A Review of A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism
By Rabbi Yochanan Bejarano

David Hartman’s book centers on two important topics on the subject of Jewish spirituality. The first deals with the allegation that traditional Judaism excessively concerns itself with matters of “law” to the extent that a mechanical approach, in matters of faith and relating to G-d, is realized. This arguably degenerates into “legalism.” The second topic relates to how mankind approaches G-d within and without the scope of Jewish particularity. Both of these topics are inter-related to each other. Regarding how mankind approaches the subject of “knowing G-d,” Hartman contends that two ways are possible. The first revolves around the covenantal revelation established at Sinai, which is particular to the people of Israel and is highlighted through the ongoing experiences and history of Jews. In this arena, G-d is approached and known as the G-d of the covenant. The second scenario is more universalistic in nature and deals with G-d as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. All of mankind is privy to this fact, and Hartman argues this must lead Judaism to conclude that the authenticity of the covenantal experience at Sinai does not necessarily imply Jewish exclusivist claims regarding non- covenantal forms of faith. The Jew, according to Hartman maintains both methods as mechanisms for “knowing” Gd. The covenantal paradigm, however, entails more specific approaches and paths one must follow. The key method is through the world of Halakha and ones approach to Halakha ultimately dictates how one perceives G-d’s relation to man and how in turn man can relate to the Divine. In the world of Halakha, many Sages perceived the revelatory experience at Sinai, with all of its majesty and supernatural imagery, as a definitive moment in the history of Israel. But many perceived it as but one moment that did not signify the highest culmination of Israel’s faith development. In this type of worldview, the primacy of later rabbinic exegesis, the ongoing innovation of the rabbinic system, and a sense of man’s inherent ability to join with G-d as partner in creation are of key importance. The Toraitic and prophetic traditions, which often maintain a dependence on the miraculous, are revered but seen as only part of the ongoing development of the people of Israel. Israel’s strength is seen in its ability to go beyond the “unfulfilled” predictions of the prophets dealing with Israel’s physical and spiritual restoration. A tremendous amount of “faith” is invested in the ability of later generations to formulate responses to their own circumstances. For example, Rabbinic thought during the Mishnaic period explicitly rejected the notion of charismatic authority1 intervening in matters of halakhah. Nevertheless, this type of authority did exist in Judaism and was understood in the following manner: G-d’s will, could be expressed in the word of a holy person or a prophet.

Authority by reason of the in vesture of the “spirit.”

Holiness or prophecy in turn, could be validated by supernatural attestation. 2 Rabbinic thought, however, limited its realm of influence. Such a view, arguably described as rationalistic, tremendously affects how a person perceives G-d. As a champion of this model, Hartman points to Maimonides, the great halakhist and philosopher of the Middles Ages. Hartman also provides an alternative view as embodied in the teachings of Nachmanides. In contrast to Maimonides and his rationality, restriction on the validity of miraculous intervention, and his view of the normal course of human events, Nachmanides a view more embracing of the prophetic tradition that views G-d as much more involved in the affairs of the world and whose presence can be tangibly experienced. Nachman’s model views Sinai more idealistically perhaps and views the messianic age as a return to the ideal nature of Gan Eden. Hartman, nevertheless, points out that both saw the act of “knowing” G-d as a reality to be experienced even outside of the mechanism of halakhah. Hartman continues with a consideration of how rabbinic and biblical worlds perceived the character of G-d and concludes that both worlds perceived the struggle to approach G-d as extremely difficult. On the one hand G-d could be known for his consultation of Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here G-d includes Abraham in his decision and his plans can be affected by Abraham’s response. Yet this view of G-d’s commitment to engaging man as a partner is contrasted with G-d’s seemingly cruel order to Aaron not to mourn for the loss of Nadav and Abihu. The character of G-d, easily Hartman contends is very complex and this partly explains the various views in Judaism on how to relate to G-d.


The best example of this phenomenon is found in the person of Moses, the political as well as charismatic authority over Israel. Other succeeding prophets in Jewish tradition, such as Elijah or Elisha serve as examples of this type of authority.