Renewing the Covenant: David Ellenson & Eugene Borowitz in Conversation

May 1, 2013
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Dr. Eugene Borowitz was and is my teacher, as he has been for hundreds of rabbis and thousands of others for more than 50 years. He has shaped how we conceptualize and think about Judaism and its meanings and applications in the modern world. Central to his thought has been the concept of covenant (brit). This interview gave me an opportunity to speak with my rabbi and to ask him to reflect on his lifetime’s work as well as on some issues confronting the Jewish community today. —D.E.            


David Ellenson: What is it that drew you to the notion of covenant as the major organizing rubric for your thought? Was it your reading of the tradition itself — from Bible or Talmud?  I’ve noted that Isaac Mayer Wise, in his book Minhag America, is the only Reform liturgist to change the wording of “v’zocher hasdei avot” ([God] remembers the loving deeds of the fathers) in the Amidah prayer to “v’zocher brit avot” (“[God] remembers the covenant [He made] with our fathers”). He affirmed the notion of covenant, as you have, as the central theological concept in Judaism. But I would be surprised if you received your inspiration from him.

Eugene Borowitz: You’re certainly right. I wouldn’t turn to Isaac Mayer Wise as a source of theological insight. Early on in my writing career, I had the temerity to write to Rabbi Alfred Jospe, who was in charge of the Hillel Foundation’s cultural programming. I wrote, “Today, everybody is talking about sexual relations — whether people should feel freer about it; why don’t you write a book that says something about it?” Of course, he replied by asking me to write that book. I wrote several terrible drafts that I discarded. Finally, I managed to say something sensible. It was 1968 and I spoke to average college students in their language and offered them four possibilities — that’s why the book was called Choosing a Sex Ethic: A Jewish Inquiry. When I got to the end of the book, I realized I hadn’t said anything Jewish about the question of sex, so I sat down and revised it.

That moment prompted me to question: “How do we move from universal ethics to Jewish ethics?” After talking to many people — some who questioned how rooted my thought was in Jewish tradition and whether my thought was more indebted to the modern concept of autonomy than to Judaism itself — I was able to write Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. At the heart of the book — made clear just by reading the table of contents — was the notion that we needed a Jewish language of relationship to address the spiritual crisis we were facing.


David Ellenson: You have argued that the move from ethics to God no longer engenders an idealist construction of God. Instead, this movement from the moral to the divine in postmodern Jewish faith has been marked by a belief in a personal deity, one that is both transcendent and immanent. How would you define your concept of covenant deriving from this tradition? And how do you believe it should function? How would you say you argued it in Renewing the Covenant, and has anything changed today?

Eugene Borowitz: I have a problem with the long-standing argument between philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig about our responsibility as Jews. Rosenzweig was too specific; while he contended that Jews had to be open to the possibility that all of Jewish law was divine, his own view of revelation couldn’t validate the fact that we would have to adhere to the entire law. And Buber was too open-ended and unable to validate the notion of Jewish law — so central to historical Judaism — altogether.  I wanted to offer a creative reading of and beyond Buber’s point of view, on a relatively practical level. Renewing the Covenant — published in the early 1990s — is a statement as to why the alternatives were unacceptable. Neither a full traditionalism could be introduced as a dictum of Jewish law nor a rejection of the possibility that one simply needed to follow one’s conscience.

I wrote that Jews today should take into account the modern condition and how our inherited tradition fared in this context. As a liberal Jew, I emphasized the Reform notion of the self as a Jewish self and spoke about the dialectic of living as a covenantal Jew, oscillating between the claims of the group and the consciousness of the self, between the ethical mandates of the universal and the necessary demands of the particular. The Jewish concept of covenant permits the Jew to engage these dialectics in an authentic manner.

David Ellenson: Twenty years have passed since you wrote that book. Then, you wrote that the autonomous self was so shaped by the covenant that “whatever issues from its depths will have authentic Jewish character. The secular concept of self must be transformed in terms of its Covenantal context.” Today, we live in an age, if I could borrow a term from the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and scholar Arnold Eisen and the social scientist Steven Cohen, of the sovereign self. How does your notion of a Jewish covenantal self hold up? Has it been challenged by our new social and cultural reality?

