Covenanting*

Table of Contents

  1. The "T" Word
  2. "Chooses" or "Chosen"
  3. The Lessons of Marriage
    1. When You Should Not Be a Meddlesome Neighbour...
    2. ...And When You Should
    3. "Married in General"
  4. Additional Topics:
    1. Limits to Tolerance
    2. That Nasty Jewish-Christian Problem
      1. We Really Do Disagree
      2. Accepting our differences
      3. Avoid theological dialogue
      4. Just Do it!
  5. Lets Conclude with a Story from the Talmud

Covenanting

1. The "T" Word

Several months ago, a correspondent of mine on the Internet--I believe that he was a Protestant minister in a southern American state--unwittingly committed the grave mistake of referring to me as a "theologian," in what he assumed would be taken as a compliment. To his surprise, I protested quite vigorously that I could not make a claim to that particular title, neither by qualification nor by inclination. My university students learn quickly of my tendency to skip over any textbook chapters that get too theoretical or abstract in their analysis of religious ideas; and guest lecturers frequently have to confront my suggestions that the sectarian schism that they just analyzed so eruditely was more probably just a pretext for a congregant's indignation over being slighted by a church leader.

I now find that the theme of this Institute is compelling me to venture into that uncomfortable realm of theology. Be warned that I plan to do so as little of it as I can get away with. I am, as a rule, more interested in practical questions, and especially in the interactions between individuals and religious communities. Mostly, I wish to share with you some texts and thoughts from the Jewish tradition, in the hope that they might be of some assistance in confronting the problems posed by diversity, both within a single religion and between different religious communities.

2. "Chooses" or "Chosen"

Let me begin by burdening you with a question that puzzled me for a long time:

In the course of my teaching to classes of mixed religious composition, and in my limited exposure to interfaith dialogue, I have frequent occasion to hear my community, the people of Israel, referred to as "the Chosen People" --or, even more ambitiously, as "God's chosen people."

The expression has never failed to elicit from me feelings of intense discomfort; and I believe that such an attitude would be shared by most Jews of my acquaintance. To be sure, the reaction is rooted in part in its apparently jingoistic implications-- whether it is because we ourselves are uneasy with such attitudes, because we are embarrassed to utter them before others. However, on serious personal and scholarly reflection, I felt certain that the issue was a more fundamental one.

As I tried to account for my reaction, I realized that I have probably never heard the expression issuing from the mouth or pen of a Jew, but invariably from Christians.

Then I set to musing: How would one actually express this idea in Hebrew, the "official" tongue of our religious discourse? I have learned from long and consistent experience that any expression that cannot be traced to a Hebrew original is definitely not an authentic Jewish concept. The answer that I came up with after comparing notes with some knowledgeable Jews of my acquaintance--especially my wife--was no less remarkable: As far as I am aware, there does not exist any traditional Hebrew idiom that approximates the English expression "chosen people." Some writers invoke the words of Exodus 19:5 `am segullah: "a treasured people"; but though close, this is not quite the same. And though modern Hebrew has occasionally come up with some awkward phraseology in order to render the term, it is evident to most listeners that such stammered equivalences are ad hoc creations, intended to translate concepts that originated in non-Jewish thought-patterns.

I might note in passing that the same could be said about several other common English terms that have become crucial to theological discourse about Jewish values, including (to cite two examples that spring to mind) "the promised land," and even "Judaism." But these might be topics for another lecture.

We must make it clear that the consciousness of having been chosen by God is a fundamental part of the Jewish religious self-definition. And yet it remains true that this perception is not formulated by means of any combination of adjective and noun analogous to the English combination "chosen people."

"Hmm," I sense some of you thinking: "If, as this pedantic old professor seems to be conceding, the idea of the `Chosen People" is a valid one, only it happens to be expressed in different ways, then the whole business is starting to sound more and more like an instance of linguistic hairsplitting of the sort that is commonly associated with those infamous Talmudists and Jesuits."

