Comments on Covenant

David Fox Sandmel

Beth Tfiloh Community High School

Baltimore, MD


I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to both of these papers. Rabbi Solomon and Cardinal Kaspar have made thoughtful presentations that frame the discussion and raise some provocative issues for us to discuss. I would like to explore of some of these issues further and perhaps raise some questions of my own.

Professor Solomon’s paper makes what I believe is an important point by focusing on the metaphoric nature of biblical language and pointing out the diversity of the idea of brit (covenant) in Jewish thought. We do need to acknowledge that there are several covenants of different kinds mentioned in the text of the Tanach and to explore the implications of this reality for Jewish self-understanding and for our relationship with others. The recognition of the multiplicity of covenants between God on the one hand and various partners, not exclusively the Jews, on the other, is a necessary counterbalance to the all too human tendency toward self-aggrandizement, to seeing the world in terms of "us" and "them," or, to borrow the terminology of the author of the Qumran War Scroll, in terms of "sons of light" and "sons of darkness." In this regard, the rabbis stated that God first created just one man and one woman from whom all of humanity is descended so that no one could claim superiority based on ancestry. And more specifically, in one pericope, the rabbis also tried to shortcut any sense that the covenant at Sinai with the people of Israel signified something special about the people. According to this midrash, God offers the Torah to Israel while holding the mountain over their collective heads and – counter to na’aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will hear) – threatening to drop Mt. Sinai on top of them if they refuse to accept it. This approach to creation and Sinai underscores the common humanity that binds all people together and engenders the humility required to enter into dialogue with others, especially those who claim to be in covenant with the same God we Jews recognize.

At the same time, I am concerned that stressing the multiplicity of the concept of covenant in Judaism to the exclusion of a kind of unity is not entirely faithful either to the text or to the tradition. What I would like to suggest is that covenant – that is the covenant between God and Jewish people – needs to be understood as a unity that can, without compromising that unity, consist of differentiated components. Prof. Solomon enumerated many different covenants, but specifically focused on three (God and creation, God and humanity, God and Israel.) I would argue that, from the Jewish perspective, these three covenants are inexorably interrelated, and that whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For Jews, the covenant between Jews and God includes the other two and is inseparable from the other two. The covenant with creation and the covenant with humanity include us as Jews as part of creation and as part of the human family, it is only in the context of those two covenants that the more specific covenants with Abraham and at Sinai can exist.

But beyond this definitional approach, I also think that from a functional perspective, Jews – even Jews who are aware of the complexity and developmental nature of covenant – still speak of "the covenant" as a unity. We certainly celebrate it as such liturgically. Thus, at a brit milah (and for those who have developed similar ceremonies for girls, at a brit bat), the following prayer is said: as he/she has entered the covenant, so may s/he enter the study of torah, the wedding canopy, and the performance of good deeds. In this instance, "the covenant" includes all three manifestations of covenant we have mentioned: the newborn child is itself part of creation; it is certainly a member of human family; and it is also a Jew, now a partner in the covenant of both Abraham and Sinai. And, looking forward to the time of redemption, it integrally connected to the covenant with David.

Similarly, the Sabbath is called a brit ‘olam, an eternal covenant. Shabbat is a mitzvah specific to Jews, yet is integral to the architecture of the cosmos according to Genesis. Indeed, in the prayer of sanctification recited over wine the Sabbath is a memorial both of creation and of the exodus. The concept of eternality is essential to Jewish understandings of covenant and imposes a certain unity on the diverse aspects of covenant. Indeed, the eternality of the covenant is tied to the eternality of God. The image of a succession of covenants that are made and then broken may accurately reflect the historical reality of Israel’s experience, but it also suggests a God who may not always be there, or who might even get fed up with us Jews and find some other community to replace us. This clearly has troubling implications, especially in this setting.

I would like to point out another model of covenant, one that I think is found in scripture itself and one that can allow us to maintain the idea of one, eternal covenant while acknowledging both its multiplicity and its openness. Jeremiah, for example, provides us with the image of eternal covenant in which God is always faithful while Israel move now closer and now farther from the covenant, and therefore needs to "return." Israel may violate the covenant, but the covenant itself is never broken. Thus, Israel "returns" and God "renews."

This brings me to the issue of covenant as a metaphor for relationship. The word brit does cover a variety of relationships and the relationship between God and Israel is described metaphorically in any number of ways. While the sense of covenant as metaphor guards against exclusivity, I would argue that the Covenant as a proper noun, as a concept, signifies something more than a generic sense of relationship and something more than just a contractual agreement between two generic parties. It has come to signify a sacred relationship, in which one of the parties is God. As a result, the entire nature of the covenantal relationship is qualitatively different than other relationships. Rather than being merely a metaphor, brit functions Judaism within as unified reality, it is a special, eternal relationship.

