What does it mean to have a covenantal relationship? In the book of Exodus (chapter 19) God says:
“Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
One of the central points of contention in these verses is the causal relationship between the condition in the first part of the first verse (“…if you will obey Me…”) and the reward in the second part of the verse (“you shall be My treasured possession”). Is Israel’s “election” an imminent, essential, and organic part of what it is to be Israel? Or is it an earned title that can therefore also be lost?
Although Jewish theologians have considered these questions throughout history, I find them irrelevant to my life as I try to walk with God.
I am writing shortly after a Ferguson, Mo. grand jury decided not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, last August. The shooting initiated a vigorous exchange — in both private and public spaces — about the veritable plague of shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. The public reckoning often took the form of mass demonstrations — citizens across the nation taking to the streets in a show of concern. At one such gathering, a group of seminary students marched while chanting: “Tell me what theology looks like? This is what theology looks like.”
Though I’m partial to the original slant of this chant, which I first heard while participating in Occupy L.A. (“This is what democracy looks like”), I recognized in this gathering, marching, and speaking in the street a kinship with the way in which rabbinic thought proceeds.
The midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Shirah 4) teaches that God appeared to Israel in different forms on different occasions, including: at the sea, as a gibor oseh milkhamah, a “hero warrior”; and at the revelation at Sinai, as a zaken malay rakhamim, “an elder full of mercy.”
It is in this space, where God appears as needed in different situations, that rabbinic theology does its work. So, for example, when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God was appearing as the One who would stand alongside Israel in exile. These competing and contradictory versions of God do not pose a problem for nonrationalist rabbis.
The transcendent God who pronounces from on high (that the Israelites are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation) is omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal. And while this God may be of interest to theologians, this God is not of much interest to religious people who try to walk with God, humbly, to do justice, and love goodness.
The talmudic sages recognized these distinctions (e.g., they embraced the fact that Isaiah, an urban prophet, saw a different God from the God that Ezekiel, a rural prophet, saw). They understood that a God of abstraction is not a God who is relevant or helpful to those who wish to be a people of God.
I have had the privilege of walking, demonstrating, and standing with people struggling to understand how a white police officer would not be brought to trial for shooting an unarmed black man, once again, and how it could be that black lives did not matter. In those moments, I am never drawn to a transcendent God who made a treaty with Israel to the exclusion of all others. In those moments, I speak of a powerful God who appeared at Sinai and who despised tyrannical oppression. The God who was standing with the black and brown and white folks in Leimart Park, near downtown Los Angeles, was a vulnerable God who mourned destruction and hoped for justice — and at times a fearful God who would guarantee that justice in the end would be victorious.
Sitting with family and friends at the table as I welcome the Shabbat and make kiddush, I do invoke chosenness as a token of intimacy with God. I leave off the fragment of the prayer that defines Israel’s chosenness as exclusive. I do say “asher bakhar banu” (“who has chosen us”), but I do not say “mikol ha’amim” (“from all the nations”). I have no authority, nor should I, over other peoples’ stories of their relationships with God. Other groups may have their own election stories. The election of Israel is part of Israel’s story — part of my story — and it coexists with other peoples’ stories of their own relationships with God.
The theological demand for a consistent image of God, in which God is everywhere and always the same, is irrelevant in the streets where God is often desperately needed.email print