Encore Archive

On this page, we present essays – profound or timely – culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma– A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.

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(from Sh’ma 13/254, May 13, 1983)


The Revisionism of Irving Greenberg


By Arnold Jacob Wolf


In traditional Jewish thought, or at least in one version of our central tradition, Jews are responsible for doing the mitzvot (commandments), and God is responsible for protecting the Jews.  Irving Greenberg comes close, in his important recent essay “Voluntary Covenant,” to reversing these roles.  A series of papers written by him and published by the National Jewish Resource Center [CLAL], which he founded and heads, have become a kind of semi-official theology for the United Jewish Appeal and more thoughtful members of the Jewish establishment.  No wonder: Greenberg is learned, persuasive and personally both charming and forthcoming.  The conclusions of his recent latest manifesto require and deserve serious critical attention. 

Irving Greenberg believes there has been a profound transformation in the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.  While the biblical covenants with humankind, and especially with the Jewish people, already revealed a certain self-limitation on the part of an originally omnipotent God, He, nevertheless, early on required of Israel that it serve as His surrogate, “ministering to all nations and connecting them to the Divine.”  God remained “active” with Israel in order to prevent its defection from this central and necessary responsibility; circumcision is a perfect sign of the once involuntary, irrevocable nature of our chosenness.  “The Divine is saddled with an erratic covenantal partner,” but It has Its own mechanisms of insuring that Jewish fate will keep us honest, even when Jewish faith will not.  That pact worked pretty well for many hundreds of years.


The Deconstruction Of The Covenant 

Most of Greenberg’s paper is devoted to the revolutionary deconstruction of the original covenant relationship, in which God’s providence fully guaranteed both Jewish survival and Jewish loyalty.  Already, the fall of the First Temple and, more poignantly, the destruction of the Second Temple mark a conscious withdrawal of the Divine Presence from Jewish history: after that no more prophecy, no more sacraments – a new kind of human partnership with a God who is increasingly unavailable.  The Shechinah (Divine indwelling) is hidden from then on, so Israel herself must learn to assume much of the providential role formerly played by God. 

“The mixture of authority and modesty of the Rabbis is also consistent with the unfolding of the covenant model.”  The rabbis, according to Greenberg, basing himself upon a passage in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, asserted that Israel took upon itself the renewal of the covenant after the pact had, in a way, lapsed because of God’s removal of himself from personal responsibility for the Jews.  It was, from rabbinic times on, the task of the people and its leaders to name the specific terms of their loyalty and to define the responsibilities of Jewish peoplehood.  God had once given the Torah, but its interpretation subsequently fell entirely to human beings, scholars, poskim (judges).  Orthodox ideology which “offered a juridical view of the covenant” missed the full radical implications of covenant renewal, implications only fully manifest in our own time.  But rabbinic Judaism is already on the way to a “voluntary covenant,”  “developers and conservers at the same time.” 

The old idea of covenant was shattered once and for all at Auschwitz.   Greenberg quotes Elie Wiesel: “When God gave us a mission, that was all right.  But God failed to tell us that it was a suicide mission.”  There can be no question of reward and punishment or Divine providence any longer.  There can be no sense of shared loyalty and mutual love or responsibility between God and Israel.  He left us in the fatal lurch.  Worse, He sent us on a “suicide mission,” thus permanently revising the terms of His own covenant.  We do not owe Him anything, really, after the Holocaust that we do not wish to pay.


Voluntary Renewal Of The Covenant 

On the other hand, many Jews have voluntarily renewed the covenant simply by refusing to die as a people.  We can have no more obligations in the old sense, but we can choose, and many of us have chosen, the dream of redemption.  We have, as a people, volunteered to carry on.  Our covenant (according to Greenberg’s citation of Rav Soloveitchik, in a note – 63 – which by no means seems to me to mean what he thinks it does) is no longer a covenant of doing, but of being.  We are loyal simply by remaining Jews, whatever we do about our affirmation in the future.  The final meaning of the fall of both of the Temples, even of human free will as such, and certainly of the progressive alienation of God through history culminating in the Holocaust is a voluntary covenant whose terms are finally set only by the human party.  This inevitable “redistribution of power” is what political Zionism really means.  If the Messiah didn’t come to Auschwitz, he can never come.  We must redeem ourselves and/or our world.  God permitted the Holocaust; we must, and only we can, overcome it forever. 

