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Shavuot and the Meaning of the Covenant
As we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we should pause to consider the covenantal relationship that Sinai represents.

Written by David Hartman, May 2011

See below for three guiding questions for readers

In honor of the festival of Shavuot, I propose looking at two of our tradition’s most important narratives – the binding of Isaac, and Abraham’s argument with God regarding the fate of the inhabitants of Sedom – as a way of penetrating the meaning of our covenant with God. These narratives constitute for me the two paradigmatic approaches to Jewish consciousness and character, and illuminate the true meaning of our covenantal relationship with the divine. As much as we commemorate the giving of the Torah itself on Shavuot, it is this covenantal bond that we celebrate and strive to understand.

In the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, known in the Hebrew parlance as the Akeida, Isaac is not ultimately sacrificed by his father in the most literal sense. Yet the theological implications of a God who would issue such an order to his most loyal servant – and that Abraham would, in turn, seemingly eagerly obey – present us with one of the most morally and psychologically confounding episodes in the entire Bible. The Abraham of this story is a passive figure, quietly acquiescing to God’s demands, in full acceptance of his role as a finite human, incapable of questioning or deciphering God’s omniscience.

The Abraham of the Sedom narrative faces an entirely different set of circumstances. Upon considering the destruction of the city of Sedom, God asks Himself, “Can I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?” (Genesis 18: 17) This is the rhetorical question of a God who has conceived of Abraham as a full partner, and to whom He considers Himself accountable. When God informs Abraham of his plan to destroy the city, Abraham responds, “What if there are 50 righteous people in the city?” He continues to challenge God, as the number of theoretically righteous dwindles, finally, to 10. In Abraham’s final challenge to God, “Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” Abraham reveals himself not only as a man of faith, but as an empowered man of faith, for whom insistence on his own moral intuition is as vital as his belief in a monotheistic God.

The accounts of Sedom and the Akeida represent two very different religious anthropologies: how we relate to God is going to be determined by these two stories. Which story is constitutive of Judaism: the narrative of sacrificial self-surrender or the narrative of assertive moral challenge? These stories represent two distinct views of religion; two distinct views of living according to Halacha; two distinct views of what it means to stand before God in prayer.

The Abraham of the Akeida doesn’t utter a single syllable of protest against a God who commands him to murder his beloved son. Yet, when confronted with God’s plan for Sedom, Abraham articulates a highly developed argument. He tells God, “Far be it for You to do such a thing. To bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty so the innocent and guilty fare alike.” The text then continues:

“And the Lord answered, ‘If I find within the city of Sedom 50 innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham spoke up saying, ‘Here I ventured to speak to my Lord, who am I but dust and ashes, what if the 50 innocent should lack five, would you destroy the city for the five? And He answered, ‘I will not destroy it if I find 45 there, and he spoke to him again and said, ‘What if 40 should be found there?’ and he said, ‘I will not do it for the sake of the 40,’ and he said, ‘Let not my Lord be angry if I go on. What if 30 should be found there?”

This is a shocking, some might say arrogant, display of temerity on Abraham’s part. Yet in the midst of his protest, Abraham remains humble; he acknowledges he’s just dust and ashes. He seems to approach God with the attitude of someone saying, “I agree with you, God, that I’m nothing, but I can’t help but speak. God, please forgive me for being so bold…

And he doesn’t stop. That’s the most important thing about his prayer. Perhaps God wants him to stop, and the God of the Bible certainly could have made him stop, but God allows Abraham to continue. In Abraham’s argument – and in God’s acceptance of the validity of his argument – I imagine God is saying to Abraham, “I love you for challenging me. I want to hear you challenge me more. Don’t give in too quickly.”

On what basis did Abraham bring his moral challenge to God? We see from the text that God willingly invites him to continue. God understands that in questioning his justice, Abraham is offering a prayer. And God, in some way, loves this prayer. He loves man questioning His justice. The God in the story of Sedom is a God who feels responsible to Abraham.

“Can I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?” is one of the most powerful verses in the Torah. In posing this rhetorical question, God, as the creator of the world, gives up unilateral authority over history. In asking this question, God Himself articulates the essential model of covenantal morality: God can no longer act unilaterally. This is the covenant. And this, for me, is the paradigm for how to approach our understanding of a Jewish God.

It’s important to remember that Abraham did not succeed in saving the city of Sedom. His argument with God – however theologically important – in the end, failed. God eventually destroys the city of Sedom; that’s His final answer. What is valuable about this account, then, is Abraham’s process. God ultimately destroys Sedom because he doesn’t find enough righteous people there. That doesn’t interest me as much as the fact that Abraham felt he had the legitimacy to ask Him not to do it. And God had to respond to his demands.

There are essentially two ways to view our relationship with God: one approach says I’m nothing; only in my relationship to God am I something. In the other approach, an individual’s relationship to God makes him or her feel enhanced, enriched, empowered. Covenantal spirituality moves us toward self-expansion. It endows us with the ability to trust our own moral intuition, our own moral sensibility, our whole spiritual hunger.

