The idea of covenant underlies the entire structure of traditional Judaism. Jewish tradition teaches that God established a covenant between himself and the Jewish people. But most non-Orthodox Jews do not believe this literally. They may believe that Judaism is special as a religion, that the Jews are special as a people, and that God is the God the Jews have worshiped for millennia, but many balk at the idea that they are chosen by God for a special covenant or treatment. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements began by explicitly rejecting the idea of chosenness and the binding nature of Torah. Obviously secular and Humanistic Jews also reject the idea of an eternal covenant between God and Israel. Even though so many Jews have abandoned the the traditional covenant, there remains some sense of covenant binding the Jewish people together, a sense of responsibility for one another. This is a covenant forged out of historical experience, solidarity, and an affirmation of life.
Michael Berenbaum argues in The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel that Wiesel’s “theology of the void” reveals an additional covenant created at Auschwitz. Since God failed to protect his people at their time of greatest need, the original covenant died in Auschwitz. The additional covenant is between the Jews and their past, “with its pain, its overwhelming experience of death, and its memories of God and of a world infused with meaning. The elements of the additional covenant are threefold: solidarity, witness, and the sanctification of life.” This covenant, grounded in history and our responsibilities to other Jews, allows secular and Humanistic Jews to affirm their commitment to Judaism and Jewishness. Furthermore, Berenbaum argues that the additional covenant allows Wiesel to accept a new mission for Israel.
The new mission of Israel lies in the three elements of the additional covenant. Solidarity is a virtue born of necessity for a persecuted and oppressed minority, and solidarity with the Jewish people in the face of antisemitism is a central pillar of the additional covenant. Wiesel’s grounding for Jewish solidarity is the common historical experience of the Jews, antisemitism, and alienation from Christian/Western civilization. The Jews also have a responsibility to be witnesses to all human suffering and fight inhumanity, to ask difficult questions, and to live without certitude in an absurd universe. Berenbaum argues that “the bond that can now unite Israel is not the bond of affirmative commitment but rather the bond of shared questions produced by a common root experience […] The Jew who once felt trust and fidelity toward the universe must now face [bear witness to] a universe of unanswerable questions.” By bearing witness to the absurdity of life we risk losing all sense of meaning. It is for this reason that the sanctification of life is the final element of the additional covenant. The term “sanctification of life” refers to two things: an affirmation of the possibility of human meaning in the face of cosmic absurdity and the endeavor to make life holy. And so the new mission for the Jews is solidarity with all Jews past and present, to act as witnesses to suffering and fight against injustice, and to find new ways to give life meaning in the face of absurdity.
The unique history, suffering, and values of the Jews makes this mission incumbent upon us, whether we are secular, liberal, or traditional which is why Berenbaum refers to this as an additional rather than a new covenant. Wiesel wrote, “We have not survived centuries of atrocities for nothing. This is what I think we are trying to prove to ourselves, desperately, because it is desperately needed.” Solidarity with the suffering of the Jews of the past necessitates the continuation of the Jewish people into the future, because it is only through surviving that the Jews can affirm that their ancestors’ suffering had meaning. Historically there are two social phenomena which can be accredited with the survival of the Jews: their sense of covenant with each other and with God, and paradoxically, the antisemitism of the people they lived among. In the face of the Holocaust, many Jews find it impossible to affirm the covenant of Sinai. Wiesel’s additional covenant can serve as the basis for the creation of new forms of Jewishness in the absence of a covenant with a transcendent, omnipotent God. It is therefore vital to the success of Humanistic branches of Judaism and the future of the Jews.
The additional covenant identified by Berenbaum through Wiesel meshes with the central message of Humanistic Judaism that I argued for in a previous post as well as the affirmations found on the SHJ website. Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, demonstrates that the Jews must rely on one another for their own well-being. It is through acknowledging the suffering of the world, ethical living, and a commitment to repairing the world that we live our values and sanctify our lives. The additional covenant already underlies Humanistic Judaism; it is only a matter of making it explicit going forward.
“Hear O Israel, let us take up our portion in the repair of the world.”
-Rabbi Jeffrey Falick