The Binding Nature of Covenant

Rabbi Amitai Adler
May 1, 2013
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We often tend, these days, to overlook the true significance of the covenantal relationship: probably in no small part because modern Western culture has no real analogue to covenants.

A covenant is not quite a treaty, not quite a pact of friendship or love, not quite a business contract, not quite a social contract, not quite a pledge of allegiance (itself a concept we don’t really understand in our modern democratic societies). Covenants, in the ancient world, had numerous kinds, forms, and variations. But they were deeply solemn, never undertaken lightly, and always involved mutual obligations.

Some covenants, between kings and subjects, were the ancestors of charters of feudal rights, like the Magna Carta; other covenants, between nobles or chieftains, outlined the areas of friction between parties and smoothed them over, while establishing parameters for better future relations; yet others, between individuals, established a kind of über-friendship, almost like two people adopting one another into each other’s family (such covenants were often sealed with a symbolic token shedding of blood, a practice still alluded to today by the fading practice of blood-brotherhood). But all were taken very seriously, and were not considered in any way token or symbolic, but absolutely real and effective.

That we as Jews framed our relationship with God as a covenant is no accident, for the very word implies a staggering amount about what it means to be a Jew, and a participant in the Covenant of Sinai. For a king in ancient times to make a covenant with a subject was a profound gesture of respect from the sovereign to the subject and a mark of great status for the subject, for covenants are in theory relationships of equals, even when in actuality the parties are not of equal rank and everyone knows it. For us to have a covenantal relationship with God is symbolic of our understanding that God values us, and considers the Jewish People to be of importance.

I need to digress momentarily to add that the existence of such a covenantal relationship does not imply exclusivity: even a king could have various covenants of different sorts with various subjects, and one covenant need not imply favoritism over another– they need have no bearing on one another at all. In other words, our covenant with God, which we historically associate with being an am segulah (unfortunately translated as “chosen people,” but I think better sensed as “a people set aside for some purpose”), does not mean that God loves us more than anyone else, or that He doesn’t or couldn’t have other, different, covenants with other peoples. Just that no other people can be the Jewish People, with our identity and particular responsibilities and privileges– any more than we could be some other people, with their identity and particular responsibilities to and privileges from God.

Part of our covenant with God involves Him giving us privileges: the one we have traditionally understood to be primary is Shabbat, and in close order would also be the right to interpret Torah; though there are other privileges also. And part involves God’s obligations to us: to be our God, to be merciful to us whenever possible, to judge us justly, to honor us as the descendants of our great ancestors (and, hopefully, as the ancestors of our great descendants), and some other things as well. The last part is the one we have the most trouble with: the part that involves our obligations to God. The one that initially gave our ancestors the most trouble (not worshipping anything or anyone else besides God) is a cinch for us today: those of us who worship at all, worship God, and plenty of us don’t worship, period. We have immense problems these days with most of the rest of the mitzvot, though.

In part that’s the fault of insufficient or poor Jewish education, and a few other social/cultural factors. But in large part it is because we have forgotten the meaning of covenant, and the meaning of peoplehood, and what it means to honor commitments.

The covenant is binding upon us all. It doesn’t matter if we believe that the covenant was literally established on such and such a day at Sinai, with Moses acting as go-between, or if it was established in some other way, or if it took many years– even generations– of subtle revelation for our ancestors to decide that they had a relationship with God and it was covenantal. The commitment has been made. It was made ages ago, and it was made eternally. It is the fundamental existential bedrock of the Jewish People.

The Rabbis teach us that we have the jurisdictional authority to interpret Torah, to decide (according to the parameters of the laws as the Rabbis set them down and passed them on to us) what the minimums of observance for any given mitzvah might be. This is a gigantic, broad, epically sweeping legal/social authority. And yet it still does not provide for us the authority to determine that we are not bound to the mitzvot at all, or that we are only bound to such few mitzvot as we feel inclined to observe according to our whim that day.  A perusal of our literature, halachic and aggadic, easily shows us that we have always struggled with observance, in the sense of how best to observe the mitzvot, but also in the sense of everyone feeling that some mitzvot are easier to observe, more naturally fulfilling to us, than some other mitzvot. The richness of our tradition shows us that such struggling with our responsibilities is natural, and nothing to be ashamed of.

But, as Rabbi Tarfon pointed out, lo alechah ha-melachah ligmor, ve’lo atah ben chorin libatel mimenah (“You don’t have to finish the job, but you can’t be exempt from it, either.” Pirkei Avot 2:19). All covenants have obligations, just as all societies have binding social contracts, just as children have obligations to parents and parents to children. And just as we as parents make choices for the weal of our children, whether they understand those choices at the time we make them or not, our ancestors chose the covenant for themselves and all of us and everyone who will come after us– whether each one of us always sees the benefit of that choice or not. And just as other societies have expectations of their memberships, duties that must be undertaken, we have our covenantal responsibilities, which are the foundational core of Jewish society, law and custom.

There doesn’t have to be a single, monolithic interpretation of how to do a given mitzvah; there doesn’t have to be a presumption of easiness or effortlessness to doing a given mitzvah; there doesn’t have to be an absence of questioning and struggle in our lives; and there doesn’t have to be either an absence of deeper meaning or an adherence to antiquated or ossified meanings of mitzvot and their observance. But there does have to be an acknowledgement that observance of the mitzvot, en masse, is not optional. It is an obligatory, because it is integral to who we are: a covenanted people.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

2 Comments

  1. Covenants are not always mutual. G-d’s promises to Abram in Genesis 15 are not mutual but irrevocable by G-d Himself.

    Posted by
    Andy
  2. You have helped me understand concepts that I have struggled with for so many years. You validate my desire to keep struggling to figure it all out! Thanks. A good teacher is one who can make complex material comprehensible for students.

    Posted by
    Carol Miller
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