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Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew

by Eugene B. Borowitz

Bibliographic information

TitleRenewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew
AuthorEugene B. Borowitz
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


The postmodern Jew seeks a Judaism that weaves God, folk, and self into a seamless whole. In twenty searching chapters, Eugene B. Borowitz creatively explores his theory of Covenant, linking self to folk and God through the contemporary idiom of relationship.

Widely regarded as one of liberal Judaism’s leading theologians, Rabbi Borowitz has long championed the need for Jews to return to the Covenant – a personal relationship with God; moreover, he argues that it is possible to do so without embracing the rigidity of fundamentalism.

Most contemporary Jews, regardless of denomination, respect their rabbis’ rulings. Privately, however, they insist on making up their own minds about what they believe to be their Jewish duty. Committed to democracy and empowered by education, they equate personal dignity with substantial autonomy. For that reason, and because they cannot identify with any system that might lead to extremism and intolerance, they cannot be Orthodox.

Rabbi Borowitz rejects as untenable two cornerstones of post-World War II Judaism: first, that Judaism consists essentially of human activity – ethics and ethnicity – God having, at best, a marginal role in the Jewish consciousness; and second, that universal human experience has greater truth and value than any particular form of that experience. He argues that the Holocaust and other lesser disillusionments have shown humankind unworthy of our ultimate concern; true values will be found only in God.

In this volume, Rabbi Borowitz straight-forwardly faces fundamental theological issues: “The who/what of God,” “What does God still do?” and “What can we do about out will-to-do-evil?” He concludes by articulating his own vision of a Jewish concern: a theology of contemporary Jewish duty.

Renewing the Covenant presents the first systematic statement of theology since Abraham J. Heschel set forth his distinctive, comprehensive philosophy of Judaism. In the range of questions it asks, in the reach of its religiosity, in the intensity with which it poses the fateful questions of Jewish faith, this unique book will long be discussed by thoughtful readers.

About the Author 

Eugene B. Borowitz ---

Eugene Borowitz is Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor of Education and Jewish Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, where he has taught since 1962. He is the author of twelve books, including Exploring Jewish Ethics; Choices in Modern Jewish Thought; Liberal Judaism; and Contemporary Christologies, A Jewish Response. An ordained rabbi, Eugene Borowitz is best known in the Jewish community as the editor of Sh’ma, a Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

Rabbi Borowitz is the author of numerous articles and a frequent guest lecturer and visiting professor. He inaugurated the Albert A. List Chair of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. He holds doctorates from Hebrew Union College and Teachers College, Columbia University and has honorary doctorates from Colgate University and Lafayette College. He has been honored by various organizations.

Eugene Borowitz received a National Jewish Book Award for The Mask Jews Wear.



Introduction: The History That Shapes Us


  1. Modernization: The Secular Messiah

  2. Modernity: The Betrayer

  3. Through the Shadowed Valley


I.   God, the Ground of Our Values

  1. God-Israel-Torah: Our Holistic Context

  2. Not Absolutely Absolute

  3. More than Immanent

  4. Reaching for Transcendence

  5. Sparks: The Transcendent in the Everyday

  6. The Who/What of God

  7. What Does God Still Do?

II.  Israel, the People That Creates the Way

  1. What Can We Do about Our Will-to-Do-Evil?

  2. The Social Side of Selfhood

  3. Fully Human, Fully Jewish

  4. The Sparks of Chosenness

  5. Covenant, Not Chosenness

  6. The Dialectic of Living in Covenant

III. The Torah Born of Covenant

  1. When God Dominates

  2. When Community Takes Priority

  3. Knowing What God Wants of Us

  4. The Jewish Self



Two Bibliographical Notes



Even the assertion that God is One involves us in this problem. Though contemporary Jewish thinkers differ substantially about much else concerning God’s nature, they all affirm God’s unity. Their views of science and ethics as well as their religious experience make this belief almost self-evident. Scientists seek ever more comprehensive unities of explanation while ethicists critically identify the good with its universality, its moral inclusiveness. We can work at either only if we have an initial sense of a unity that transcends the immediate data of either field. Here Judaism’s revolutionary religious insight finds strong reinforcement in two of our major cultural activities.

Asserting God’s unity, however, puts us in a logical loop that turns back on itself and creates a paradox. If God is truly One then there is nothing to compare God with and we cannot know literally what God is “like.” But we know so certainly that God “is” One that we consider that affirmation basic to our Jewish identity and faith. Maimonides was so taken with this difficulty that his rationalism required him to deny that we could say anything positive about God’s nature (though we could speak positively about what God did), a resignation that caused Thomas Aquinas, also for philosophic reasons, to term Maimonides an agnostic. Contemporary Jewish thinkers agree that they cannot say all that ought to be said about God but generally believe silence would create greater problems. Saying what we can as best we can makes it possible for us to be more responsible about our religion, at the very least by providing us with a working standard for judging which suggested beliefs are inadequate or even pernicious.

Since Evil Is Real, God Cannot Be Good

Today, two intertwining concerns largely determine the diverse images of God presented by our thinkers. One is methodological, the other is the problem of evil.

In the former instance, intellectual integrity requires the thinkers to exercise extreme vigilance about what they can and cannot rightly assert about God. Their standards of what people can truly know or of what constitutes meaningful statement become a channel and a filter determining which aspects of their religious intuition can enter into their view of God’s nature. Since on these critical issues they divide radically into rational and nonrational methodologies, their understandings of God significantly diverge.

The problem of evil has been in the background of every modem Jewish conception of God but, since the Holocaust, it has more commonly occupied the foreground. No critical thinker wants to make pronouncements about God that contradict our experience of nature’s moral indifference and humankind’s tolerance, and even encouragement, of evildoing. Those realities already led some of our medieval thinkers to modify or denature the classic Jewish teaching about the dependability and reach of God’s retributive justice; no modern thinker, rational or nonrational, has given the doctrine of retribution even that much defense. Instead, they construe God’s nature in such a way that it obviates what they consider the crux of the problem of evil, as, for example, by asserting God’s finitude or inscrutability.

Richard L. Rubenstein’s writings starkly demonstrate how a religious response to the Holocaust becomes determinative for one’s view of God’s nature. He declares that after Auschwitz we ought, realistically, to envision the Sacred as the Holy Nothing. Though our spiritual sensibility must now be primarily negative, we know it to be religious because of our awe and appreciation of the ground of being from which all existents emerge and to which they return. He finds echoes of this negative intuition of Divinity in the mystic disclosure that, at the height of one’s “cleaving” to God, one knows precisely No-thing, in kabbalah, the En Sof.

Rubenstein resolves the problem of theodicy by breaking with classic and most modern Jewish thought and teaching that “God,” the Holy Nothing, is not good or determinative of value. Religion has no role in validating ethics and no special insight  into the quality our lives should manifest. Rather we utilize religion and ethnicity as social instrumentalities useful for coping with the harshness of human existence. Consequently, we must work out our destiny utterly on our own, unblinkingly recognizing that social life and human history result from the jostling of political and economic power blocs. He therefore calls death, in which all beings return to the Ground of Being and find such peace as they can, the only Messiah there now is.

As I have argued above, I find this view of God self-refuting for it “explains” evil by the neutrality of reality and thus denies that there is any reason for our moral indignation at the Holocaust. Rubenstein tacitly admitted this problem by later seeking to; create a theory of value based on our bodily nature and our capacity to love, but this immanentism persuaded few readers.


This is a major statement in contemporary Jewish theology by the leading Reform theologian of our generation. Proceeding primarily through an intimate and knowledgeable conversation with the main modern Jewish thinkers, from Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber to such post-Holocaust thinkers as Richard Rubenstein and Emil Fackenheim, Borowitz sketches the main problematic of modern Jewish thought--the issue of human autonomy in relation to what we take to be God"s will. . . . In this reviewer"s opinion--with which Borowitz might agree--he has not fully resolved the elemental issues, particularly those relating to ethical and religious relativism. However, Borowitz has set out the essential concerns with clarity, learning, and intelligence… Alllibraries serving religion and Judaica programs will want to add this volume to their holdings.

- S.T. Katz, Choice

Often regarded more as a culture than religion, Judaism"s modernization began with the assimilation of 19th-century European Jews into mainstream society. The postmodern era refers to the 20th century, especially post-Holocaust and contemporary Judaism. In this latest work Borowitz, a theologian of liberal Judaism, rabbi, and noted scholar, presents an in-depth philosophical examination of the Covenant. He draws upon the existential theories of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, and others. He discusses and scrutinizes ethical and moral issues involving absolutism, transcendence, the Kabbalah (mysticism), holistic theology, and more. The pre- and post-Holocaust problem of evil and God"s nature is given close attention. This major work is an extremely thought-provoking, introspective interpretation of contemporary theology. Recommended for scholars, specialized collections, and academic libraries.

- Ann E. Cohen, Library Journal

This book presents Borowitz at his mature best. It asks the most profound question of the postmodern world: can we still speak about God in a meaningful fashion in light of the many profound disillusions (pre-eminently the Holocaust) of the modern era for which liberalism, including liberal religion, held out such hopes? And can we retrieve such a personal belief without lapsing into the extremism and intolerance that are the hallmarks of orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Christian, Islamic or any other variety… This is a compelling work. It represents an immensely important contribution to the effort to reunite religion, ethics and culture in the Western world. It is not merely a call for a return to the "good old days," but a new creative synthesis.

- John T. Pawlikowski, The Christian Century

The most important work of the premier thinker of Liberal Judaism in America. It is a powerful theological statement that calls for study, reflection, and response from everyone interested in and concerned with Jewish thought in our time.

- David Novak

The most considerable, the most important and the most encompassing American book on Jewish thought in the last fifty years.

- Arnold Jacob Wolf

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