/ articles for review

Freedom in Covenant: A Celebration of Eugene Borowitz’s Theological Quest

Text of a video presentation by Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi honoring Dr. Eugene Borowitz on his 85th birthday, February 17, 2009
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman


Good morning from Jerusalem!

What a great honor and blessing to be part of this celebration of the 85th birthday of Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz. I am Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a student of Dr. Borowitz’s for more than twenty years, and am completing a dissertation on the development and methodology of Dr. Borowitz’s theology. It is a unique opportunity of our age to be able to offer this presentation, while, God willing, giving birth in Jerusalem more or less at the same time! Need I say that my participation in this way was Dr. Borowitz’s idea? An example of how he never fails to find creative solutions for whatever the complexities of being human and being part of this dispersed People might put before us ….

Dr. Borowitz is, without a doubt, the most synergistic and most sweeping thinker of our Judaism today; in fact it is almost impossible to imagine liberal theology, much less the Reform movement, without his influence.  1 He has reconfigured, or according to Dr. Larry Hoffman, Dr. Borowitz actually "invented" the field of modern Jewish theology. 2

To quote just a few other scholarly responses to his thought:

  • “The premier liberal Jewish theologian at work today,” 3

  • The “dean” of contemporary American Jewish thinkers 4

  • “Pastor to Jews in a postmodern world.” 5

  • According to the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf 6 , whose absence today is deeply felt Dr. Borowitz is “the great teacher of our generation, the thinker who best exemplified our strength and who best probes our weaknesses" and also characterized Dr. Borowitz as a "bridge theologian, spanning modernism and postmodernism." 7

This central role in setting the agenda for liberal Judaism that Dr. Borowitz would play for half a century was already clear quite early on:

“What Judaism needs," he wrote in the 1960s, "is not a theology, but theological concern, not theological uniformity but theological informed-ness. …the corrected vision required—sharp focus on the religious component of Jewishness.” 8

Already in 1961 he called this new theology in the making: Covenant Theology 9  – a response to the real God encountered in history. 10

Some 30 years later, we can discern five overlapping elements crucial to Dr. Borowitz’s covenant theology, which he articulates most thoroughly in Renewing the Covenant and in the responses that followed. [He develops out of these concerns five premises of Jewish duty. 11 ]

  1. The centrality of a real God

  2. The decisive voice of the Jewish people – past, present and future

  3. The compelling voice Jewish sacred texts and culture

  4. Ethics and a broad concern for the Other

  5. The Limited Autonomy of the Jewish Self

I’ll admit it’s quite tempting, given the unique nature of this celebration and its explicit reference to the Talmudic models of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, to offer 24 objections to Dr. Borowitz’s theology; better yet to ask from him 24 objections to what we will present here…. But instead let us consider two main issues and the large questions that flow from what Dr. Borowitz has already put before us: 12

Let us begin with God. For those of us who strive for a daily living experience of a commanding, demanding God in our otherwise autonomous Jewish lives and communities, we have much to thank Dr. Borowitz for, the foundations that helped make for a community ripe for – and tolerant of – our ever-widening spectrum of practices and beliefs.

When I was a student at HUC in the early ’90s, Dr. Borowitz was among the one or two members of the faculty at the time who not only was not troubled by my insistence on daily minha prayer, and a commitment to an unusually strict yet liberally understood observance of Shabbat and kashrut, but he actually encouraged parts of it, and engaged me in discussions about it regularly, including in the elevator. Nothing like being asked, at the age of 22 by someone of the stature of Dr. Borowitz, "So tell me, Rachel, Why do you pray everyday?" and needing to give him a coherent answer before getting out on the fifth floor.

I don’t think a day has passed in the ensuing two decades when I have not considered that question in some way, rethought my response, and tried to uphold Dr. Borowitz’s standard for serious theological discussion among current students, colleagues, and our synagogue community in Israel. 13

Already in 1961, Dr. Borowitz was the first to use the term “covenant theology” for the emerging field of non-orthodox Jewish theology… a term which in its modern formulation has oriented and shaped any serious discussion of Jewish theology ever since. In the early 1960s Dr. Borowitz argued that there was a crisis in contemporary liberal Jewish theology and attempted to draw in broad stokes the possible tools to respond.

