A dozen years have passed since Irving Kristol, in a savage critique of Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism,1 sought to demonstrate that Jewish thought in America was powerless to answer the great questions—questions about man and his condition, about destiny and the meaning of history—that the war had raised in the troubled minds of so many intellectuals in the West. Kristol’s article challenged Jewish thinkers to face these questions instead of taking refuge in the kind of calm, confident faith that he accused Milton Steinberg, and most American rabbis, of preaching. To this challenge a group of younger theologians—among them Emil Fackenheim and Will Herberg—soon responded, and for a time it seemed that a new Jewish theology—a theology concerned with the crisis of the age—was in process of being born. But the effort miscarried. Aside from a few articles and one book, perhaps two, the promise of these first few exciting efforts remained unfulfilled.

Now that over a decade has passed, it may be useful to ask why this new Jewish theology failed to develop. To do so we must return to Kristol’s argument and set forth its basic thesis. What disturbed him was the relative indifference of American Judaism to the extent and complexity of the problem of sin. He wrote that “the spiritual distress of the modern world does not arise merely because man perversely chooses to do evil rather than good. If it were as uncomplicated as all that, present-day Judaism—even Rabbi Steinberg’s Judaism—would have the answer right at hand. The horror that breathes into our faces is the realization that evil may come by doing good—not merely intending to do good, but doing it.”

Jewish theology to be meaningful in the postwar world would have to speak to this problem—to man’s talent for creating evil, to his capacity for deluding himself about the strength and subtlety of his evil inclination. Contemporary Jewish thinkers, of whom Steinberg was the most articulate, lacked the courage or the vision to see the problem, much less to provide the answers. Books, journals, and sermons seemed quite satisfied with the liberal formulas and melioristic illusions of the 30’s. To read or hear them was to experience the eerie feeling that their authors had been suspended in time or that in their limited vision they had remained oblivious to what meanwhile had happened to mankind. Thus for men like Irving Kristol who were preoccupied with the ordeal of Western culture, a Judaism without an emphasis on the problem of sin was “still catastrophically narrow,” and was characterized by “intellectual timidity, cultural immaturity.” So went the appraisal and the challenge.

It is not difficult to recall the circumstances which engendered this troubled concern with religion and with its failure to take sufficient account of the realities of human evil. By 1948, the mood of which Kristol’s article was only one of many expressions was already prominent in American Protestant circles which were experiencing the same disillusionment that their European colleagues had learned a war earlier. A few years before everything had seemed so clear. The professors had swept out the dead dogmas of tradition and had confidently pointed the way to a better world. The politicians, particularly the radicals, had been even more convinced that their revelation was truth. Political action, scientific investigation, man-for-himself—such notions became the Messianic hopes, the pseudo-religions, which were shattered by the realities of World War II and the cold war that succeeded it. Once these new idols had been discredited by the tragic complexities of what was now seen to be “the human condition,” religion itself began to appear in a new role and to take on new meaning. If man could not play God successfully, then perhaps God was not dead. If man could not finally stand in effective judgment over his own pride and sinfulness, then God could and would—perhaps, indeed, had. To rebuild his life, to be true to his new view of history, postwar man needed to understand not only his limitations but also his profound capacity for evil even in the guise of doing good. And, with their continuing revelations of both democratic and Communist deceit and treachery, the years since World War II have but made the problem more pressingly relevant. As a result, the theology of sin—and related to it, the theology of the state and its functions, the theology of culture and of history—have continued to be central concerns of Western thought.

The impact of this vast change was felt with special power in the Jewish world, for the 30’s had had a special significance for American Jews. They were the first years of rapid integration into American culture. Out of the ghetto neighborhoods had come great numbers of young adults intent on becoming true Americans and on making use of a freedom that had been won after long centuries of persecution. Their Jewish heritage, with its emphasis on intellect and self-assertion, also made the American opportunities for education and advancement particularly attractive. No liberal, scientific, or cultural movement was without its youthful Jewish zealots. No group should therefore have been more disillusioned by the experiences of the 40’s or have been more attuned to the appeal made by Kristol’s article.



