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God as multiple covenanter: toward a Jewish theology of Abrahamic partnerships.

Is pluralistic monotheism an oxymoron?

This essay is an exercise in practical theology. It is a reflection stimulated by years of involvement in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. At Hartford Seminary and elsewhere, that matrix of relationships among "Abrahamic" siblings continues to be my primary theological laboratory. As a believing and practicing Jew, I have been challenged to reconcile my adherence to the Sinai Covenant, forged between God and the Children of Israel millennia ago, with my experience of holiness as embodied in the faith commitments of Christians and Muslims. Some theological questions, with very practical ramifications, have emerged in the course of my interreligious work: Could the One God, the Lord of Nature and History, the Creator of all that is Who is proclaimed as the God of Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible, have chosen to covenant with non-Jewish faith communities, as well--not to "elect" them as substitutes or supplanters, but as spiritual equals and allies? And if so, how would a multiplicity of covenants enhance the prospects for the "messianic" transformation of history that our various traditions anticipate?

At the level of basic belief, can monotheism be pluralistic, or is that an oxymoron--that is, if God is One, how can different understandings of that Oneness be valid? Must one shun the criterion of "truth" or "error" in assessing different theological claims in order to promote reconciliation among religious communities? Or, alternatively, can one retain the notion of "truth" but reconceptualize it--for example, transform it from a doctrinal assertion about God to a lived expression of devotional authenticity?

Martin Jaffee has argued cogently that in all the monotheistic traditions, an inherent symbolic structure has precluded mutual validation and acceptance. In fact, he claims, the underlying tendency is toward rivalry and antagonism, given that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all see themselves as the chosen recipients of revelation and hence the carriers of a Divine mandate until the end of time, when their theology will be vindicated. (1) Is there an alternative conception of covenantal chosenness that is not exclusivist and competitive?

God's oneness and pluriform creation

At the outset, before consulting the works of other contemporary Jewish theologians, I wish to outline my own understanding of how the Oneness behind and within Creation takes multiple forms. I start with the declaration that opens the Bible: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1 could have said, "In the beginning God created the cosmos" or "... all there is." But it does not. Moreover, this initial statement does not conform to the detailed description that follows, since the heavens and the earth were created in stages, not simultaneously. Therefore, the verse must be a summary or essentialist statement, an overarching assertion meant to teach us something about the structure of creation. What I learn from Genesis 1:1 is that relationship is the key dimension within the cosmos, built into it by the Creator. The binary complementarity of "heavens" and "earth" is followed by other dualities: day and night, upper and lower waters, earth and seas, and finally male and female human beings. In each case, the distinction is a creative polarity, not a dichotomy, and no hierarchy of superiority and inferiority is implied. After all these distinctions or separations are brought into being, God creates and consecrates the Sabbath, the capstone (in the temporal dimension) of the whole enterprise of Creation and the first entity to be made holy (Gen. 2:3).

As a religious Jew, I understand the Sabbath to be the vessel in time for the reconciliation of separated entities (even parents and teenage children!). Observance of Shabbat is meant to transcend the either-or dichotomies of life and, in doing so, presage the messianic age to come, when all distinctions--including the separation of Israel from the other nations--will be eradicated. (2) As part of that redeemed reality, all of Humanity, together with everything else in Creation, will be one just as God is One. In the meantime, our lives are lived in unredeemed time--Sunday through Friday--with all of the divisions that we experience.

The messianic Shalom, the cosmic peace or harmony that the Sabbath prefigures, is God's ideal. It is the messianic intentionality or telos encoded in Creation through the sabbatical rhythm of sevens, starting with the weekly cycle. What is promised through this "Creation Code" is an eventual integration of complementary elements, a unity or harmony that does not require the obliteration of particularities. For a mystic like the great Hasidic leader Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, genuine Shalom means the harmonization of apparent opposites while retaining the distinctiveness of each. The opposition or mutual exclusion is "apparent" because the distinctions are parts of a greater whole, necessary for mutual tikkun, or rectification, on this plane of reality. My own peace-building work in Israel/Palestine over the years has been motivated by this religious conviction: that the harsh slash distinguishing those two political entities, "Israel" and "Palestine," will be replaced by a gentler hyphen through mutual reconciliation over time, in a process of healing and wholing (shleimut) that transforms enmity to love. Each of the two political collectives needs the corrective help of the other, even though at present they are at war. This is my messianic belief, which I know will take a long time, and will require God's providential assistance, to be realized. Meanwhile, whenever we wish one another "Shabbat Shalom" toward the end of the work week, we mean "May you experience the genuine peace that the Sabbath offers, so that you can keep the messianic dream alive through the coming week and the rest of your life."