This excursus on the nature of covenant is not intended as a refutation of Professor’s Solomon’s paper, for as I stated at the beginning, I believe that he is both correct and makes a important point. Rather, the implication that covenant is merely a metaphor or that Judaism does not understand the covenant as a unity, despite its heuristic usefulness, is not the "whole story."

Two other small points. First, when Rabbi Solomon discusses Leo Baeck, he cites his work The Essence of Judaism, which was written before the Shoa. It is my understanding that Baeck’s thought developed significantly, at least in part in reaction to his experiences during the war. I wonder whether a different understanding of ethical monotheism and Jewish distinctiveness is found in the book he wrote after the Shoa, The People Israel. The move from "essence" to "people" is, I believe, significant for Baeck’s thought.

The other comment with which I take issue is that "the rabbinic concept of covenant is multi-faceted, flexible, and non-literal. Only in the context of defense against Christian appropriations did the rabbis adopt the essentialist concept of ‘the covenant’ as an object for claim and counterclaim." I would suggest that we cannot attribute this entirely to Christianity. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, the most pressing task for the rabbis was to reconceptualize covenant for a post-70 Judaism. Whether covenant is secondary to Torah or Torah to covenant, the centrality of both to Jewish self-understanding is part of the rabbinic response to that crisis. Re-imagining Judaism with Torah rather than Temple as the central focus required a new understanding of covenant independent of the necessity of defining the term in light of the challenge of Christianity.

In the time remaining, I would like to make several comments on Cardinal Kaspar’s excellent paper as well. First, as one of architects of Dabru Emet, it is gratifying that you have cited it here (and in other papers and talks) at length. I am also gratified by your comments that dialogue has nothing to do with proselytism. I recall that Dabru Emet and Dominus Iesus were published the same week. The publication of Dominus Iesus led many, including many reporters with whom I spoke (including Eric) to challenge the premise of Dabru Emet that there had been significant changes in the Christian world. As evidence they would point to the issue of proselytism in as it was expressed in Dominus Iesus. Therefore, your unequivocal stance on dialogue and conversion is most welcome. Since in your paper, the context is Jewish Christian dialogue, I would only ask whether this applies to dialogue between Catholics and others who are not Jewish. In this regard, I fully support Dr. Cunningham’s call for clear statement that explains why Roman Catholics do not need to have a mission to Jews. Such a statement would be of enormous significance for Jewish-Christian relations, and would make a real difference in my work within my own community.

You also say, "I wonder what a Jewish interpretation of Christianity – an interpretation open to dialogue – would be like." Without seeming too self-serving, I would simply mention the two volumes that accompany Dabru Emet, Christianity in Jewish Terms and Irreconcilable Differences? A Learning Resource for Jews and Christians. These volumes are not only open to dialogue, but they both invite and model dialogue.

I would like to take issue with your comment that "It is true that Judaism today seems to find it impossible to recognize any non-Jewish religion as a religion; pious Jews consider non-Jewish religions as idolatries." This is simply not the case. The issue, from a halachic point of view, is not whether a religion is non-Jewish, but rather what the object of worship in any given religion is. In regard to Christianity specifically, one can go back to Rabbenu Tam in the 12th century and the Meiri in the late 13th/early 14th centuries to find expression of an understanding that when Christians speak of God, or of Jesus, or even of the trinity, their intention is to the God of Israel. Following this reasoning, then, Christians are not idolaters. This was not merely an arcane theological point; it affected social relations between Jews and Christians in the medieval world, and established a precedent for Jewish assessments of Christianity today. This not the only opinion of Christianity in the Jewish tradition, nor does it represent what we would consider a modern model of tolerance. It demonstrates, however, that the potential for acknowledging the search for God in other communities is present and has been exercised within Judaism more than the word "impossible" conveys.

Finally, I want to address an issue that cannot be avoided if one plays out the implications in both papers – can Jews acknowledge the Christian covenant in the same way that Christians have acknowledged the Jewish covenant? If the Vatican can affirm that God’s covenant with the Jews is irrevocable, that Jews are in covenant with God, can Jews affirm that Christians are in covenant with God as well? On a simplistic level, it would seem only fair. We have affirmed you, now you affirm us. But the asymmetry between Judaism and Christianity makes a facile "tit for tat" difficult, if not impossible. The covenant between God and the Jews is part of Christianity’s sacred scripture (a decision that was made at the time of Marcion) and is specifically addressed in Christian scriptures (as in Romans 9-11, as Dr. Cunningham has discussed). However, the Christian story is not part of Jewish scripture; Jews do not have a scriptural warrant for affirming the Christian covenant, at least not in the same terms that Christians have used in regard to Judaism. As we Jews continue to develop a Jewish theology of Christianity, I believe that the question of what Jews can say about relationship between Christianity and the God of Israel will continue to arise.