A Judaism We Can Believe In


A Judaism We Can Believe In

A Sermon Given on First Day, Rosh Hashannah, 5770/2009

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach, CA


I share with you two anecdotes about the conflicted identity of our congregation. I was having a conversation with a board member about how to market our congregation to the community.   This board member felt strongly that we should not use the word Conservative in our literature, because ‘Conservative Judaism is a turn off to younger Jews.”   


The second anecdote I share with you was reported to me about a meeting that took place where some members complained with great dismay that that our congregation was no longer Conservative. 

These two examples illuminate for us that there are very different attitudes about what it means to be a Conservative congregation and what it means to be a Conservative Jew.  They highlight the confusion about Conservative Judaism among our members.  This confusion is not limited to our congregation, but is common to Conservative congregations across the country.  


The Conservative movement faces an identity crisis.     The recent decision to permit Conservative Rabbis to sanctify homosexual relationships and to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis was strongly opposed by a minority of Conservative Jews around the country.   Some Conservative Jews have trouble making sense of their movement with this decision.  When we had an aufruf for a gay couple this summer, a few of our members were not aware that this was now sanctioned by our movement.  They could not believe that the Conservative movement was this lenient on this issue. One Shabbat morning regular even stopped coming in silent protest.


Another manifestation of the identity crisis is the fact that sprouting up all over the country are new congregations that call themselves post denominational.  These congregations are led by Conservative Rabbis and are filled with members who grew up at Conservative congregations.   These communities like Ikar in West LA, are very skittish about using Conservative to describe themselves, just like the board member I mentioned.   


Our movement is battered by conflicting visions and expectations of what a Conservative congregation should be and what it means to be a Conservative Jew.    Who are we? What do we stand for?  What are we striving for?  What makes us unique relative to other ways of being Jewish? 


I am a proud Conservative Jew.  I was a seeker in my youth, considering atheism, secular humanism, Buddhism, Orthodoxy, and Chabad Judaism. Each outlook was an important stop on my journey.    I chose Conservative Jewish observance in my 20s, leaving behind the Reform Judaism of my childhood.    In all this seeking I found Conservative Judaism and my Conservative Jewish teachers the most supportive of my experimentation and integration of the insights I gained along the way.  


But to many of us, Conservative Judaism is an amorphous and uninspiring term.   As our movement struggles institutionally and the number of Conservative Jews and synagogues declines, a great debate about the relevance and meaning of Conservative Judaism has erupted.  My colleague, Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles,  argued that the Conservative movement needed to rebrand itself to better express the central convictions of our movement.   His ideas is to replace the term Conservative Judaism with ‘Covenantal’ Judaism.   He expressed it this way:  


“I am a Covenantal Jew.

Covenantal Judaism is the Judaism of relationship.

Three covenants guide our way:

  1. 1.       The covenant at Sinai brings us to our relationship with God.
  2. 2.      The covenant with Abraham frames our relationship with other Jews.
  3. 3.     The covenant with Noah embeds us in a relationship with all humanity.”


As a student of comparative religions, I would describe Judaism’s uniqueness as a religion that is built on relationships made special by covenants.   The most important one is the covenant at Sinai that brings us to our relationship with God.  The Jewish relationship to God may be seen as a friendship, a partnership, though of obviously unequal partners.    All true friendships have a history, a narrative; they generate memories and stories.  


This is what I witnessed at the Bobrow’s 50th wedding anniversary party as long time TBS Havurah members recounted the early years of their coming together.    The memories of early friendship were beautiful, but we all know that any friendship cannot live if it dwells solely in the past.  Vital friendships like the ones I witnessed with the Bobrows are always creating new memories, entering new phases and enriching what has gone before.


     Using the metaphor of friendship, we can  distinguish Covenantal Jews from Orthodoxy and Reform.   Orthodox Jews believe that everything important in the friendship between God and Israel has already happened.   Everything of value and significance in the friendship has taken place in the past. 


On the other hand, Reform Jews view the past friendship with God as weightless, because times have so radically changed. Thus the friendship must be redefined constantly, dictated by the demands of the moment. 


Secular Jews ground their Jewish commitment in the story of the Jewish people.   But they cut out a key ingredient:  the ongoing relationship between God and the Jewish people. 


In contrast a Covenantal Jew believes in the continuous and vital partnership between God and Israel.  Much of Jewish life is an expression of behaviors that Jews have done for God’s sake for generations.  When we light Shabbat candles or build a sukkah or give tzeddakah, God “knows” what we mean — we have been doing it for thousands of years.  Our past is the platform from which we ascend.  


Yet there is so much more to say.   Our friendship grows through new ways of showing our covenantal loyalty-enabling Jewish women to play a fully equal role in Jewish religious life, or recognizing that gay and lesbians can no longer be marginalized from the living as Covenantal Jews.  In other words-the covenant between God and the Jewish people lives-like any relationship- it has a vital, commanding past, and a living and vital present. 

