Including All Jews in the Conversation About Covenant

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Arnold Eisen

The call for focused conversation about the nature of the Jewish people’s age-old covenant strikes me as exactly right and urgently important. My own work as a scholar has been greatly influenced by the notion that, as literary critic R. W. B. Lewis wrote 40 years ago, “every culture seems… to produce its own determining debate over the ideas that preoccupy it … [its development] resembles a protracted and broadly ranging conversation: at best a dialogue – a dialogue which at times moves very close to drama.” That is all the more true of the Jewish people because our most important Book – the Torah – conceives the process of living tradition in precisely these terms. Each individual, group and generation transmits and adds to the story that started with the ancestors. Each contributes its davar – word and deed – to the conversation begun at Sinai. Each is needed to bring its particular set of skills, experience and wisdom to bear on the task of safeguarding and completing the work of creation.

I think covenant is the indispensable core idea for this task because it defines the Jewish people from the outset as more than a religious group, more than an ethnicity, more than a political entity. The Jews, as “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” are bound in covenant explicitly to one another, to the world, and to God (always variously and imperfectly understood). Look at Moses’ concluding address in Parashat Nitzavim. It begins by making the population of covenant partners as broad as possible: all the children of Israel, men, women and children, even “the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer.” Anyone ready to receive the covenant stands before Moses “this day.” The words touch me viscerally, all the more because the covenant is made “both with those who are standing here this day before the Lord… and with those who are not here with us this day.” I believe that when you or I take on the responsibilities of this covenant as contemporary Jews however we choose to do so, our ancestors stand with us. If we live Judaism actively we live with the generations by our side – and in a very real sense we live for them. By the same token we live Judaism for and with our descendants. Someday in the distant future Jews of multiple varieties – old and young, men and women, in Israel or Diaspora – will live Judaism with and for us.

Attentive readers may wonder why I did not add “religious or secular” to that sentence. The reason is as old as covenant and as relevant as our contemporary Jewish situation. Moses follows his all-inclusive definition of the “you” standing before him with the profound assertion that “Concealed things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to do all the words/deeds [divrei] of this Torah.” We do not know – no one ever will – the ultimate truth about God, immortality, the persistence of evil in the world, and other perplexing matters often considered the stuff of religion. But – thanks to Torah, wisdom, culture, experience, tradition, all of which combine to offer guidance, we have enough to do what is needed. With the help of God – a matter on which Jews will never agree, because it stands on the border between “revealed” and “concealed” – we manage to make our world more just and compassionate. We serve as stewards of our planet. We pass on the love stored up in us and use it to counter hatred and ignorance.

I do not find the division between “religious” and “secular” adequate to the complex convictions of Jewish human beings in the 21st century. The Holocaust has shattered many notions of faith – and reinforced others. The re-establishment of the Jewish State has both challenged and confirmed inherited notions of miracle – and has given new meaning to narratives, laws and principles expounded by our ancestors. My friend Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman writes that the terms dati and hiloni “have become useless in a discussion about Jewish identity in Israel today or in the future.” That holds true for the Diaspora as well, I believe. Scratch the surface of a so-called “secular” Jew and you find commitments of faith and transcendence. (Most so-called “secular” Jews and Gentiles in America, according to the data, say they believe in God.)

The categories are far less interesting, and certainly less deep, than the complexities of Jewish existence in our day. I have in mind as I write these words my wife’s cousin Hayim, who survived the Holocaust in Siberia, returned to his native Poland to gather children for Youth Aliyah and bring them to Palestine, fought in Israel’s wars and built a so-called “secular” kibbutz with his bare hands. I also have in mind a good friend and accomplished scientist, a yeshiva graduate and proud Jew who taught me that the affirmation of order and variation in the creation story of Genesis was crucial to his practice of science, indeed to the existence of science as such. Think of the Jews you know, of every stripe, who live with questions, search for answers, offer prayers of the heart, irregularly perform the rituals of Judaism, ponder Jewish history, thrill to Jewish achievement – and, most of all, bet their lives and those of their children on the statistically-improbable blessing of attachment to the Jewish people and its traditions.

I believe it is time for members of the Jewish people, however they understand the covenant to which they are party, and the God who is likewise party to that covenant – to discard the dichotomy of “religious” and “secular” and simply talk to one another on a regular basis about who we are and what we hope to accomplish.

Let’s expand the notion of “daf yomi” from daily study of a page of Talmud, performed largely by Orthodox men, to web-based daily study by Jewish men and women of diverse commitments – and conversation among us as we go – that uses multiple media, old and new, all of the arts and sciences, and a generation’s experience in the formation of “educated Jews,” to bring Jews of all sorts together on a daily basis. All who wish to join could open their browser in the morning and “stand before” the covenant of their people.

And let’s make a parallel effort to bring together regularly those who have taken on the responsibility of leading the Jewish people, whatever their definition of covenant and wherever their community, to share the experience of being a committed Jew in this time.

The participants in both efforts will be grateful – and so, I am confident, will future generations.

Professor Arnold Eisen is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.