Magazine article Tikkun

An Orthodox Iconoclast: Irving Greenberg

Magazine article Tikkun

An Orthodox Iconoclast: Irving Greenberg

Article excerpt

An Orthodox Iconoclast: Irving Greenberg

For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity, Irving Greenberg. (Jewish Publication Society, 2004)

If only Irving (Yitz) Greenberg were not such an uncompromising and daring religious figure, he could have enjoyed a much more serene career as an Orthodox rabbi, academic, or institutional leader. However, his intellectual honesty and ethical integrity have not allowed him to do so. Consequently, he has spent the last several decades-in one or another of these professional capacities-embroiled in controversy. Greenberg is perhaps best known within the American Jewish community as the co-founder and long-time president of CLAL-The National Center for Learning and Leadership, an organization dedicated to inter-denominational Jewish cooperation. He has also been an influential voice in discussions of post-Holocaust theology, and a leader in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Greenberg's journey into interfaith dialogue began with more "anger than hope." After spending a sabbatical in Israel immersed in Holocaust studies (1961), he came to the conclusion that Christian anti-Semitism provided a religious foundation for the Nazi assault on European Jewry. Fearing the possibility of a future recurrence, he and his wife BIu (a founder of Orthodox feminism and herself an important voice in contemporary American Jewish life) decided to enter the fray of Jewish-Christian dialogue like "avenging" angels, demanding that Christians stop demeaning the Jewish tradition.

However, as the ecumenical spirit of the Sixties began to sweep through the United States, Greenberg began to rethink the motivations for his involvement in interfaith discourse. Particularly important to him was the 1965 Second Vatican Council, in which the Catholic Church publicly reassessed its relationship to the Jewish people and committed itself to revising several of its anti-Jewish doctrines. Deeply moved by this act of teshuvah (repentance), Greenberg felt that the Jewish community needed to reciprocate by engaging in its own process of heshbon nefesh (soul-searching), asking how it contributed to the cultivation of an ethos of mutual hatred over the centuries. His aim since that time has been to better understand the religious commitments of his Christian brothers and sisters and to explore with them areas of commonality and collaboration.

For the Sake of Heaven and Earth is a record of Greenberg's attempts to articulate the motivations for his interfaith work and his vision of the relationship between Jews and Christians. The book opens with a moving retrospective in which the author describes the complicated and often painful path he and his wife have taken as Orthodox interfaith activists, including being branded heretics by many of their Orthodox colleagues. The remainder of the book consists of eight theoretical essays (new and old), a series of appreciative responses from leading Jewish and Christian figures, and a study guide.

Irving Greenberg's interfaith activism is based on his theological reading of Jewish history (heilsgescbite) and the seminal role the Holocaust plays in this great drama. It is his assertion that Jewish history can be understood as involving three distinct stages of divine-human interaction. In the biblical period, God played a highly visible role in the life of Israel-splitting the Sea of Reeds, smiting the Egyptians, and initiating the people into the covenant at Sinai. However, in the rabbinic period-beginning with the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE)-God began a gradual process of self-limitation (tzimtzum), playing a more subtle role in human affairs; no longer performing supernatural miracles for his people, but serving more as an inspirational force to the rabbis and other shapers of exilic Jewish life. Finally, Greenberg views the Holocaust as the third great moment in Jewish history, in which God's presence becomes even more hidden-discernable now only through human reflection. …

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