Beyond doubt: Today’s competing covenants with Jerusalem

In my opinion, the best explication of the relative and connected values of Sinai and Zion is Jon D. Levenson’s masterful 1985 book, Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible.

The large tapestry in the Knesset by Marc Chagall of Moses receiving the Torah (photo credit: KNESSET)
The large tapestry in the Knesset by Marc Chagall of Moses receiving the Torah
(photo credit: KNESSET)
On a recent congregational trip to Israel, my group of 36 members of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA, took an expanded tour of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Our guide, a delightful immigrant from South Africa, did a particularly good job in showing us the large Marc Chagall tapestries (1965-1969) in the State Hall and formal reception area in Israel’s parliament building.
The middle tapestry caught my attention with its large image of Moses and the tablets on the right and King David and his harp on the left. But it was the middle of the middle tapestry that spoke the loudest to me. The people in Chagall’s landscape had turned from Moses to David, that is, from Sinai to Zion.
At the level of the story line narrative of the Exodus, that is unsurprising. The people were going from Egypt to the Promised Land, their march was literally to the north and east. From a Zionist perspective, it also represents the third return to the Land of Israel.
Theologically, however, I believe there is a deeper implication to the image of the reorientation to Jerusalem rooted in Judaism’s complex covenantal theology. I remember as an undergraduate (already interested in studying for the rabbinate) how shocked I was to learn that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah held strikingly dissimilar views of the brit between God and the Jewish people. One covenant, Isaiah’s, was unconditional and not tied to Israel’s compliance with the terms of its divine contract. The other, Jeremiah’s, was fully conditional and tied the people complying with all the laws of the Torah.
On the one hand, Isaiah assured the people that Jerusalem will stand no matter what and on the other, Moses and Jeremiah cautioned that even the “rain will fall” only if the commandments were followed. Ultimately, the survival of Jerusalem in 722 and 701 BCE was understood in terms of Isaiah as grounds for an unconditional Davidic covenant whereas the fall of the city in 586 BCE was contextualized by Jeremiah in terms of an “if-then” understanding of the Biblical brit. Indeed, Jeremiah believed himself compelled to deliver an unchallengeable verdict that Judah had failed and was to be brutally punished for its sins. Ultimately, a middle position, the idea of a saving remnant allowed for the maintenance of an enduring covenant even in the wake of Jerusalem being destroyed both by the Babylonians and by Rome. Accordingly, the Jewish people were sent into Exile to be purged of their sins until restored to their land led by a heaven-sent Messiah.
Thus, the Galut, the physical, existential and spiritual exile of the Jewish people was born and became a fundamental part of Jewish life and psychology until challenged in modern times. For some, life outside of Israel needed to be normalized. A wide range of denationalizing Diasporist ideologies developed from Reform Judaism to socialism to assimiliatonism. In turn, early Zionist, both theoreticians and pioneers of various stripes, sought to demonstrate the need for a Jewish nation. Even in this circle, it took years for a consensus that a return to the land of Israel and not just any place of national refuge was a principle goal of their movement. It was not until the dark days of the Holocaust that the majority but not all Zionists agreed that a Jewish State in Israel was the their historic purpose.
The complexities and dramatic imagery of the different understandings of covenant in Jewish thought are on full display when Parshat Yitro (read on January 26) and its equally dramatic Haftarah from Isaiah are presented as part of the annual cycle of Torah and prophet readings.
First, the covenant at Sinai and then the call of Isaiah at Zion are yoked together not only to compare their revelatory content and religious implications but perhaps also to prioritize their levels of importance in Judaism. Indeed, in the long run, as Chagall himself seems to indicate in his Keneset tapestries, it is from Zion, not Sinai, that “Torah shall come forth.” (Isa 2:3) The shift to a Zion theology was gracefully explained by Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik who once explained that God merely visited Sinai for a fleeting moment but it is to Zion where Jews eternally bring their prayers and hopes. By contrast, even a Reform Zionist like Rabbi Leo Baeck taught that Torah of Sinai is the eternal mid-point in the history of Judaism. For anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews, there is no new covenant with Zion and they remain grounded in Sinai’s commandments awaiting a divinely sanctioned rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. For them, Chagall is bad art and the Knesset is not the real political cradle of the Jewish people.
