Covenant and Conversation – Covenant & Conversation

Ki Tavo – 28 August 2010 – 18 Elul 5770

In two sentences in this week’s sedra, the Torah summarizes the entire relationship between G-d and the people of Israel:

You have affirmed [he-emarta] this day that the Lord is your, G-d, 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 [he-emirkha] this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments. (Deut. 26: 17-18)

Here, set out with disarming simplicity, is the dual relationship, the reciprocity, at the heart of the covenant. It is an idea made famous in the form of two jingles – the first, that of William Norman Ewer:

How odd
Of G-d
To choose
The Jews

and the second, the Jewish riposte:

Not quite
So odd –
The Jews
Chose G-d

Between G-d and the people is a mutual bond of love. The Israelites pledge themselves to be faithful to G-d and His commands. G-d pledges Himself to cherish the people as His treasure – for though He is the G-d of all humanity, He holds a special place in His affection (to speak anthropomorphically) for the descendants of those who first heard and heeded His call. This is the whole of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The rest is commentary.

The English translation, above, is that of the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Any translation, however, tends to conceal the difficulty in the key verb in both sentences: le-ha’amir. What is strange is that, on the one hand, it is a form of one the most common of all biblical verbs, leimor, “to say”. On the other, the specific form used here – the hiphil, or causative form – is unique. Nowhere else does it appear in this form in the Bible, and its meaning is, as a result, obscure.

The JPS translation reads it as “affirmed”. Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, reads it as “declared allegiance to”. Robert Alter renders it: “proclaimed”. Other interpretations include “separated to yourself” (Rashi), “chosen” (Septuagint), “recognized” (Saadia Gaon), “raised” (Radak, Sforno), “betrothed” (Malbim), “given fame to” (Ibn Janach), “exchanged everything else for” (Chizkuni), “accepted the uniqueness of” (Rashi to Chagigah 3a), or “caused G-d to declare” (Judah Halevi, cited by Ibn Ezra.

Among Christian translations, the King James Version has, “Thou hast avouched the Lord this day to be thy G-d”. The New International Version reads: “You have declared this day that the Lord is your G-d”. The Contemporary English Version has: “In response, you have agreed that the Lord will be your G-d”.

What is the significance of this unique form of the verb “to say”? Why is it used here? The use of language in the Torah is not vague, accidental, approximate, imprecise. In general, in the Mosaic books, style mirrors substance. The way something is said is often connected to what is being said. So it is here. What we have before us is a proposition of far-reaching consequence for the most fundamental question humanity can ask itself: What is the nature of the bond between human beings and G-d – or between human beings and one another – such that we can endow our lives with the charisma of grace? The answer given by the Torah, so profound that we need to stop and meditate on it, lies in language, speech, words. Hence the singling out, in this definitive statement of Jewish faith, of the verb meaning “to say”.

We owe to the later work of Wittgenstein, developed further by J. L. Austin (How to do things with words) and J. R. Searle (Speech Acts), the realisation that language has many functions. Since the days of Socrates, philosophers have tended to concentrate on just one function: the use of language to describe, or state facts. Hence the key questions of philosophy and later science: Is this statement true? Does it correspond to the facts? It is consistent with other facts? Can I be sure? What evidence do I have? What warrant do I have for believing what I believe? Language is the medium we use to describe what is.

But that is only one use of language, and there are many others. We use it to classify, to divide the world up into particular slices of reality. We also use it to evaluate. “Patriotism” and “jingoism” both denote the same phenomenon – loyalty to one’s country – but with opposite evaluations: patriotism = good, jingoism = bad.

We use language to express emotion. Sometimes we use it simply to establish a relationship. Malinowsky called this phatic communion, where what matters is not what we say but the mere fact that we are talking to one another (Robin Dunbar has recently argued that speech for humans is like “grooming behaviour” among primates). We can also use language to question, command, hypothesize and imagine. There are literary genres like fiction and poetry which use language in complex ways to extend our imaginative engagement with reality. The philosophical-scientific mindset that sees the sole significant function of language as descriptive – taken to an extreme in the philosophical movement known as “logical positivism” – is a form of tone-deafness to the rich variety of speech.

The Mosaic books contain a deep set of reflections on the nature and power of language. This has much to do with the fact that the Israelites of Moses’ day were in the place where, and the time when, the first alphabet appeared, the proto-semitic script from which all subsequent alphabets are directly or indirectly derived. Judaism marks the world’s first transition on a national scale from an oral to a literate culture. Hence the unique significance it attaches to the spoken and written word. We discover this at the very beginning of the Torah. It takes the form of the radical abandonment of myth. G-d spoke and the world came into being. There is no contest, no struggle, no use of force to subdue rival powers – as there is in every myth without exception. Instead, the key verb in Genesis 1 is simply leimor, “G-d said [vayomer], Let there be . . . and there was.” Language creates worlds.

That, of course, is Divine — not human – speech. However, J. L. Austin pointed out that there is a human counterpart. There are certain things we can create with words when we use them in a special way. Austin called this use of speech performative utterance (more technically, illocutionary acts). So, for example, when a judge says, “This court is now in session”, he is not describing something but doing something. When a groom says to his bride under the wedding canopy, “Behold you are betrothed to me by this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel”, he is not stating a fact but creating a fact.

The most basic type of performative utterance is making a promise. This is the use of language to create an obligation. Some promises are unilateral (X commits himself to do something for Y), but others are mutual (X and Y make a commitment to one another). Some are highly specific (“I promise to pay you £1,000”), but others are open-ended (“I promise to look after you, come what may”). The supreme example of an open-ended mutual pledge between human beings is marriage. The supreme example of an open-ended mutual pledge between human beings and G-d is a covenant. That is what our two verses state: that G-d and the people of Israel pledge themselves to one another by making a covenant, a relationship brought into existence by words, and sustained by honouring those words.

This is the single most radical proposition in the Hebrew Bible. It has no real counterpart in any other religion. What is supremely holy is language, when used to create a moral bond between two parties. This means that the supreme form of relationship is one that does not depend on power, superior force, or dominant-submissive hierarchy. In a covenantal relationship both parties respect the dignity of the other. A covenant exists only in virtue of freely given consent. It also means that between Infinite G-d and infinitesimal humanity there can be relationship – because, through language, they can communicate with one another. The key facts of the Torah are that [a] G-d speaks and [b] G-d listens. The use of language to create a mutually binding relationship is what links G-d and humankind. Thus the two verses mean: “Today, by an act of speech, you have made G-d your G-d, and G-d has made you His eople”. Words, language, an act of saying, have created an open-ended, eternally binding relationship.

Hence the name I have given this four-year series of Torah commentary: Covenant and conversation. Judaism is a covenant, a marriage between G-d and a people. The Torah is the written record of that covenant. It is Israel’s marriage-contract as G-d’s bride. Conversation – speaking and listening – is what makes covenant possible. Hence the dual form of Torah: the written Torah, through which G-d speaks to us and the Oral Torah through which we speak to G-d by way of interpreting His word.Judaism is the open-ended, mutually binding, conversation between Heaven and earth.

Despite the deep influence of Judaism on two later faiths, Christianity and Islam, neither adopted this idea (to be sure, some Christian theologians speak of covenant, but a different kind of covenant, more unilateral than reciprocal). There are no conversations between G-d and human beings in either the New Testament or the Koran – none that echo the dialogues in Tanakh between G-d and Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Jonah, Habakkuk and Job. Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the religion of sacred dialogue, the religion of salvation and the religion of submission – are three different things. The use of language to create a moral bond of love between the Infinite and the finite – through covenant on the one hand, conversation on the other – is what makes Judaism different. That is what is set out simply in these two verses: Speaking a relationship into being, le-ha’amir, is what makes
G-d our G-d, and us, His people.

Age of the Moral Cop-Out Carries A High Price
The Times – Credo – January 1999

David Selbourne has got it right. In a recent pamphlet, Moral Evasion, he lists the eleven arguments now regularly deployed to sabotage any attempt to make moral judgements. They are: There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s never been any different. There’s no quick fix. It’s the price of a free society. You must move with the tide. You can’t turn back the clock. The problem is much more complex than you think. It’s beyond the reach of the law. You are focussing on the wrong issue. Who are you to talk? Everyone’s doing it, so how can you object?

The result is one of the strangest cultural moments in history. What other ages found offensive – crudity, incivility, obscenity, blasphemy – are today so commonplace as to be routine. Meanwhile, what other generations saw as essential to civilisation – moral judgement, the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong – has become not just controversial but taboo. Merely to suggest that there may be some ways of life more gracious, honourable, decent, benign or just plain good than others is to risk accusations of judgementalism and moral panic. Hell hath no fury like a relativist scorned.

So it’s worth reminding ourselves why every other age than ours has cherished moral wisdom. It’s not because people wished to interfere in what others do in private. That may sometimes have happened, but it’s not what morality is about. It’s because life is short, and the bill for our mistakes is long. A child may bear the scars of a broken family for a lifetime. Trust, once broken, is hard to repair. An impulsive word can destroy a friendship. A single act of folly may wreck a career. Not everything we want to do, ought we to do. Our own happiness – let alone civilisation itself – depends on our ability to hold desire in check, restrained by thoughts of long term consequences and consideration for other people. That is where the moral sense is born.

It doesn’t come naturally. Morality is not genetically coded. It is not hard-wired into our brain. That is what gives us our unique evolutionary advantage. Homo sapiens is the animal that learns. And we learn cumulatively, by not having to start afresh in each generation. Instead, through families and schools, we pass on the wisdom of the past, experience often bought at a high price. What makes humanity different from other life forms is our ability to think beyond the present. We remember what worked and what failed. We are capable of envisaging a different and better world.

We can tell the difference between what is and what ought to be. We also know that, whatever world we seek, we can’t make it alone. Therefore we need to create a shared language of the imagination together with relationships of trust.

So, at most times most societies have invested vast energies in the institutions through which children learn how best to behave – families, schools, public codes of behaviour, together with the stories, songs and canonical texts through which a culture conveys its memories and ideals.
Reducing morality to private choice is as absurd as the idea that we can each invent our own treatments to cure disease and that the existence of doctors is a threat to our autonomy. So ignore the critics. David Selbourne is right. Moral wisdom is never certain or complete, any more than medicine is certain or complete. But it is something we inherit and learn and share. Above all it is something we are right to teach our children.