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SIDIC Periodical XXIV - 1991/2-3
The People of God of the Old Covenant Never Revoked by God (Pages 16-24)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The relationship between Torah and Covenant in Judaism
Marcel Marcus


It is a heavy fare which you gave me as a topic. The Relationship between Torah and Covenant in Judaism contains three terms, which all await definition: Torah, Covenant and Judaism. I guess it is no coincidence that you did not translate the first term, but left it in the original. Neither did you state what covenant (or is it covenants?) you refer to, and we all know that for every three Jews, there are four definitions of Judaism.

Towards Some Definitions
Let me, in good Jewish tradition, start from the back, with the term Judaism, and let us assume that we all agree, more or less, on what Judaism is all about, namely the body of teaching and tradition as developed, taught and lived by the majority of Jews through the ages — which could be as well, indicating the possible confusion, one of the meanings of Torah.

Regarding Torah, you have in your invitation to this conference a fine definition by Jonathan Magonet:
A term meaning teaching or direction... which applies in a limited sense to the Five books of Moses, but later came to mean
the whole Hebrew Bible, and subsequently all Jewish teaching derived from it... But far beyond that, the process of studying the Torah became one of the great highways to God in Jewish tradition.

I would like to add two qualifications to this definition. One, the Torah seems to me not to be one of the great highways to God in Jewish tradition, as Jonathan would have it, but the main highway; and, two, not the study of the Torah alone leads to God, one has to keep it as well.
Torah is for us Jews not one way among many to God. One could say, it is the only highway, though one can use different vehicles to travel on it: rationalism, mysticism, prayer meditation, study, singing and dancing, good deeds. The mystic's way is not independent of Torah, the main work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, takes the form of a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. But those movements who left with their vehicles the highway of Torah, who tried to get to God without Torah, either ceased to be Jewish, as the Karaites or the Sabbateans, or returned to the Torah, as the Chassidim.

And it is not only a question of studying it, it is also a question of keeping it. Certainly, we quote in our morning prayers the rabbinic dictum-The study of Torah is more important than anything else, but in the famous talmudic debate whether study or deed is more important, study was declared the winner only because it leads to the deed (TB Kid. 40b) and there is even a midrashic statement that doing is more important, for it is through deeds that man achieves atonement (Num R, Naso 14:10). Clearly, Torah is not only to be studied, but as well to be followed (1). This is why Norman Solomon can define it (I refer again to the invitation), as the sum-total of God's revelation in its impact on human life, which comes quite near to our definition of Judaism.

But we can narrow down the meaning of Torah in the context of my talk today. For in the formulation of "Torah in Judaism", Torah assumes clearly the meaning of either the Pentateuch or the
Jewish teaching, will say the rabbinic tradition with its emphasis on Halacha. It is in the latter sense that I will understand it here today, as the revelation of God as understood by rabbinic tradition.

Which leaves us with the covenant(s), to which Norman Solomon devoted a fine lecture here a couple of years ago (the Covenant in Christian-Jewish Relations). The Bible tells us of several of them, and one can group them together, or catalogue them, according either to the respective partners of the covenant, or the content, or the occasion on which they were concluded.
There is the covenant between God and humanity, concluded with Noach and his children. Then there are the covenants between God and Israel, starting with the one concluded with Avraham. There is a covenant concluded with Pinchas and his descendants, regarding the Priestly succession, and there is a similar one with the House of David.

There is, however, no reason to think that the list of covenants enumerated in the Hebrew Bible is exhaustive. The Tenakh tells us about the covenants which matter to us Jews. It seems to me not only possible, but as well quite likely that God concluded other covenants with other people, even though they are not mentioned in our Scriptures. There was, indeed, no need to mention them. What matters to us Jews is the overall Covenant between God and humanity, as we are part of it, and, to a lesser degree, the covenants with Pinchas and with David, because they are part of us. Most important, of course, is the Covenant or are the covenants concluded with us, with the People of Israel.

You all know about the covenant with Noach, an undertaking by God promising humanity that there will be no other flood, to destroy civilisation. The rain-bow is there to remind us of it, and a traditional Jew will recite the blessing "Remember the Covenant" when he sees it. The covenant with Pinchas you will find at the end of the Fourth Book of Moses: I will grant him my Covenant of Peace (Num. 25:12), which is then amplified into the covenant of priesthood for all times
13) for him and his descendants.

There are three crowns: the crown of priesthood, given to Pinchas and his descendants, the crown of kingship and the crown of Torah (Sayings of the Fathers 4:13). The crown of kingship was given in another covenant to David, at least that is what he thought when he declared Is not my house established before God? For he has granted me an eternal covenant, drawn up in full and secured (II Sam. 23:5), and this is confirmed by Jirmijahu, who clearly spells out that the covenant with David consists of the promise that his descendants will be kings in Jerusalem (Jir. 33:21).

This leaves us with the third crown, the crown of the Torah. That one was given through Moses, our teacher, and is connected with the covenant concluded at Mount Sinai. But before we come to the Second Book of Moses, we read the First one, and there we read about the covenant with Avraham.

The Covenant with Avraham
There seem to be several of them. The first was concluded with Avraham when he was still Avram, the "Covenant of the Pieces" in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, so called because of its strange ritual: Avram divides a heifer, a she-goat, a ram and a turtledove. In the ensuing vision, God foretells Avram the future of his descendants, his people, especially about the slavery in Egypt. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Avram, saying "To your offspring I assign this land..." (Gen. 15:18) — an important element of the covenantal relationship between the People of Israel and God is the Land of Israel. In this passage, it seems to be the whole purpose of the Covenant, though it is linked to the promise of numerous offspring. Note that God does not stipulate any conditions for this covenant, it seems that Avram is deemed worthy of it because of his faith, his trust in God: And because he put his trust in the Lord, he reckoned it to his merit. (Gen. 15:6).

The covenant is renewed two chapters later: Avram becomes Avraham and the Covenant acquires a sign: circumcision becomes the sign of the covenant, or better, one of them:
I will establish my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous... I will maintain my covenant between me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God (Gen. 17:2, 7).

The inclusion of Avraham's descendants in the Covenant is amplified, the promise that there will be many of them is repeated, as is the promise of the land. More important: the Covenant is everlasting, Isaac will inherit it (v. 19), and there are no strings attached. The only thing demanded of the Jews is circumcision. All the Jews have to do is to respect the sign of the covenant, and God will make them numerous, give them the land of Israel and be their God. The latter may be the true content of the covenant, the promise of future wellbeing is a consequence of the fact that God is our God.

The term covenant is not mentioned in direct connection with Isaac and Jacob, though the blessing of Isaac contains a reference to God's oath to Avraham referring to the possession of the land (Gem 26:3). When Isaac blesses Jacob, he refers, again in connection with the land, to the blessing of Avraham (Gen. 28:4). When God blesses Jacob, no comparable noun is used, but again the promise of numerous offspring and of possession of the land is mentioned, and the change of Jacob's name to Israel may be taken to refer to the continued nearness to God (Gen. 25:9-13). In any case God, when speaking to Moses, speaks of a covenant concluded with all three patriarchs, as we read this week in the Torah:
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob... I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan (Ex. 6:2, 4).

I would thus regard these different patriarchal blessings to Isaac and Jacob as renewals of the Covenant with Avram/Avraham and thus leave the Book of Genesis.

The Covenant with the People
The Book of Exodus gives us a new covenant, (or is it a renewed and again amplified one?). It is the Covenant on Mount Sinai, based on Israel's acceptance of the words of God as recorded in the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7), which to Jewish tradition cannot be anything else than the Torah, or at least the first part of it. A new element is therefore added: the acceptance of God's rules. Torah and Covenant have definitely come together.

This Covenant is several times renewed, each renewal bringing with it new specifications and clarifications, even if the term Covenant is not always used. Thus we do not find it in an important statement in Deuteronomy, where the reciprocal relationship is emphasized:
You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in his ways, that you will observe his laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as he promised you, his treasured people who shall observe all his commandments (Deut. 26:17-18).

Here the reciprocity is clearly stated: both sides affirm that they belong, as it were, to each other, Israel affirming that God is our God, God affirming that we are his people. Thus, we now finally get the term "treasured people" in connection with the Covenant. Furthermore, the emphasis is now clearly on what Israel has to do; the Covenant seems to be not only reciprocal but also conditional. While God only renews His promise, Israel undertakes to obey him, to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments. But failure to keep our side of the contract does not rend it void, it may only hold it in abeyance. For, as the Covenant with the Fathers is everlasting, the Covenant with the People will always be renewed, as it says:
Then I will remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Avraham; and I will remember the land. (Lev. 26:42).

Again the Land is mentioned as part of the Covenant, this time as it were a sort of a threesome. But more important for us is the principle that the promise to Avraham remains in force: the Covenant is an eternal one; as it was with the patriarchs, so it is with their descendants:
I will remember in their favour the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God (ib. 45).

God will not forsake us forever. His Covenant with Israel is never completely annulled. This means, of course, as well that our obligations under the Covenant never cease, as is impressively declared by Moses:
You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God... to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God... to the end that He establishes you this day as His people and he your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deutr. 29:9, 11-13).

There are important and familiar elements in this passage: the reciprocity of the covenant, the election of Israel and, in the verses following our quote, the duty of Israel to obey the teachings of God. There is a clear statement that this Covenant is nothing but a renewal of the Covenant with the Fathers. But there is new way to describe the eternal validity of the Covenant: it is concluded with all of Israel, whether already alive or yet to be born.

New Covenant
It is in this light that we have to look at the new Covenant promised by the prophets. It is but a renewal of the existing Covenant, a renewal which, as the earlier renewals, may bring with it new specifications and clarifications, especially as the renewal comes about not only thanks to the merits of the Fathers but that time as well and in particular as God's answer to Israel's act of teshuvah (repentance).

I thus think that we can say that, among the many covenants God concluded with humanity or part of it, there is one Covenant with the People of Israel, which has undergone several stages and may still do so in the future — thus, we are entitled to speak of The Covenant.

True, there is room to see the things differently and to consider each covenantal event to be a separate covenant. We thus still speak in our liturgy of the different covenants but I do think that on the whole we tend to subsume all covenants under one, they are but different facets of the Covenant between God and His People.

In other words, there does not exist The Covenant which was concluded at one given occasion, but there is The Covenant as the sum total of all the covenants concluded or still to be concluded between God and Israel. This definition may lack in clarity and not be very clear-cut — which is a constant characteristic of Judaism: the absence of systematization, categorization and of clear-cut definitions of abstract concepts. And there is more to it. As Norman Solomon pointed out, the Covenant is barely mentioned in the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed), it is not mentioned at all in the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides —and the same is true, by the way, for Israel's election. That the Covenant is not a concept worthy of discussion is not only true for medieval Jewish philosophy. In his book A Jewish Theology (2), my teacher Louis Jacobs refers but once to"covenant", and more than 50 times to "Torah" (at least according to the index, which, I admit, is not to be trusted). Clearly, the Covenant is not a topic of learned Jewish debate.

Covenant and Torah
But does that mean that it does not exist? This would be a false conclusion. There may be no authoritative definition of The Covenant, but most Jews know exactly what it is. It is for them the covenantal relationship between us and God, a relationship ex-r pressed in the blessing we say when we are called up to the reading of the Torah: Who has chosen us from all peoples and has given us his Torah. That is to say, the Covenant is interlocked with the chosenness of Israel, and, furthermore, not only do the terms of the Covenant demand of Israel that it keeps the Torah, but the latter is itself a very part of this Covenant, or, as the Reform Prayerbook translates: Who chose us from all peoples to give us His teaching (3).
The translation may not be exact, but it has the great advantage to conform beautifully to my interpretation of this passage.
The point I am trying to make might become clearer when we look at another liturgical formulation, again one with which most Jews are very familiar. Before fulfilling a mitzvah, a command given to us by God through his Torah, we say a blessing which contains an important theological statement: Who has sanctified us with His commands or, in the translation of the RSGB Prayerbook, Who makes us holy through doing His commands.

Again, the latter translation is less exact, but more true. It explains, I think, very neatly the relationship between Covenant and Torah.
Who makes us holy is Covenant: it expresses the election of Israel in terms of being set apart, but it also qualifies how this was to be done: by sanctifying us. And what is the method of sanctification? His commands, and here we arrive again at Torah: God chose us to make a Covenant with us, and this Covenant is Torah. Or, to put it again differently, what we, the Jews, get out of the Covenant is matan torah (the gift of Torah), is that to which we may refer as al mitzvot (the yoke of the commandments), but which we, at the same time, recognize as being the greatest gift God gave us.

Let me quote another piece of liturgy, the section we say in our daily evening prayers just before the Shema:
With everlasting love have you loved the house of Israel, your people. You taught us Torah and precepts, laws and judgments.

This section follows on to the glorification of God the Creator, especially as the Creator of day and night, Ruler of the stars and seasons — the universal God who can be recognized and worshipped as such by all mankind. And then follows this section on the special relationship between God and Israel, a relationship likened to love and which finds its expression in the Gift of Torah, especially in its legalistic aspects, in the teaching of Torah and precepts, laws and judgments. It therefore stands to reason... we will think upon your laws and rejoice in the words of your Torah and your commandments forever and ever or, again inexact but true; rejoice and delight in your teaching and its practice for this is not only our term of the Covenant, but also our reward, for they are our life and the measure of our days and the consequence of this realization is talmud torah, study: we will meditate on them or keep them in mind day and night, and those familiar with Jewish life know that this is not an empty statement.

In other words, an important development took place, which is in reality a transformation: the condition of the Covenant became not only its goal, but also its reward. Which parallels the old talmudic teaching "the reward of a mitzvah is (another) mitzvah" the reward for doing the right thing is the deed itself. The Covenant not only depends upon, but consists as well of Israel keeping the Torah, and therein lies its reward. It is a closed system, and its consequence is that Torah becomes more important than Covenant. The latter is only the framework for the gift of Torah, while study and keeping the commandments, those are the real things which make it all worthwhile.

Some conclusions
What does that tell us about The Relationship between Torah and Covenant in Judaism? First of all, that in classical Jewish thought these two concepts are qualitatively far too different for a true relationship to be established. All we can say on this matter is that the Covenant is the outer framework, the Torah is its core.

Secondly, it seems to me that, in order to emphasize the legitimacy of its New Covenant, Christianity credits the "Old Covenant" with much more theological importance than we Jews ever have. Thus I find in a two-volume Theologisches Worterbuch (4) eleven pages on Covenant, whereas in the Enzyklopediah Talmudit, which runs already now into 17 volumes, there is not even an entry, and the Enzyklopediah Ha Ivrit which which runs into over 40 volumes, I believe, has barely 25 lines on Covenant, none of which refers to the Covenant between Israel and God.

Similarly, it seems to me that The Covenant, like The Election of Israel is of much greater importance to Pauline Christianity than to Judaism. But this is not for me to decide, as I am only a Rabbi, not a New Testament scholar. But I do believe that Paul was a much greater Jewish chauvinist than most Jews of his time, and this is why he cannot give up the election of Israel (which in the end had quite negative consequences for us Jews). He cannot really leave the Covenant between God and Israel but wants to stay in it, at the same time he wants to re-define it completely by opening it to Non-Jews without obliging them to become Jews. But this does not tally with the prophetic teaching on how Non-Jews can enter the Covenant, for, if we look at the famous passage in Isaiah 56, we read:
Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself to the Lord, "The Lord will keep me apart from his people". As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants — all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to my Covenant... (Is. 56:3, 6).

The observance of Shabat stands here for the observance of the Mitzvot. The text tells the Non
Jews: Yes, you can enter the Covenant when you observe the Torah, but only then. Paul certainly knew this passage and the alternative it stipulates: Everybody can have the Covenant with Torah, nobody can have the Covenant without Torah. I have the feeling Paul looked for a third way, to be able to have the cake and to keep it, to have the Covenant without Torah. And this might still be your problem today But I am now definitely overstepping the boundaries of my brief.
Returning to the topic I was asked to talk to, I would sum up that the Covenant between God and Israel is the outer framework for the Giving and Keeping of the Torah; in other words it is the framework of Judaism, but it is the Torah which is its essence. The Covenant establishes a mutual relationship between Israel and God, the Torah gives it its meaning, direction and fulfilment. There is no true Relationship between Torah and Covenant in Judaism, for it is only for the Torah that the Covenant exists.

* Marcel Marcus is Rabbi in Berne, Switzerland.
(1) Cf. texts given in C.G. Montefiore & H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, N.Y.
(2) Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, London 1973.
(3) Forms of Prayer, R.S.G.B., London 1977.
(4) Jenni/Westermann, Munchen, 1971.


The discussion focused on Renewal of Covenant, New Covenant and the broader contexts of Creation, Covenant and Mission). The following points were made:

a) Renewal of and New Covenant:
1. Forgiveness of sin (cf. . Jeremiah 31:31) is very important in the Christian understanding of New Covenant. It was asked if the renewal of the Sinai Covenant after the Golden Calf episode (Exodus 32-34) implies that the "New Covenant" in Judaism is related to the forgiveness of sin? Are the Jewish People living under the Sinai Covenant or in a renewal of it connected with forgiveness of sin?
Rabbi Marcus cited a tradition that sees a catastrophe taking place with the Golden Calf and the breaking of the tablets, but it does not speak of the Covenant being broken and a lesser one being in force. Yet there was a renewal of the Covenant, a re-affirmation which brought a better understanding of what Covenant meant. It became clear that the Covenant necessarily included forgiveness. Each renewal brought new insights but the core of Covenant is Torah and T'shuvah which includes God's response — forgiveness. This was created before the world came into being and the world cannot exist without it.

2. It was asked if there are moments in Jewish life (perhaps times of crisis) when the people's experience is expressed in terms of a renewal of Covenant? Nehemiah 8-10 was cited. Ezra, like a new Moses, renewed and expanded the Covenant. There is a long confessional prayer and a recounting of history. The people agreed to certain waysof life and there is the statement "Israel had not done this since the days of Joshua". Again in recounting the apocalyptic revelation in Fourth Ezra, a voice comes out of a bush "Ezra, Ezra" with the reply "Here I am Lord". The voice continues "I revealed myself in a bush and spoke to Moses...". The apocalyptic revelation is presented as a continuation of the revelation at Sinai, as a midrash on Exodus.
Responding, R. Marcus referred to Ben Sirach Ch. 44, which describes the great men of Israel in the context of Covenants. He said that if Israel does not keep the Torah it will suffer, but that does not annul the Covenant. Perhaps it is held in abeyance but it is always possible to return to God (cf. 2nd. paragraph of the Shema). The door of T'shuvah is never closed. It is always possible to begin again and there will be renewal.

b) Creation, Covenant and Mission
1. R. Marcus' statement "Covenant is the exterior structure; Torah the core" recalled Karl Barth's "Creation is the outer framework; Covenant its core" (Church Dogmatics). It leads to the question "Is there a relation between Covenant and Creation in Judaism?".
R. Marcus confirmed that there is a relationship between Creation, Covenant and Torah and cited two sayings from the Jewish tradition: "Torah pre-exists Creation" and "Creation is for the sake of Torah". However as these formulations would leave out most of humanity, Marcel Marcus preferred to see Creation as the framework of Covenants, of which one (the Jewish one) has Torah as fulfilment.

2. This led to the observation that although the Bible conceives the Exodus experience as happening to other peoples (cf. Amos 9:7), this is not so for Covenant. However in view of the texts about the Pilgrimage of the nations to Zion at the end of time, what God does with Israel has importance for the whole of humanity.

3. It was asked if Torah includes the duty to make the Covenant known and if this implies a mission to humanity? If suffering and injustice are a result of the mitzvot not being kept, what does this imply about mission and the common tasks of Jews and Christians in the world?
The speaker repeated that if Israel does not keep Torah it will suffer, but the Covenant is not annulled. It seemed to him very probable that there are other Covenants which are not recorded in the Bible. There is the Covenant with humanity through the sons of Noah in the Bible as well as the Covenant with Israel. It could be that within the framework of the Covenant with Noah there is a responsibility for creation and for bringing in the messianic era.
With regard to mission, Jews do believe in being a light to the nations. This could be by giving others cause to reflect and to find their way to God. This could be, as in Isaiah's vision, by the nations going to Zion, or because the example of God's relation to the Jewish People urges others to find their relationship to God.

4. A remark by Rabbi Norman Solomon suggested that the discussion on Covenant might be masking a different problem which we try to handle by talking about Covenant. Possibly because we are ill at ease and unhappy about past excessive claims on each other and the tendencies of our respective faiths to speak in an exclusive manner of their possession of truth, we are striving to discover ways in which we can embrace one another... We should, therefore, try to discover the real object of this exercise. We could make a careful examination of the use of the word and concept of Covenant in both traditions. Perhaps we should not tie ourselves too strictly to the term Covenant but look at other ways in which the same reality was expressed. This means looking for the concept rather than the word.


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