I bring this practical messianism into my interfaith work, as well. I believe, based on my experience, that the various monotheistic traditions, all professing belief in the same One God, are sanctioned by the Divine as complementary truths, variations and approximations of the Absolute Truth. The practical challenge that engages my energies is helping adherents of these different faiths appreciate one another, celebrate their unique particularities, and work together to further the redemptive telos within the Creation. As a first step, we all need to transcend the destructive rivalry that has pitted our faith traditions against one another for centuries. Like the antagonistic siblings throughout the book of Genesis, who failed to understand the binary complementarity revealed in the veiy first verse, we have all been rivals for the Divine birthright and the blessing. In so doing, we have all--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--succumbed to the arrogant presumption that our own Divinely blessed status, or "chosenness," trumps someone else's and that religious equality cannot possibly be God's preference. Instead of egalitarianism or pluralism, our traditions have opted for triumphalism. (3) If such self-referencing leads to self-glorification, which is tantamount to worshipping one's own self-image, is this not a form of idolatry, the most heinous sin in Biblical terms? In order to atone for this centuries-old sinfulness, we can all start by entertaining the (often scary) notion that something of God's Image is reflected in my neighbor's religion, even though that faith tradition may contradict some of my own theological claims. (4)

Covenant as a central motif for faith understanding and relationships

A central concept in all three monotheistic traditions is "covenant" (in Hebrew, brit). This idea conveys the notion, confirmed by experience, of a special relationship established by God with humanity as a whole or with a favored community of believers. Each of our faith communities sees itself as covenantally connected to God, and that unique dispensation inspires gratitude, devotion, service, and sacrifice. In each case, the covenant is a partnership that is unconditional and interminable, even if the more subservient human partner fails to fulfill all of its obligations and suffers negative consequences as a result. By transcending non-fulfillment of its terms, a covenant is qualitatively different from a typical contract. (5)

The primary source of covenantal self-understanding for Jews is the compilation of sacred stories that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, called the TaNaKh by religious Jews (an acronym for Torah/Pentateuch, Nevi'im/ Prophets, and Ketuvim/Writings). In Biblical terms, one can say that the first covenant which God makes is with the entire cosmos and that the Sabbath is the sign of that all-inclusive bond between the Creator and Creation. As mentioned above, the seventh day is the first created entity that is blessed and hallowed by God. When the Torah is revealed at Sinai and a covenant made with the Children of Israel, hallowing the Sabbath becomes one of the cardinal commandments included in that revealed code of behavior. Though Sabbath observance appears, on the surface, to be a ritualistic obligation, as opposed to the other commandments that have a theological or ethical character, it is the Sabbath that is the universal link to the Divine in the realm of time. It is not meant only for Jews. This fact is reinforced by Isaiah's description of the Sabbath (Isa. 56: 1-7) as the covenantal connection for all human beings, including the stranger or foreigner (ben hanekhar, the uncircumcised non-Jew) who chooses to "join himself to the Eternal." For anyone who covenantally bonds with God through the Sabbath, God will bestow blessings and promises in the spatial dimension upon that person--in God's house an eternal name and memorial will remain, the person will be brought to God's sacred mountain, his sacrifices will be accepted on God's altar, and that person will experience joy in God's house, which will be called "a house of prayer for all peoples." This is a marvelous vision of universal love for God on the part of all believers and of God's universal favor granted in return. In these verses is reiterated the Divine telos for the Creation (beasts of burden also experience rest and renewal on the Sabbath), with the messianic vision behind the Sabbath blessing, "Shabbat Shalom," actualized.

The next covenant recorded in the Bible is the one initiated by God with humanity as a whole, and with all other creatures, following the Flood. In Jewish tradition, this is known as the Noahide Covenant, and according to our Rabbis it binds all human beings along with God. Here is the relevant text in Genesis:
   And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "I now establish My
   covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living
   thing that is with you--birds, cattle, and every wild beast as
   well--all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on
   earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all
   flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall
   there be a flood to destroy the earth." God further said, "This is
   the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every
   living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My
   rainbow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant
   between Me and the earth ... When the bow is in the clouds, I will
   see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all
   living creatures, all flesh that is on earth." (Gen. 9:8-13, 16)

After destroying almost all life on earth because of human wickedness, God undertook never to repeat such total destruction. The Rabbinic or Oral Tradition in Judaism (e.g., in the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, pp. 56-60) teaches that, in return, seven "Noahide commandments" were issued to all human beings. For many centuries, until today, normative Jewish tradition has used these seven injunctions as the criteria for distinguishing civilized from barbaric peoples or communities: establishing formal judicial procedures and institutions for adjudicating disputes, plus prohibitions against murder, theft, incest, idolatry, blasphemy, and severing a limb from a live animal. (7)

According to Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and legal authority:
   Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these Seven
   Mitzvot [commandments] and is precise in their observance is
   considered one of the Pious [or Righteous] among the Gentiles
   and will merit a share in the World to Come. This applies only
   when he accepts them and fulfills them because the Holy One,
   blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and informed us
   through Moses, our teacher, that even previously, Noah's
   descendants were commanded to fullfill them. (8)

The positive aspect of this tradition is that Judaism has recognized an ethical common denominator linking all human beings and that this normative code, rather than some theological conformity, is the criterion for what Christians would call "justification" or "salvation." Theological correctness is far less important than righteous living, according to Judaism--for Jews and non-Jews alike. The negative aspect is the self-referencing nature of Rabbinic Judaism, with the Torah and its interpretations invoked as the basis for how non-Jews should believe and behave. All non-Jews tend to be lumped together as Noahides according to this conception, with their distinctive traditions and spiritualities either ignored or dismissed by most Jewish authorities. (There are some rare and notable exceptions, such as Maimonides in the 12th century and Menahem Ha-Meiri at the turn of the 14th, (9) who recognized in Christianity and Islam a Providential dimension, though not as Divinely graced as the election of the Jewish people.)

