God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings.”
Despite the varieties of lifestyles and outlooks among Jews today, there are certain organizing principles that cut across many of these differences and underlie the sense of common destiny and interdependence that so many Jews feel. From my own experience, the concepts of relationship and memory are two such fundamental categories.
The Jewish concepts of God and of mitzvah (commandment) and the biblical narratives of creation and of history are interwoven into Jewish practice, producing a distinctive outlook that shapes Jewish identity.
RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND COVENANTAL CONSCIOUSNESS
In contrast to the self-sufficient God of Aristotle, the biblical God was considered philosophically “scandalous” because of the notion of a God who was vulnerable and affected by human history. Aristotle’s God was totally unmoved and oblivious to human beings, whereas the biblical God was, as A. J. Heschel wrote, “in search of man” or, as Professor Lieberman remarked, “the most tragic figure in the Bible.”
The idea that divine perfection is a relational category involving interdependence begins in the biblical story of creation. The idyllic description of an omnipotent God, whose unbounded will is automatically realized in the material world (“Let there be … and there was …”), abruptly changes with the creation of human beings, who challenge and oppose the divine will. In the Bible, the development of the notion of covenantal history is related to the transition in the character of God from an independent, unilateral actor to a God who recognizes that only through human cooperation can the divine plan for history be realized.
Abraham is the first covenantal figure because of the presence of mutuality in his relationship with God. Abraham’s appeal to principles of morality—“Far be it from You … to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty.… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:23–25)—reflects his unqualified belief in his intuitive sense of justice and love. His ability to judge God’s intended actions without having to “quote Scripture” reflects the dignity and dself-assurance of being in a covenantal relationship with God.
The covenants with Abraham and later with the people of Israel at Sinai express the principle of divine self-limitation that makes room for human involvement in determining history.
RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND INTIMACY
The God I meet in history is not an omnipotent, perfect, overwhelming presence that crushes my sense of worth and empowerment. Covenantal consciousness begins with the awareness that God has burdened human beings with the task of being the carriers of God’s vision for human history. The law and the commandments express not only God’s legislative authority but also, and above all, God’s need for human beings. In addition to the normative moral content of religious life—the pursuit of justice, love, and compassion in our personal and collective lives—the covenant at Sinai expresses the interpersonal intimacy of God’s relationship with Israel.
THE JEWISH YEAR: JEWISH IDENTITY AND COLLECTIVE MEMORIES
The notions of relationship and interdependence expressed in the Jew’s theological universe of discourse play an important role in defining the meaning of being a Jew and living a Jewish way of life. Being a Jew is first and foremost being part of the collective history of the Jewish people. In Judaism, you meet God within the framework of the collective history and practices of the Jewish people.
The individual’s journey of discovering the meaning of being a Jew begins with the collective memories of the foundational events of the Jewish people. By appropriating these memories, the individual becomes part of a Jewish “we” that precedes and shapes the emergence of his or her Jewish “I.” How you understand these foundational events determines the meaning of your individual Jewish identity within the collective life of the community. The Pilgrimage Festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, filter how a Jew understands the everyday meaning of being Jewish.
Pesach (Passover) negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual’s “leap of faith” or by fulfilling the commandments at Sinai. The conventional notion of religion as private faith and good works is incompatible with the message of Passover, which reminds me that I must first identify with my people’s struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai. We begin the annual pilgrimage of Jewish self-understanding by recollecting and identifying with the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. We begin by retelling the story of our struggle for liberation: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”—with the emphasis on the fact that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Empathy and solidarity with the political, social, and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any “leap of faith” or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as “we.” Heresy in Judaism is separating oneself from the collective experience of the Jewish people. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as “you” (“you and not him”). Jewish heresy is an existential state of excluding oneself from the destiny of the Jewish people.
Passover thus begins the yearly celebration of our collective memory by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people. Passover leads into Shavuot, the time of receiving the Ten Commandments, the normative way of life known as Torah and mitzvot. This festival is essentially a holiday of freedom, the freedom of living a disciplined, normative way of life.
While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing a collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse. At Sinai, the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice and love and becoming a holy people. “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai, we are challenged by God to take responsibility for our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life.
Freedom involves the capacity for self-transcendence, for being claimed by what is other than myself. For Jews, the law is not a source of guilt, as the Christian apostle Paul claimed. We are not paralyzed by the elaborate structure of Halakhah and mitzvot. On the contrary, the Law (our Torah) gave us a sense of personal dignity — the dignity of beings accountable before God. At Sinai, we heard a God address us as responsible moral agents in spite of our human vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is for this reason that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is so central to Jewish life. Yom Kippur provides us with hope and renewed conviction to begin anew and not to revel in the failures of the past.
After Shavuot, the next Pilgrimage Festival, Sukkot, evokes the desert experience and the yearning to reach the Promised Land. The land adds the dimension of the realization of our values and ideals within the total life of community. God desires that the material conditions of history, the social, economic, and political realities in which we live, mediate the divine presence. God’s command to pursue justice and compassion cannot be fulfilled unless the public frameworks of communal life reflect these normative ideals. The land takes holiness, k’dushah, beyond the private realm of the individual, or even of the enclave, into the public marketplace, the factories, the hospitals, the welfare system, the military—the vast array of living frameworks that make up human society. Without the land, we are a family. With the land, we are a people in the fullest sense of the term. Our family circle of values, ideals, and responsibilities expands to embrace the total Jewish people.
By appropriating the memory of Passover, I learn that I can never forget Auschwitz or be indifferent to any manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet, no matter how powerful and compelling the experience of the Holocaust is for Jews today, we must not define ourselves as victims but must move from Auschwitz to Jerusalem. Like the movement from Egypt to Sinai, we must learn to celebrate our people’s yearning to build a new future by taking responsibility for our lives as individuals, as a people, and as a country.
Our return to Israel as a sovereign nation can be understood figuratively as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, where we learned not to define ourselves as victims but to take responsibility for how we lived. In the Land of Israel, the voice of Sinai speaks to Jews, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives.
THE CREATION NARRATIVE AND JEWISH IDENTITY
While the festivals indicate the importance of the historical narrative in organizing Jewish identity, there is another type of narrative, the narrative of creation, that informs Jewish consciousness every week through the observance of the Sabbath. The Jew’s perspective on life is nurtured not only by the collective memories of the Jewish people but also by awareness of the shared condition of all human beings.
The creation story is about the common source and condition of all humankind. The biblical description of the first human being as a creature is a graphic representation of the normative rabbinic principle “beloved is every human being who has been created in the image of God.” The historical narrative develops a sense of intimacy with the Jewish people.
Through it we become a family and embrace our particular identity with joy and love. But the family narrative is not our only living framework. Every seventh day we interrupt the flow of our tasks and ambitions and stand quietly before God the creator.
The dialectic between our particular and universal identities, between the God of Israel and the God of creation, is the fate and challenge of being a Jew.
David Hartman was founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a frequent lecturer in the United States, and author of several widely acclaimed books, including two winners of the National Jewish Book Award.
The above excerpt by David Hartman is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2004 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing.
I Am Jewish