The implications of the idea of a voluntary covenant are, of course, political and theological at once.  “It makes no essential difference if the Jews involved consciously articulate the covenantal hope or express a belief in the God who is the ground of the covenant.”   They are expressions of that covenant whatever they may think or do.  By being ready for martyrdom, they fulfill the essential; obligation that remains for them to fulfill.   Other mitzvot are, in a way, optional.  Pluralism endorses various alternative formulations of duty.  Reform must waive its dogmatically modernist criteria, Orthodoxy its univocal demands.  After Auschwitz, all differences between Jews become trivial, even in relation to God. 

The “State of Israel is the central vehicle of Jewish power, self-defense and redemption building; its needs should be given greater religious weight, perhaps rated as a matter of life or death.” Greenberg believes, theoretically more than in practice (to judge by the rather one-sided series of publications of the Resource Center), that there can be many interpretations of the new, human, Israel-centered covenant.  He does not want the Jewish State to become an idol.  But “Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut must become central holy days of the Jewish calendar;” Jewish survival must be the center and not merely a part of Judaism.  All the days of the week can finally become as holy as Shabbat.  A new covenant ceremony can and should coexist with circumcision, the old sign of the old involuntary covenant.   


The Novel Heresy Of Our Time 

There is a principle behind this radical revisionism by an “Orthodox” rabbi.  It is, I believe, the great, novel heresy of the twentieth century, of what he fondly calls the Third Era, and it is this: “The Third Era analogue to this concept (of voluntary covenant) is Greenberg’s view that ‘greater is the one who is not commanded but voluntarily comes forward than the one who acts only out of command.’ “  This is a bold denial of a central Jewish view.  Here unravels the whole skein of Jewish self-understanding.   We are the center of the covenant.  We have the primary task of self-protection.  (Do the Palestinians, too, even if they have not yet suffered a Holocaust?)  We are the makers and unmakers of the mitzvot, since our existence is already a fulfillment of them all.  We define the terms on which we choose, not what God chooses; of course, not what the United Nations or the peoples of the world might expect.  The Biblical God has shrunken to near invisibility; we are just about all the God there is left in the world.  Greenberg has systematically deconstructed Judaism, in favor of a political teleology whose consequences are clear enough: voluntarism means liberation from duty. 

Irving Greenberg says more than I have said he says.  Some of his views are almost antithetical, perhaps he would say dialectically related to these.  Above all, he insists (like Bonhoeffer, who was also profoundly affected by the Hitler period) that God’s self-alienation is to be perceived primarily as the liberation of humanity, and that the new covenant is, in a sense, our own coming of age.  What has been unfolding for centuries and emerges in the Holocaust is not just Divine withdrawal, but Divine love for an increasingly responsible humanity.   God is educating us to take over His world. 

God is, therefore, not so much unavailable as invisible.  The covenant has reached a new level of redemptive power.   Even Auschwitz may be a kind of Exodus.   That something precious was, in fact, broken does not mean that it was ended, but, in Greenberg’s view, it has become more adequate than ever before.  God may have endangered us, but He also shared and still shares our endangerment.  He may no longer be able simply to redeem humanity, but He longs for our redemption as passionately as He ever did.  He may even be more present than ever, though less markedly visible, and may be more involved even though distinctly less immediate, more important in a mystical sense, if less commanding and less demanding than He was before.


New Jewish Chauvinism In Disguise 

The reader will have to decide whether this, indeed, represents a true mystic vision, or rather, as I believe, more obfuscation, a mystification in the Marxist sense.  Greenberg believes that less God is more.  I believe that less God is always less, and that a secret divinity can hardly shape our ends or call us to true self-transcendence. 

I believe that Israel is still chosen, still obligated, and by no merely voluntary covenant.  I suspect Greenberg’s complex theological dialectic of being a cover for the new Jewish chauvinism, and Greenberg of being a victim of his own mysticism.  The old covenant is, of course, problematic, not less after Auschwitz.  Still, it not only empowered but also confronted Jews.  The voluntary covenant, I fear, is a product of our natural inclination to evil more than it is a new revelation.  In any case, Irving Greenberg has raised questions that Jewish history cannot evade, even if, as I think, he himself is sometimes evasive and often dangerously confused.    


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