Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary

Response to “Covenant” from Rabbi David Steinhardt

Covenant . . . a Conservative Approach

Whenever questioned, “What does Conservative Judaism believe about . . . ” I recall a homiletics class in 1980 with Dr. Simon Greenberg (z”l), one of the giants of twentieth-century Jewry and certainly the Conservative movement. To paraphrase, he said the following: Conservative Judaism will never create passion as a movement because it stands in the middle. Rather, always understand that Conservative Judaism reflects a critical way of understanding text and a reasonable way to live one’s life. Conservative Judaism, he said, is a way to be in the larger world and live as a proud Jew.

A serious Conservative Jew will learn not only classical texts, but study the works of the scholars of every branch of Judaism: Soloveichik and Hartman, Leo Baeck and Eugene Borowitz, Kaplan and Heschel. More than that, when thinking about “covenant” or any concept we know, we can also be informed by the works of great Christian theologians. That is part of the beauty of being a Conservative Jew. We are deeply committed to tradition, mitzvah, and Halacha and we understand their evolution. And we learn from the storehouse of the collected writings and knowledge of humanity. We have open eyes to all corners of life and learning.

I want to consider five different covenantal moments between God and humanity. The first covenant is the sign of the rainbow, after the mass destruction of the world during the time of Noah. God shows remorse for the destruction of life and promises never to cause the destruction of humanity again. And our side of the relationship? We are the protectors of the Divine gift of nature. Our role in the covenant is to be stewards: sensitive, conscious, and responsible for the environment and all creation.

The second covenant is with Abraham. God, the Creator of all humanity, was made known to the world through a particular people. A promise was made. The sign of the covenant is Milah; every male will enter the covenant through circumcision. It is a covenant that grew out of Abraham’s spiritual search and an intuitive sense of God. It leads to a relationship. It contains a promise of a people and a land. For Abraham and his descendants there is a commitment to “tzedek and mishpat,” lives of righteousness and justice.

The third covenant is entered at Sinai. It expands on the promise of descendants and land. It begins with God’s redemptive act of liberation and leads to a revelation and a relationship with the entire people: men, women and children. “I give you my law. Observe it and you shall be my people.” It’s based on obedience; reward and punishment. And the reward would be realized in the Promised Land, the Land of Israel, where a permanent home would be established for that relationship. And our obedience to the law will determine our success and longevity in our land.

A fourth covenant can be found in the Book of Samuel. God proclaims that he will build a “House” and establish his kingdom on earth for David and his descendants. In that holy place, God can be found through worship and sacrifice. Years later, Jeremiah struggles to find an answer for a people who are exiled from that place of God’s dwelling. The prophet’s response is that the covenant exists in the people. The relationship with God is established through morality in behavior, Torah and learning, worship and acts of loving kindness. That liberates the relationship from a particular place but imposes it on the life of the nation.

There we find our understanding as Conservative Jews. Entering the covenant is not a onetime event, but an ongoing occurrence; developing over time and affirmed by bringing God’s presence to this world through our actions, personally and as a people. We do it in our relationships with the world of nature and show it through our responsibility to humanity.

Maimonides saw the covenant with Abraham being accessed through nature. Yehuda HaLevi saw the covenant with Moses at Sinai as evidence of God through history. The contemporary Jew needs both.

I am a Conservative Jew because I wish to keep that which is meaningful in the Jewish past alive. And I continuously want to grow a deeper expression of a relationship with God to improve humankind. Like a marriage, the people’s covenant with God is dependent on responsiveness, care, responsibility, and continuous renewal of the expressions of love. The covenant with God is about more than the individual—it is about the community contributing to the welfare of its members and the well-being of the world.

Being a Conservative Jew opens every dimension of learning and religious expression. At the same time, it helps me define the boundaries of behavior and the definitions of our lives. At the core of Jewish living is the “covenant.”

Intellectual honesty in our learning and a shared responsibility for all life create an authentic response to the meaning of “covenant” in Conservative Judaism.
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