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.

Item: After the Exodus, economic inequality was not abolished. At the entrance to Israel, each family was given land--a source of income. The biblical code built in aids to help each family keep its patrimony and source of income. But when poverty and social disadvantage did develop, these conditions were softened by special help; they were not obliterated.

Item: Human life is in the image of God, so it is sacred. Therefore, anyone who destroys human life deserves the ultimate sanction--to be put to death. In principle, capital punishment for homicide is required because it affirms the seriousness of murder and upholds the sanctity of life. However, death is ultimately contradictory to human value, so capital punishment was steadily restricted. For all practical purposes, capital punishment was abolished by the halakhah (Jewish law).

Item: In principle, women are in the image of God, "And God created the human being in God's image--man and woman, God created them" (Genesis 1:27). However, women's secondary, almost chattel-like status is the point of departure. Over the ages, women were steadily moved toward greater dignity and equality. [See Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), especially chapters 3 and 4.]

Concessions to an imperfect and often unjust status quo were morally tenable because they were within the framework of a covenant--apledge to keep living and working until all these limitations were overcome. The integrity of this pledge depends on a constant infusion of the perfectionist idea so that people will never settle.

The halakhah is the mechanism whereby the covenant process is kept in motion. It communicates the contradictions of reality and ideal through its ritual structures even as it formulates reconciling behaviors in its laws and ethics.

Each Generation Plays a Part in the Covenantal Process

To achieve the covenant goals and to model the covenantal process, the Jewish people have formed a community in which the Jewish way is carried on and realized. Thus, the individual overcomes the isolation of the "I" and bonds with all living Jews. In the community, each generation overcomes the isolation of the "now" and links to the generations that have gone before and to those that will come after it.

Because the goal of perfection cannot be achieved in one generation, the covenant is, of necessity, a treaty between all the generations. Each generation will have to do its share of the mission and pass it on to the next generation until the redemption is complete. By taking up its task, each generation joins with the past and carries on until the day that the hopes of all will be fulfilled. If one generation rejects the covenant or fails to pass it on to the next generation, then the effort of all the preceding and future generations would be frustrated as well. Each generation knows that it is not operating in a vacuum. The accomplishments of the generations that preceded it make its work possible, and the efforts of its successors will make or break its own mission.

This sense of being part of the chain creates the emotional commitment to Jewish survival even in people and generations who do not know the reason for this drive or indeed the reason for Judaism at all. What appears to be blind sentiment or "tribalism" is really an urgency communicated between generations. This tradition is too important to lose, especially since the efforts of countless people--some of whom gave their very lives for the vision--would be lost along with it.

The covenant is binding, not just because it is juridical (that is, commanded) but because people continually accept its goal and become bound to its process. The present generation is neither the slavish follower of the tradition handed down by past generations nor an autonomous community free to tamper with past practices or to reject past goals. Each generation is a partner entering into the covenantal responsibility and process and thus joining the transgenerational covenantal community.

This is the basis of the rabbinic tradition that all Jews who ever lived or who ever will live stood at Sinai and heard the proclamation of the covenant. It is that moment--standing before Sinai to accept the covenant--that is symbolically recreated every year on the morning of Shavuot.

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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).