Our Covenant with God

Shelah Lekha By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Jun 4, 2010 / 5770 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious Israel

When Moses confronts the gravest challenge to his and God’s authority since the golden calf, the negative report of the spies sent to scout the Land of Israel, he responds with a lawyerly argument for divine mercy that is taken directly from the one that had staved off the people’s annihilation by God the first time around. The argument takes the form of a question: What will the Egyptians say if God destroys His people?

After the golden calf, Moses had pleaded, “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them [Israel], only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth'” [Exod. 32:12]. This time he claims, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of the land [the latter know of God’s presence amidst the Israelites and the wonders He performed for them]. If then you slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness'” [Num. 14: 13–16].

God is caught, and Moses knows it. Either God’s intent toward Israel was bad from the start, or God was powerless to fulfill God’s good intentions for them. True, the thirteen divine attributes of justice and mercy that God called out (and exercised) after the golden calf episode will prove effective this time too. Moses pointedly reminds God of God’s merciful nature by quoting those very attributes back to God. Destruction, as a result, is limited in both cases to those most directly guilty (a plague kills all the spies except Caleb and Joshua). The generation that lost faith in the wake of the spies’ report will be punished over time, rather than at once. Their children will be permitted to enter the Promised Land.

But Moses’s argument for mercy on both occasions is preceded by, and relies upon, the prior argument: appeal to God’s reputation, a function of God’s ambitions for the world. God has no choice but to care about God’s good name because God wants Egypt and everyone else in contact with Israel to know that “I am YHWH.” The whole earth is one day to be filled with knowledge of the Lord. With Israel gone, that plan goes back to square one, and indeed becomes utterly hopeless. The world will have learned nothing from the entire story of divine intervention via Israelite from Abraham to the Exodus and beyond—nothing, that is, except the nonexistence of a God who cares about justice in the world or the inability of that God to effect His plan and make the world more just. With Israel gone, there will be no notion of Covenant, no insistence that the world must be more just and compassionate, no hope that it one day will be so.

In short: no messenger, no message. If there is no Israel—one hardly dares to say this, as our Sages put it, but Moses seems to shout it loud and clear in these episodes—there is, in our world at least, no God.

There is an obvious flaw in this argument, suggested by God’s earlier offers to destroy this people and make Moses the progenitor of another. Israel is dispensable if a substitute can be found. This is after all exactly what Christianity has argued from the start, and Islam after it. Substitutes were found, rendered necessary by the failures of Israel. Moses’s argument, therefore, must have another layer to it in order to be credible: namely, that this people is no worse than any other, if also no better. If God cannot elicit faith from Israel, after delivering it from slavery and performing miracle after miracle before its eyes and on its behalf, what human beings will rise to the requisite level of confidence in a God unseen?

None, is the implied Mosaic answer, unless (Paul’s view, possibly based on the first “What will the Egyptians say?”) God wanted Israel to fail and enabled its successor Covenant-partner to succeed by changing the nature of human beings on earth by means of a God-Man, His Son. Jews have never been persuaded by Paul’s claim, obviously, and not only because to do so would mean Jews should become Christians. We have not been persuaded because we look around and see human beings, including Christians, behaving very much as human beings have always behaved, thereby testifying to the truth about human freedom to do good and evil taught in the opening chapters of Genesis.

We begin with a gripping story, then—in this case the expedition of the spies and its aftermath—and are thrust immediately by the Torah into the complexities of Jewish theology and the dilemmas of contemporary Jewish history.

First theology: Covenant seems to set up an impossible demand. Human beings as they are, the world as it is, was, and apparently ever shall be, somehow must be made to live in accordance with God’s commandments. The battle between prophet and king that takes center stage in the second of the Bible’s three parts is built into the very nature of Covenant. How can God create human beings capable of evil as well as good, render us fallible, frail, and mortal, and then be disappointed when we act in human, all-too-human fashion? The divine plan seems to be one of gradual education to virtue. Somehow the world is going to rise toward humanity over time. One can make a case that this plan is succeeding, hard as it is to show persuasively—given the horrors of the twentieth century—that progress has occurred. Redemption does occur periodically, giving hope that Messiah will come. Much good is performed. But the case is not simple. Human beings seem an unreliable and unstable divine Covenant-partner at best.

This brings us to contemporary Jewish dilemmas of urgent importance. We are prompted by the story of the spies to wonder if God should continue to rely upon Jews or any other human beings to play the role assigned to us. We are led still more forcibly by recent Jewish history to wonder if the people of Israel should do so—and whether the State of Israel can do so. Can Jews continue as God’s Covenant partners without danger to both God and Israel? Can we abandon that role without equal danger to both parties?