In my opinion, the best explication of the relative and connected values of Sinai and Zion is Jon D. Levenson’s masterful 1985 book, Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, investigates the theological roots and developments of both of Judaism’s sacred mountains and then explores different models for their relationship as historical (although from a critical perspective, Zion is chronologically first), complementary and even permanently in tension. To some extent, it might even be argued that the difficulty in reconciling or prioritizing Sinai and Zion in Judaism is still being played out in the problematic relationship of the State of Israel and Judaism as a religious interpretation of Jewish existence.
Whatever the relationship of Synagogue and State in Israel today, I would argue that the Jewish people today, especially in Israel and among Israel’s most fervent Diaspora supporters, is largely anchored in the Zion based covenant of King David and Isaiah and believes fervently that covenant of land is permanent and unconditional. Israel can sin and misbehave without theological consequence. The voice of Jeremiah, of a conditional covenant, of punishment for religious failure is no longer heard in the land.
The current Zion theology does not mean that no possible prophetic critique of Israel is possible, only that is secondary. For some Jews, especially of the politically progressive stripe, the covenant of the land is increasingly less compelling and there is a need to restore a conditional covenant based on the ethics of justice as the Judaism’s theological core.
The new Zion based theology of Israel and much of the Jewish world has long been called the “beginning of the redemption” of the Jewish people and gained in strength with successive “signs” such as the founding of the Jewish State, the “miracle” of the Six Day War and most recently gained in theological credence with the moving of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Although partly inspired by Israel’s many military and other successes, the deeper political motive of the current American administration stemmed from its support by pro-Israel American Evangelicals. Evangelical support of Israel is hardly a new phenomenon. American Evangelical groups were already “Zionist” in the 19th century. In England, Hubert Parry’s 1916 hymn “Jerusalem” (based on William Blake’s 1804 text) still resonates with true religious fervor. But it was only in the 1980s with the realignment of American politics and the expanded role of Evangelicalism in American politics, did Christian Zionism expand into a mass movement. By 1980, American Evangelicals already had established their own embassy, the International Christian Embassy, in Jerusalem.
Christian Zionism, as its name implies, is also derivative of Isaiah’s view of an inviolable covenant as understood by Isaiah of Jerusalem. Within the world of Christian theology represents the marriage of Dispensationalism and Premillenialsim in which the Jews need to return to their land prior to the Second Coming of Christ. For the Jews to return to their land, an unconditional covenant with the Jews needs to be established in Zion. Today as many as 40 million American Protestants support various Christian versions of a covenant with Zion.
Given the long history of Christian antisemitism and theological Supersessionism is a truly a remarkable shift and certainly one which fortifies Jewish views of a covenant with Zion. In many ways, Evangelicals have made Calvary their Zion in a way certainly unforeseen by early Church Fathers, religious supporters of the Crusades, Luther and many others.
Islam also maintains a covenant with Jerusalem perhaps in relationship with Mecca, a theology of two cities instead of two mountains. Claimed by Islam in the hadith literature and symbolized by the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem has become the “heavenly” capital of Palestinian nationalism in which the fight to control the Jerusalem of stone has become an article of faith. In the world of stone, however, political hegemony is indivisible even as three world religions all seek to anchor themselves simulataneously in the pale limestone of Mt. Moriah.
For sure, Prof. Levenson was right when he explained that the relationship between Sinai and Zion as religious ideas is problematic and complex and what is complex in the heavenly Jerusalem is even more complicated in the earthly Jerusalem. When asked in epic 2005 film, Kingdom of Heaven, a fictionalized Saladin unhesitatingly replies to a question about the real worth of Jerusalem following his bloody conquest of the city by stating that the worth of Jerusalem is “nothing.” Saladin turns, reconsiders and laughingly changes his answer to “everything.” In heaven and on earth, it seems that the value of Jerusalem remains infinite.
Lance J. Sussman, PhD is Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA and Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. Sussman has taught Jewish History at Princeton and Hunter College and served as Chair of Jewish Studies at Binghamton University-SUNY. He is currently working on a TV Documentary on the history of the Philadelphia Jewish community