To the Editor:
Eugene B. Borowitz, in his answer to the crucial questions raised by Sidney Morgenbesser [“Letters to the Editor,” November 1961], asserts that “Judaism considers theology agada and not halacha.” It seems to me, however, that one of the questions Borowitz fails to answer (the question that is the most important for the youngest generation of Jewish intellectuals) is that of the relationship between the acceptance of this Covenant and the Jewish life one is to lead. And I know of no more halachic question than this. Further, all the effects of Covenant theology, as Borowitz sees them, are largely in terms of action in the largest sense of the word. I do not deny the importance of the agadic quality of contemporary Jewish theology, but I feel that if the halachic is not considered, the theologian fails to answer a uniquely Jewish question.
What is the nature of this Covenant between God and the people Israel? Further, what is the bearing of this nature on the acceptance of the mitzvot as presented in the fruit of the Covenant, Torah? If there is any unique question that the Jewish theologian must answer, it is that of halacha, and the root of this problem lies in one’s conception of the Covenant, including both its spirit and its fruit. Is the Sinai-event central to one’s system, and if so, is the Torah “given” at Sinai binding on the Covenant folk?
Another problem intimately related to the above is the relational nature of Borowitz’s Covenant. If the relationship between God and the people Israel is relational, in the sense of Buber’s I-Thou relation, how is it that the fruit of this Covenant is a prescribed response? If relational implies a unique entering-in of both partners of the relation (for even Buber’s cat responds in his “individuality”), how can this be reconciled with the mitzvot, which are anything but unique expressions of the individual? All of this, of course, rests on the proposition that there is in Judaism some source for the mitzvot Borowitz speaks of. Thus, it rests upon the answer to the above question about Sinai.
Marshall J. Cohen
Rabbi Borowitz writes:
It seems to me Mr. Cohen raises the right questions about Judaism for our day, and I am thus encouraged to believe that my discussion of Covenant theology, even if it does not provide proper answers, may bring us to clarify the questions about Jewish meaning and Jewish living.
To say that Jewish theology is in the realm of agada is not to say that it is untrue or without halachic significance. It is only to assert that Judaism believes that the kind of truth sought for in theological discussions can be expressed only in a special symbolic way, namely, in the agadic style. But the importance of the agada in Judaism is that it allows the Jew to search for and find ever more adequate expressions of religious truth. . . . In our day, it seems to me, the effort to re-establish the halacha must begin with re-establishing its foundations in religious truth, and this is an agadic task.
The Covenant at Sinai is more act than symbol to the traditionalist as against the modernist. The traditionalist cannot accept Buber’s personalist formulation of Covenant relationship. But he will nonetheless find the relationship between people and God expressed in a given act which took place at a given time in a given place. Covenant theology provides him with the intellectual context for understanding and explicating this unique historical event.
Buber’s individualism—as against Rosenzweig’s—corresponds to the position taken independently by many thinkers in Reform Judaism. This position contains an interesting paradox which apparently Buber himself seems reluctant to face. He affirms that Covenant is given to the community yet insists that commandment can only be personal. Still, he seems unwilling to raise the question of what can be given to the individual who accepts his individuality as a member of this community. This is the area which some of the thinkers I discussed [“Crisis Theology and the Jewish Community,” July 1961] are exploring to find a theology of mitzvah for the liberal Jew, even as this explanation can supply such a pattern for the traditional Jew.