Nevertheless I insist that there is importance to these semantical quirks. Allow me to illustrate by citing some passages from that faithful and unappreciated mirror of Jewish piety, our traditional prayer book.

Firstly, let us look at a blessing that is recited every morning as an introduction to the reading of the "Shema`," the selection of verses from the Torah (especially Deuteronomy 6:4-8) that proclaim the sovereignty of God and our commitment to his Torah. The blessing relates to the act of the recitation as a fulfilment of the religious obligation of Torah study.

You have loved us with abounding love, O Lord our God, you have shown us great and overflowing tenderness. For the sake of our ancestors who trusted in you, and whom you instructed in the precepts of life--in the same manner, be gracious unto us and instruct us... Put it into our hearts to understand, to become wise, to hear, to learn, to teach, to observe, to do, to uphold--all the words of the study of Torah, lovingly... For you are the performer of wonders, and you have chosen us out of all nations and tongues, and brought us close to your great name in truth... Blessed are you, Lord, who chooses his people Israel in love.
Similarly, when Jews participate in the formal reading of the Torah in the synagogue, they acknowledge the religious dimension of that act with blessing:
Blessed are you, O Lord, King of the universe, who has chosen us out of all the nations to bestow upon us his Torah.
Or, to take another example, from the "Kiddush," the "sanctification" ceremony in which the sabbath is inaugurated over a cup of wine:
"For you have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the sabbath as an inheritance in love and favour. Blessed are you, O Lord, who hallows the Sabbath."
In a similar vein, the festival prayers proclaim as follows:
You have chosen us out of all the nations. You have loved us and taken pleasure in us, and exalted us above all tongues, and sanctified us in your commandments, and brought us close, O our King, to your worship. And you have called us by your great and holy name, and you have given us in love appointed times for rejoicing, festivals and seasons for gladness...
Examples could easily be multiplied. What they all have in common is the unstated assumption that there is no thing called the "chosen people," but that "choosing" is invariably perceived as a verb, a dynamic activity that is inextricably identified with Israel's devoted observance of the precepts of the Torah.

This dynamic does not come across in that deathly static expression "chosen people," suggesting as it does that Israel has been tagged with some kind of halo, badge or colouring that defines its status. Surely such an approach is the polar opposite of the view that was voiced so ably in the blessings that we heard a moment ago, in which chosenness is a process that permits the people of Israel to bring sanctity into their lives and into the world.

I am reminded of a passage that is fortunately not found in the "Wizard of Oz" story, when the wizard reassures Dorothy's little-known companion, the God-Seeking Heathen. As you will undoubtedly not recall, when the Heathen approaches the Wizard to make good on his pledge to make him chosen, the wise old Wizard responds as follows:

In my country there are many people who call themselves chosen, and they're no different from you or me. The only thing special about them is that they have a sign......a circumcision
Now I would be the last one to belittle the sacred covenantal sign of circumcision that has been maintained with such devotion over the millennia of Jewish history. Nevertheless, it is clear that chosenness is a more complicated matter than that the bearing of a sign in one's flesh. At the very least, it would appear to have something to do with assaults on the assorted witches, flying monkeys and other agents of evil.

3. The Lessons of Marriage

We may better illustrate the point by adapting an analogy that is beloved of the Biblical authors. Let me put the matter bluntly:

To assert that a nation is "chosen" has as much content as to say that a person is "married."
True, in the latter instance the factual declaration has the value of informing us that the couple has participated in a recognized legal ceremony, that they might be wearing rings on their fingers, and that their acts of unfaithfulness now fall into the category of adultery. However none of this really gets to the dynamic of what a marriage really is, as a relationship that imprints itself upon every moment in the couple's lives, something that must continually be worked at.

So self-evident is this perception to traditional Jews that we tend to gag on the very inertia of the expression "chosen people" --even as I frequently get taken aback by those starry-eyed folk (usually single, of course) who are unable to distinguish between a wedding and a marriage. In either case the people who speak in such ways are missing the point.

Indeed, there is no "chosen people." Rather, there are people whom God has sanctified by commanding them to rest on the sabbath, to rejoice in the festivals, to study the Torah and to accept the overriding yoke of God's supremacy over all other allegiances.

