Finding a Place in the Passage of Time
I recently finished Eugene Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. When my rabbi handed me the book, he told me it “was a little old,” as though 1991 was really so long ago. Yes, I realize I would have been 12 years of age for most of that year. Borowitz’s message of Jewish Covenant is still just as valid today as it was 25 years ago. (Although what is 25 years to a religion that has survived over five millennia?)
Eugene Borowitz was a professor at Hebrew Union College and a leader in Reform Judaism philosophy. Like all who practice liberal Judaism, he believes that Torah is a shared allegory, written by human beings, and that we are collectively called to continue the process of authoring Torah today. He draws heavily on prior art, navigating the works of theologians who came before him, and challenging each of their conclusions.
In laying out previous theological work, Borowitz points out the core of each esoteric argument. Is the divine an internal drive that compels us or an external force that draws us in? Is the divine personal or collective? Is the divine wholly human or beyond humanity? Is the divine rational or irrational?
Throughout most of the work, Borowitz seems mostly aligned with the work of Martin Buber, although he persists with this one question: If the I-Thou relationship is so personal, and if this relationship is available to any religion who recognizes the intimacy between God and man, then what is the purpose of Torah? The heart of Buber’s argument is that personal, human, I-Thou relationships can be experienced by anyone, gentile or Jew. As such, the Eternal Thou can also be experienced by anyone who has the patience and wherewithal. And if the Eternal Thou may be shared across religious boundaries, then what is need for Judaism?
One of Borowitz’s first challenges is the understanding of God-Creator. We have a scientific explanation of creation, and the God-idea may or may not have been a part of that creation. The question of the divine mover, more or less, is a left for the deists and theologians. The better question: What does creation mean today?
We are partners in creation. By our actions (or inactions, depending on the circumstance) we shape our future. The friends we keep, how we vote, what we teach our children, the words we choose — all of these are creating a future. Are we doing our part, individually and socially, to create a future of peace and understanding?
Do we recognize God in this creative process? Does the divine play a role in our everyday actions? For the religious mind, every evening becomes a moment of reflection: Did I make the best decisions I could today? Did my actions and words create harmony or discord?
This is how Eugene Borowitz cleared up an incredible confusion for me. While I do want to find my place with God, I struggle with some of the bigger, more dogmatic ideologies. I have consistently struggled with the idea of a God-Creator, because I expect science to eventually provide the answers to what happened 14 billion years ago. Holy texts were never meant to give us this information. However, I can completely, wholeheartedly agree with the idea that we create tomorrow, and we can choose to create tomorrow with the divine presence in mind.
The author takes the same path with the ideas of chosenness and covenant. What does it mean for Jews to be God’s chosen people? Many authors, rabbis, and theologians have argued and discussed what this topic means in its historical context. In the last 200 years, liberal rabbis have had their numerous opinions. At one extreme, Mordecai Kaplan believed that chosenness was a holdover from a bygone era, and the idea should be immediately forgotten. The chosenness of the Jewish people meant nothing in 20th century society, and the idea acted as fuel for antisemitism. On the other side of the argument, Leo Baeck believed that Jews, as the collective founders of ethical monotheism, were so important to society that without Jewish history the very idea of ethical monotheism would cease to exist.
Instead of looking to the past, Borowitz encourages us to look to the future. We look at God’s choosing as a drive to be a religious person, one who actively seeks the divine in the world, and God’s covenant as the foundation of a relationship. If you were told, today, that you (yes, you, dear reader) have a covenant with God, an unbreakable relationship, what would that mean? How would this drive your decision-making process? What different actions would you take in your life?
This does not mean that we should all start ignoring our past. Our past tells us who we are. Our customs from years, centuries, and millennia before are part of our shared story. Borowitz points out that we bless wine on Shabbat, and we should continue to bless wine, and not whiskey or sparkling water, as long as we continue to welcome Shabbat into our homes each Friday night. The candles, wine, and challah are part of our history, and our history becomes us. While each of us is a unique self, each unique self is a member of many communities. To fully realize our most human self, we must also be fully aware of our connectedness with the world and people around us. Yes, we are unique, but we are not unique in a vacuum.
By looking to the present, the various historical theological arguments are left alone. Is God internal and humanist or external and primary? Is the God-idea rational or irrational? These conversations are historically important, but they should not matter when it comes to the myriad questions we face each day. The role of religion is to be transformative, to seek the divine in all things, to bring about a society of unity. If you’re Jewish, you might invoke the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel and call this utopian society the table of the eternal Shabbat, a table of ceaseless peace and joy (and, I’m assuming, plenty of wine!).
In summary, I loved this book. By reframing the ideas of creation, chosenness, and covenant from historical narratives to present-day stories, these ideas are given renewed relevance. Borowitz has taken ideas that I have routinely struggled with and made them personal. I have fought with the idea of a God who created (past tense), but I have no conflict with a God who creates (present tense). Similarly, what do chosenness and covenant mean when we conclude that Torah is authored not by God, but by man? Does the formational relationship between God and man have diminished meaning simply because it is less historical fact and more allegory? (I should hope not!) Let us shift our focus to the covenant of today. Let us look at who we are, acknowledging our history, being mindful of the future we seek.