The theological framework for linking human beings with God and each other is the covenant. Whereas Jews have a particular covenant with God as the children of Israel, the rest of humanity is perceived to have a universal covenant associated with the children of Noah. According to classical rabbinic Judaism, this notion of covenant first binds Jews to God because of the assumption that human beings represent the pinnacle of creation and are indebted to their creator.
The rabbis attributed a dual nature to human beings and placed them between earthly and heavenly creatures in the hierarchy of being. They are unlike heavenly creatures whose bodies and souls are both divine, and they are also unlike earthly creatures whose bodies and souls come from the earth. Instead, human beings are the only creatures whose souls are from heaven and whose bodies are from earth. Subsequently, if Jews obey God's commandments, then they act as heavenly creatures, and if not, they act like the creatures below them.
Since human beings were created with free will, God gives them the choice of pursuing "life and prosperity" or "death and adversity," ultimately enjoining them to choose life (Deut. 30:15, 19). Moreover, God entices Israel to observe the commandments, because they will lead to the following three results: they will become godly; God will raise them up above all the nations as God's "Am Segulah," treasured or Chosen people; and they will fulfill God's "holy mission" of being an "or lagoyim," a light unto the nations. Yet holiness is not an inherent status, but fully conditional upon observance of the commandments. Jews are actually required by God to become holy through observance of the commandments, especially by emulating God who "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing" (Deut. 10:19). For the rabbis, the ultimate purpose of human existence was to praise God as the creator of the universe and to engage in imitatio dei, imitating God.
|Observing commandments leads Jews to:|
|1. become godly
2. be raised up as God’s chosen people (Am segulah)
3. become a light to the nations (Or lagoyim)
However, while the rabbinic Jew was entirely theocentric, Jews in the modern period became much more self-assertive about their role in the covenant based on western Enlightenment notions of self-consciousness and autonomy, at times even supplanting God with human supremacy. Ironically, following the Holocaust—considered by many theologians to be the diabolical culmination of human self-assertiveness in history with Hitler—Jews and Christians, because of their historical sibling rivalry over who is God's favorite child, have both been called to assume greater responsibility in preserving their own related covenants and facilitating the work of redemption.
In this post-Holocaust world, God is perceived to have contracted divine power in order to empower humanity to act more responsibly and selflessly to prevent another Holocaust in the future. In an explicit inversion of the scriptural call for imitating God's holiness, the post-Holocaust theologian Irving Greenberg has argued that because of God's deep self-concealment after the Holocaust, both Jews and Christians are encouraged to connect with God even in the most secular of places, away from centers of institutionalized religion, through everyday activities that contribute to tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Irving Greenberg refers to this search for divinity in the secular areas of life as a form of "holy secularism."
Yet in addition to binding Jews to God, the covenant obligates them to reach out to one another and to the stranger outside of their community because their people were once strangers in the land of Egypt. It is this movement from the divine-human to the inter-human relationship that will ultimately bring about redemption. The early 20th-century German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig asserted that the commandment to love one's neighbor is the "embodiment of all the commandments" that derives directly from the commandment to love God and concretizes it in ethical behavior.
For the Jew, this commandment is manifest in the fundamental maxim that all Jews are responsible for one other. Indeed their covenant with God is predicated on human sociality, and the divine revelation initiating it was given to a community of persons, not isolated individuals. Today, this covenant with God binds Jews to a diverse multi-culture with ties to a mutually shared land, language, and history.