The Covenant As Process

The covenant reflects the ongoing relationship between God and the Jewish people.

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

The covenant of Israel turns the Exodus into an ongoing process. On Passover, God committed to the covenant by an act of redemption. On Shavuot, standing at Sinai, the Jewish people responded by accepting the Torah. The teaching that guides the way of the Jews--the Torah--became the constitution of the ongoing relationship of God and the Jewish people. 

The subjects of the Torah are the stuff of infinity and eternity: a God beyond measurement or dimension, beyond human grasp or ken, a destiny that will outlast history. Such concepts are not commensurate with the limited, fragmented, imperfect world we inhabit. But through the mechanism of the covenant, infinity and eternity are converted into finite, temporal, usable forms without losing their ground in the absolute. The covenant makes possible Judaism's functioning in history.

Judaism proposes to achieve its infinite goals in finite steps. The covenant makes it possible to move toward ultimate perfection, one step at a time. There are inevitable compromises between the ideal and reality because a push to override all obstacles now would result in all the deformations of the revolutionary method. But is not compromisea sellout? No, covenantal compromises are legitimate because they are not the end of the process.

Each generation lives up to the Exodus principles to the extent possible in its generation and tries to advance a bit further, closer to the level of perfection. The next generation will carry on and move even closer to the end goal. As long as there is a constant renewal of the covenantal vision, then the ultimate Exodus principle is not betrayed, nor is the status quo fully accepted. Judaism's covenant marries unyielding revolutionary goals with ceaseless evolutionary methods. The ideal and the real are betrothed to each other; this dynamic interaction will go on until paradise is regained.

Living With Imperfection

Here is how the ideal/real interaction works: In the Torah, some of the Exodus principles are practiced at once. The weak, the widow, the orphan, the outsiders are treated kindly and with justice. There is one law for the citizen and the outsider. Human life is precious; murder is the ultimate crime.

On the other hand, Israel, too, must make concessions to reality. The way of Judaism upholds the principles of the ultimate human condition to the extent that is possible now. These concessions are part of the process of redemption. The shortfalls will be overcome ultimately, but, as necessary steps along the way, they are affirmed. Any covenant that respects freedom must allow for process.

Item: Despite the Exodus, slavery was not abolished at once. Hebrew slaves were liberated within six years and treated kindly in the interim. Canaanite slavery continued but with a restriction: If a slave was physically abused, the slave was set free. Over the course of centuries, slavery was further ameliorated and then abolished.

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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).