I was reminded, reading Sh’lah L’kha this year, of A. B. Yehoshua’s warning years ago that Diaspora Jewry could not escape “neurosis” because it sought to be a religion and a people at the same time, and could not be one without imperiling the other. In his view, only secular Israel—whose Judaism consisted exclusively in land and language, shorn of delusory beliefs in a supernatural, personal, covenantal God—could escape “neurosis” and achieve “normality.” Orthodox Diaspora Jews did so (though at cost of the truth) by clinging to faith without ambition for a secular role in the world, and paying the price in wandering and persecution. The rest of us cannot escape neurosis. We seek to square a circle, to reconcile aspects of existence that cannot be brought together. Either we serve God and suffer the fate that comes our way by virtue of linking our fate to God’s fate, or we sever the connection to God and become a nation like any other, an ethnic diaspora like any other. Covenant cannot stand if we are to stand, and vice versa.

The Israeli Orthodox thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz made a related point from the viewpoint of faith. He was a Zionist, Leibowitz explained, because Jews were obligated to obey God’s commandments and could not do so effectively unless they “cast off the yoke of Gentile rule.” But the State of Israel in itself had no religious significance, he argued, because the business of states is to secure the welfare of their citizens, in part by waging war on other states. Jews have never celebrated war or conquest, he maintained; we honor only obedience to God. The demands of Covenant may not be capable of fulfillment by sinful human beings, but we are obligated by those demands—inside or outside the State of Israel—nonetheless.

My own view is, predictably, more complicated, in keeping with the wilderness messiness portrayed in the story of the spies and Moses’s concern with God’s reputation. One cannot escape the patent chutzpah of the Jewish claim to Covenant (and every other religion’s claim to encounter with divinity and/or knowledge of divine will). But there it is: no Covenant, I believe, no Judaism; without Judaism, I see no point to Jewishness, except the substantial pride and virtue of membership in this group and its civilization. Jews have achieved more than some others in the world, and have perhaps suffered more than most, but we cannot claim any higher value or authority than all the rest on those grounds alone. Nor would we have survived long centuries without faith to distinguish and sustain us. I believe this is still true. Jews, in other words, depend for our existence on Covenant. Moses got it right: we need God to survive. No Judaism, no Jews.

And what of God? We cannot know much about God’s situation, according to most Jewish thinkers through the ages. Moses certainly seems more perplexed than informed in his interactions with God in the Torah. We therefore cannot know for sure that Christianity and Islam are wrong or inadequate in their claims about Jewish error, though we stake our existence on the matter, and cannot know for certain that Hinduism, Buddhism, and all the rest of the world’s faiths are in need of Judaism to fulfill God’s purposes for Creation, though most of us believe that as well.

We cannot know any of this—but Judaism stands or falls on the notion that the ethical insights, social norms, and hope for the future embedded in our tradition, and ascribed ultimately to encounters between our ancestors and God, are of eternal and universal value to all humanity. This means—I write with maximum humility, without full understanding of the words—that it seems God wants to communicate something by means of Jewish teachings and Jewish history. It matters to God, in this sense, “what the Egyptians say” and what everyone else, including us, say and think about God. It is God’s will, as our prophets taught from Moses onwards, insofar as anything can be said about God’s will, that the whole earth exhibit knowledge of God by acting accordingly in justice and compassion.


In 1949, soon after the creation of the modern State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and Martin Buber engaged in a dialogue that, as both well knew, emerged directly from the Bible. Buber accused Ben-Gurion of dressing up political ambitions in religious terms. Zionists spoke of “redemption of the soil,” for example, when what they meant was extending Jewish control over it. Jews needed at every step to ask about the ultimate purpose their action served. For Buber, that ultimate purpose had to be Covenant: “For what [purpose] redemption of the land?”

So that Jews can bring forth bread from it, Ben-Gurion replied.
For what, Buber demanded?
To eat, said Ben-Gurion.
For what, Buber asked again?
Enough! the prime minister declared.

I submit that they were both right. Jews need sovereignty, possession of the soil, so as to survive. No Jews, no Judaism. And Buber was correct. Jews need ultimate purpose in order to survive and thrive as a small minority, in Israel or anywhere else. No Judaism, no Jews.

The tension is as old as Covenant. The discussion will continue as long as Jews seek to live in accordance with Covenant, guided by concern for what God thinks of us and what the world thinks of God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.