The Covenant & God

God, too, is bound by this divine agreement.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Many people--some formally religious and some not--agree that an infinite God or power is the source of this vast universe. But some of them are bothered by the Jewish claim that this Divine Being has chosen the Jews to serve as a special vehicle. (As the old anti-Semitic doggerel puts it, "How odd/of God/to choose/the Jews.")

Similarly, Judaism's daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, agree that God binds humans to God's covenant. However, theologians of the other monotheistic religions find it somewhat hard to accept Judaism's affirmation that God is not merely the source of the Torah, but is also bound by it. Opponents argue that such a statement is incredibility piled on top of paradox. Would an infinite, universal, all-powerful One care enough to intervene in "trivial" human concerns? Would that Being then be held to the terms of that intervention? Yes, says the Bible and later Jewish tradition.

It all stems from the biblical assertion that the human is in the image of God. Like God, humans are endowed with freedom, power, and consciousness. According to Scriptures, God allows for these human qualities. (In biblical language: Adam and Eve sin but are not put to death. Then, after the flood, God self-limits in the first covenant and promises never again to destroy the earth with a deluge.) This means that the process of exercising human freedom, including the doing of evil, is accepted. Perfection may come more slowly, but henceforth it will come only in a partnership--a covenant--of humans and God. In this covenant, the human will not be overwhelmed and forced to do good.

If goodness will not be imposed by power, then the human must be educated toward perfection. The rabbis conceive of God as teacher and pedagogue--teaching Torah to Israel and to the world. This also explains why, in the words of Ethics of the Fathers (chapter 6, Mishnah 2), "The only truly free person is one who studies Torah."

As teacher, God offers a personal model for human behavior. The imitation of God is the basis for ethics. Parents, however warm or spontaneous, cannot enable children to grow unless the parents are prepared to bind themselves--to be available in some committed, dependable way. To teach successfully, teachers must offer a reliable and consistent model. Then God, as parent and teacher, must bind God's own self to humans.

Challenging God

From this understanding of the divine commitment in the covenant stems Abraham's incredible challenge when God seeks to destroy Sodom, "You dare not! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18:25). Out of this comes the Jewish tradition of a din Torah mit'n Ribbono Shel Olam--a trial of God. From Moses to Jeremiah and Lamentations through Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Elie Wiesel in our time, Jewish religious life has brought forth people who do not fear arraigning even God when there is injustice.

The binding of God in the covenant is the guarantor that redemption is the true fate of humankind. Reality itself does not always seem to operate to ensure the triumph of good. Ultimately, then, it is God's promise that justifies hope. This is the irony and paradox of the "guarantee": It is built on nothing more substantial than the word of God. What could be more ephemeral than a word, especially when the promise of redemption may point to an event hundreds or even thousands of years away?

Yet Jews trusted, waited, and worked. The Torah is no easy, ironclad guarantee against fate or suffering, yet it has outlasted empires. The Jews' testimony is that the covenant will outlast even those societies and cultures that deny its existence. On the other hand, the ethics of asking people to depend on God's word implies that God will truly bind God's own self to keep that promise.

Shavuot Celebrates Partnership

Therefore, Shavuot is not a coronation ceremony. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews blow the shofar [ram's horn]and crown the Lord as ruler of the universe. Shavuot is a more "democratic" holiday. It remembers those who trekked to Sinai to receive the Torah. It celebrates the God who "descended upon the mountain" and bound the divine self permanently to the Jewish people. A ruler issues decrees of life and death. A covenant rests upon "free negotiations, mutual assumption of duties, and full recognition of the equal rights of both parties." 

God also becomes a partner in this covenantal community. God joins in human community and shares in its covenantal existence. As Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out, the whole concept of God suffering along with humanity ("I [God] shall be with him in trouble" [Psalm 91:5]) "can only be understood within the perspective of the covenantal community that involves God in the destiny of his fellow members." [Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "The Lonely Man of Faith," in Tradition: A Journal of Jewish Thought, vol. 7 no. 21 (Summer 1965) pp. 5-67, especially pp 28-29.]

So Shavuot is the holiday of partnership. The Divine, out of unbounded love, voluntarily puts aside unbounded power; this equalizes the two partners. This idea of partnership has had an immeasurably positive impact on human history even beyond religion. Covenant became the source of morality and ethics, moving humanity away from magical and ritual/mechanical concepts of divine-human interaction. Concern for social justice, compassion for human suffering, and the demand that religious people serve other humans have all flowed from this idea.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).