Now the more one examines it, the marriage analogy reveals itself to be increasingly useful and instructive. The prophets and sages of Israel have invoked it mostly in order to characterize divine-human relationships, whether through the eroticism of the Song of Songs or the marital breakdown of Hosea. However, to a lesser extent it might also provide us with a serviceable framework for understanding relationships within and among different religious communities.

When You Should Not Be a Meddlesome Neighbour...

For example, I hope that there would be general agreement with the premise that members of one family should not normally be interfering in the marital affairs of the neighbours across the road. Any pair of spouses is likely to face sufficient challenges in the day-to-day maintenance of their own marriage--keeping their houses in order in the literal, figurative or allegorical sense--without diverting their strained spiritual resources to meddling in other people's business.

...And When You Should

This is not to deny that we might have some general interest in encouraging other couples to enter into the state of marriage and supporting those who have done so--and I hope that this is more than a mere case of misery longing for company. We might even be justified in shying away from individuals whose relationships strike us as illegal, irresponsible or unhealthy.

Returning to the religious context, Jewish law has defined a "generic" standard of human morality that legitimizes those who maintain it as individuals and as societies. I am referring of course to the so-called "Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah."

Though several variations on this list were discussed in rabbinic sources, the one that became normative is as follows:

  1. Idolatry
  2. Blasphemy
  3. Murder
  4. Sexual crimes, especially incest and adultery
  5. Robbery
  6. Consuming a limb from a living creature
  7. The establishment of a judicial system
The rabbis of the first century claimed to base this fundamental list of obligations on careful exegesis of certain verses at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, though I am confident that anyone who is not familiar with the intricacies of the relevant talmudic passages would be at a loss to recreate most of their interpretations, or be persuaded by them. For a historian such as myself this artificiality always raises suspicions that, as is frequently the case in classical Jewish discourse, the ideas (at least, some of them) did not originate in the interpretation of the Biblical text, but had their own conceptual logic.

This supposition appears more plausible when we take into account that at around the same time that the Talmudic Jewish sages were arguing over their list of generic obligations, a different Jewish faction was also grappling with the promulgation of their own set of minimum standards for persons who would seek salvation without becoming full-fledged members of the Jewish people. They came up with a briefer, but somewhat similar series of things to abstain from, including:

  1. Things polluted by contact with idols
  2. Fornication
  3. Consuming anything that has been strangled, and blood (Acts 15:20)
Admittedly, the characteristic interpretation given to the Noachide commandments by most modern Jewish thinkers, that they furnish the basis for a policy of religious tolerance, is not consistently supported by the ancient sources, which were composed under the cruel yoke of pagan Rome, and took it for granted that few if any human beings actually lived up to those standards. In their more vindictive moments, the ancient preachers would point out that in the final judgment, the neglect of the seven commandments would be held up as decisive evidence against those heathen oppressors of Israel.

Nevertheless, when it comes down to practical application, it appears that ancient Judaism was sincere in its profession that it is possible to be a perfectly decent human being without having to participate in the unique Jewish covenant of the 613 commandments.

This understanding seems to be the only one that can account for the normative response that is to be given to aspiring proselytes, as found in the Talmud:

If at the present time people desire to become proselytes, they are addressed as follows: What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions? ...And they are informed about the penalties that attach to the commandments. They are told: Be aware that as long as you had not reached this state you were able to eat forbidden fat without incurring the penalty of "cutting off." If you profaned the Sabbath you would not incur the penalty of stoning. However now if you were to eat forbidden fat you would be subject to the penalty of cutting off, and if you were to violate the Sabbath you would be punished by stoning...
For all the pride that they undoubtedly took in their special covenantal relationship with God, I think it is fair to say the Jewish sages who devised this procedure could not have believed that it was imperative to draw others in to it. If they were convinced that salvation could be acquired only through the full observance of the Israelite commandments, then it makes no sense that they would be so discouraging in their attitudes towards the individuals who came seeking spiritual fulfilment in the Torah. Clearly those seekers would not be abandoned to share the fate of the unredeemed wicked.