Initially, Borowitz sought out “the promise” of existentialism having found the narrowly rationalist and conceptual ideas of God lacking. While the existentialism of Martin Buber 14 and Franz Rosenzweig in particular appealed to Dr. Borowitz and some of his colleagues, not only because it, as he said, “restores a real God to us, but one who now has sufficient regard for human freedom such that people become partners in revelation,” 15 he eventually found that he still needed to search for “a less inadequate language of Jewish theology.” 16

By 1974, in a presentation and article in response to receiving the Jewish Book Award for his book, The Mask Jews Wear, he wrote:

…We still need a full-scale treatment of existentialist Judaism, the sort that learns from Buber and Rosenzweig, yet goes beyond them to meet the problems their success and our situation have created. 17 18

Dr. Borowitz’s understanding of revelation and covenant might best be understood as a blending, if not a total integration, of the insights of both earlier thinkers — both an a priori commitment to God’s law, as well as a dialogue with the individual. Both the insistence on the individual’s experience and the commanding, demanding nature of law and tradition earn their full places – influence – presence in Gene’s theology.

Dr. Borowitz gave us a threefold gift:

  • Through Buber, he opened us up to having a personal relationship with a real God, and not only with and idea or a foundation for ethical monotheism; 

  • Through Rosenzweig he brought us nearer to a commanding, demanding God, the God which insists upon a more serious observance of mitzvot; that much more experimentation and practice are possible for the non-orthodox Jew.

  • More importantly even than this combination of Buber and Rosenzweig, Borowitz showed us that it wasn’t enough. What Dr. Borowitz went on to frame the “theological challenge to non-Orthodoxy” as the challenge to “to identify an Absolute (God) weak enough to allow for human self-determination yet absolute enough to set the standards for autonomy’s rightful use.” 19

This largely irresolvable tension – or, as he says, dialectic – between covenantal duty (the authority of the tradition) and the Jewish self’s autonomy (conscience) proved to be the focus of much of his thought. 20

Rather than trying to resolve this dialectic, or solve the inevitable conflicts that arise from this dual covenantal commitment, Dr. Borowitz insisted on a theology that allowed for both, and added even more elements, making our responsibility as serious liberal Jews even more difficult to fulfill, but also ensuring that whatever decisions and practices might emerge would be worthy of our people’s heritage and with a maximum reverence for the God of the covenant.

Given the dialectic of freedom and covenant that we can now fully live, through the premises that Dr. Borowitz lays out at the end of his 1991 Renewing the Covenant, the question must be asked, are we ready now to live out the Covenantal relationship with God in an even greater way? Are we not ready for greater clarity and direction about what practices and mitzvot are demanded by such a relationship? Can we not now, for instance, have greater communal standards about the observance of Shabbat?

The second issue is the role of text in Dr. Borowitz’s thought. Several of his works in rabbinic school and as a graduate student focused on the theology of rabbinic texts, a second major theme in his theology—and he gradually developed an even more text-focused, or as some would later call it, a textual reasoning approach and publishes just a couple of years ago a book entitled The Talmud’s Theological Language-Game.

But already in 1991, he concludes:

...If Jews could confront their Judaism as Jewish selves and not as autonomous persons-in-general, I contend that they would find Jewish law and lore the single best source of guidance as to how they ought to live. Rooted in Israel’s corporate faithfulness to God, they would want their lives substantially structured by their people’s understanding of how its past, present, and future should shape their daily existence.” 21

What then do we discover about Dr. Borowitz’s theology in the half-century between 1960 and 2009? Have his beliefs or methodology changed? While letting go of the existentialist hermeneutic we find Dr. Borowitz insisting simultaneously on an increasing role of the individual Jewish self and more and more grounded in the wisdom of the tradition.

From this second focus in is thought we have learned from Dr. Borowitz that the covenanted individual must study Jewish law and sacred writings, as they reflect the ways in which the Jewish people have understood its covenant with God.

Yet, as Borowitz writes, “this does not rise to the point of validating law in the traditional sense, for personal autonomy remains the cornerstone of this piety.” 22

What we learn from these main concerns with the role of God and of text are far being the only central principles we learn from Dr. Borowitz. Indeed he has, through it all, also taught us that we can affirm our commitment to pluralism while defining its boundaries; embrace modernity while being skeptical of the ways it has betrayed us; celebrate freedom with covenantal duty; and finally commit to Jewish peoplehood (past, present, and future) with a constant vigilance that whatever we do or say in the name of Judaism remain ethical.