Second, the covenant with Abraham frames  our relationship with other Jews.  Therefore as covenantal Jews we are deeply connected  — not only to those Jews whom we agree with, but  all Jews.  Jews have always fought within our own community, and undoubtedly, we always will.   Still, a Covenantal Jew respects and seeks active dialogue with Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist, as well as secular Jews.   Covenantal Jews celebrate the distinctiveness of Jewish communities around the world and hold the love of the Jewish people in Israel to be a critical element of what it means to be a Jew today.   This openness and acknowledgment of  other expressions of  Judaism distinguishes a Covenantal Jew from other Jewish expressions.     


The great Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, taught that every Jew should aspire to say this about themselves: “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.”  Judaism is so rich, so diverse, so adaptable that it has spawned many ways of responding to the world.   The mark of a Covenantal Jew is curiosity and respect for different forms of Jewish expression.  This does not mean that we don’t have firm convictions and or commitment to Jewish practice. But we practice tolerance and champion pluralism as we live our distinct Jewish way. 


Third, the covenant with Noah embeds us in a relationship with all humanity.

The covenant with Noah is the first covenant in the Torah. God sent a rainbow in the time of Noah as a sign to the world, to all of humanity.   We have a responsibility toward others of whatever faith; we share a covenantal relationship with the non-Jewish world.


     We can understand the covenant with Noah from Cain’s response to God in Genesis 4:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  If you answer that question affirmatively, you cannot ignore the fate of your fellows regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or race.   Do you care for those who are in need, those who are anguished and alone?  

 The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who we claim as the greatest teacher of our movement, marched with Martin Luther King in Selma.  He anchored his commitment to fighting for the freedom of others in Jewish covenantal language:


 “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”


These and countless similar causes and efforts are not strategic or to reflect credit on ourselves. They are sacred Jewish obligations.  Jews who care for the Jewish community alone are neglecting the first, most comprehensive covenant.   Jews who say that anti-Semitism in the world requires a circling of the wagons and going it alone condemn the Jews to a harmful isolation and a compromise of our covenantal values.    This isolationism and insularity is the moral issue we have with much of Orthodox Judaism which often suffers from a lack of concern for the non-Jewish world around them. 


 Part II:  The Implications of Covenantal Judaism

Why adopt the name Covenantal Judaism?   By calling ourselves Covenantal Jews, we say something about our continuing dynamic participation in a relationship.  All the current names for the movements describe their stance vis a vis tradition.  The name, Orthodoxy tells us that this Jewish group adheres to the tradition strictly.  The name Reform tells us that their adherents are committed to reforming the tradition.  Reconstructionists want to reconstruct it, whatever that means.   Conservatives want to conserve tradition.   The flaw with all these names is they relate to tradition as a thing-a fixed object.  


     This is why the other move to describe ourselves as non-denominational or post denominational is also not satisfactory.  By saying you are just Jewish, you say nothing.  How we name ourselves must say something about what we believe and how we might act in the world. 


 Tradition is not fixed and rigid. It evolves. That evolving tradition is an expression of a relationship between the Jewish people and God.  Like all real relationships it changes and grows and undergoes crises.  But the relationship continues.  To be covenantal then is to say to the world that we are committed to the relationship stated by the covenants laid out in the Torah, living in covenantal relationship with God, fellow Jews, and fellow human beings.


     To be covenantal is to be authentic.  Authentic Judaism is built around the experience and idea of Brit-Covenant.  Our movement is the true Bnai Brit-the children of the covenant-with all due respect to the great Jewish organization by that name.  The challenge of the Covenantal Jew is to live purposely within the covenants of Sinai, Abraham, and Noah.    That is the authentic grounding for the movement we can support and spread to other Jews. 


     What would it  mean for us to choose to be called Covenantal Jews. 

Heschel  said,  “To be is to stand for.”.  To be a Covenantal Jew is to stand for the covenant.  Covenantal Jews strive for a covenantal consciousness-a distinctly Jewish spiritual awareness.  This awareness is multifaceted, but for the sake of brevity I will cover a few key elements. 


The first central dimension of covenantal consciousness is the faith that the Covenant we have inherited is good and true.  It is faith of a Jew who reads and reflects on the stories of covenant in  Genesis and Exodus and affirms them for herself.  It is a person who can say that the mitzvoth that  I do in my life are so important that I cannot take them lightly.   It is a faith that understands that acts of kindness are not random, but intentional and based on an inexhaustible devotion to a life of goodness as called for by our covenant. . 


The Torah tells us that God has given us good laws.  The drama of being Jewish today is to sort out all the trivialization and marginal information about Judaism we have absorbed throughout our lives.  As covenantal Jews we need to be focused on the essential message:  to live with the awareness of the preciousness and goodness of the covenant between God and Noah, God and Abraham, and God and the Jewish people. 


The second dimension of a Covenantal consciousness is our concrete loyalty to that covenant-Brit ; we take it seriously; it makes a claim on our lives.  We will live for this covenant, and God forbid if we are confronted, we will die for this covenant.   The words of Daniel Pearl reverberate here.  That is why calling ourselves Covenantal Jews embeds us in the purposefulness of living and being Jewish. 


Neemanut-loyalty is one of Judaism’s most distinctive and revered qualities.   In Yiddish to be called an Ehlicher Jew is a very high distinction.  


We are all deeply pained when Jews drift away or reject covenantal awareness.   That is a choice in our open society.   And a certain percentage of Jews will make that choice.   However our task is to say loud and clear that we remain loyal and engaged with the covenant.  Our steadfastness is a beacon to others and an opening for those who have drifted away.  


That steadfastness does not mean closing ourselves to others.  The Covenantal Jew also lives within the covenant of Noah-which embeds her in the broader human drama as well. 


A third dimension of Covenantal consciousness is a commitment to study and learn the contents of the Covenant.  Our Rabbis saw this as a peerless commandment-the one that drives the rest of Jewish living.  Our covenant does not demand blind faith, unquestioning allegiance, or surrender of the mind.   Covenantal consciousness guides a Jew to reflection about how the Torah is applied to our time and our place.  When we study Torah we learn about how Jews in other lands and other times grappled with how to live out the covenant. We are no different. So we must grapple with new insights from our times about the role of women, the standing of homosexuals, of living Shabbat in a 24/7 wired world, or eating responsibly in a world of pollution and climate change.  This is authentic covenantal consciousness. 


Covenantal Jews are not necessarily learned Jews, but they are learning Jews.  For learning informs us of the reasons for our purposefulness.  Jewish learning waters the roots of loyalty, and grounds them in terra firma. 


 To study Torah is equal to attending a worship service in the view of our Rabbis.  How can you observe a mitzvah if you have not studied the instruction manual?  Therefore Covenantal Jews are deeply committed to Torah study and Jewish education.  A covenantal synagogue places Jewish education, at the forefront of everything it does. 


There are other dimensions of Covenantal consciousness: the awareness of mitzvah, the connection to the land of Yisrael, a love of the Jewish people and its long unfolding story.   Covenantal Judaism celebrates the diverse ways Jews honor and live out their covenantal commitments. 

I conclude on one very important dimension of Covenantal consciousness:  Our relationship to Covenant giver-the God of Israel. 


To affirm that we are covenantal Jews we must take God seriously in our lives and in synagogue life.   The synagogue is a place to explore our relationship with God, to question, to argue, to affirm, and to hunger.  This is the authentic Jewish way to express our covenantal relationship with the God of Sinai.    We must find ways in our school, at our services, and in adult learning gatherings to enable people to give expression to their feelings about God-positive or negative.  We ignore this at our peril, because the most damning criticism of a synagogue is the claim that God is absent from the House of God.  Or worse, that God is taken for granted.


Our teacher, A.J. Heschel reminds us how not to take God for granted. 

“A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”


This is a wonderful description of Covenantal consciousness.  Covenantal Judaism makes Jewish life  a profound challenge and demanding journey yet a privilege to share with our families, friends and synagogue members.  A synagogue that offers this sense of purpose is exciting and compelling.   Let us consider this for ourselves and reflect on how we can renew our Jewish lives.

Leave a comment


  1. What a brilliant piece of writing this is. Organized, clear, insightful, and inspirational.

    Doesn’t it appear that a great number of institutions are facing an identity crisis currently? Clearly businesses, who must compete in the 21st century are struggling with often-competing values. At Hughes I was on a 10-person team back in ’94 to “re-engineer” our company. We struggled with our identity: are we the high-quality/high-price player, or the low-quality/low-price player? What commitment (covenant?) do we make with our employees? Like so many companies, we tried to be high-quality/low price but often that transition requires an infusion of cash which of course is
    difficult to come by in times of identity crises.

    But beyond institutions, don’t you get the impression that individuals are increasingly suffering identity crises? As the demands of the 21st century workforce shift, perhaps there should be less emphasis on defining who you are vs. how adaptively you can react to the changing environment while still keeping your core values in the right priority order.

    Here is where I think your esermon is particularly well done; it doesn’t define the “what we are now” but rather the core principles you hold sacred. A complex issue that was explained very well.

    Thanks for writing this.


  2. Leslie Van Dover

     /  September 23, 2009

    Dear Rabbi Gartenberg,
    I was delighted to find your sermon on the meaning of covenantal Judaism on this website. It succinctly and beautifully explains the importance of covenant as a reality for today – not only for Jews, but also for Christians. I am a university teacher in a course that invites students to know their spiritual history as a foundation for their own faith and as an important background for their work in providing spiritual care for patients (the course is for nurses in advanced practice. Your clear articulation of the importance of covenant relationships not just then, but now, will be helpful to my students. I plan to refer them to this site. Thank you for making your sermon available to others beyond your congregation who love God and want to celebrate this in the midst of our struggles to understand and act in faithful ways.



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