"Married in General"

All of this begs the question: If the universal standard defined by the seven Noahide precepts is adequate, then what need is there for specific covenant?

The Biblical sources are astonishingly un-helpful on this question. Like many other institutions in Judaism, the covenant is often treated as an absolute or given, whose existence has priority over its rationale. We are informed, for example, that Abraham was chosen to be the progenitor of the covenant people by virtue of his trust in the Almighty. But we are not told why God deemed it necessary in the first place that there should be a "covenant people." Much of the biblical narrative presupposes that the history of Israel in itself constitutes the unfolding of a divinely guided plan, but there is no clear statement about what this plan is or how it will culminate, and why it must take the particular course that it does. Our sages often suppose plausibly that it has something to do with spreading God's word to the world and serving as a moral example to humanity--a perception that became a favourite justification for the prolonged Jewish exile. But none of these explanations is binding.

An answer to this question that is striking in its simplicity is suggested by our marriage metaphor (that hopefully has not yet been utterly worked to death). Would any of us consider such a formulation as: "I want to be married, but only in a general way. It does not have to be to a specific partner"?

It is of course a simple truth that, in spite of all the attempts of those wretched theologians to universalize our experiences, the experiences have existence only in their particulars. As Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 3:509) put it when discussing the arbitrary-looking character of some of the sacrificial regulations in the Torah:

...When you ask why a lamb should be prescribed and not a ram, the same question would have to be asked if a ram had been prescribed instead of a lamb. But one particular species had necessarily to be chosen...
Every relationship between individuals is thus a unique instance of the general potential for relationship, defined by the personalities involved as well as by their specific circumstances and experiences. This applies as much to covenant as it does to a marriage.

A favourite theme in ancient Jewish legend (e.g., Shabbat 88b) is that the ministering angels resented the fact that God chose to bestow the most precious of his gifts, the Torah, upon the unworthy race of mortal humans. Called upon by the Lord to refute their arguments, Moses is said to have instructed the angels in selected passages from the Torah:

It is written in the Torah "I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slavery"--Were you perhaps enslaved in Egypt and then delivered, that you are in need of the Torah? It is written there: "You shall have no other gods before me"--Are there idolaters amongst you? It is written there: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vein"--Do you have occasion for oaths? It is written there: "Thou shalt not commit murder" "Thou shalt not commit adultery" "Thou shalt not steal"--are you angels subject to any of those vices?...
If I may allow myself a pinch of homiletical license, I think that we might expound the legend such that the angels, who are metaphysical beings without physical bodies or emotions (with the apparent exception of jealousy...), represent a "general" or "generic" relationship with the Almighty. I have no doubt that their experience of closeness to God is sublime beyond my imagination. However the point of the story is that the covenant embodied in the Torah is not for them, but for finite and distinctive human beings.

The bottom line is that the Egyptian slavery and liberation are unique to the experience of Israel, as are other historical events whose commemoration and reenactment form a central part of the covenantal commandments. The celebrations of the Israeli agricultural seasons speak to the experiences of Israel in a way that can make no real sense to peoples who have grown up in different climates and environments.

To insist on restricting the Divine-human relationship to elements that are generic to all human experience, reflecting our common origins as children of Noah, might be possible in some realms. However if religion were allowed to deal only with such generalities, I fear that it would leave us with a stark, lifeless sort of affair with very little appeal to anyone other than a handful of theologians. By defining the covenant in terms of the particular situation of a historical community, the good Lord was acknowledging some fundamental facts of the human situation. People can then express the values and aspirations of their faith in terms that have existential meaning for them.

For to have done otherwise would have been as absurd a the notion of being "married in general."

This same accommodation to the realities of human nature is in evidence when we consider the opposite possibility, namely, of treating covenants as unique relationships that vary with each and every individual. Again, the possibility might be theoretically conceivable, but my gut feeling is that that kind of model utterly contradicts a human nature that is built upon family and social interactions. At any rate, this kind of solitary mystical navel-gazing is clearly not an option that is acceptable to the Biblical value system, which is committed to the creation of a just and compassionate society.

