-Thou living. We refuse to respond to the address that others make to us and choose not to allow ourselves to step beyond manipulation into relationship.[6]

This reluctance to admit the risks of relationship explains modern skepticism about the divine. Buber suggests that religions themselves have often obscured the true nature of divinity because they reach for power and stability. The "impulse to control the power beyond" has, he claims, threatened the true understanding of the divine. Because people distrust risking the security they get from manipulating things, they refuse to admit the reality of the divine as a means of making relationships and meeting with others. The so-called "death of God" is really, Buber explains, a failure of the human imagination. People cannot admit that others exist independently of themselves and that one may encounter them in an open and responsive way.[7]

To escape this possibility, people posit a distant and static divinity, rather than a living reality with whom they participate in meetings with real others. They construct a God who is no longer covenantally active but is a philosophic theory.[8] Thinking of God that way introduces a shadow, a false image, that obscures God's true presence. They forget that God's presence "is not to be proved; it is only to be experienced." This eclipse of God occurs from the fear of losing control and the desire for power.

A theory of covenant would see in Buber's view of the divine both a recognition of reality and a call to duty. Accepting covenant, human beings must learn to acknowledge their potential for unmediated meeting as well as for manipulation of the world. People living under covenant must admit the possibility of allowing themselves the luxury of becoming vulnerable and exposed to others. Acknowledging the God of the covenant means looking at natural possibilities in a more flexible and responsive way. The obstacle to believing in the divine is less disbelief in the supernatural than it is a protective move to maintain the distinction between ourselves and the objects within our purview.

The key to regaining a sense of God's presence is, Buber thinks, regaining our self-understanding. When we learn how to open ourselves to others, to trust our varied possibilities, and see beyond the need for self-protection, then we can recognize the divine. Education should aim not at reminding people about the deity but restoring a purified self-image. A new view of human potential will bring in its wake a vision of the divinity: "The educator who helps to bring man back to his own unity will help to put him again face to face with God."[9] Covenantal responsibility begins with self-acceptance.

How does such a view help Jews understand themselves in the modern world? It offers a way to go beyond an often acrimonious division between the natural and the supernatural. Is the biblical story of God's creation of the world a useful tale for modern people? Buber contends that taking the story of creation as a literal scientific tale trivializes it and is a "hopeless failure." Harmonizing the Bible with the views of natural science cannot solve any problem. Instead one must take the story as a "stammering account" that opens us to the fact that the natural world speaks to us with an "unsayable" language.[10] Creation suggests the unity between what we call the realm of nature and the realm of spirit. The God of the covenant is neither identifiable with the laws of natural science nor with a spirit that transcends them.[11]

Affirming creation as a divine event means claiming that both the theory of evolution and the evocative poetry of the biblical narratives remind us of what it means to be human. Being human means having the courage to face risk giving up control and opening ourselves to the world. A theory of covenant, therefore, may enable people to make sense of their encounters with reality.

Covenant Regulations: Renewing Belief in Torah

Buber's God of the covenant reveals a presence but does not legislate a divine code of law. Buber remarks that revelation never takes the form of law: "It is only through man in his self-contradiction that revelation becomes legislation."[12] Buber, therefore, turned away from traditional Jewish practice during his own life.[13] Maurice Friedman, who had learned the importance of Jewish practice and Torah as covenantal commandment from the theologian and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel. Friedman found himself pulled between Heschel's demands, on the one hand, and Buber's example on the other.[14]

Friedman may have learned to accept Heschel's contention that commandment is the basic category of Jewish life. Building a life of mitzvah, actions shared with the divine that exemplify God's revelation, create that unity of purpose Heschel identifies with the Jewish ideal.[15] A Judaism without commandment and mitzvah is a covenant without content. A theory of covenant should explain why Jews feel compelled to look backwards toward Jewish legal precedent and why many modern Jews feel uneasy with that precedent.

The content of covenant--its specific demands on those who accept it-- often seems problematic. Many modern Jews assert their independence and autonomy, and often reject aspects of Jewish law that seem unethical or inappropriate. A significant consensus also contends that traditional approaches to women require changes and remedies are needed to overcome certain situations that keep women at a disadvantage. Other concerns, such as questions about the dietary laws, seem more trivial. Some questions, such as the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality as a valid expression of Jewish eroticism, divide Jews within both traditional and non-traditional groups. In such a situation a dynamic rather than dogmatic approach to mitzvah seems called for. A modern theory of covenant should help Jews bring this into perspective.

The Reform Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz has identified a dynamic process and has championed it as a type of "covenant theology."[16] Borowitz reaches his decisions by listening to the demands of the divine, reading classic Jewish texts, and his understanding of Jewish community. Borowitz admits that his decisions do not show either a "rational" or "Jewish" consistency, but they express a "coherent way" for him to live as a Jew under God's covenant.[17]

Borowitz does not make traditionally Orthodox Jews happy or satisfy the liberal needs of Jews seeking complete autonomy. He does, however, point to a way that modern Jews can reconcile their desire for Jewish authenticity with their sense of personal responsibility. Borowitz declares that each generation of Jews bears the responsibility of ensuring that the "acts through which the covenant is lived are appropriate to that generation's situation."[18]

A theory of covenant that follows would see a way to make sense of both demands from the past and from the present. Covenant begins by giving meaning to a person's sense of wonder at human relationships. It continues by authenticating both the desire to remain within a traditional framework and those experiences that demand moving beyond tradition.