One problem in the Jewish world today is that we no longer consider this kind of language Jewish; we’ve abdicated the language of personal moral agency to secular humanists. Yet giving strength to that inner moral voice is in itself not only very deeply religious, it is also deeply rooted in the tradition. It’s not just a liberal perspective; it is fundamental to the God relationship that we not abandon our own moral integrity.

***

The Akeida is not constitutive of Judaism. It is a moment in a religious life, but it is just that: a moment. It is not the organizing framework for how to live. For me, the Akeida is the moment when we come to the edge of the intelligible, when we meet suffering or tragedy, or any experience that we cannot make sense of with our rational minds. There are moments when the life of faith requires submission or silence. Sometimes even the empowered man meets a situation in which he’s overwhelmed. Sometimes even Abraham is at a loss for an adequate response to the divine will. The Akeida means we acknowledge – and allow a place for – resignation as a moment in the spiritual life.

My view of the Akeida as a moment of religious experience – rather than the apex of religious experience – is predicated first and foremost on my understanding of revelation. The very concept of revelation indicates that God wants us, in some way, to understand the world. If we were incapable of understanding, why would God bother commanding us? Intelligibility is the sine qua non of any relationship. The very notion of revelation is that we can understand.

The Akeida represents the moments of darkness in the human experience, the moments when we stand before the divine in silence or resignation. But the defining metaphor for us must remain the image of Abraham standing before God – not in submission – but in empowerment. The Abraham that we look to must be the Abraham who is unafraid to argue with God: to demand that He act with justice, to beseech Him towards compassion. The measure of a human being – the very genuinesness of a human being – is his or her capacity for compassion. This is the Abraham of the covenant.

***

The covenant has been the central motivating principle that has characterized my whole theology. The covenant is often understood as God’s promise to watch over Israel and Israel’s promise to be obedient to God’s law; that’s the final chapter in Leviticus. I propose using covenant in a different way. From Abraham we learn that it is the very essence of the covenant to empower us, to allow us to trust our own moral convictions – and to trust our ability to act. The covenant tells us to stand on our own two feet and not to wait patiently for God to save us. In this sense, the covenant is the opposite of divine grace.

The covenant is about the liberation of human beings in all their power: morally – but also intellectually and creatively. For me, the true meaning and purpose of the covenant is that human beings, by entering into the reality and presence of God, access the ability to discover themselves and their abilities. The covenant is a relational concept which implies the divine empowerment of human beings to take responsibility for all facets of life. The covenant means we follow the Talmudic precedent Lo b’shamaim hi, that the Torah is not in heaven. Man is called to take responsibility for the direction of history and not wait for a supernatural God to rescue him.

That is the great achievement of the Zionist revolution. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, who see the State of Israel as an affront to God’s sovereignty, I claim that Zionism has brought about an enrichment of the covenant. Zionism extended the covenantal tradition of empowerment and marked the rejection of passivity as the hallmark of religious life.

The covenant is not only about the empowerment of human beings; it is about the withdrawal of God’s control. God’s shift from exerting His singular will to the covenantal model is an important change in the way God relates to the universe. One can understand this shift as a manifestation of divine love. God initiates Creation, Revelation, and the movement of history; He then calls upon human beings to complete the task.

In my book, A Heart of Many Rooms, I write about the three stages of the covenant. The first stage of the covenant centers on human privilege; the second stage introduces the notion of human responsibility; the third stage is about taking an active role in the unfolding of history. The God of Creation steps back and says man must now take responsibility for life – and that the sacredness of human life must be the guiding principle. Creation establishes the intrinsic dignity of every single human being. The covenant that emerges from the Creation narrative means we are called to enhance and enrich human life by creating social frameworks in which human dignity is expressed. The covenant that emerges from Revelation means God presents us with the normative founding moment for building an ordered moral world, and then withdraws; God steps back so that we can step forward.

The third stage of the covenant is where God appears to abandon human history. But God has not abandoned us; He has empowered us, by opening history to human evaluation, judgment, and control. In the covenant, history becomes subject to human scrutiny, rationality, and moral power. The unfolding of history is not a chronicle of divine manipulation as described in the Exodus narrative. God’s covenantal consciousness has transformed history from a divine drama to a story of human potential.

This Shavuot, as we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we should pause to consider the covenantal relationship that Sinai represents. Understanding our relationship with the divine begins with understanding our covenant with Him: a covenant that presents us with a world that is waiting to be shaped by human initiative and action.

Guiding Questions for Readers

  1. David Hartman writes, “One problem in the Jewish world today is that we no longer consider this kind of language Jewish; we’ve abdicated the language of personal moral agency to secular humanists. Yet giving strength to that inner moral voice is in itself not only very deeply religious, it is also deeply rooted in the tradition.” What are some ways of cultivating independent and empowered moral integrity as a religious exercise and not simply as a liberal exercise? What would this project achieve and how would it look?
  2. Do you agree with David Hartman that the Akeida or Binding of Isaac is a “moment” but not “constitutive of Judaism”? Are there other ways of reading the Akeida where it could serve as an organizing framework?
  3. How is Hartman’s insight about the third stage of the covenant – where God withdraws so humans can exercise their potential and act or intervene in history – applicable to the current moment of global pandemic? Alternatively, does this period in history call for a different model of relationship with God?