Response to “Covenant” from Dr. Benjamin D. Sommer
Chancellor Eisen’s discussion of covenant begins with Abraham and Sarah and, in the very next sentence, mentions Sinai. From the viewpoint of biblical scholarship, this is appropriate because the Torah tells us that God created not one but two covenants with the Jewish people. The first, described in Genesis, is a one-sided covenant; all the responsibilities are on God’s side. God promises that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah will become a great nation, will inherit the land of Canaan, and will endure. Scholars refer to this as the covenant of grant or grace, since God unilaterally grants land and continuity to a people. The second, formed at Sinai and described in the remaining books of the Torah, involves responsibilities on both sides. God agrees to allow the nation to reside in (or return to) their land as long as they fulfill the covenant; the nation is required to observe the Torah’s laws. The first covenant guarantees existence for the Jewish people no matter how bad things look; the second requires actions from us that show, day after day and week after week, commitment on our part.
The relationship between these covenants is one of the main engines that drives biblical theology. At times one or the other notion comes to the fore. The covenant of grant is especially prominent in Psalms, while the covenant of Sinai is dominant in Jeremiah. The tensions between them are resolved beautifully in the last section of Isaiah and brilliantly in the closing verses of Leviticus 26. But biblical books acknowledge the importance of each covenant, and there is no form of Judaism that emphasizes one to the exclusion of the other. (The reason that Christianity departed from Judaism was not the notion of a Messiah, which is entirely Jewish in origin, nor even its surprising theology of the trinity, which is not so different from some biblical and kabbalistic theologies, but its rejection of the covenant of Sinai and exclusive embrace of the covenant of grant.)
The covenant of grant provides assurance. The covenant of Sinai makes demands. Real Judaism requires both.
Recalling this is crucial for a Judaism of the center, for Conservative Judaism. Recent decades have been hard on all forms of centrist religion in the United States. Multiple studies of American religion (most recently American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell) show that middle-of-the-road religious movements in this country have shrunk drastically in the last fifty years. The number of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians has grown, even as larger numbers of Americans describe themselves as atheists. Americans today look for one of two things in a religion: either they seek a religion that makes serious demands on them, a religion that displays authenticity—or they seek no religion at all. What they don’t want is a wishy-washy religion that affirms the value of any choices they make.
It is thus timely that Chancellor Eisen begins this series with covenant. If Conservative Judaism is to avoid the fate of the shrinking religious middle in the United States, those of us committed to it will need to affirm both covenants described in the Torah. A religion that endures is a religion that makes serious and ongoing demands on its adherents. The covenant made at Sinai does just that.