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November 12, 2004 - Image 90

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

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from pate 65

Greenberg says would be more likely
to happen were the two religions clos-
er in style.
"Judaism is a covenant based on
family and biology. Christianity is a
covenant rooted in faith alone ... God
wants both religions to operate in a
parallel fashion," he says, sitting for an
interview in his living room, beneath
an oil painting of olive trees in the
Judean Hills, just hours before the start
of Rosh Hashanah (there's simply no
space for visitors to sit in his office).
Islam, the newest of the Abrahamic
faiths, is likewise meant by God to fur-
ther extend Judaism's central tenants of
ethical monotheism to additional peo-
ple. However, says Rabbi
Greenberab the hatred
spread today by funda-
mentalist Islam is such
that it constitutes "idola-
try," the cardinal violation
of God's covenant with
humanity. "If you preach
death it's idolatrous. God
does not abrogate covenants
[witness the rebirth of an
independent Jewish state in
the land promised Abraham,
he says], but human actions
Rabbi Greenberg also con-
tends that Jesus was not so
much a false messiah, as main-
stream Judaism has steadfastly
declared for some 2,000 years, as
he was a "failed" messiah — a cat-
egory- into which Rabbi Greenberg
also places Bar Kokhba, leader of a
failed Jewish revolt against 1st cen-
tury Roman rule and the late
Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem
Mendel Schneerson.
"Jews deemed Jesus to be a false
messiah out of defensiveness," Rabbi
Greenberg explains, 'A failed messiah
is someone who teaches correct values
— Judaism's highest being that
redemption lies in the ultimate tri-
umph of life over death, that God is
good and the source of infinite good-
ness, that God wants us to strive
toward doing good rather than doing
evil — but who, in the end, falls short
of convincing the rest of us to follow
in his footsteps.
A false messiah is someone who
teaches that death will triumph, that
oppressing others is acceptable, that it
is okay to sin and to act criminally.
Shabbetai Zevi is an example of a false
messiah." (Zevi was a 17th-century
figure that inspired widespread mes-
sianic fervor among Jews until, under
the threat of death, he willingly con-
verted to Islam, gaining a pension

from a Turkish sultan in the process.)
"When Christians speak of the
Second Coming, they are tacitly
admitting that a complete transforma-
tion of the world did not occur during
Jesus' lifetime, and in that sense, he
also failed," he notes. To be called a
"failed messiah," Rabbi Greenberg
emphasizes, is anything but demean-
ing. Rather, it is the highest of compli-
ments, given the importance of the
messianic vision in Jewish thought.
"To do so much good to even be
thought of by some as a




question of Jesus' standing as a messi-
ah. Nonetheless, those interviewed for
this article say Rabbi Greenberg's will-
ingness to even tackle the subject is an
example of his intellectual honesty and
drive to understand others.
"I'm very impressed and apprecia-
tive of the fact that Yitz is grappling
seriously with the key element in
understanding Jesus, whether he is or
is not the messiah of Israel," says
Eugene J. Fisher, the American Roman
Catholic Church's top staff person on
interfaith matters.
"Not that we agree with his conclu-
sion, but at least we're on the same
page ... He's what every community
needs — someone able to confront
his own community while staying
within it."
The Rev. Christopher M.
Leighton, a Presbyterian who
serves as executive director of
Baltimore's Institute for Christian
and Jewish Studies, calls Rabbi
Greenberg "quite a towering fig-
ure in the field. He speaks with
an authority that distinguishes
him from the vast majority of
people who speak about such
things in platitudes.
"His fundamental insight
is that the way you deal
with diversity within your
own ranks is how you deal
with diversity beyond your
own borders ... What I so
\ admire about Yitz is the
restlessness of his own
spirit that refuses to let
him stay comfortably
ensconced in any one
safe place.
As for Rabbi
Greenberg's conclu-
sions about Jesus,
Rev. Leighton adds: "I
think it's a very legitimate distinc-
tion, and in some measure it rings true
... My own view is that the Christian
tradition has always acknowledged
that what Jesus did was inaugurate a
process of redemption and that we still
await the consummation of that
redemption. Therefore the claim that
Jesus failed is, I think, a Jewish render-
ing of the Christian understanding
[although] the category of messiah is
used by Jews and Christians in such
disparate ways."
For all his apparent radicalism,
Rabbi Greenberg is hardly the first
prominent Jewish thinker to grant
Christianity religious legitimacy.
Moses Maimonides, the leading intel-
lectual figure of medieval Judaism,
known also as the Rambam, wrote of a

3 )

ah speaks of the
rarest of individuals.
So prized is this vision that even the
appearance of a false messiah may be
considered "healthy," adds Rabbi
Greenberg, despite the risks that
accompany such events. An age that
fails to spawn even a false messiah, he
explains, is an age in which Jews have
become so complacent as to no longer
take seriously, or to have lost all hope
in, the promise of redemption that is
at Judaism's core.

Christian Reaction

Christian theologians, needless to say,
differ with Rabbi Greenberg on the

special connection between Judaism
and Christianity evidenced by the Tat-
ter's acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as
revelation (he was, however, also
harshly critical of what he saw as the
New Testament's gross misinterpreta-
tions of Jewish thought).
More to the point, the German-
Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig,
who died in 1929, articulated a two-
covenant theory linking Judaism and
Christianity to the divine plan that
Rabbi Greenberg echoes.

Jewish Reaction

Still, Rabbi Greenberg is clearly a chal-
lenge to the reigning Jewish consensus
on Christianity's validity. He says he is
well aware of that and does not take
lightly the upset he causes some.
At times, he says, he worries that
his work provides those Jews who are
only too happy to assimilate with a
rationale for their own inclination
toward religious relativism. He also
frets that Christians bent on convert-
ing Jews will twist his words to claim
that if both faiths are equally valid, it
must be okay for Jews to believe that
Jesus was the messiah — the position
espoused by Messianic Jews but utterly
rejected by normative Judaism.
"I'm not about syncretism [the
attempted combination of different
systems of religious belief]. Jews are
meant to practice Judaism. That's their
covenant," says Rabbi Greenberg.
You have to distinguish between plu-
ralism and relativism."
But if Christianity is also a
covenantal religion, what about the lit-
eral truth of individual Christian
beliefs — say, Jesus' resurrection?
Rabbi Greenberg responds by saying
whether the resurrection did or did
not actually happen is essentially irrel-
evant for Jews. "Jews do not have a
stake in proving that the resurrection
did not happen. It happened for
Christians, not for Jews. Each religion
has its own internal logic and lan-
guage" that often make no sense to
outsiders, he says.
And what about Christianity's theo-
logical culpability in the Holocaust?
Rabbi Greenberg in no way excuses
the centuries of Christian anti-
Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.
But he also notes the strides various
Christian churches have taken in
recent decades to officially condemn
past anti-Semitic beliefs and behavior,
including teaching that Christianity
has replaced Judaism as God's solely
favored community.
The Holocaust's depth of depravity

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