This does not mean accepting every decision Borowitz makes. As an example, one may disagree with his rejection of homosexuality as a legitimate expression of Jewish sexuality. He defends his views on sexual morality as a means of ensuring respect for and cultivation of human dignity. In the specific case of homosexual intercourse, he follows what he finds a persuasive consensus in the tradition. He describes his decision as a "historical" judgment (rather than a "normative determination") based on the rabbinic tradition.[19]

A covenantal approach to Jewish sexuality can, despite Borowitz, validate a faithful and committed homosexual relationship. Traditional texts that apparently construe homosexual actions as sinful can be balanced by alternative views. Leviticus 18:22 bristles with linguistic peculiarities and obscurities. More recently, even Orthodox rabbis have given sympathetic statements concerning homosexuals and their variety of behavioral options.

The consensus of the past can be tempered by the recognition of the essential nature of one's sexual orientation. More often than not homosexuality is not a "choice" but a destiny. A theory of covenantal duty that would require personal self-betrayal seems demonic rather than divine. Recognizing that God assigns each person a specific task in the world enables even fully traditional Jews to come to terms with their sexual orientation.

Covenant, then, is a theory that legitimates the process of growth and development that many modern Jews find central. Jewish law is called halakha--the way of going. This suggests that process rather than conclusion is most important. Fidelity to a Judaic framework offers a means of maintaining tradition while disputing inherited regulations, understanding impulses that lead both to acceptance and rejection of the past.

Reconstructing Jewish Community: The Plight of Klal Yisrael

Borowitz appeals to Orthodox Jews on the grounds of a common covenantal concern. One Orthodox Jew, David Hartman, seems a kindred soul who advocates a Jewish religiousness based on "conviction, knowledge, and choice" and affirms the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews.[20] While Borowitz and Hartman agree on most of what God wants of his people, they have differences, reinforcing the importance of choice in the process of determining Jewish law.[21] Hartman suggests three stages in that process--fulfilling God's Torah (learning through doing), interpreting the Torah (because God's commandments often require study to be understood), and taking responsibility for history (since historical encounters also indicate the divine expectations of the Jewish people).[22] This dynamic approach to understanding Jewish duty also involves a theory of Jewish identity.

A modern view of membership in a covenant community must contend with the uncertainty and diversity associated with Jewish identity. Perhaps the most dramatic challenge to constructing a modern theory of covenant comes from the creation of a modern Jewish commonwealth, the State of Israel. Many Zionists originally equated being a Jew with supporting Jewish independence, denying the validity of life outside of Israel. Many non-Zionists resisted that identification of Judaism and nationalism. Even now the distinction between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora often threatens to undermine Jewish unity. Within the State of Israel itself divisions are clearly manifest between immigrant groups, among native Israelis who disagree on political policies, and between traditionally observant Jews and secular Jews. Hartman discusses these issues and puts them in a covenantal context. The events of Israel's history since 1948, he contends, move Jewish living from an exclusive concern with prayer and study to a consciousness that covenant obligation includes political action that opens membership in the community to include both Jews and non-Jews of many types.[23]

Hartman embraces secular Jews and Jewish expressions that developed in the Diaspora, the far-flung places to which the Jewish people have been exiled. He generalizes this approach as one that springs from Zionism and its appeal to Jews of many different types. While Jewish continuity depends on particularistic practices, its vitality draws on welcoming diversity. Hartman affirms that particularism is "inseparable from commitment to a pluralistic universe of cultures and traditions." The Jewish return into history and politics demands a pluralism that supports and sustains Jewish particularity.[24]

Hartman views diversity within the State of Israel as a test of that combination. He reflects on how rabbinic authorities in Israel responded to the different Jewish consciousness of Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to the Jewish State and considers that reaction confused and uncharitable.[25] An embracing Jewish consciousness, he feels, should cultivate a passion of Jewish commitment, not merely a routine that separates Jews from others. The covenant community is marked not only by commitment to commandments but also to pluralism and the variety of valid Jewish responses to the divine. Pluralism, he claims, allows people "to fall in love with yiddishkeit through example."[26] The Jews are a covenant people because of their commitment and love for one another. This theory of covenant begins with an experience of diversity and uses the idea of covenant as a way of bringing order and unity by affirming the value of differences.

