Did God break his word to the Jews?

"I think that's the first time I've listened to a sermon from a rabbi.  Did I understand him correctly that he was saying God had broken His word to the Jews?" 

That's what my Facebook friend Jeff DeWitt said after watching the YouTube video of  Rabbi Aaron Starr's Shevuot sermon at my synagogue in Southfield, Michigan.  The video is here

According to Rabbi Starr, and the sources he quoted, Jewry's covenant with God was broken, and the breakage is not our fault.  It came as a result of the Holy One having allowed six million to be slaughtered by Hitler and his Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.  Rabbi Starr was speaking during Shevuot services celebrating the receipt at Mount Sinai of the Torah and the Ten Commandments by Moses and the Children of Israel.

Among those the rabbi quoted:

What then happened to the covenant?  I submit that its authority was broken, but the Jewish people, released from its obligations, chose voluntarily to take it up again.  God was no longer in a position to command, but the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on its mission.

—Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg


I believe that our problem is how to speak of religion in an age of no God.

—Richard Rubenstein, author of After Auschwitz

There were other sources.

Although not trained as a lawyer, my work is in litigation finance; with partners, I arrange for the purchase of judgments undergoing appeals.  I'm not a lawyer, but I work with contracts.

Who ever said Jewry's contract with God was that we follow His commandments and He saves us from death at the hands of folks such as the Nazis?  Here is a photo of  inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp, celebrating Shevuot shortly after being freed.  I don't think they agreed with this.

Actually, there is a contract, reduced to writing, in the Torah and repeated as part of Judaism's most important prayer, the Sh'ma Yisrael.  It begins, "Here, o Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One."

Several paragraphs later, it continues:

And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love HaShem your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul,that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.  And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied.

Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them;  and the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which HaShem giveth you. 

Though, according to Jewish Virtual Library, "[i]n Reform prayer books, the second paragraph of the Shema is often omitted because the doctrine of retribution is different in the Reform movement."

The events celebrated this time of year, the gift of Torah and the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Children of Israel, occurred about 3,250 years ago, long before the advent of Christianity or of Islam.  Using 25 years to a generation, it was about 130 generations ago.   What if the contract meant that by living apart, by following dietary and other laws, the result was that even through diaspora to Babylon, and through North Africa and Europe, generally smart people associated with and had children with other generally smart people — thus giving their progeny (including Rabbi Starr and his kids) the intellectual tools to engage in commerce, trading in commodities and currencies, composing symphonies, making scientific discoveries, and writing software code?  Not exactly grass for their fields or rain for their lands, but not dissimilar, either.

Aaron Starr knows full well of the existential threat facing American Jewry, as we have discussed it at length.  Young Jewish families (indeed, much of America) are having so few children and engaging in so much intermarriage that the demographic demise of non-Orthodox Jews in America is widely forecast.  

In a Times of Israel blog post, he described the situation in his own family: maternal grandparents were Holocaust-survivors; their three children and four (now 40-something) grandchildren (one of whom is Aaron Starr) have produced four great grandchildren.  That is seven adult progeny of two Holocaust survivors having only eight children among them.  It is a fertility rate of 1.14, and it resembles a neighborhood in which almost all the families have only one child.  If he thinks Jews should become as numerous as pollen seeds on a June afternoon in Michigan, he could have or adopt another child or two.  Or encourage others to do so.

Aaron Starr was raised in a Reform household, trained in a Reform yeshiva, and several years ago converted to become a Conservative rabbi.  Unlike Rabbi Starr, I was raised in a family of Conservative Jews.  I don't view the covenant between God and His chosen people as in any way broken.

I think apologies are in order.  However, I think they should originate in Southfield, Michigan, not in the Heavens. 

Elliot Eisenberg has a master's degree in economics and was an award-winning journalist and magazine editor before beginning a business career.