Reading the Rebel Rabbi
By MICHAEL KRESS
FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity
By Irving Greenberg
274 pages. Jewish Publication Society of America. $20.
In graduate school several years ago, I wanted to read Rabbi
Irving "Yitz" Greenberg's thought on Jewish pluralism and on
Jewish-Christian relations after the Holocaust. All I could find, however, were
references to articles in obscure journals; no single work laid out the
thinking of this important theologian.
That absence has now been remedied, with the publication of For the Sake of
Heaven and Earth. The book is a compilation of several key unpublished or
obscurely published Greenberg essays, along with an introduction that offers,
with the wisdom of hindsight, his own commentary on those long-ago articles. In
doing so, he intertwines his personal life story with his academic development,
tying, for instance, his state of mind in producing his earliest theological
works with the then-recent death of his father. More importantly, he comments
on how his thought has weathered, unafraid to be self critical and let us know
when, in retrospect, he was too optimistic or too naive.
Greenberg's is a difficult biography to encapsulate in short phrases, but let's
try. A rabbi who studied with the great Joseph Soloveitchik—know simply as
"the Rav," the rabbi, in Orthodox circles—Greenberg also has a
Ph.D. in history from Harvard. Insistently retaining the "Orthodox"
label, Greenberg has parted ways with Orthodoxy on any number of issues, not
least among them pluralism and interfaith dialogue, two of the main focuses of
his thought and career. He founded CLAL, The National Center for Learning and Leadership, and
served as the chairman of the United States Holocaust Museum. He now is president of the
Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.
Tireless and fearless, his biggest impact might be in the articulation of a
theology that at once embraces traditional Jewish law while allowing for
acceptance of and dialogue with both non-Orthodox Jews and people of other
faiths. Those to the right of him on the Orthodox Jewish spectrum—which is to
say, virtually all of contemporary Orthodoxy—would, and do, call that theology
heresy, but Greenberg's life and writings belie that condemnation.
What emerges from For the Sake of Heaven and Earth is the clearest and
most accessible statement of Greenberg's worldview, in which religious
pluralism and interfaith dialogue are not just unavoidable realities or
practical necessities but theological imperatives. Greenberg's theology is a
product of his intense struggle with the question that has tormented Jews, and
many non-Jews, for more than half a century: Why did the Holocaust happen, and
why didn't God intervene to stop it?
In trying to answer that fundamental theodicy question—how to reconcile the
idea of a just God and the flames of Auschwitz—Greenberg concludes that we have
passed from a stage in which Jews are commanded to one in which the
covenant with God is voluntary. God has undergone a further tzimtzum, or
self limitation, which God first undertook to enact Creation, giving humans
full responsibility for perfecting the world, without any divine intervention.
That hefty responsibility must inevitably lead to a catholic outlook, in which
groups who disagree vehemently over matters of religion and theology continue
to do so, but in a context that moves beyond mere tolerance to the affirmation
of the other's faith.
Greenberg is unsparing in his criticism of Christianity's role in allowing the
Holocaust to happen but rightfully celebrates the historic theological reversal
that most of the Christian world has undergone since the Holocaust, redefining
the place of the Jew and working to eradicate anti-Semitism from its teachings.
He calls on Jews to grasp that unprecedented fact of reversal and reach out to grab
the hand of friendship so many Christians are offering us today. (That lends
even greater credibility to his critique of episodes, such as The Passion of
the Christ, that leave him "bruised and disappointed," crying
out, "Will the Gospel of Love never stop generating hate for Jews?")
In his embrace of Christianity as a partner to the Jewish mission, Greenberg is
on his most controversial footing vis-a-vis Orthodox teachings (and many
non-Orthodox ones as well). He accepts Christianity as an "offshoot"
of Judaism that succeeded in reaching new masses, and calls on both faiths to
acknowledge that their chosenness need not come at the expense of the other;
"divine election was a case of multiple choice," and "there is
enough love in God to choose again and again," he writes.
In describing the development of his theology, Greenberg inevitably discusses
the reaction his thought received from the Orthodox world—alienation,
denunciation—and his disappointment at his inability to sway Orthodoxy toward
his beliefs. He is honest in describing the compromises he occasionally made in
articulating his theology to avoid complete censure, and touchingly discusses
the importance of community to him and his family, the intense desire to remain
part of the Orthodox community that gave him so much even as it rejected his
way of thinking.
My sole disappointment with For the Sake of Heaven and Earth is
Greenberg's dismissal of the possibility that there are Muslim groups who today
can be considered partners in dialogue. He writes that there are not enough
"healthy antibodies" in mainstream Islam to counteract the hate and
violence of the extremists. While he is right that there are not nearly enough,
many heroic Muslims, in the West and even here and there in Muslim countries,
are working to establish a moderate Islam that embraces pluralism and
modernity. Their efforts should—must—be aided by well-meaning people from
across the religious spectrum, especially from people like Greenberg who risked
their own careers and reputations to speak their truths. In the future, I hope
that Rabbi Greenberg offers those heroic Muslims the same tenderness and
embrace that he offers Christianity.