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Israel and Judaism’s Future: Creation, Divine Self-Limitation and the Covenant

The development toward covenantal responsibility reaches its quintessential expression in the moment of Sinai
Michelangelo - public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Michelangelo - public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

Rabbi Prof. David Hartman explores Israel’s unfinished business in this in-depth essay tracing the history of Zionism and the religious response to it, as well as the new covenant he sees has been created by the creation of the State of Israel:

Part 5: Creation, Divine Self-Limitation and the Covenant

The Creation story in Genesis provides the theological and anthropological framework for understanding the concept of the covenant at Sinai. According to the first chapters of Genesis, God initially believed that humans would reflect divinity by virtue of God’s magnificent powers as Creator. Man and woman were made in God’s image. Precisely this act, however, contains the seeds of alienation and rebellion against God. Because human beings are endowed with freedom of choice, mirroring God’s own freedom, they are not automatons that necessarily mirror the divine hope for human history.

God’s will meets no opposition in the creation of nature, but it meets opposition in the creation of humans. This is the fundamental significance of the story of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the sequel up to the destruction wrought by the flood. The flood expresses the divine rage when God’s will is frustrated.

The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. And the Lord said: “1 will destroy man … both man and beast…. (Gen. 6:5-7)

These verses should be contrasted with the earlier chapters of Genesis where the Lord takes pleasure in all of creation including human beings: “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” (Gen 1:31) In the Creation drama man and woman are the culmination. If they fail, all of creation loses its significance for God. After the flood, God promises Noah to separate His ongoing activity as the Creator of nature from the behavior of human beings.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:20-22)

Nature is now endowed with intrinsic significance as a creation of God independent of human behavior. God will no longer destroy nature because of humanity. The Creator of the universe further differentiates between nature and human history by setting self-imposed limits that distance God from human beings. God moves from Creator to Covenant-Maker when He accepts that the Divine Will alone does not ensure that the human world will mirror His vision for history. This change is revealed in the contrast between Abraham and Noah.

Abraham’s prayer for the people of Sodom reflects the all-powerful God of Creation’s decision to become the limited Lord of History. Abraham stands at Sodom as God’s responsible and dignified “other.” The rabbis noted this in contrasting the behavior of Abraham and Noah. When God told Noah that He was about to destroy the world, Noah accepted God’s decree passively. But when God told Abraham that He was about to destroy two evil cities, Abraham pleaded at length on behalf of the innocent who might be destroyed with the guilty (Gen. 18:23-33). In the case of Abraham, God felt obliged to consult His covenantal partner before implementing His plan.

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. (Gen. 18:17-19)

The development toward covenantal responsibility reaches its quintessential expression in the moment of Sinai, when a whole nation is commissioned to implement in its total way of life the will of God as expressed in the mitzvot. In contrast to nature where the will of God is expressed as absolute power, at Sinai the community is called to share responsibility for history. The covenant mediated by the mitzvot continues the shift of the frame of reference from a theocentric drama in which God seeks to maintain total control (the creation and exodus stories) to a covenantal drama in which a human community is charged with the responsibility of building a society that will reveal the presence of God in human life. “And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the community of Israel” (Lev. 22:32).

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