Commentary Magazine


Covenant Theology

To the Editor:

Many thanks to Eugene B. Borowitz and COMMENTARY for the article “Crisis Theology and the Jewish Community” (July). His discussion is most stimulating, especially in contrast to the pap which passes for Jewish theology in much of the Jewish press. . . . [But] the name of Solomon Schechter should have been evoked. For what is Covenant theology as presented by Dr. Borowitz but an effort to tie in all the elements of Schechter’s “Catholic Israel”? . . .

Morton B. Krechmer
Stewartstown, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Eugene B. Borowitz has made a real contribution by showing that the Herberg-Fackenheim response to Irving Kristol’s challenge is dead. I am also impressed with the clarity of his exposition of the Covenant theology. For both these contributions to the existentialist-reconstructionist debate I am really grateful.

I myself think that the Covenant theology is as obsolete as the Herberg-Fackenheim “response.” Existentialism itself—or rather the various existentialisms of, say, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Berdyaev, Marcel—may be ready for the designation ein ueberwundener Standpunkt. F. H. Heinemann in Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, speaking from the inside of existentialism, seems to be saying just that. . . .

Meir Ben-Horin
Professor of Education
Dropsie College
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Hooray for Eugene B. Borowitz . . . who writes that “the central task of modern Judaism, according to this theology, is to win the conscious, willed loyalty of the modern Jew to the Covenant.” . . .

As Dr. Borowitz claims, this Covenant theology may be a new theology, but the Covenant itself is approximately 4,000 years old. . . . Its intention was that the people of Israel were to remain a nation no matter in what country they happened to be living. . . . According to the Covenant, the remnant of Israel has a destiny to fulfill; but how is this destiny to be fulfilled if we persist in an Israel-Jewish dichotomy? May this “new Covenant theology” prosper, but let it also meet the terms of the Covenant and behave according to its dictates.

L. Gruber
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

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To the Editor:

I found Eugene B. Borowitz’s article interesting and serious. However it seems to me to be lacking in at least three respects. In the first place he never defines the notion of sin, and hence I don’t know what it is that he is or is not taking seriously. Secondly, I don’t know what the meaning of “covenant” and “mitzvah” amount to if various groups can define them or specify them any way they want. Thirdly, I doubt that Borowitz can come up with any specific consequences for social action (other than action for the Jewish community) which will seriously differ from the proposals that would be made by the secularists he denounces. If indeed the last is the case, then Covenant theology is not a general guide—or at any rate not a distinctive one—for action other than action on the Jewish scene, and hence it is a very limited set of ideas.

In all of this I take it for granted that we allow Borowitz not to pose the question about the truth or falsity of his main proposition. By this I don’t mean to raise the old question about naturalism, but the older one about the meaning of theology. I would especially want to know whether Borowitz and his group seriously entertain the view that the idea of the Covenant is to be interpreted literally, or equally seriously, only metaphorically. And if the latter, they should be explicit not simply for the sake of clarity but also to see how seriously Jews take theology.

I finally want to mention that Borowitz’s article contains some phrases which on his own account are meaningless, e.g., “redeem history”—and some horrible views about God—e.g., He will decimate those who don’t keep His Covenant.

All in all, I think that Covenant theology is just a little too good to be true. It says that we owe a debt to God because we contracted it, and we will be punished—but not too much—if we don’t. And the Utopian thinking about the end of time is not for me.

Sidney Morgenbesser
Department of Philosophy
Columbia University
New York City

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Rabbi Borowitz writes:

Mr. Morgenbesser has responded to my article with many of the challenges that both naturalism and linguistic philosophy have thrown at religion in recent years. His queries require a book, not a letter, in response, and I hope that those who take the theology of the Covenant seriously will more than satisfy his request. One thing can be stated with certainty: they are not unaware of the technical questions which stand in the way of their quest, but believe satisfactory responses are or will be forthcoming.

Still, the questions are entitled to some answer here even if it must be brief. Judaism considers theology agada and not halacha; hence Jewish theological language is agadic. It cannot speak denotatively or rigorously and admits of contradiction and paradox between speakers who do not require their resolution as they do in halachic discourse. It is symbolic speech because what it seeks to speak about is ultimately inexpressible, yet the tradition has felt that such speech was not only necessary and useful but could serve the purpose of meaningful if not precise communication.

Such meaning was possible because men stand in the same relation to God (under the Covenants of Noah or Abraham) and may refer their speech to that relationship. It is important to understand that Covenant theology is essentially relational, not conceptual or functional, though obviously intellect and action are critical to it. Hence sin is an offense against the relation as mitzvah is its fulfillment, though the content of both may vary from person to person, as ritual matters most easily make clear. Still, as the relationship is seen as a people’s relationship (in which the individual shares), should American Jews achieve some cultural stability, even the ritual expression of this relationship might find some objective consistency.

It is too early to say yet whether this point of view can produce new ideas for general living. It is clear that its concern is not parochial; culture and state are legitimate concerns both in this system and to its adherents. Indeed, considering that the Covenant of Abraham finds its meaning within that Covenant made with Noah, there is a decided universal as well as communal content to the position. But commitment to the Covenant of Abraham requires that priority be given to it, particularly as one sees the present situation of the Jewish community. From this core devotion, the Jew moves out to all men and their mutual problems.

But even if Covenant theology does not inspire ideas different from those of other religious groups, or even of secularists, does that make it any the less significant? This intellectual effort is concerned with thinking through the ground of value judgments. It is true that the judgments which result may be the same as those stemming from other bases. . . . The issue is not simply different proposals, but adequacy and comprehensiveness of judgment. The least the religious man can do is to think through his basis in faith and to understand how it affects his judgment—and in the case of modern America there is good reason to believe that much of the secularism of the contemporary Jewish intellectual-liberal is camouflage for a displaced commitment to Israel’s Covenant.

Finally, it is good that those who try to take theology seriously may once again be considered worthy of the professional philosopher’s concern. A little conversation would be good for both. . . . But it would be helpful in the course of such conversation if the will-to-understand were present. I did not say God would decimate those who do not keep the Covenant nor did I attack secularism, though I did restate Kristol’s attack on salvation-through-politics, which is another thing. I did say that Judaism had a hope-despite-realism—and I would like to know what words like hope, courage, love, and even faith mean in the real as distinguished from the professional life of philosophers. If there is a willingness to understand and to share, professors of Judaism can yet learn much from Jewish professors.

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