The fact that the Biblical covenant was established with a particular community, sharing a common ancestry and history, thus comes across as a perfectly natural phenomenon. In a country that is terrified by the prospects of regionalism and fragmentation, we might derive some consolation from the recognition that humans have a natural predilection for identifying with social units of a limited size, and that when I locate myself spiritually within one particular community this does not imply a rejection of the validity of other communities, any more than my devotion to my own family demands that I despise all other families. Au contraire: Surely it is only through the love of spouse, family and community that we can hope to arrive at the ability to feel love for humanity "as a whole."

4. Additional Topics:

There remain a number of important questions that might benefit from examination in light of the Covenant model. Whether for reasons of limited competence, or of diplomatic discretion, I shall confine myself to little more than mentioning them.

A. Limits to Tolerance

While the Covenant model that we have been describing provides a basis for pluralism and tolerance, I think it should be clear that not everything is acceptable. Although nobody would be happier than I to distance ourselves from those medieval days when any deviation from my particular version of truth constituted grounds for inquisitions, excommunication or extermination, we must nevertheless not lose our ability to recognize the limits of such toleration, and raise our arms and voices against evils. As a non-Christian, I am not subject to the prohibition of "judge not," or even of turning the other cheek. At any rate, I would hope that as religious people we can distance ourselves from a social norm in which "judgmental" is has become a morally debilitating term of opprobrium.

I do not have any clear guidelines to offer you on where to draw the line between tolerance and the upholding of moral or religious principles. I am certain that it would make a useful topic for several additional Summer Institutes.

B. That Nasty Jewish-Christian Problem

In my abstract unpacking of the Covenant idea, I have been quite vague about where and how I envisaged the application of these ideas. Most of what I have said could easily be referring to the question of ecumenical cooperation among your respective denominations. Anyone who has been reading recent newspaper reports about the increasing fragmentation and intolerance among Jewish movements will certainly be astounded at the chutzpah involved in inviting a Jew to instruct you in the intricacies of interdenominational harmony!

Nevertheless, I have studiously refrained from dealing with the implications vis à vis Christian-Jewish relations. I am of course not blind to the disastrous consequences that have emerged from the competing claims of the two communities to inclusion in the same covenant. The conflict has previously been characterized as a form of sibling or oedipal rivalry , and by adding an adulterous ingredient to the stew I have not solved or lessened the problem. Once again, I have no facile solution to this situation.

At least, allow me to delineate some parameters for understanding the issues.

i. We really do disagree.

The honest recognition of this fact must precede any attempt at candid discussion between the two sides. To put it crudely, each side believes that the other is severely mistaken about central points in their respective belief systems. I have seen individuals whom I love I admire greatly devoting themselves to the quest for a mutually acceptable statement of creed. Not only is this an futile task, but the very attempt violates the premises of dialogue. Do not hold your breath for religious Jews to recognize the validity of Christian claims to an authentic covenant.

I should add that the futility of attempts at harmonization extends to several areas that are not always appreciated by all concerned. To take a simple instance, every springtime I am approached by a number of Christian friends who proudly inform me they are planning to hold a traditional Jewish Passover feast, a seder. Sometimes they ask me to participate in an active or passive capacity, and they usually try solicit my help in finding kosher lamb-meat. The expectation is that as a Jew, I will be gratified by their attempts to return to Christianity's Jewish roots.

Please be advised, that the affect of such activities on committed Jews is precisely the opposite. They are more likely to be irritated, or downright offended, by this usurpation of a cherished Jewish tradition and perversion of its significance. From a Jewish perspective such well-intentioned deeds merely exacerbate the historical tensions of two communities laying claim to the same historical covenant. You have every right to do so, but don't expect us to be thrilled about it.

ii. We must begin by accepting our differentness.