Hartman comments on the irony of the Jews' return to their land. Homecoming should imply an end of division, a restoration of unity. Instead of finding "security and serenity," Jews coming to Israel found a land to which others claimed a connection and were forced to integrate those others into their vision of home. Home could no longer be just a place for the "homeborn" but also for the "stranger," the creation of a cooperative community in which Jew and non-Jew have equal parts. Covenantal love, Hartman reminds his readers, beginning with its portrayal in the Hebrew Bible, demands consideration for the "stranger." This covenant, he claims, asks each person "to meet the other with whom I do not share a common history and memory, the different one, the person who cannot be assimilated within my communal frame of reference."[27] Covenant living implies an acceptance of diversity within and without.

Hartman's thought suggests that covenant provides a theory that affirms Jewish difference. It enables a Jew who accepts one type of Jewish identity to welcome and embrace Jews who claim a very different type of identity. Many modern Jews wonder how to balance their sensitivity to universal issues with their sense of Jewish particularity. They cannot abandon either their commitment to difference or their affirmation of a commonality with other Jews. Covenant offers a structure that confirms universal values and concerns while building on the particularity of an individual's home community.

Modern Jewish Ambivalence and a Theory of Jewish Covenant

The theory of Jewish covenant offered here addresses the ambiguous experience of many modern Jews. It posits a divinity whose reality permits human encounters that transcend ordinary experience, whose will requires both a commitment to past precedent and openness to new demands, and whose community develops out of a shared commitment to diversity and difference. This theory of covenant reflects contemporary ambivalence--Jews are encouraged to be ambivalent toward the natural and supernatural, the traditional and the innovative, and the inclusive and the exclusive. Such a theory fits the experience of many modern Jews.

Jews today often recognize that human meeting and interaction offers an experience that transcends ordinary expectations. They are also uneasy with a supernatural explanation for that experience. Buber's idea of the divine bridges that duality. Such Jews do not separate themselves from their past but neither do they allow that past to veto obligations in the present. The idea of divine legislation entailed in this theory of covenant affirms both these impulses. These Jews recognize their own Jewish identity but refuse to allow it to narrow their vision of community. The definition of the people of Israel in this theory of covenant permits both these tendencies. An ambiguous covenant, while unsuitable for many traditional Jews and for some committed secularists, offers a prism through which many Jews today may understand themselves.


[1] See Louis E. Newman, "Covenant and Contract: A Framework for the Ananlysis of Jewish Ethics," in his Past Imperatives: Studies in the History and Theory of Jewish Ethics (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), 63-80.

[2] Steven L. Jacobs, Rethinking Jewish Faith: The Child of a Survivor Responds. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), 26.

[3] See Arnold Eisen, The Chosen People in America: A Study of Jewish Religious Ideology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), and his "Covenant" in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Belief, eds Arthur Allen Cohen and Paul Mendes Flohr (New York: Scribner, 1987), 107-112, and his "Jewish Theology in North America: Notes on Two Decades," in American Jewish Year Book 1991 Volume 91, eds David Singer and Ruth R. Seldin (New York and Philadelphia: The American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 3-33.

[4] Martin M. Buber I and Thou. A new translation with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner's, 1970).

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Martin M. Buber, Between Man and Man. With an afterword by the author and an introduction by Maurice Friedman. Trans. Ronald Gregor Smith and Maurice Friedman. (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 10.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 117.

[10] Martin Buber, "People Today and the Jewish Bible: From a Lecture Series," in Scripture and Translation: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Trans. and Ed Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 11-12.

[11] Ibid, 15.

[12] Martin Buber, "Revelation and Law," in Nahum Glatzer, ed., On Jewish Learning. New York: Schocken, 1965), 111.

[13] But see my discussion of how his ideas could generate a positive view of ritual in my The Chrysalis of Religion: A Guide to the Jewishness of Buber's I and Thou (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 68-97.

[14] Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber's Life and Work: The Later Years, 1945-1965 (New York, E. P. Dutton, 1983), 191.

[15] See Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 361-363.

[16] See Eugene B. Borowitz, A New Jewish Theology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 63-64 and several of his subsequent writings such as Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990); Renewing the Covenant: A Theology For the Postmodern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991); and "Covenant," in his Judaism After Modernity: Papers From a Decade of Fruition (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999), 195-204.

[17] Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics, 488.

[18] Eugene B. Borowitz, "The Jewish People Concept as it Affects Jewish Life in the Diaspora," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1974), 566.

[19] See Ibid., "When Is It Moral to Have Intercourse?," 244-257; "On Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, a Covenantal Response," 270-284.

[20] David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999), 202.

[21] Hartman is far more liberal in his views of human sexuality; compare Ibid., 212 and see the position of his associate Tzvi Marx as cited in Lee Walser, Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through today's Changing Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 88-90.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism. (New York: Free Press, 1985), 281-284.

[24] Hartman, Heart of Many Rooms, 231.

[25] Ibid., 235-245.

[26] Ibid., 214.

[27] Ibid., 143-151.

About the Author
S. Daniel Breslauer, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, is a specialist in post-biblical Jewish thought. His most recent books include Toward a Jewish (M)Orality: Speaking of a Postmodern Jewish Ethics (1998), Understanding Judaism through History (2002), and Creating a Judaism Without Religion: A Post Modern Jewish Possibility (2001).

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006

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