Covenant or Contract? Marriage as Theology

By Levitt, Laura | Cross Currents, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Covenant or Contract? Marriage as Theology


Levitt, Laura, Cross Currents


Theologizing inequalities within marriage is dangerous for Jewish women precisely because it is done in the name of love.

The Jewish community has found no more central and significant form for the individual Jew to live in ... than the personal covenant marriage. In its exclusiveness and fidelity it has been the chief analogy to the oneness of the relationship with God as the source of personal worth and development. In marriage's intermixture of love and obligation the Jew has seen the model of faith in God permeating the heart and thence all one's actions. Through children, Jews have found the greatest personal joy while carrying out the ancient Jewish pledge to endure through history for God's sake.

- Eugene Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics

Clearly one aspect of the [colonial] project was carried out in the overt articulation at both institutional and discursive levels, but there was also another, perhaps mystified element that was expressed as the self-attributing superiority of the colonizer and the attribution of inferiority to the colonized. The moves to usurp the consciousness of the colonized by attempts to remake the self, evidenced, for instance, in the active suppression of indigenous systems of metaphysics or in the constant preoccupations with the manners and "the Character of the Negro" [like "the Character of the Jew"] ... were simultaneously aimed at dislodging resistance, reorganizing daily life, reconstituting identity, indeed remaking the sexual identity of those subjected to colonial rule.

- M. Jacqui Alexander, "Redrafting Morality"

In the Jewish home I was raised in, Jewish values were liberal values. There was seemingly no difference. Liberalism was filled with promise. It was through liberal lenses that my parents taught me about justice, about fairness, and about liberation. Liberalism had promised my immigrant grandparents a safe home, hospitable soil, a place to grow and to prosper by entering into the American social contract. In my family, being a citizen of the United States was considered sacred.

My narrative is situated within the various promises of a home in America made to Jews, women, and to Jewish women. Broadly speaking, I critique these promises as part of liberalism and colonialism. I look at how some of these promises have been kept while others have not. This essay is part of a larger project chronicling my attempts as an immigrant granddaughter to claim from my various homes the legacies I both lost and found in my parents' home. It is about my attempt to reclaim certain Jewish traditions lost to them as well as my efforts to lay claim to still other liberal and feminist positions in the present.

While I was in Israel in 1983, I learned a great deal about rabbinic Judaism and my own complicated place within a community of practicing Jews. I spent that year as part of an intense community of primarily American rabbinical students and other recent graduates of American universities who also wanted to know more about their Jewishness. We were each, in our own way, looking for alternatives to the kinds of Jewish homes we had grown up in. All the participants in this program had chosen to spend a year away from home to learn about and engage in classical (rabbinic) texts and practices. Although the dominant position among both the students and faculty in my program was for us to become more traditional, to follow more rabbinic practices, many of us were gnawed by questions about the distance between what we had learned in our American Jewish families about being Jewish and what we were being taught in this program. It was during this time in Israel that I began to acknowledge my need to reconcile the relationship between rabbinic Judaism and liberalism.

I learned not only about contemporary ketubbot or marriage contracts but also about covenantal theology as a liberal Jewish theology of marriage. During one of many intense conversations with my friend Morris, a rabbinical student at the time, he told me about the work of Eugene Borowitz, a leading contemporary liberal Jewish theologian. …

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