Following the Noahide Covenant, the next covenant/brit mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is the one made with Abraham (10) :
   And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to
   Abram and said to him, "I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be
   blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I
   will make you exceedingly numerous." Abram threw himself on his
   face; and God spoke to him further, "As for me, this is My covenant
   with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And
   you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be
   Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I
   will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and
   Icings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant
   between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting
   covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your
   offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your
   offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting
   holding. I will be their God.

God further said to Abraham,

As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you ... Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. (Gen. 17:1-11, 13) (11)

In this case, it is not a celestial sign that seals the covenantal partnership but an anatomical one: circumcision, or brit milah in Hebrew. On the significance of this new covenantal initiative on the part of God, David Hartman writes:
   Abraham represents the shift from God the solitary Creator of
   Nature to God the self-limiting covenantal Lord of History. Abraham
   is not simply an instrument of the omnipotent Master of Nature; he
   stands over and against God as an other; his importance as a
   historical figure is marked by divine self-limitation, that is, by
   God's becoming the "God of the earth" only through the efforts of

   Another indication that, whereas Noah was incidental to his
   covenant with God, Abraham was a full-fledged partner, is that
   Abraham's spiritual stature dwarfs Noah, who emerges as a passive,
   nonheroic character noteworthy only by virtue of his being saved
   from the Flood ... Noah's utter silence and acquiescence in God's
   plan to destroy all of life stand in sharp contrast to Abraham's
   heroic confrontation with God [regarding the fate of Sodom and
   Gomorrah] ... Noah never achieves the stature of a responsible
   covenantal man. He responds; he never initiates ... By contrast,
   Abraham walks before God. He challenges God by appealing to
   universal moral principles. He is fully awake to his responsibility
   for others and confronts God on their behalf. Noah was not weaned
   from childlike dependency on his Creator and could not stand in
   moral confrontation with God. (12)

For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who call themselves "Children of Abraham" by virtue of being his biological or spiritual descendants, this analysis of Abraham's character as a covenantal partner has great significance. For the patriarch, as depicted in Scripture, displays exemplary responsibility toward others, including total strangers, as well as uncommon courage in challenging God's justice when it seems questionable. As Hartman asserts, "Abraham is therefore closer to being an archetype of a covenantal man than Noah. Abraham is singled out; his covenant is symbolized and consummated in his own flesh (circumcision), whereas the covenant with Noah is universal and non-specific; its sign is the rainbow in the sky (Gen. 9:16-17.)" (13)

For Jews, the patriarch Abraham is considered the first Jew (or Hebrew), and it is through Isaac, then Jacob, that his covenant with God continues. The text in Genesis 17 establishing the Abrahamic covenant goes on to announce the forthcoming birth of Isaac and the extension of the covenant to him (w. 20 and 21), while Ishmael receives a blessing from God without a direct reference to covenantal continuity. But Ishmael is then circumcised together with Abraham, with three verses in quick succession declaring this point, when one such statement would have sufficed (w. 23, 25, and 26). In the Islamic tradition, the lineage of the prophet Muhammad is traced back to the same patriarch through Ishmael/ Ismail, and Islam sees in Abraham/Ibrahim a revered prophet, one of the most venerable in a line of prophetic personalities starting with Adam. So for Muslims, the covenantal line and promise run through Abraham's firstborn son, rather than through Isaac. Here is a clear instance of discrepancy in the foundational stories by which Jews and Muslims define themselves historically and religiously. The potential for dispute over canonical texts multiplies when the Genesis account of Hagar and Ishmael's expulsion from Abraham's household (Gen. 21) is invoked. We have to acknowledge that, in the retelling of such sacred stories, the existential divisions (especially over claims to land in Israel/Palestine) are highlighted and reinforced. Fortunately, there are also teachings in our oral traditions (including Rabbinic midrashim) that develop countervailing themes of sibling solidarity, rather than rivalry or animosity, between Isaac and Ishmael. (14)

The covenants described in Genesis are understood in Jewish tradition as preludes to the definitive covenantal act, the election of Israel at Sinai. The two Tablets of the Covenant, with the Ten Utterances (15) inscribed on them, become the tangible sign of the covenant calling the People of Israel to be a priestly and prophetic community. Here is how David Hartman understands the gradual progression in the dynamics between God and the human partners to the various covenants:
   The newly felt distance between God and humans is expressed after
   the flood by God's covenant not to destroy nature as a result of
   what humans, created in God's image, will do. This distancing of
   humans from God and God's realistic assessment of their propensity
   to evil are necessary stages in the process leading to the
   covenantal mutuality represented by the giving of the law at Sinai,
   which charges a particular human community with responsibility for
   its own spiritual growth. (16)

As noted earlier, Hartman sees Abraham as a mature, compassionate, covenantally responsible figure, nobler by far than the passively compliant Noah. As such, he is a worthy partner for God and a spiritual precursor to the Israelites who receive the Torah en masse at Sinai, taking on the yoke of the commandments and the burden of "suffering servant" people-hood throughout history. It is the Sinai covenant that also provides the ground for the later prophets' critique of Israel's behavior, and for Israel's ability to argue with God over the inordinate suffering that Jews have experienced throughout history. As Neil Gillman writes:
   The redemption from Egypt is God's fulfillment of the stipulations
   of His covenant with Abraham. In turn, it becomes the historical
   prologue for the Sinai covenant. From then on, the Sinai covenant
   serves to define the mutual obligations of God and Israel. It is
   the basis not only for the prophetic castigation of the biblical
   community but also for Israel's challenge to God. From Moses (in
   Exodus 32: 11-13) to Elie Wiesel, God can only be challenged from
   within the covenant. Abandon the covenant in anger at God's
   dealings with the Jewish people and you lose your right to
   challenge God. Thus the fateful paradox of Jewish destiny. (17)