Yet the record of the 50’s is clear. The prevalent mood of the Jewish community since World War II has not been one of concern with human sinfulness or with man’s inability to transcend evil. It has not been characterized by resignation or despair. On the contrary, though the American Jew may be politically less naive, even to the point of near apathy, and though he may not be as trusting as he once was of those who have simple solutions for our society’s ills—the dominant accent of his life is still his faith in the Good Deed.

Indeed, what stands out in a review of the life of American Jews during the 50’s is not a mood of indecision or even hesitation, but a clear and simple knowledge of what they needed to do—and then did. Marriage, children, decent jobs, and homes—these often led them to new neighborhoods, or to communities which had not existed a few years before. There were no established institutions, no patterns of community life, waiting to receive them. Still, even in the presence of communal nothingness they knew what needed to be done. There must be Jewish schools for Jewish children, Jewish centers for Jewish youth, synagogues and temples for—of all people—them! There must be organized Jewish communities, if for no other reason than that they might work together to rescue brother Jews from refugee camps, from lands of oppression, or wherever they were in distress. And American Jews did what they could, from sending telegrams to running rummage sales, from attending mass meetings to offering quiet prayers to create, build, and maintain the State of Israel. It was not the Jewish professionals or the great national organizations which developed this attitude—though they often take credit for it. Their role, however significant, was shaped in response to a process that was already under way in the Jewish community. In short, without ever having to think about it, the masses of American Jewry emerged from World War II not with a sense of man’s helplessness before the evil consequences of his well-intentioned behavior or of the powerlessness of his will before his own evil inclinations, but rather with what can legitimately be called an unshaken faith in man’s capacity to know the righteous act and accomplish it successfully.

To be sure, one may condemn much of what American Jews have done in the past decade as merely the exuberant response of those newly admitted into the suburban middle class. Yet it seems to me that it is not middle-class morality so much as a history of commitment to the concept of mitzvah which has asserted itself in contemporary American Jewish life. Chupah v’kiddushin, pru ur’vu, talmud torah, tz’dakah—these and a hundred other commandments may be unacknowledged as such by the American Jew, but they still guide his life. He does not, of course, study the codes of Jewish law as his great-grandfather did, and he may even believe that they no longer have relevance. Nevertheless, it seems clear that centuries of Jewish devotion and observance have conditioned his psyche so thoroughly that virtually no amount of rebellion, flight, and camouflage has been able to purge him of the conviction that a man is capable both of knowing and doing the good. This conviction—which forms the very basis of Judaism and which is one of the main points on which Christianity split from its mother-religion—has continued to dominate the life of American Jewry in our day, despite wars, crises, and intellectual disillusion.

Starting with that faith—obscure though it may be—the “ordinary” American Jew has raised his own theological questions. Though he may not practice the mitzvot which one observes him practicing out of any conscious religious commitment, still the acts themselves lead him to inquiries about their origin, purpose, and authority. From within the Jewish community, from Jewish living and devotion, there has thus arisen a distinct and indigenous desire for theology—only this is for a theology of mitzvah, a rationale of the Jewish way of life and belief. Thus, first by the witness of its life and then by the questions which that life poses, American Jewry has in effect rejected the kind of question raised in Irving Kristol’s article.



This is not to say that the problem of sin has disappeared from Jewish intellectual life. Along with the related questions of culture, the state, and history, it still comes before the handful of thinkers who take the discipline of theology seriously. Yet to expound a Jewish theology relevant to our day, one must decide whether to begin with the problem of sin or the value of mitzvah. In the one case, man’s continued failure is taken as the basis of religious experience. In the other case, the need and the ability to do the righteous act become the concern in thought that they have previously been in life.

Contemporary Jewish thought in America, confronted by these two paths of theology, has chosen the latter, the one which has always been characteristic of Judaism. Traditionally it is Christianity which has been most preoccupied with the problem of sin, for to Christianity the most basic and overwhelming fact of human existence is man’s sinfulness before God’s law. Man, said St. Paul, cannot perform the Commandments though he exert himself to the fullest. Because man’s will is corrupt, the Torah is inherently self-defeating: if anything, God’s purpose in giving it was to prove that it was impossible to reach Him through merit. Salvation can only come to the unworthy sinner through God’s grace, and even after the sinner has been redeemed, he continues to be dependent on divine grace for living the good life. In Christianity, then, first comes the theology of sin, then the theology of redemption, and finally the theology of justification and sanctification (the theology of righteous living).

Judaism has traditionally faced life from a different point of view. What has amazed the Jew, leaving him in awe and trembling, is his declared ability to know and to do a righteous act. That he, an ant, a grasshopper, is privileged to know God’s will and to perform it; that he, a mote in the vastness of creation, is still by reason of this knowledge and this capacity “but little lower than God” (the Hebrew says elohim)—this has been the primary source of his religious inspiration. His Bible is filled not with philosophic disquisitions, with metaphysical analyses, but with laws and commandments, histories of how he lived under this regimen, and prophetic harangues that criticize his performance and refine his responsibilities. The vast libraries of rabbinic literature are not filled with guides to religious introspection, but rather seek to make ever clearer the details of the religiously responsible act. Even the medieval philosophers discuss the existence and attributes of God primarily as a basis for validating and authorizing the life of Torah.

Judaism knows sin and sinfulness, but understands them within the context of mitzvah, not vice-versa. When the Jew sins, he is not overwhelmed by the event, nor does he anticipate that God will be. The Jew knows that he is but an animal. Surely this cannot come as a surprise to God, his creator, who fashioned him of dust. Hence He will understand the lapse; and because what He wants, more than punishment, is the righteous act, He will allow man to turn from his evil and pursue righteousness again. Even in his sinfulness, the Jew does not simply wait for God to act. Even then, there is a mitzvah to perform. The Jew acts. He does t’shuvah, he turns his life to righteous living with an immediate act of repentance. And he knows his heartfelt turning to his maker will be accepted.



Thus it is not especially difficult to understand why the demand for a new Jewish theology, the Jewish theology of man’s sinfulness, has had little effect. Instead there has been another concern, a concern which arose from within the Jewish community, based upon its commitments, and one which Judaism has always considered more elementary. To this theology of mitzvah, Jewish thinkers, particularly the younger ones, have increasingly given their attention. It is symptomatic that the articles by Emil Fackenheim which have appeared in COMMENTARY during the past twelve years have moved from the consideration of human limitations to the possibility in liberal Judaism for authoritative guidance of Jewish living. Fackenheim’s intellectual odyssey is similar to that of most postwar Jewish theologians.

It would be premature to call this effort to articulate a theology of mitzvah a distinct school of thought. At the moment there is no book, personality, nor institution around which it might be organized (though it owes much to the writings of Franz Rosenszweig and Martin Buber). However, it has enlisted the interest of such diverse Jewish thinkers as Lou Silberman, Stephen Schwarzschild, Jacob J. Petuchowski, W. Gunther Plaut, Herschel Matt, Monford Harris, and Samuel Dresner; and the broad outlines of one emerging system can be sketched. This system might be called “Covenant Theology,” for it rests upon a reaffirmation, in contemporary terms, of the Covenant of Sinai and its renewal during the centuries of prophetic leadership. It seeks to explore and understand the implications of defining religion as a covenant relation, and specifically to make manifest the nature and meaning of the Jewish Covenant with God.

Covenant Theology, then, understands Judaism in frankly existential terms. Judaism does not involve only a set of ideas, a concept of God, or even a set of practices. It is also a way of living one’s life based on a relationship with God, a relationship in which the whole self is involved. But it is not simply the private faith of an individual. The Jew is the man who shares the common faith in the mutual promise existing between God and Israel—that is, the Jewish people as a whole. The Covenant was not made between one Jew and God, but between God and the entire House of Israel. The individual Jew shares in his people’s relationship with God as a matter of birth. He may also share in it as a matter of will when he makes this historic Covenant the chief article of his faith.

The Covenant, begun with Abraham, sealed at Sinai, renewed a dozen times over through the prophets, and reaffirmed by succeeding generations of Jews, thus provides the base for the new theology. Under that Covenant the Jews have acknowledged Adonai alone as God and have pledged themselves to live by His law. Here the new theologians emphasize the mitzvah, for it is through this service, individually and communally, that Israel testifies to God’s reality, nature, and existence through all of history. Israel will remain faithful to God and His service until all men come to know Him; that is, to live by His law. Israel does not believe that any other religion has been or would be able to carry out that function. And it believes that God will preserve and protect the Jewish people through all of history—though that care is not extended from the people as a whole to each Jewish family or individual, as we have so bitterly learned. And Israel knows that God will vindicate its striving on His behalf on the day when all men indeed do come to know Him.



The central task of modern Judaism, according to this theology, is to win the conscious, willed loyalty of the modern Jew to the Covenant. Other generations could take the Jew’s acceptance of the Covenant for granted. Yesterday’s Jew grew up in a community which lived by it, and it so informed his personal and group life that he did not even have to articulate it. If he had begun to question it, the whole force of his intellectual orientation would have led him to a resolution. Today’s Jew does not have the benefit of living and thinking within this pattern. If the Covenant is to bind his children and his children’s children, he must come to accept it as his personal Covenant as well. By making it inform his life and the life of his family along with seeing that his children receive a proper Jewish education and encouraging them to marry within the religion—by living a life of Torah—he must work to insure that the Covenant will be transmitted to future generations.

In the eyes of the new theology, then, the modern Jew must be not only an ethical man, not only a religious man, but the man of the Covenant as well. He is a Jew because he affirms that Covenant and has made it the basis of his existence. Once he does so, his life becomes an effort to sanctify time, to redeem history through following the Commandments, by performing other righteous deeds. Each Commandment becomes a way not only to personal improvement and fulfillment, but also helps to satisfy his responsibility to God and to mankind. Similarly, in performing the mitzvot he makes his own life more holy and brings the world that much closer to the Kingdom of God. And as he becomes more observant, ethically as well as ritually, in his practical life as well as in study and prayer, he not only comes to know his God more intimately but speaks of Him to all mankind.

Moreover, the Covenant explains to him that great mystery of which he personally has been a witness and participant—Israel’s continuing survival. Only twenty-five years ago, some Jews were calculating how soon American Jewry would disappear. Today they complain because education and observance do not go far enough, and their concern is that Judaism must become more profound. Having suffered the worst calamity the Covenant people has ever known, the House of Israel has responded with new will and determination. No answer is given by the “Covenant Theology” to why God demands such suffering from us under the Covenant, and it neither condones nor minimizes Jewish persecution. The new thinkers do, however, point to the fact that the ties which bind us one to another have not been broken by persecution and suffering, but continue to be strengthened in the course of meeting common Jewish problems. The creation of the State of Israel and its continuing survival, they affirm, is also moving evidence that the Covenant continues.



The specific details of what is meant by “God’s law” will vary among Jewish groups. They do not differ over the abiding relation between God and Israel, but—as is traditional in Judaism—about Torah: that is, the specific ways through which the Covenant shall be made manifest in life. The Orthodox will insist that traditional Jewish law, subject to change only within carefully circumscribed limits, is the only authentic expression of the relationship. The Conservative will agree that the institution of law must continue but will insist that Jewish law has historically adapted itself to new circumstances, and that it contains within it all the necessary means for defining how one should live under the Covenant and still be part of American society. The Reformers will insist on the freedom of the individual to decide questions of ritual observance in terms of his conscience or his personal encounter with the divine. But just as the other groups will benefit by the emphasis in the new theology on God’s role, so the Reform Jew will find that the role of Israel asserts itself more deeply in his consciousness. By seeing Judaism as the Covenant faith, he will regard it not as a private religion, but as one he shares with his people. Hence his right to decide what is Torah-for-him, which might lead to anarchy, will be expanded to what is Torah-for-him-as-a-member-of-the-Covenant-folk. From the point of view of Covenant Theology, then, what binds Jews together is far more important than what separates them. Their differences, particularly as modified by the role of the mitzvah in the lives of families and communities, become far more a matter of degree than of kind.

Understanding Judaism as a Covenant can also explain why modern Jews believe in the continuing worth of righteousness despite the ubiquity of sin. They know that religion always involves two partners, God and man. Jewish history has seen the doleful results of overemphasizing the role of either. The reliance upon God alone in times of oppression and persecution has often acted to reduce the role of mitzvah, to relieve the people of its responsibility to use its own powers for justice and peace. And the insistence upon man as the master of history explains the continuing stream of false Messiahs and of the spiritual ordeal which inevitably follows their exposure—for example, the prophets of social change and scientism of the 30’s, followed by the despair of the 40’s. It is true that despite our best efforts the Messianic era does not arrive. But we do not then conclude that it can never come. God, too, has a share in its coming, and in His own good time, if not our own, that great Messianic day will dawn. This sure faith that God stands with him in history can give the individual Jew the patience, the holy obstinacy, to endure and to act. God moves through history, working out His will for the creation, and man has the privilege of serving as His partner, though not as His surrogate.

Sin might destroy the Jewish will to act if the Jew believed that sin might destroy the Covenant, that it might nullify the relationship between God and man. But Judaism long ago affirmed that its Covenant was eternal—that is, unconditional. God may punish, exile, decimate Israel. Still the Covenant remains. The prophets may denounce Israel in His name, they may insist that He will render judgment upon it as upon any other sinful nation, and perhaps even more severely—still they do not say He will revoke His Covenant. Israel’s obligations under that continuing Covenant are precisely what call forth the prophetic denunciation and the punishment of God.

The Jews, then, have traditionally rejected Paul’s thesis that the Covenant is obsolete and that a new Covenant is required. The living reality of their relation with their God despite their failures, their experience of the response of their God to them in their sin, their trust that He has taken upon Himself part of the responsibility of history, all combine to bring them to assert faith in the Covenant despite their inability to fulfill it on their own.



There is much more to be said both about mitzvah and sin. Still in true Jewish fashion it is life which must strengthen and intensify theology, so that theology may in turn direct and order life. Only as American Jewry comes to live by the Covenant in a rapidly shifting culture can Jews determine its lasting significance for Judaism. But should that life of the Covenant become real and pervasive—whether in its rationalistic, humanistic, or existentialistic form—the foundation will have been laid for Jewish theology to reach out to the broader questions of culture, of the state, of the history of non-Jewish peoples. Until then the primary task of the Jewish thinker remains within the community of Israel. Some will still find this devotion to be as “catastrophically narrow” as Kristol did twelve years ago. But the Jew, the man who through the Covenant has survived the Hellenistic, Persian, Moorish cultures, and a dozen more—the man who, as it were, has survived the forces of history itself—will but marvel at such myopia. For in reaffirming the Covenant, in making it his own, in reestablishing his people’s loyalty to it, the Jew enables himself and his people to transcend geography and politics, civilization and time.

And perhaps the greatest contribution Jews can make to Western culture is simply in living by the Covenant of their fathers, in patiently pursuing righteousness until God’s kingdom comes. Western man reels between the poles of “forcing the end” and despairing of man’s power. The people of Israel has in great part learned to avoid both evils. It knows its role in history as it knows God’s. That it can affirm such faith in man and God, that it can continue to live by that faith, should be a source of continuing wonder for all mankind, and, hopefully, a spur to similar faith and action.



1 “How Basic is Basic Judaism?” COMMENTARY (January 1948).

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