In the religious arenas we must accept the premise that is so sacred and beneficial to our political and social life, that it is possible to respect, and even love, those with whom we disagree. As a parent of teen-agers, I can't recall the last time anyone in my family agreed with me, and yet that does not lessen our affection for one another.

In light of what we have just said, I pray that there is no need to reiterate the self-evident corollary, that out-and-out missionizing aimed at the other religion is totally unacceptable, implying as it does a delegitimization of the other faith. For Christians after the Holocaust to insist on the need for the conversion of Jews, or to support such a mission, is nothing short of a historical obscenity.

iii. Avoid theological dialogue

Even when we seem to be drawing from the same wellsprings of conceptual vocabulary, this is likely to be illusory. Several years ago I coined a bon mot about Jews and Christians being divided by their common Bible. Trust me that it is so, that even when we think that we are using the same words or quoting the same scriptural verses, odds are that they have a completely different meaning to Jews and to Christians. While there might be some long-term value in sorting out those differences, I do not think that now is the ideal time to be doing so.

For those of you who are still trying to fit all this into my marriage metaphor, I should make it clear that we have now ventured into some sensitive and controversial territory. I confess that I am promoting a "guy" type of approach to which many, especially psychotherapists and members of the female persuasion, would object and insist that all differences ought to be talked out rather than allowing them to linger and fester.

Sorry, folks, but I shall here invoke my personal credentials as a husband of twenty-five years. Sometimes there are issues that are best left alone, at least temporarily. Even when open communication is crucial within my family, it might not be wise to remind my next-door neighbour about those unreturned garden tools from a dozen years ago just when it looked as if we are starting to get along well together...

iv. "Just do it"

Here we return to the point that I tried to argue at the start of this talk. Covenanting is an activity, not a state. Work at it, as you would with your marriage, without devoting too much thought to its conceptual underpinnings. And whatever you do, don't start comparing your "chosenness" with that of the folks down the road, and don't get yourself obsessed about what goes on in their (metaphoric) kitchen or bedroom. Their family does not require your approval, nor does yours need theirs. All such exercises in comparison or analysis will in the end only serve to draw attention to potential contention.

On the other hand, friendships and neighbourliness tend to flower out of common activities, the (metaphoric) PTA meetings and neighbourhood barbecues (hockey and little league, I am told, do not achieve this purpose). In real terms, I am convinced that participation in a project like the Inter-Faith food bank does more towards advancing interreligious understanding than a dozen dialogue sessions.

After we've learn to get along as human beings, we can always invent the theologies to justify it.

5. Lets Conclude with a Story from the Talmud

Allow me to conclude by quoting a story from the Talmud that illustrates what can happen when people interact on the simple level of human decency.

Said Rav Judah, said Samuel: They asked Rabbi Eliezer: How far does the requirement of honouring one's father and mother extend? He said to them: Go and see what a certain pagan by the name of Dama Bar Netinah did for his father in Ashkelon. Once the sages of Israel asked him for precious jewels for the priestly breastplate for a price of 600,000. [Rav Kahana taught: for a price of 800,000]. However the keys were lying under his father's head, and he refused to inconvenience him. The following year, the Holy One gave him his reward, when a red heifer was born into his herd. When the sages of Israel approached him, he said to them: I can tell that if I were to demand all the money in the world you would give it to me. However I want from you only the amount of money that I lost while honouring my father. And Rabbi Hanina said: If such is the reward of a person who performs a precept for which he is not commanded, how much greater is the reward of those who perform the commandments because they are commanded! (Talmud Kiddushin 31a)
The rabbis, not withstanding their uncompromising ideological opposition to idolatry, were full of admiration for a pious deed performed by a the pagan Dama, even where they were unable to sanction the deities by whom he might have felt "chosen" or "covenanted." I think that with some determination and good will, we can hope to achieve at least as much.


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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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*A Talk given on June 23 1997

to the 11th Annual Summer Ecumenical Institute on "Covenants and Covenanting Churches,"

Sponsored by the Saskatoon Centre for Ecumenism and the churches of Calgary,

FCJ Christian Life Centre, Calgary