Eugene Borowitz: My position hasn’t changed. Indeed, I would still assert that American Jews should make choices with an awareness of what has traditionally been understood as our God-oriented sense of responsibility. But I have no formula other than to teach and exemplify what it might mean to live with a sense of obligation to God.

David Ellenson: I’d be curious to know how you view your own conception of covenant in relationship to that of Rabbi David Hartman or perhaps Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. All three of you have been among the great teachers of the past 20, 30, 40 years. Does your own view of covenant overlap with theirs?  How is it distinct?

Eugene Borowitz: When I started Sh’ma in 1970, I turned to thinkers along the spectrum of religious thought. But we rarely discussed theology — probably because we respected each other’s covenantal loyalty. I found myself going in a nontraditional direction. I needed to find an answer to the almost terrifying question: How do we know when to say “no” to the tradition? And how do we know when to say “yes” to it? I found my own way by rejecting Buber. That’s what I tried to set forth in Renewing the Covenant — and still maintain today.

David Ellenson: Today, the rate of Jewish exogamy has reached significant proportions. What do you think the implications of this are for Jewish authenticity?

Eugene Borowitz: Let me avoid giving a specific answer by saying I read somewhere that at the present time, of the Jews who marry out, about 40 percent now plan to raise their children as Jews. Twenty or 30 years ago, if you married out, you left the Jewish community. Perhaps we have a major new form of enlarging the Jewish community. It’s optimistic, but it would relieve us of a great deal of problems. And I do not know how to appeal to people about the need for Jewish endogamy.

David Ellenson: So let me ask a specific question, only tangentially having to do with covenant. At HUC-JIR, some student sermons have challenged our current policy in which we insist on endogamy — that our incoming students with partners have Jewish partners. In fact, last month, two of our students debated this very issue in the pages of Sh’ma. I’m now being called upon, as president of the college, to lead a discussion about the possible alteration of this policy. I’m now asking you, as my rabbi and teacher, how might you guide me?

Eugene Borowitz: Well, I would like to call attention to the fact that many institutions give smikha. By retaining the policy, the college will not deprive the Jewish community of rabbis who are intermarried. Such students can go to other institutions. As one of the major institutions of American Jewish life, HUC-JIR cannot change a policy that was designed to increase and strengthen Jewish life; the policy sets an example of how a Jewish home ought to be. Beyond that, we must remember what marriage and Judaism mean, even in Reform or classical Judaism.

David Ellenson: But is a policy of outreach, our attempt to bring in exogamous couples, inconsistent with a policy which affirms that our rabbinic and cantorial leadership must be endogamous? I am charged with being inconsistent: As the Reform movement, we reach out to be inclusive of intermarried people when they elect to be part of the community — that 40 percent you mentioned earlier — and yet we do not allow rabbis and cantors who themselves might be intermarried, but whose partners would nevertheless “practice Judaism” to be admitted to the college. I confess I favor the continuation of our current policy and regard endogamy as the Jewish ideal.

Eugene Borowitz: To my knowledge, HUC has, over the past 50 years, increased its Jewish standards on many different levels: greater literacy in Hebrew and basic Judaism. The college insists that students learn more Hebrew than many want to learn, read more books than they have been required [to read] in the past. So, too, should not the standards with regard to personal observance increase? While recognizing the challenges, and how easy it would be to be nice to every point of view, the college needs to set a standard of Jewish practice that is high and strong and firm.

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Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the founding editor of Sh’ma, is Distinguished University Professor and Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor of Education and Jewish Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College−Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he has taught since 1962. As a scholar, teacher, and mentor, he has guided generations of students into positions of leadership for the Reform movement. His many books include Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide, The Mask Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry, and, with Frances Weinman Schwartz, The Jewish Moral Virtues.

Dr. David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought. He is the author, most recently, of After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, which won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award as the outstanding book in Jewish thought, and with Daniel Gordis Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa.

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