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Israel and Judaism’s Future: The Covenant and Human Responsibility

The State of Israel is the main catalyst to rethinking the meaning of God as the Lord of History.
Image: ruskpp/Adobe Stock
Image: ruskpp/Adobe Stock
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 6: The Covenant and Human Responsibility

From a Talmudic perspective in which God is mediated in halakhic action, it would be legitimate to claim that any event that challenges us to widen the application of the normative halakhic system intensifies the sense of God’s presence in daily life. I wish, however, to make the stronger claim that the rejection of the traditional posture of waiting for messianic redemption can itself be seen as a further elaboration and intensification of the spirit of covenantal responsibility found in the covenantal patriarchal and Sinai narratives and, above all, in the rabbinic tradition. I am not claiming that this is what the Zionist founders intended, but that rebuilding and renewing the community’s national form of life extended and developed further the rabbinic tradition’s understanding of the role assigned to human beings in the covenant.

In the rabbinic tradition Israel is not only called upon to implement covenantal norms, but also to analyze, define and expand their content. No longer is God the final interpreter of His own law as in the biblical tradition. Now He is prepared to accept the verdict of scholars in the rabbinic academy who declared that Torah is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12). In the rabbinic tradition, revelation alone does not define how Torah is understood and applied in concrete situations.

The rabbinic tradition loosened the grip of the biblical paradigm of revelation and the need for prophecy by empowering human beings to reveal and expand the meaning of Torah through rational reflection and legal argumentation. In the classic Talmudic story of the dispute regarding the ritual status of the “oven of Aknai,” R. Eliezer invoked divine assistance in order to persuade the sages to accept his position after failing to convince them with legal arguments. After several miracles failed to win the sages over to his point of view,

…he [R. Eliezer] said to them: “if the law is as I say, let it be proved from heaven!” Whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the law is as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven” [Deut. 30:12]. What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah: “That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because Thou has long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline’” [Exod. 23:2]             (T.B. Baba Metzia 59b)

The rabbis understood “It is not in heaven” to mean that human beings could define and expand the meaning of God’s word without the need for prophesy or miraculous divine intervention. Yet, while firmly maintaining that Torah was not in heaven, rabbinic Judaism remained committed to the biblical idea that history was in heaven. Jewish history on the national level continued to be perceived in terms of the exodus-from-Egypt model where the all-powerful Lord of History miraculously redeems a powerless people.

The covenantal community takes upon itself responsibility for what the word of God means. Learning becomes a dominant new expression of religious passion. Rabbi Akiva, one of the forerunners of the intellectually dynamic and bold interpretative tradition of the Talmud, who in his life expressed total commitment and love for God, claimed that the paradigmatic book for understanding Israel and God was the Song of Songs. “All the books of the Bible are holy; the Song of Songs is the holy of holies” (Yadayim 3:5). In the rabbinic period, God as teacher and lover became the central metaphors of the covenantal relationship with the God of Israel.

Despite this human-oriented transformation of the roles of prophecy and miracles in mediating God’s love and intimacy, the rabbinic tradition did not similarly neutralize the need for divine miraculous intervention with respect to the Jewish peoples’ national political existence. Attitudes to history continued to be characterized by a prayer-like longing for divine intervention in history that would solve the suffering of Jewish exile and national insecurity. Jewish political liberation – Israel’s return to its ancient national homeland – was conceived in terms of the biblical paradigm of the exodus from Egypt.

May He who performed miracles for our ancestors redeeming them from slavery to freedom, redeem us soon and gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth… (Prayer for the New Month)

Jews waited for redemption. Liberation would come from a power beyond and independent of human initiative. In contrast to the culture of the beit midrash, the Torah academy, where Jews felt no need for revelatory intervention to know how to apply Torah, outside of the confines of the academies of learning God’s power was absolute and supreme. Here Jews had to wait patiently for God’s intervention. Although Torah was not in heaven, Jewish historical destiny was.

The Zionist revolution expanded the rabbinic spirit of confidence and trust in human initiative to new dimensions by liberating Jews from the traditional orientation of passivity to historical hope grounded in helpless dependency on the Lord of history. According to what I call a covenantal approach to Judaism, the dramatic significance of the establishment of the State of Israel is not as a sign of the imminent unfolding of religious eschatology but is an exciting new stage in a process that began at Sinai where Israel was prepared to accept God’s self-limiting love as the central theological principle of its religious way of life.

Today, Jews are in a position to move further in the development of the covenantal concept that began at Sinai by expanding our covenantal consciousness to include responsibility for our fate in history. The covenantal community is called upon to complete the process that began at Sinai by bearing witness to the idea that without divine self-limitation there can be no mature, responsible historical role for Israel in the covenantal relationship with God.

One can summarize the different stages of this covenantal process in the following way. The Bible liberated the will of the individual to act with responsibility. “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him” (Deut. 30: 19-20). The Talmud liberated the intellect to define the contents of Torah. Zionism liberated the will of the nation to become politically responsible, to promote the “ingathering of the exiles” and to re-establish Israel as a covenantal nation in history without relying on a divine rupture into human history.

The State of Israel is, therefore, the main catalyst to rethinking the meaning of God as the Lord of History. The future of Judaism depends on our ability to discover meaningful ways of relating to God’s love and power in a world where history, and not only Torah, is not in heaven.

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

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