The Covenant As Process

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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).