1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
a Theory of Covenant for Contemporary Jews
Fact, Theory, and
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
referring neither to doctrine or belief but to the history of the Jewish
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
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.
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
concept of "covenant" is
often misunderstood. It covers a complex and diverse content. 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." 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. 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.
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.
of "I and Thou" and a Covenantal Divinity
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. 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.
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." 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.
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.
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.
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. 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
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
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." Covenantal
responsibility begins with self-acceptance.
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. 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
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
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." Buber,
therefore, turned away from traditional Jewish practice during
his own life. 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.
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
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.
Reform Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz has identified a dynamic
process and has championed it as a type of "covenant theology." 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jewish Community: The Plight of Klal Yisrael
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
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. 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). This
dynamic approach to understanding Jewish duty also involves a
theory of Jewish identity.
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.
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.
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. 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." 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.
comments on the irony of the Jews' return to their land. Homecoming
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." 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
Modern Jewish Ambivalence and a Theory of Jewish Covenant
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.
 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.
 Steven L. Jacobs, Rethinking Jewish Faith:
The Child of a Survivor Responds. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press,
 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.
 Martin M. Buber I and Thou. A new translation
with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner's,
 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,
 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),
 Martin Buber, "Revelation and Law," in Nahum
Glatzer, ed., On Jewish Learning. New York: Schocken,
 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.
 Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber's Life and
Work: The Later Years, 1945-1965 (New York, E. P. Dutton,
 See Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search
of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Harper and Row,
 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.
 Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics, 488.
 Eugene B. Borowitz, "The Jewish People
Concept as it Affects Jewish Life in the Diaspora," Journal
of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1974), 566.
 See Ibid., "When Is It Moral to Have Intercourse?," 244-257; "On
Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, a Covenantal Response," 270-284.
 David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating
the Many Voices Within Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights
Publishing, 1999), 202.
 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.
 David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative
Spirit in Traditional Judaism. (New York: Free Press, 1985),
 Hartman, Heart of Many Rooms, 231.
 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