Reading the Rebel Rabbi


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 The book is a compilation of several key unpublished or obscurely published Greenberg essays, along with an introduction that offers, with the wisdom of hindsight, his own commentary on those long-ago articles.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.