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Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew
by eugene borowitz
jewish publication society, 319 pages, $24.95

Eugene Borowitz, the leading theologian associated with the Reform movement of American Judaism, has written an important and ambitious book. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew is the culmination of Borowitz’s long theological journey out of religious liberalism by way of existentialist personalism. One of the young theologians deeply affected by the importation to the United States of German-Jewish thought (e.g., Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber) after the Second World War, Borowitz has long helped to redefine the terrain of Jewish theology in America. That redefinition, begun by Will Herberg in the postwar years, learned much not only from the German Jews but from Protestant theologians such as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and the Niebuhr brothers as well. American Jewish theology, primarily in a non-Orthodox mode, became under their collective impact less humanistic and more theocentric, less universalistic and more particularist, less optimistic about the human condition and more inclined to take seriously such pre-liberal concepts as “evil” and “sin.” 

In the present work, Borowitz struggles to complete the transformation of non-Orthodox Judaism from a modern (i.e., individualistic, humanistic, highly secularized) religion to a “postmodern” one. This does involve a kind of squaring of the circle. Borowitz attempts to retain some constitutively modern emphases of the Judaism of the last two hundred years (such as the morally autonomous self) while at the same time moving that Judaism toward a new appropriation of premodern elements. This eclecticism is part of what Borowitz means by “postmodern,” and its inherently self-contradictory nature makes for certain limitations and frustrations. 

The termpostmodernhas come into prominence since the mid-1970s, although it apparently originated in 1917 in the writings of a German disciple of Nietzsche named Rudolf Pannwitz. Pannwitz used “postmodern” to refer to a new type of man (“athletically hardened, nationalistically conscious, militarily trained, religiously exalted”) who could negate the prevailing character of modernity which he took to be decadent nihilism. Since then, despite the diversity of uses to which the term has been put, “postmodern” seems generally to imply a new openness to the uses of the past. If modernity sought to conquer, control, and banish the past, the advocates of postmodernity recognize the hubris and futility of that project and seek to allow traditions some sway over the present and future. There is nothing necessarily benign in this, however, as the citation from Pannwitz chillingly conveys. For postmoderns, the traditions of the past do not acquire privileged status owing to their wisdom; rather, they are merely interesting because of their difference, their ironic novelty. Thus the postmodern appropriation of the past differs from conservatism by its playful, aesthetic temperament, its posture of irony, its disregard of boundaries and distinctions (taken to be mere conventions), and its epistemological post-foundationalism. Postmodernism mocks modernity’s (or antiquity’s, for that matter) projects of philosophic universalism and social engineering, and urges us to view all truth as local, all discourse as conversation, and all dreams of social melioration as bad faith or bad form. 

For his part, Borowitz distances himself from the nihilistic overtones of postmodernism. (Can one dismiss them so easily?) His sanguine and optimistic embrace of postmodernism is limited to its critique of modern universalism. As he sees it, postmodern consciousness makes space for particularisms, for local versions of meaning and truth. In line with this turn from philosophy to rhetoric, from universal reason to particular persuasion, Borowitz styles himself a “non-rationalist.” He speaks a truth founded only on his own and his community’s experience, eschewing the allegedly universalist-rationalist discourse underwritten by modernity. 

The problem specific to Jewish modernity, in his view, is that Jews had to become primarily universal men and women and secondarily Jews. This reduced Jewish being and Jewish action to an option (a “lifestyle choice”) for the generic, universal-human self. Given the primacy of this autonomous self (what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “unsituated self”), there are no grounds other than private preference for undertaking Jewish duties. There is, however, no Judaism without “Jewish duty,” Borowitz’s Kantian-sounding nomenclature for the traditional Jewish preoccupation with mitzvoth (commandments). Borowitz’s task is to ground a theory of Jewish duty that is stronger than that supported by modern liberal Judaism, yet weaker than the stark heteronomy of Orthodoxy has demanded. He finds his solution in the concept of a Jewish self that is still autonomous yet constituted by its Jewishness far more significantly than heretofore. 

Most modern Jewish thinkers, recognizing the modern condition of the Jewish self as an autonomous, unsituated self, have presented a host of strategic arguments for why emancipated, universalized Jews might want to choose Jewishness and Judaism as options. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the autonomous self, and urged Jews to think of themselves as heteronomous selves, that is as selves who must define themselves as obedient to Jewish law. Borowitz rejects the Orthodox stratagem both for its heteronomy, that is, its alienation of private conscience by systematic deference to an allegedly divine law, and also for its view of revelation. He does not want to sacrifice conscience, nor can he believe that the Torah per se is God’s speech. In his retention of an historicistic appreciation of biblical religion, we see his commitment to an essentially modern perspective, yet he also rejects the modern, liberal version of the autonomous self. Unlike all of his modern predecessors, therefore, he does not urge Jews to choose Judaism as a “lifestyle.” He has a more subtle line of attack. 

What Borowitz argues, echoing such communitarian thinkers as Michael Sandel, is that the modern self is, at any rate, a fiction. One need not appeal to a radically individualized, unconstituted self because it does not, to begin with, exist. For a postmodernist leery of any claim to universalism, the self is understood not as a discrete atom but as a function of its particular attachments. For Borowitz, the self of the Jew is a radically, fundamentally Jewish self. Jewishness is not secondary but constitutive, primary to the Jew. Yet what is the content of this Jewishness? For Borowitz it is necessarily religious. Closely following Martin Buber’s existentialist personalism, he understands that self to discover itself in the encounter with God. Furthermore, for the Jew that encounter of I and Thou (and therefore of the self with its truest self, of I with I) is mediated by the situation of the self in the Jewish people. Borowitz reappropriates the ancient notion of covenant to refer to this embeddedness of the Jewish self within both the Jewish people (past, present, and future) and a personal/collective encounter with God. Unlike Buber, Borowitz sees dramatic normative consequences issuing from being-in-covenant. The Jewish self, knowing itself to exist solely because of its covenantal situation, is oriented toward a life of Jewish duty. That duty will include some of the traditional laws and customs, but it will also expand to include the imperatives of the recast, newly expanded, yet still autonomous conscience. 

Borowitz has synthesized contemporary communitarian social philosophy with the Jewish existentialist tradition. From communitarianism, he derives the communally constituted, situated self, laying to rest all Jewish versions of a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Following the existentialists, he eschews rationalist philosophical/theological argument and looks to personal experience as the medium of revelation and principle source of truth. He writes throughout of his intuitions of transcendence and knowledge of divine presence yet of his inability to prove or even to articulate this reality clearly. This deep faith marks his work off from that of secular postmodernists and prevents a slide into nihilism. Yet his determined effort to avoid rational argument causes, it seems to me, numerous problems. 

Reliance on religious experience ought to be buttressed by argument, such as that put forward by Rudolf Otto for instance, for the a priori, non-reductive character of that experience. Borowitz does argue that modern skepticism has undermined our receptivity to transcendence. But this seriously begs the question as to the reality of divine transcendence or of the experience of it in the first place. 

A more serious problem is that of warrants for the various claims Borowitz makes about transcendence. The Jewish experience of transcendence in his view issues in covenantal obligations. But why should transcendence have normative consequences, either of a particular kind or, for that matter, at all? Is this allegedly necessary normativeness on the side of the transcendent or on the side of the human percipient? If on the side of the latter, isn’t normativity ascriptive and therefore relative? To put it a different way, why must Judaism be about duty in general or about duties of particular kinds? Borowitz seems to presuppose some unarticulated “essence of Judaism” model that ought to be fleshed out and defended. 

While he begins with a cautious reluctance about using the term “God,” freighted as it is with associations, and prefers the more elusive term “transcendence,” before long he throws caution to the wind and returns to a full-orbed traditional discourse about God. Yet how seriously are we to take this? Referring to traditional God-talk as myth and to covenant as metaphor, his fideistic voice is often undercut by his modern critical or postmodern ironic one. In a work so redolent with conviction, these different levels of discourse create a disturbing sense of incoherence. All of these considerations lead one to hope that he will pursue the grounding of his views in subsequent works. “Grounding,” however, is not a postmodern forte. To the extent that he is serious about his postmodernity, he will probably not pursue these issues at the level of argument. 

One final criticism. This is a work about Jewish duty and obligation: Borowitz has seized upon the “metaphor” of covenant to capture both the personal dimension of loving intimacy with God and the social sphere in which duty is actualized. But the emphasis on deontological language (“duty,” “obligation”) seems somewhat unfortunate. Michael Sandel has argued that Kant’s elevation of deontological language over earlier moral discourses of the common good or the ends of life narrowed the horizon of liberalism. A Jewish exploration of alternative frameworks ought not be qualified by this modernist limitation. More specifically, liberalism spoke of the rightness of actions or the rights of persons while declining to postulate a vision of the good life within which judgments of right make sense. By treating covenant in a highly selective manner, Borowitz does not allow the conflict between covenantal and liberal ways of thinking to play itself out. 

Thus, the extent to which “covenant” is allowed to function as a social principle in Borowitz’s thought is disturbing. His conception of covenant is overly existential and insufficiently socio-political. Daniel Elazar has argued that covenant is not primarily a metaphor for personal relationship with God and then only secondarily a way of structuring community in which individuals actualize that I-Thou relationship. On this view, freedom remains primarily negative: freedom from entanglements and obligations. However much Borowitz tries to free himself from this paradigm, he is still, it seems to me, committed to it. 

The alternative view constructs covenant as the consensual ground of a community’s constitution and institutions. Indeed, covenant implies choice of a certain kind: consent to political obligation. On this view, freedom is understood as the liberty to fulfill the demands of the covenant, what the Puritans referred to as “federal liberty.” Once one enters into the covenant, one’s negative liberty has distinct limits. Given such a moral system, typically liberal talk of rights recedes and a shared discourse of the common good arises. 

If Judaism is about covenant, then it is in equal measure about consent to obligations not all of which could ever pass muster before the bar of the individual moral conscience however situated or expanded. In our consent to the laws of our American polity, we accept much we disapprove of and dissent from. Nonetheless we consent and belong. The same is true of the Jewish polity. A truly covenantal understanding would move the discussion of Jewish belonging and obligation in a more political or theo-political direction in which the accent of existentialist personalism would be muted. Freedom thus construed would mean primarily the opportunity to participate in the covenant community and to fulfil its norms in concert with others. 

From a modern point of view, this version of covenant gives rise to a variety of moral discomforts. But it has the virtue of forcing the issue between the political foundations of the covenantal Jewish polity and that of the modern liberal order. Consideration of the political cast of covenant might help in a renewal of the concept to which Eugene Borowitz so effectively calls American Jewry. Nevertheless, this work deserves to be at the center of American Jewish discussion for years to come. If one may be permitted such premodern terms, one can only hope that this is not Professor Borowitz’s magnum opus, but his prolegomenon.

Alan L. Mittleman teaches in the Religion Department at Muhlenberg College and is author of Between Kant and Kabbalah: An Introduction to Isaac Breuer’s Philosophy of Judaism.

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