By Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild. Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein.
This sidra is famous for the encounter between God and Israel – through Moses – on the Mountain in Sinai – known as ‘Matan Torah’, the Revelation and Giving of the Teachings. What does this mean?
We can distinguish in the Torah between two specific Covenants – though they are not really described as such. By ‘specific’ I mean to exclude the General Covenant between God and All of Creation (wherein the Torah’s first chapters describe how the planets and heavenly bodies are created for a purpose and given their roles and places, the planet Earth is formed and all that lives on it is given Life and the command to ensure that Life continues, at a species if not at an individual level).
The first specific Covenant is that between God and Abraham; with some repetitions (see Gen. 12:2, 7; 15:5-8; 17:1-8) God promises Abraham what politicians might call ‘a special relationship’. It is not clear what Abraham has to do to fulfil any terms of this covenant (cf. 17:9f.) – he responds to specific commands, to move, to stay, to expel (21:12), to sacrifice… (the latter annulled in 22:12 at the last moment). He must cut some skin from all males in his household to indicate – to whom? – that they are also part of this covenant. (17:13). But God promises him – or at least to his descendants – a Land and a Peoplehood. (17:16).
Although Abraham, at the time of his death, actually has neither of these – no fixed property and no crowd of children and grandchildren – nevertheless the Covenant is considered still in force, both then and now. Those of us who call ourselves Children of Abraham assume for ourselves the terms of this Covenant – God has promised us a specific area of Land (we may argue about the specific borders with the neighbours, but the principle is there) and God has given us an Identity in terms of our ethnic descent. Only those born into this Family can truly be classed as full members – whereas those who join us later, through marriage or whatever, remain always a little bit ‘on the edge’. This is so in all families – however open and welcoming one may try to be, the fact is that a daughter-in-law may cease to be a daughter-in-law, but a son remains always a son.
The second Covenant is given in the desert, on a hilltop which is either anonymously “somewhere in Sinai” or is a wasteland of scrub and nothingness – “Horeb”. (cf. Exodus 19:1f. and Deut. 5:2). It is given through one person to many who are at this point already alive. It is given in the form of commands and orders and expectations and demands. At the foot of the hill are hundreds of thousands of people who have, frankly, lost all contact with the former Covenant. This is not necessarily their fault – they have spent many generations away from the Land and any contact with this God as partner – but now it is necessary to remind them that they have a Land which was once promised to their ancestors, and they are given a set of principles which will weld them into a group, a Peoplehood. Although some of these Laws will be applicable primarily in the Land, when (or if) they should ever get there, most are considered to be of universal application – that means, one belongs to the Group by following the Rules, irrespective of where one is and even irrespective of where and to whom one has been born. This second Covenant is vaguer in respect of boundaries. We are given not a Land but a Torah, not a Family but a Community. But those who choose to join the community are also classed as ‘Children of Abraham’ – A Land is fixed, a Torah is mobile.
Judaism has then continued to define itself, often unconsciously, around these Two Covenants. We see the simplest expression of the former in Zionism, of the latter in Diaspora Religion. A Land has borders, which need to be defined and defended against encroachments from outside; and the society inside the borders needs to be kept in order. And a Set of Rules also has boundaries, which need to be defined and defended against encroachments from outside, whilst those who live within these Rules also need a sense of order and ritual and security. Can one extend the boundaries by adding commentaries and interpretations? Can one fix the boundaries so as to exclude those who have somehow gone too far in their commentaries and interpretations – so as to include belief in a personal Messiah, perhaps – and left the Community? Jewish leaders, whether political or religious, have debated these issues fiercely over the centuries, but the dichotomy is always there. At its basest, it comes down to the question: Can one be a Good Jew outside the Land? The Priests could officiate only in Jerusalem, whereas the Rabbis could teach anywhere – in Yavneh, in Tiberias, but also in Sura and Pumbedita. Zionist Jews declare that the very act of living somewhere between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between Rosh Pina and Eilat, adds a new dimension to Jewish identity; the secular Zionists will maintain that that in itself is enough, the religious Zionists will add that the relationship to the Land will be deepened and rendered ‘holy’ as one can better fulfil here the rules of the Torah. Diaspora Jews in contrast declare that, even though the Exile is now over, the possibility of being a Jew Outside the Land must be taken seriously, that that is the only way we can interact at a certain level with our non-Jewish neighbours, that we can build Communities and Synagogues rather than Parliaments and Ministries, that we can take the Torah with us wherever we go and our Theology can be separated from Geography.
There are many contradictions and conflicts between these perspectives, but both are legitimate within our tradition; The Israelis will stress the richness and intensity of the experience of living in a Land that has been promised; the Diaspora Jews will take note of how a Land can suffer famine – in all three generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – hardly a good start! The Zionists will claim that Jewish strength comes from concentrating in the one place, the Diaspora Jews – with all our bitter experience – will counsel against all the eggs being placed in the same basket and that long-term risk should be spread.
I would suggest that one way to understand these is to see the different groups of Jews seeking to prioritise the First or the Second Covenant. Both groups value the link to tradition, but some feel more attached to God’s promise to Abraham and some more to God’s promise to Moses. The Prophets found themselves to some extent in the middle, preaching that if the Jews neglected the Second Covenant and ceased to observe the Torah, God could cancel the First Covenant and remove them from the Land as punishment. The irony or the challenge being that if, even in Exile, they observed the Second Covenant and held fast to the Torah, God would relent and bring them back, thus renewing the First Covenant.
We belong to a WORLD Union for Progressive Judaism. The very title is a theological and political agenda. This means we are aware of a relationship to the ‘General’ Covenant of Creation – the very first reference to Globalisation comes in Genesis Chapter 1, whereby we all share the same status as ‘Created’ and have relationships to Time, Space, Theology, Astronomy, Cosmology, Geography, Biology and Zoology; it means we are aware of a relationship to the First Covenant – we are linked to the Land and the People of Israel, whether or not we live there, whether or not we carry an Israeli passport; and we are at the same time linked to the Second Covenant, of Torah, of universal values that link us to our universal God whether we are in Canada or Australia, in California or Hong Kong. Values that need to be kept and modified at the same time, so that the basic values remain as they were in the tradition but the understanding and observance remains modern and accessible.
All this is quite a challenge! We should not underestimate it, but neither should we despair of it. It is our mission – to stay Jews, in the World, in the Land and in the Wilderness.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild. Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein.