On Covenants


Shavu’ot is much more than the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai because the Torah is more than the quintessential guide to Jewish observance.  As noted by George Mendenhall in 1954, historically conceived, the Torah is form or covenant: a vassal treaty between an overlord (God) and his subordinates (the people Israel).  But limiting the understanding of Torah to a vassal treaty diminishes from the larger meaning of what a covenant is.  In contrast to a contract that outlines mutual responsibilities, a covenant is based on mutual affection.  Thus the purpose of a covenant is to effect loyalty.  In the case of the Torah, that loyalty is expressed both to God and to each other.  The outcome of the Giving of the Torah is the propagation of a shared destiny and a shared identity among the people of the covenant.

The significance of this outcome is voiced by David Brooks.  Writing in the New York Times, Brooks bemoans the fact the contemporary obsession with individual choice has torn at the social fabric.  Community cohesion has been weakened as individualism has been strengthened.  The result is a loss of identity, aimlessness, and uncertainty.  The key question, he contends, is that “in a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?”  His solution is the rehabilitation of the concept of a covenant.

What he has in mind is Marcia Pally’s suggestion in her new book Commonwealth and Covenant that we need “separability amid situatedness” – a blend of independence and embeddedness.   This duality is not available by contract since contracts do not account for loyalty and affection.  A contract protects interests.  A covenant sustains relationships.  Those working under contracts look at what they can get.  Those working under covenants ask what they can give.  Thus those who enter into a covenant enjoy supreme individuality yet, concomitantly, feel connected and obligated to others in the same covenantal relationship.  By situating themselves within the group they add to their sense of belonging to something bigger, grander, and more meaningful.

Shavu’ot is, accordingly, the time for Jews to reflect on the true meaning of covenant and how our adoption of the concept is an inoculation against the incohesiveness of contemporary life.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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