The possibility and implications of post-biblical covenants

The Hebrew Bible, as indicated above, presents ample evidence that God has chosen to covenant with different aspects of Creation. At each stage, the covenantal intentionality has narrowed: from the cosmic covenant with the Sabbath as a sign, to the Noahide covenant with the rainbow sign, to the Abrahamic covenant sealed by the act of circumcision, until the Sinai covenant with its two tablets brought down from the mountain by Moses. (18) Each of these covenants has a universal dimension, with blessings intended for the rest of Creation, even when only a portion of Creation or humanity is chosen for covenantal relationship with God. For example, the Ten Utterances at Sinai provide instructions that are beneficial for all humanity, including Sabbath observance as one instance of the sabbatical pattern within Creation. In Jewish terms, the Sinai covenant extends to a total of 613 commandments (positive injunctions as well as prohibitions), but these are binding only on Jews. The question which my own experience has compelled me to address is, "Does Jewish faithfulness allow for, perhaps even demand, the acceptance of post-Biblical covenants between God and other monotheistic communities, who may have their own understanding of how they are called to behave as covenanted servants of the Divine?"

The tendency within traditional Judaism to view all non-Jews through the lens of the Noahide Laws or Commandments is not sufficient. It fails to honor the devotion, the monotheistic beliefs, and the moral codes of either Christians or Muslims. (19) Since these two other religions emerged after the Biblical period, there cannot be any Scriptural foundation to Jewish validation of either one. The few Rabbinic authorities who granted them some Providential legitimacy (such as Maimonides and Ha-Meiri, cited above) are a tiny minority who still viewed Judaism as the sole authentic religion. At best, the other two traditions were sanctioned by God for the purpose of spreading the truth of Torah to the Gentile nations so that, when the true Messiah comes, they will recognize this Jewish spiritual ruler as the redeemer sent by God.

Can there be alternatives to this self-referencing and self-justifying stance regarding the role of other monotheists in sacred history? I believe there are other theological options, even if not fully elaborated in Jewish sources, and that we must develop them if we Jews are to find a broader Abrahamic foundation for tikkun olam, the mending or healing of our ailing, suffering world.

Non-Orthodox Jewish thinkers, on the whole, offer more methodological leeway than traditionalists in interpreting the idea of covenant. Neil Gillman, a contemporary theologian affiliated with the Conservative movement, observes:
   The contemporary traditionalist understands the covenant as a
   literal description of the God-Israel relationship, initiated by
   God with the biblical community and binding its descendants for all
   time. Those of us who do not accept a literalist view of revelation
   view it as the central symbol in the complex Jewish myth ...

   The mythic definition of Jewish identity as formed out of a
   covenant with God and concretized in a series of behavioral
   obligations remains alive, however broken it may be for many of us.
   Its vitality emerges in the palpable sense of a shared history and
   destiny that binds Jews everywhere, even those who are not formally
   "religious" or observant ...

   That sense of covenantedness invariably gets expressed in some type
   of behavior or activity--not necessarily the ritual activity of the
   observant Orthodox Jew. It may be expressed in some form of social
   action on behalf of Jewish causes, whether local or international,
   such as the State of Israel or Soviet Jewry. But it continues to
   manifest the sense of Jewish covenantedness and it is frequently
   performed with the same sense of obligation that accompanies
   traditional Jewish observance. (20)

As Gillman notes, liberal Jews tend to place more emphasis on the ethical commandments than on the ritual ones that characterize Orthodox observance. Reform Judaism, for example, has generally cited the Hebrew prophets, with their call for justice, as its primary authorities, rather than the Talmudic sages who developed the halakhah, Rabbinic law. Feminists take the justice principle and prophetic witness even further, questioning the patriarchal bias built into the entire framework of Judaism, Orthodox or liberal. (21)

Non-Orthodox orientations would, by their very nature, be more open to religious pluralism within the Abrahamic "family," since their criteria for defining authentic Judaism are not so doctrinaire. (22) They can uphold interpretations of Jewish chosenness that affirm Jewish particularity without belittling the validity or the spiritual integrity of other traditions. For more traditionalist Jews, however, these liberal--or, in the case of feminism, radical--reinterpretations are suspect, since they are offered by Jews who do not adhere to the normative halakhic system. (23) Over the centuries, before the European Enlightenment ushered in modernity, strict observance of the halakhah was the common denominator throughout the Jewish world. It is still the primary criterion for defining "Orthodox" Jews--though it would be more accurate to refer to them as "Orthopraxic," if that Greek nomenclature is used. But since "Orthodox" is so commonly used, I, too, will use that term along with "traditionalist" when referring to Jews who adhere to this normative system of praxis. Such Jews uphold the notion that both the Written and Oral Torahs were revealed by God to the Jewish people at Sinai, and that all Jews are covenantally obligated to follow those teachings (even as some of them have been reinterpreted by Orthodox rabbis using agreed-upon methodologies). It is to an exemplary Orthodox teacher and writer, who is also a personal friend for many years, that I now turn. His perspective offers a novel, indeed a revolutionary, approach for developing a Jewish theology of religious plurality, which is the aim of this study.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg has devoted many years to articulating a new Jewish theology, taking the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel as revelatory events ushering in a new era of Jewish history. In his view, the Biblical and Rabbinic understandings of Jewish covenantal fidelity need to be radically altered in light of these watershed events. Within Greenberg's evolving theology is a re-visioning of Jewish-Christian relations, based on his pioneering work in this field. In his book, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity, several of his seminal essays are collected, along with an illuminating and inspiring autobiographical chapter. In that personal reflection, he considers the earlier times in Jewish history when the people were forced by events to undergo covenantal renewal. He writes: "After the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century C.E., according to Rabbinic tradition, God ... called Israel to a higher level of power and responsibility in the covenant. This understanding of Jewish history eventually opened a new theological door for me: the idea that covenant was by its very nature intended to unfold in stages." (24) In Greenberg's thinking, the "evolutionary stages of covenant" are eventually extended to include Christianity as an "organic outgrowth of Hebrew faith" and a part of God's historical design. "Biblical Judaism," he asserts, "looks forward to a future revelation/redemption that is more universal than the Exodus. Therefore, a vital Judaism must stimulate messianic expectations and give rise to movements that seek to realize universal redemption." (25)

This positive appreciation of Christianity goes considerably further than Maimonides's medieval conception of its instrumental role in preparing the way for the time Messiah.

Greenberg's readiness to grant "pluralistic legitimacy" to Christianity has cost him dearly within his modern Orthodox community, which has tried at various times to cast him as a renegade or heretic. After considerable hesitation over a period of years, Greenberg eventually brought himself--inspired by saintly Christian dialogue partners like Roy and Alice Eckardt--to "develop a comprehensive and positive theology of Christianity," which is what his book offers. In an essay entitled "Covenantal Pluralism," he "argued that both Judaism and Christianity have paid a heavy price for their original readings of the split between them." He continues:
   Although officially, they taught their followers to choose life and
   love, in their relationship to each other they communicated a
   message of hatred and death. As an alternative reading of their
   original separation, I proposed that it was God's plan to bring the
   vision of redemption and covenant in a new iteration to a wider
   group of humanity, i.e., the Christians. Founders of this new faith
   needed to emerge out of the family and covenantal community of
   Israel. Therefore, Judaism should affirm Christianity as born in
   the fullness of Judaism's time ... [The] sense of rivalry for God's
   favor led both communities astray. Both faiths needed to abandon
   their historical allegiance to their own chosenness at the expense
   of the other's election. Rather, they needed to understand that
   divine election was a case of multiple choice. God as a divine
   parent was capable of loving each child infinitely without loving
   any less. I argued in the essay that 'There is enough love in God
   to choose again and again.'" (26)

For a Jew, especially an Orthodox rabbi, to talk about God's love for more than one covenanted faith community, and to single out Christianity as a worthy recipient of Divine love, is extremely rare. (27) This theological claim puts Greenberg within a select company of courageous Jewish visionaries, willing to reinterpret the tradition as well as history in the light of new experiential evidence. In an illustrative passage, he writes:
   For both Judaism and Christianity, this is a time to reinterpret
   their relationships to one another. This new analysis must include
   an understanding of God's pluralism--that no religion has a
   monopoly on God's love. The Noahide covenant lives; both faiths
   articulate and extend its mandate, but, in so doing, they do not
   have an exclusive divine mission that renders other religions
   irrelevant. On the contrary, they need the help of other religions
   to accomplish tikkun olam, and they can instruct and enrich the
   others along the way. (28)

Even though Greenberg is willing to take his argument to its logical conclusion, that the model he proposes "can equally be applied to revisioned relationships with other world religions as well," (29) the reader is left with the impression that Christianity is singled out for special consideration and theological validation. Here is how he understands the interrelationship of the different Biblical covenants as they have evolved historically:
   In rethinking the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, much of
   the theological speculation has focused on whether the two
   religions represent two covenants or one. It is time to suggest
   that both come to fulfill one covenant--the Noahide. In their
   further development, both religions grow out of one and the same
   covenant, the Abrahamic/Sinaitic, but by the will of God they have
   branched into two parallel covenants to reach out to humanity in
   all its diversity of culture and religious need. Nevertheless, the
   members of the two faith communities remain part of one people, the
   people of Israel, the people that wrestle with God and humans to
   bring them closer to each other; thus they narrow the chasm between
   the ideal world that God seeks to bring into being and the real
   world. (30)

Including Christians in the "people of Israel" is Greenberg's most radical idea. The obvious problem with this notion is that it excludes others, Muslims in particular, and suggests an elevated status and shared vocation for Jews and Christians alike, but also alone, over against the rest of humanity. (31) The implications of this position for Islam and Muslims become clear in this passage:
   Members of a single people feel special responsibility when other
   members are in danger. At the present time, a massive wave of
   anti-Semitism is sweeping through the Muslim world, driven by anger
   at Islam's failure to modernize and further inflamed by the
   Israeli-Palestinian struggle. This phenomenon is not unlike the
   tide of hatred that flowed through Christendom during the Middle
   Ages ... Many of the thirteen million Jews facing one billion
   Muslims--including a small violent terrorist Muslim minority--feel
   endangered and lonely. As brothers, Christians can sympathize,
   offer solidarity, and defend; as sisters, Christians can testify to
   Muslims and urge them to avoid repeating Christianity's past errors
   and sins, pointing out how the stain of these behaviors troubles
   Christians today. This situation offers Christians the opportunity
   to make amends for the anti-Jewish sins that they have repudiated
   at last in this century. (32)

This position seems to me to be unfair toward Muslims, painting them stereotypically as a threat to Jews (despite the qualifier about the small number of terrorists in their ranks), as well as unfair toward Christians, who are asked to join Jews in a two-against-one alliance against those Muslims. The passage has the feel of a "guilt trip" imposed in advance on those Christians who fail to heed the call to enlist for this mission. By not recognizing their trae identity as members of the enlarged "Israel" (what an ironic twist on the venis Israel tradition in classical Christianity!) and by not standing with endangered Jews in a political and educational struggle vis-a-vis a billion Muslims, Christians who prefer a less partisan attitude would be viewed as delinquent according to this judgmental scheme. It is sad that Greenberg's otherwise courageous witness, focusing on a more expansive conception of God's love and covenantal fidelity, succumbs to existential fear of Muslims when articulating his theology. (33)

To summarize the main thesis of this essay: a Jewish theology of Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations needs to take into account the central Biblical idea of covenant, which is elaborated in Rabbinic tradition and now has to be rethought. The tendency to view Christians and Muslims only as Noahide believers--and, as such, members of one universal covenant together with Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, and all others outside Judaism--can no longer be squared with the historical evidence. Irving Greenberg's confessional statement that he was moved to develop his own positive theology of Christianity because he saw the face of God in the Christians he met serves as an example of how our conceptions of God (limited as they inevitably are) are grounded in our relationships with other human beings. Given this reality, we need new, more pluralistic and egalitarian notions of covenant. Such understandings would point to the multiple covenants already disclosed in the Bible and would then build on this foundation by delineating post-Biblical covenants between God and non-Jewish faith communities.

To conclude, I wish to cite with profound gratitude the work of another Orthodox rabbi who is also a public educator of some renown. Until recently, Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, though his official title was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew [Orthodox] Congregations of the Commonwealth. His acclaimed book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, is a brilliant exposition of how traditional religious concepts, including covenant, can help us cope with the economic, social, and spiritual challenges of globalization. His tenth chapter is devoted to explaining the concept of forgiveness and its power to heal endemic conflicts. For anyone who thinks that "forgiveness" and "love" are words from the Christian lexicon but shunned by Jews, who opt for justice as their favored virtue, this chapter will come as a delightful surprise. Sacks's eleventh and last chapter is entitled "A Covenant of Hope." In it he affirms that, in today's world, we need a concept "far stronger than toleration," which sufficed in the 17th century since it went together with centralized state power. But the globalization we are experiencing in our own time involves "decentralization of power combined with maximum vulnerability such that individual acts of terror can destabilize large parts of the world while remaining beyond the reach of any one state ..." Sacks goes on to argue:
   If we are to find an idea equal to the challenge of our time it
   must come from within the great religious traditions themselves. I
   have tried to articulate one possible form of that idea. It is that
   the one God, creator of diversity, commands us to honour his
   creation by respecting diversity. God, the parent of mankind, loves
   us as a parent loves--each child for what he or she uniquely is.
   The idea that one God entails one faith, one truth, one covenant,
   is countered by the story of Babel. That story is preceded by the
   covenant with Noah and thus with all mankind--the moral basis of a
   shared humanity, and thus ultimately of universal human rights. But
   it is followed by an assertion of the dignity of difference--of
   Abraham and his children who follow their diverging paths to his
   presence, each valued, each 'chosen', each loved, each blessed by
   God. Until the great faiths not merely tolerate but find positive
   value in the diversity of the human condition, we will have wars,
   and their cost in human lives will continue to rise. (34)

Sacks contends that "there is nothing relativist about the idea of the dignity of difference. It is based on the radical transcendence of God from the created universe, with its astonishing diversity of life forms." He asserts that the test of true faith is whether one can "make space for difference." And he asks: "Can I recognize God's image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? ... Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognize that we are enlarged, not diminished, by difference...?" (35)

The apex of Sacks's argument, an appeal to the best in us and in our respective traditions, comes when he invokes the concept of covenant to convey his vision of a redeemed global society:
   What makes covenant a concept for our time is that it affirms the
   dignity of difference. The great covenantal relationships--between
   God and mankind, between man and woman in marriage, between members
   of a community or citizens of a society--exist because both parties
   recognize that "it is not good for man to be alone." God cannot
   redeem the world without human participation; humanity cannot
   redeem the world without recognition of the divine ...

   Covenants--because they are relational, not ontological--are
   inherently pluralistic. I have one kind of relationship with my
   parents, another with my spouse, others with my children, yet
   others with friends, neighbours, members of my faith, fellow
   citizens of my country, and with human beings wherever they suffer
   and need my help. None of these is exclusive. It is of the nature
   of real life, as opposed to philosophical abstraction, that we have
   many commitments and that they may, at times, conflict. But that is
   not inherently tragic, though it may give rise to regret, even
   grief. Pluralism is a form of hope, because it is founded in the
   understanding that precisely because we are different, each of us
   has something unique to contribute to the shared project of which
   we are a part. (36)

In the shared project of "Building Abrahamic Partnerships" at Hartford Seminary and elsewhere, each Jew, each Christian, and each Muslim has something unique to contribute. The transcendent goal is transforming our conflicted society into one of mutual understanding, trust, and solidarity. On that sacred foundation, a new future can be built, with God's promise of redemption actualized through our combined efforts. That Divine promise and our human efforts are implemented through a variety of complementary covenants, some that are all-inclusive and some that are unique to particular faith communities. All of these covenants are blessed by the One God. All are part of God's design. And all are necessary for the cosmic plan of God to be fulfilled.


(1.) Jaffee, Martin S., "One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism," Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 69, No. 4 (2001), pp. 753-776.

(2.) The havdalah (separation) ceremony concluding the Sabbath on Saturday evening ritually marks the transition back into "ordinary" or unredeemed time, with these distinctions acknowledged as temporary or provisional realities, to be endured until the next Friday evening and, ultimately, until the messianic era.

(3.) I make this assertion recognizing that the Qur'an explicitly sanctions, as Divinely intended, the diversity of nations, tribes, and revealed religious traditions (Qur'an 49:13, 5:48, 2:62, 5:69, and other verses). Still, a normative pluralism or egalitarianism remains to be elaborated by Muslim scholars, as well as by the majority of Jewish and Christian theologians.

(4.) Muslims are classically taught that the original revelations in the Torah and Gospel/Injil were corrupted by later scribes, teachers, or scriptural editors in those two traditions. Affirming this belief while still honoring the wisdom in Judaism and Christianity, however distorted or diluted, remains a challenge for Muslims engaging in interfaith encounter.

(5.) My first attempt to distinguish between covenant and contract was "The Return to Covenantal Morality," in Shefa Quarterly, Jerusalem, Vol. II, No. 3 (1980). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, cited below, has developed the same theme in his writings.

(6.) TANAKH: A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 14.

(7.) For more detailed discussion of the Noahide Covenant and its attendant commandments or obligations, see Lichtenstein, Aaron, The Seven Laws of Noah (New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press, 1981) (cf. p. 5: "Repeated discussion on the Laws of Noah throughout centuries of world literature leaves no doubt about the reality of Noahism as an enduring legal and moral influence."); Benamozegh, Elijah, Israel and Humanity, trans., ed., and with introduction by Maxwell Luria (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995) (this Italian rabbi, theologian, and kabbalist [1823-1900] was an impassioned advocate for Noahism as the spiritual and legal code for Gentiles); Novak, David, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (New York/Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983); and Winkler, Gershon, "Judaism and the Non-Jew," in The Way of the Boundary Crosser: An Introduction to Jewish Hexidoxy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), pp. 203-213.

(8.) Maimonides, Moses, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim U'MilchamoteihemfThe Laws of Kings and Their Wars, trans. and commentaries by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger (New York/Jerusalem: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1987), p. 170.

(9.) See Katz, Jacob, Exclusiveness and Intolerance: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), pp. 114-128.

(10.) In chapter 15 of Genesis, there is a veiy strange account of another covenantal episode in which Abraham, still called Abram, seeks assurance from God that he will have offspring. God directs him to lay out halves of different animal carcasses, after which a deep sleep and a "great dark dread" come upon Abraham. He is told that his descendants, after being slaves in a foreign land, will inherit the land of Canaan. In the midst of the darkness, a smoking oven appears and a flaming torch passes between the animal carcasses. This bizarre scene is called, in Jewish tradition, the "Covenant Between the Pieces" because the text states (v. 18), "on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram," followed by the promise, "to your offspring I assign this land ..."

(11.) TANAKH, op. at, pp. 23-24.

(12.) Hartman, David, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (New York: The Free Press, 1985), pp. 29-31.

(13.) Ibid., p. 31.

(14.) For a consideration of how the reinterpretation of sacred stories, along with religious gestures, symbols, and rituals, can serve the cause of peace between Jews and Arabs, see Gopin, Marc, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(15.) In Judaism the declarations in Exod. 20:1-14 and Deut. 5:6-18 are referred to as Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Utterances or Statements ("Decalogue" is a parallel rendering in Greek), rather than the Ten Commandments/Mitzvot, since the first verse is simply an announcement of Who is speaking. Nine commandments then follow.

(16.) Hartman, op. at., p. 28.

(17.) Gillman, Neil, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 44.

(18.) Actually Moses ascended Mount Sinai twice and descended with two sets of tablets. The first he smashed to pieces at the sight of the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. (This incident is the basis for Neil Gillman's book title in the previous footnote, #17). When he received the second set, which remained intact, he also had revealed (Exod. 34:6-7) what Jewish tradition calls the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy. These two verses affirming God's long-suffering patience with human fallibility are a central part of the liturgy for the Days of Awe and Repentance that begin the Jewish year. The two revelations, in Exod. 20 and 34, are complementary aspects of the one covenant: the cardinal commandments stemming from God's justice, which lay the foundation for the moral order (alongside the Noahide Laws), together with the merciful promise of forgiveness when humans transgress and seek atonement from God. These two basic aspects of the Divine, justice and mercy, are another binary complementarity encoded into Creation--in this case, into the moral dimension of human existence--and are the basis of Abrahamic faithfulness and covenantal responsibility among humans, particularly those who see themselves as Children of Abraham (cf. Gen. 18:19).

