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November 12, 2004 - Image 89

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-11-12

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New Encounter

Orthodox rabbi sees other faiths as part of God's plan.

IRA RIFKIN
Special to the Jewish News

New York City
abbi Irving Greenberg's home office befits
his status as a renowned scholar.
Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves
packed with hundreds of volumes dominate the spa-
cious room. What amounts to a footpath snakes
through an underbrush of more books, magazines,
and assorted papers blanketing the office floor. His
desktop is equally obscured, of course, leaving no
space for what most contemporary scholars consider
an essential tool of the trade: a computer.
No matter. Rabbi Greenberg — arguably Modern
Orthodoxy's best-known and most controversial
defender of religious pluralism — writes everything
longhand. He jokes that he hopes to trade in his
quill for a fountain pen, but not right away.
Blu Greenberg, his wife — well-known in her
own right as a pioneering Orthodox feminist —
tells a visitor to the couple's contemporary-style
home on a leafy side street in the Riverdale section
of the Bronx that the disarray stems from her hus-
band's penchant for "always working on 20 things at
once." Perhaps, she says, the office will empty a bit
once his papers are archived as scheduled at Harvard
University? But the smile on her face hints that she
really doesn't expect the room will ever look much
different.
The immediate impression of Rabbi Greenberg
that is conveyed by all this is of a detached scholar;
someone who prefers the quiet order of cerebral dis-
course to dealing with the messiness of everyday
issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Rabbi Greenberg — widely known as "Yitz," a
nickname taken from his Hebrew name, Yitzchak
— is a top-draw theological thinker. But he is also
an equally accomplished Jewish communal activist.
His career includes a stint as chairman of the United
States Holocaust Memorial Council, the body that
oversees Washington's Holocaust museum, and
founding president of CLAL-The National Jewish
Center for Learning and Leadership, a groundbreak-
ing effort in adult Jewish education and the promo-
tion of Jewish unity.
His current "day job," as he puts it, is president
of the Jewish Life Network-Steinhardt Foundation,
an organization created by philanthropist Michael
H. Steinhardt that funds programs designed to draw
young and marginally affiliated Jews into communal
life.
Rabbi Greenberg's willingness to work with —
and to accept fully — disparate, and often compet-
ing, parts of the American Jewish community
prompts some who are more conservative then he is
to criticize him for contributing, in their view, to

R

the undermining of traditional Orthodoxy.
Unquestionably, though, it's his writings on inter-
faith relations — and Jewish-Christian relations in a
post-Holocaust age in particular — that generate
the most controversy. But just as he has a slew of
detractors, he also has many supporters.
"Yitz has been able to articulate the tough things
that have needed to be said to make interfaith dia-
logue more honest and open, and he has done it
with honor and integrity," says
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor,
the Anti-Defamation League's
interfaith affairs director. "He's
made it easier for the rest of us
by being such a mentsh. When
people meet Yitz, they're meet-
ing a real person. There's no
artifice. That creates an atmos-
phere that spills over into all
areas of [interfaith] dialogue."

In The Interfaith Trenches

In a new book, For the Sake of
Heaven and Earth: The New
Encounter between Judaism and
Christianity (Jewish Publication
Society), the 71-year-old Rabbi
Greenberg, a onetime pulpit
rabbi who has taught at New
York's Yeshiva University, the
City University of New York and
Rabbi Greenberg
elsewhere, looks back at his four
decades of theological struggles in
the interfaith trenches.
The book collects some of his major, previously
published articles on Jewish-Christian relations, pro-
viding insight into the progression of his thinking. It
also includes a newly written introductory essay that
is, in essence, Rabbi Greenberg's spiritual autobiogra-
phy.
Rabbi Greenberg spoke Wednesday at Jewish Book
Fair at the Jewish Community Center in West
Bloomfield.
Emotionally powerful and lyrically written, Rabbi
Greenberg notes in his lengthy essay that he came to
the subject of Jewish-Christian relations from the per-
spective of a Holocaust scholar whose initial motiva-
tion was "self-protection and the defense of my peo-
ple." In 1961, while in Israel as a visiting lecturer at
Tel Aviv University, Rabbi Greenberg immersed him-
self in Holocaust study; an experience that he says
"blew up" all his previously held religious beliefs (both
his traditionally Orthodox immigrant parents lost sib-
lings in the Shoah).
Despairing from the enormity of Nazi hatred of all
things Jewish, and driven by anger, he resolved to
investigate historical Christian anti-Semitism to

understand what had happened and to find ways to
prevent its recurrence.
However, two unexpected things happened in the
process: He came across influential Christian theolo-
gians, such as Roy and Alice Eckardt, Paul Tillich and
Reinhold Niebuhr, who excoriated their fellow
Christians for their attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.
And he experienced a shift in his understanding of
God's earthly plan, moving from a perspective he calls
"Newtonian," to one he labels
"Einsteinian" — a reference to
quantum physics' theory of the
interrelated web of all physical
matter.
In short, he came to believe
that not all Christians harbored
anti-Semitic attitudes, and that
rather there being just one
absolute center point" of
absolute truth (Judaism, for
example), there were many, with
each absolute center defined
relative to the system in which
it was embedded."
He concluded that in a uni-
verse marked by plural and
alternative realities, there has
to be more than one valid view
of religious truth. That realiza-
tion, Rabbi Greenberg writes,
came to shape not only his
attitude toward Christianity
and interfaith dialogue, but
also how he approached Jewish
intrafaith work.
He spoke up, and it wasn't long before he became
known as something of an iconoclast — a Jew com-
mitted to Orthodox practice and Halachah (Jewish
law) who, nonetheless, engaged in theological
exchange with non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, vio-
lating the dictates of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the
20th century's leading exponent of Modern
Orthodoxy. Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed such dialogue
out of concern for its potential impact on Orthodoxy.

"

Part Of God's Plan

Rabbi Greenberg's eyebrow-raising arguments
include the belief that Christianity, notwithstanding
all the suffering that its adherents have caused Jews
over the ages, is part of God's plan for humanity.
Christianity, he says is "a natural outgrowth" of
Judaism meant by God to inject Judaism's values
and beliefs into a gentile world excluded by birth
and culture from Israelite religion. Christianity's
many departures from mainstream Judaism exist so
as not to "overwhelm" Judaism, which Rabbi

NEW ENCOUNTER on page 66

11/12
2004

65

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