So finally, a question that can be framed by what our College President, Rabbi Dr. Ellenson, called in another context, the "Unfinished Task" of Dr. Borowitz’s work:

We have to ask you, Dr. Borowitz, who has so often had the ability to articulate challenges that most thinkers don’t even yet recognize, an immediate question.

What do we need to do next? What kind of rabbis, scholars and theologians must we, your students, work to develop in order to be able to respond to the next crisis in Jewish theology? We have Buber and we have Borowitz; we have in general a much better sense of what it means to have God actively present in our lives, we have through your interpretation of Rosenzweig and others a much better sense of duty, we have a greater commitment to law and of course to spirituality, all based of course on the necessary foundations of text, but now, dear Rebbe, now what? Please show us 24 more arguments for the road ahead, that will make us better interpreters of God’s Torah for the next generation….

And 24,000 blessings to you, Dr. Borowitz, on this great day.


1 For the most inclusive collection of Borowitz’s work, Borowitz, Eugene, 2002. “A Life of Jewish Learning: In Search of a Theology of Judaism,” in Studies in the Meaning of Judaism, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

2 See collection of essays in Jewish Spiritual Journeys, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman and Arnold J. Wolf, 1997. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House. Hoffman writes that Borowitz "created the field of modern Jewish theology.” In a review of Renewing the Covenant, Alan Mittleman writes: “Borowitz has long helped to redefine the terrain of Jewish theology in America.” See Mittleman, Alan L. Review of Renewing the Covenant in First Things 30 (February 1993) 45. In a review of Renewing the Covenant, Neil Gillman writes: “He [Borowitz] has been the articulate spokesman for all of us who have insisted on the legitimacy of a nontraditionalist approach to Jewish belief and practice, without drifting down the slippery slope into radical relativism and anarchy.” Book jacket cover, 1991 JPS edition.

3 Novak, David, Book Review of Eugene B. Borowitz’s The Talmud’s Theological Language-Game in Journal of Religion 87:2 (April 2007): 305.

4 See biography at http://www.huc.edu/faculty/faculty/borowitz.shtml. See also Ochs, Peter, Preface, Reviewing the Covenant, p. vii.

5 Ochs, “The Emergence of Postmodern Jewish Theology and Philosophy,” in Reviewing the Covenant, p. 3.

6 Borowitz, unpublished eulogy for Arnold J. Wolf, December 26, 2008.

7 Wolf, “The Making of Eugene Borowitz”, in Spiritual Journeys, p. xx.

8 Borowitz, A New Jewish Theology in the Making, p. 53.

9 Borowitz, Eugene, “Crisis Theology and the Jewish Community,” in Commentary 32 (July 1961): 36-42.

10 Borowitz, A New Jewish Theology in the Making, p. 41.

11 Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant, p. 288.

12 It’s tempting to screen at this moment a 1995 HUC NY Purim shpiel in which I play the role of Dr. Borowitz, but while imitation is -they say- the highest form of compliment, it’s not worthy enough of this special occasion.

13 A full account of Borowitz’s search for prayerfulness can be found in: “My Pursuit of Prayerfulness” in Judaism After Modernity

14 Ellenson, David and and Krafte-Jacobs, Lori, “Eugene B. Borowitz” in Interpreters of Judaism in the Late Twentieth Century, Ed. Steven T. Katz, B’nai Brith Books, Washington, D.C., 1993, p. 21.

15 Borowitz, Eugene, “A Life,” pp. 389 and 395.

16 Ibid, p 395.

17 He continues:. I once took that to be the task of my generation and then, by default, my own. But in the face of the changing fortunes of philosophical schemes and the continuing problem of how to face intellectual options, it becomes far more important to enlarge the enterprise.

18 Borowitz, “Career of Jewish Existentialism,” pp. 48-49.

19 Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant, p. 78

20 The very fact that the tension is irresolvable in much of his work causes many traditional as well as liberal Jewish readers view it as a central problem in Borowitz’s theology. Yet it is precisely the decision to give primacy to the tradition while at the same time maintaining a measure of autonomy for the Jewish self that is the centerpiece of his theology.

21 Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant, p. 294.

22 Borowitz, “The Autonomous Jewish Self,” p. 44.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics