Shavuot and the meaning of the covenant

It's the covenantal bond between us and God that we strive to understand.

Abraham sacrificing Isaac  311 (photo credit: Laurent de La Hyre)
Abraham sacrificing Isaac 311
(photo credit: Laurent de La Hyre)
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 Sodom – 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, in Hebrew 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 Sodom narrative faces an entirely different set of circumstances. Upon considering the destruction of the city, 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?”
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 Sodom 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 Sodom, 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 as Abraham “bargains” God down to saving the city if just ten righteous people can be found.
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 says to God, “Here I ventured to speak to my Lord, who am I but 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…”
The most crucial part of this narrative, however, is that 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.”
“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 Sodom. His argument with God – however theologically important – in the end, failed. What is valuable about this account, then, is Abraham’s process. God ultimately destroys Sodom 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. The Akeida is the moment when we come to the edge of the intelligible, when we meet suffering or tragedy. There are moments when a life of faith requires submission or silence. 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. Yet 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. 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 it 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 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.
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. It 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.
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. God’s withdrawal of his control of the world can be understood 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.
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. We might be tempted to think that this means He has abandoned human history. But God has not abandoned us; He has empowered us, by opening history 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.
The writer is founding president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem,