Contextualising the Canon: Crisis and Covenant

Jewish Thought After the Holocaust


To coincide with the republication of several of Rabbi Sacks’ earlier works, we are sharing essays to provide valuable context for readers, shedding light on when and why each book was written, and offering insights into the themes contained within them.

Crisis and Covenant

By Dr. Tanya White, Sacks Scholar and Senior lecturer at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies

In recent months we have witnessed the worst and most barbaric attack on Jews in Israel, and an unprecedented rise in antisemitism, since the Holocaust. Many people have found themselves returning to questions that dominated post-Holocaust theology: the presence of God in history, the problem of Jewish survival, and the responsibility of God’s ‘chosen people’ in a modern world.

In a book penned over thirty years ago entitled Crisis and Covenant, Rabbi Sacks probes these very issues as he navigates a path between history and theology. He expresses this nexus when he states: “historical and social developments in Jewry are closely connected with Jewish theology, both as effect and cause.” How we understand and theologically interpret modern Jewish history will determine the elemental nature of our national character. It is this relationship between history and Jewish national identity that informs the subject matter of this book.

Published shy of a year into his Chief Rabbinate appointment, Rabbi Sacks felt an urgency and responsibility to address the fundamental questions comprising the ‘central drama of modern Jewish thought’. Originally given as a series of lectures at Manchester University’s Department of Comparative Religion, the 1989 Sherman Lectures which were published as Crisis and Covenant in 1992 are described by the author as a survey of Jewish thought spanning one of the most “traumatic and transfigurative periods” in Jewish history. But rather than a simple survey, the book acts as a novel and profound contribution to topics as wide ranging as post-Holocaust theology, the centrality of the State of Israel, the nature of halachah, biblical criticism, and the question of Jewish peoplehood.

Whilst the book belongs to Rabbi Sacks’ early writings, and hence lends itself to a more academic than discursive quality, it nevertheless evokes his characteristic eloquence and timeless wisdom, as well as offering novel ways to frame questions, that as we have seen, continue to hold relevance more than three decades on.

The book showcases some of the major themes that feature in his subsequent writings, including the centrality of covenantal thinking, the balance between the universal and the particular and the twin value of freedom and dignity. But the book was particularly significant in setting out Rabbi Sacks’ stance on some issues of urgency for Jewry in that period. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a flurry of theological musings on the Holocaust. In the first section of this book, Rabbi Sacks addresses these writings, offering an important overview and analysis. On the one hand he is highly critical of radical reinterpretations that emerged following the event; on the other he acknowledges that it “was a crisis of faith without precedent in the annuls of Jewish belief”. He argues that “the multiplicity of responses to the Holocaust testifies to the still fragmented nature of Jewish consciousness” that were a direct outgrowth of emancipation. Furthermore, adopting Rav Soloveitchik’s categories, he contends that the Holocaust has affirmed the fact of a common Jewish fate, but has not help sow the seeds of a common Jewish destiny, which he proclaims is the mandate of the hour. In the past the two were linked – fate and purpose. At this present juncture, argues Rabbi Sacks, they are intransigently divided.

The remainder of the book is a reflection on what the covenant of Destiny, a unified Jewish peoplehood, might look like today and what challenges we must overcome to reach that destination. According to Rabbi Sacks it is the “mandate of the Torah in each generation: to delineate a Jewish destiny in faithful response to a covenant enacted long ago at Sinai”. Rabbi Sacks assumes this mandate by grappling with some of the most salient issues plaguing the Jewish world at that time and offering a clear and thoughtful prism through which to confront them.

On a personal level, this book was particularly instructive for my doctoral research in Holocaust theology. During a personal meeting with Rabbi Sacks in 2002, we discussed Holocaust theology – the subject matter of my Master’s thesis. It is only with hindsight that I realised that in every encounter with Rabbi Sacks it was not the content of the meeting that was important, but the subliminal message he imparted.

Rather than providing a direct answer to my question and instructing me on what to do, he challenged me to think for myself, subconsciously becoming the agent of my own future trajectory. He encouraged me to become a leader rather than a follower. His pedagogical method was characteristic of his general weltanschauung, a belief in nurturing individual agency and freedom. He believed that through actively advancing a strategy to determine the fabric of our national character (a covenant of destiny), as he discusses throughout this book, we are responding to the Holocaust. By moving away from victimhood towards agency we are redeeming the evil perpetrated by our enemies.

Rabbi Sacks was a man of thought, but he was also a man of action. He lived the very philosophy he advocated. He was a person who believed and worked tirelessly for the betterment of his people in particular, and humankind in general; who helped shape and influence contemporary Jewish identity and who personally encouraged his students to find their own voice and channel their individual strengths towards the advancement of Jewish life. Choosing life is the response to the Holocaust, “’I will not die, but I will live’, says the Psalm, and that has been the Jewish response to the journey through the valley of the shadow of death”.

Despite the fragmentation and fracture, and obvious challenges that faced Jewry in that period, Sacks, in his characteristic optimism, refuses to concede to despair and concludes by offering a message of hope. Even as we emerged from one of the most tumultuous periods in our recent history, “Jews have not ceased to be Jews”. And despite all our internal ruptures and all our external threats, the covenant continues to ‘unfold in the strange paradigmatic story of a singular people and its relationship to God’.

It is easy to see why Rabbi Sacks voice still resonates today, and why his writings contain profound edificial value even decades after they were written.

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