(19.) For the purposes of this study, I am focusing on Christians and Muslims as potentially covenanted partners for Jews. The same rationale developed here could be applied to Druse, Baha'is, and other monotheists, and by extension (though in different ways) to adherents of the Far Eastern religions. For a recent study by an Orthodox rabbi and interfaith educator on how traditional Jewish sources relate to non-Jewish faith traditions, see Brill, Alan, Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Reflecting on the three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist, Brill writes: "The gamut of Jewish texts cannot be aligned in a single direction or single valence. We are far from any concluding point and all apparent conclusions in this work remain open to discussion." (p. xii).

For a rich anthology of Jewish writings on world religions, covering a range of theological, philosophical, and practical issues and including Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Islam, see Goshen-Gottstein, Alon and Korn, Eugene, eds., Jewish Theology and World Religions (Oxford/Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012). In his "Concluding Reflections," Goshen-Gottstein raises an important distinction: "To talk of world religions leads us to taking a position regarding the legitimacy and possible recognition of other religions. To talk about the Other invites us into the domain of relationships, and leads us to reflect on how else we might conceive or rather relate to other religions other than through the classical discussions centering on recognizing other religions." (p. 319). As in other matters discussed here, perhaps there is a binary complementarity reflected in this distinction.

(20.) Gillman, op.cit., pp. 44, 55.

(21.) For example, Adler, Rachel, in Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998), critiques the prophets' use of marriage as a metaphor for the Sinai covenant and adulterous infidelity as a metaphor for idolatry. (See her discussion of Hosea, pp. 156-167). Judith Plaskow's Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991) offers an even harsher critique of the tradition for its marginalization and mistreatment of women. Referring to circumcision, Plaskow argues (p. 82) that "the primaiy symbol of the covenant pertains only to men" and hence excludes women or makes them inferior, non-normative Jews. Her most radical claim is that "the notion of a supernatural deity who singles out a particular people is part of the dualistic, hierarchical understanding of reality that the feminist must repudiate ... What must replace chosenness ... as the model for Jewish self-understanding is the far less dramatic 'distinctness.'" For Plaskow, this term suggests "that the relation between these various communities--Jewish to non-Jewish, Jewish to Jewish--should be understood not in terms of hierarchical differentiation but in terms of part and whole." (pp. 104, 105).

(22.) See, for example, Arthur Waskow's essay "How Many Covenants?" in his book Godwrestling (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), pp. 151-166. Waskow takes the precarious existence of humanity seriously as he develops his theology of religious plurality: "In the generation of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it seems especially important to remember the Flood

... Only the rainbow-sign, only the covenant with Noah, could avert that utter destruction and prevent it from occurring. Only if we know today what the covenant with Noah means can we avert destruction. It was the rainbow for a reason. What we need now is a principle of relationship between the peoples (including the different religions). A kind of all-embracing federal covenant that recognizes the differences between the peoples, even their overlapping similarities and conflicts.. .A covenant that says what it means to have a just and loving relationship among all, what it means for all the colors to glow and arch in harmony, so that none of them oppresses or drowns out the others." (p. 165).

(23.) There are very few Orthodox feminists. Two worth noting are Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism: A Voice from Tradition (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1981), and Tova Hartman, whose challenging book addressing the tensions between modern Orthodoxy and feminism is entitled Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2007).

(24.) Greenberg, Irving, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), p. 28.

(25.) Ibid., p. 31.

(26.) Ibid., p. 42.

(27.) Rabbinic tradition, on the whole, has been theologically averse to seeing Trinitarian Christianity as a legitimate form of monotheism, while generally accepting Islam as a valid monotheistic religion. The tragic history of Jewish persecution at the hands of Christians has not made Christianity any more appealing or potentially legitimate in the eyes of many, if not most, Jews over the centuries.

(28.) Greenberg, Irving, op. cit., p. 93. In a footnote here, Greenberg writes: "I acknowledge that the sweeping nature of the proposals for transforming the relationship between Jews and Christians will be difficult for traditional Jews to consider. In my own Orthodox community, in particular, the question will be raised: By what authority are these suggestions made? The primary validation, I believe, is derived from the overriding moral and theological necessity to respond to the Holocaust and the recognition that the Shoah is a revelational event. This response is driven by and directly connected to the recognition of the image of God in Christians (and others). I have followed the logic of these responses and I take the responsibility upon myself."

(29.) Ibid, p. 42.

(30.) Ibid., p. 99.

(31.) Another serious problem in Rabbi Greenberg's position, from the vantage point of a genuine pluralism based on accepting each tradition's self-understanding, is that it tends to make the Sinai revelation and the crystallization of the people of Israel the central, or defining, moment for Christians, rather than the Christ Event.

(32.) Greenberg, Irving, op. cit., p. 100.

(33.) I have had occasion to question Rabbi Greenberg's attitudes toward Islam and Muslims in private conversations with him, and I will continue to be a critical friend and colleague on this point. I find it unfortunate that someone who has opened his mind and heart so commendably toward Christians retains a residue of fear and anger toward other Abrahamic siblings. As a champion of religious pluralism and as a role model for many Jews and Christians, it would be even more tragic if his efforts to overcome centuries of Jewish-Christian estrangement were to contribute to exacerbating the estrangement and tensions between Jews and Christians, on one side, and Muslims on the other. A better approach would be to ask Jews and Christians to join forces with Muslim peace seekers, to help empower them, rather than to forge a Jewish-Christian alliance against Muslim extremists.

(34.) Sacks, Jonathan, 2002, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London/New York: Continuum Books), p. 200.

(35.) Ibid., pp. 200-201.

(36.) Ibid., p. 203.
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Author:Landau, Yehezkel
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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