Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: Profundity and Courage

Yitz Greenberg, 73 years old, is arguably the most important rabbi that American Jewry has yet produced, and the most profoundly American rabbi to have emerged from the ranks of Orthodox Judaism.

Tall and slim, with cloudy blue eyes that seem to be focused both inward and far away into the distance, Greenberg's vitality and crispness, the steely strength that is still palpable in his speech and movements, belie his age. The mussar movement was an early spiritual influence—he attended a Yeshiva in Brooklyn founded by the remnants of the radical Novardik stream of mussar who had survived the concentration camps and Siberian labor camps—and this mussar training is evident in his fierce emotional control, the impression he gives that every sentence he speaks has passed through a filter of self critique and self awareness.


His self awareness, though, has not been of the paralyzing kind. Instead, his conviction that God has endowed human beings with the freedom to create their own future has propelled him into action at every stage in his career. Often he has been a step or more ahead of the crowd, identifying the next stage, the move that will take the Jewish community further, will forestall coming disasters, will establish the solid ethical, religious, intellectual, financial, and demographic ground on which Judaism can continue to stand.


Yitz was one of the first theologians to place the holocaust at the heart of his writings and thought. In significant ways, the coalescence of contemporary American Jewish identity around the memory of the holocaust was shaped and inspired by Yitz. Yitz's concern with the holocaust also eventually inspired Stuart Eisenstat, the Jewish lawyer from Atlanta that conceived of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, and helped raise the 150 million dollars to build it. Yitz continued to play an important role in guiding the holocaust memorial and was eventually appointed by President Clinton as the Chairman of its governing council.


More even then the holocaust, Yitz is identified with the effort to keep American Jews unified, prevent them from splitting into factions, losing their sense of people-hood within the assimilating maelstrom of postwar society. In the late 1970's he founded CLAL, an organization dedicated to fostering cooperation and between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and mutual acceptance that would not be just personal, but institutional, hoping to gain agreements between all factions of Jewish society on such potentially divisive issues as conversion. With his idea of a voluntary covenant between God and the Jewish people he also created the theological groundwork for such cooperation, elevating pluralism from a pragmatic necessity to a sacred vision. Obsessed with assimilation and Jewish demographics, Yitz, in his current position as President of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt's "Jewish Life Network" was also a catalytic force behind Birthright, the program designed to bring assimilated Jewish college students to Israel for a quick but intensive immersion in the warm waters of Jewish people-hood.


A PhD in American History from Harvard, Greenberg has for years been daringly calling for theological as well as institutional reconciliation between Jews and Christians in America. His new book, "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: New Encounters Between Judaism and Christianity", is about the possibility of Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Again, Yitz's eyes seem to have been clairvoyantly focused on the future. For a long time, in an America that appeared increasingly secular and liberal in its attitudes and beliefs, the question of how to approach Christianity seemed almost irrelevant to Jewish concerns. But Bush's reelection seems to have confirmed the ascendancy of Christian faith in post September 11 America. Suddenly, the knotty conundrum of Jewish-Christian relations seems urgent and critical.

Yitz's most remarkable accomplishment has been his ability to move so adeptly between the worlds of intellect and action. Unlike any other great Jewish thinker I can think of—and there is no doubt about it, Yitz is a great Jewish thinker—his ideas about God and Jewish history are expressed not only in lectures and articles, but in organizations, programs, and institutions.


Yet the admirable desire to do, not just to think, also has its pitfalls. The face of American Jewish institutional life, dominated by the Federations and the UJA, driven by the need to raise vast amounts of money from people whose connection to Judaism through text or ritual is fragile at best, is a face that only a mother could love. In some sense, Yitz's unconditional love for American Jews—and for America, which has provided the Jewish people with a remarkable haven in the post-holocaust era--has made him that mother. Yitz's intimate and seemingly uncritical relationship with the Jewish communal power structure has both given him the means to influence Jewish life in unprecedented ways, and also meant that some of his best ideas are distorted as they emerge into reality. One of his basic notions, for example--that in the post holocaust era, leadership of the Jewish people moves from the rabbinate to laymen-- sounds radical and democratizing, until you realize that "layman" in the lexicon of American Jewish life mean "millionaire".


Still, Yitz appears to possess that rarest combination of qualities—brilliance and humility—that instead of locking him within his own structures of thought, makes him eager to learn from everybody, even from a hot-head like me. After the interview, I drive him to his next commitment—a lecture about Judaism and Christianity, all the while lecturing him about the way in which corporate capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the few and the devastating effect this has on the world's poor. My argument is that he has not focused his capacity for critique on the interplay between politics and economics in America that creates a legal, and thus invisible, nexus of corruption. "I see what you are saying. I may be guilty of giving capitalism a free ride," he says. And then he swings his long legs from the car to the pavement, nods a polite but distant goodbye, already looking beyond, into the future, and strides away.


Micha: Yitz, you have said that after the holocaust, God is in no position to command. Does that mean that the notion of Halacha as binding is no longer valid in your eyes?


Yitz: Not at all. I believe the halacha is more binding than ever; however, its authority is based on a voluntary commitment of the Jewish people. You are undoubtedly referring to my argument [in the essay “Voluntary Covenant”, 1982] that after the Shoah the covenant of God and Israel is renewed on a voluntary basis. Consider: the Shoah reveals that carrying on the Jewish mission (Tikkun Olam – geulah – or lagoyim) is an exceedingly high risk calling. Consider: God has made clear that the Divine will not protect the Jews. (Elie Wiesel suggested that the Jewish role is like a suicide mission.) Then it is inappropriate to command people to undertake such a dangerous task. For a mission like this, you ask for volunteers.


The amazing truth of our time is the revealed heroism of the Jewish people. Jewry – fully knowing the danger – voluntarily reaccepted the covenant and the mission. In return, God has delegated to the Jews full responsibility as managing partner for this renewed covenant. The primary expression of this renewed commitment to brit and shlichut is the creation of the State of Israel. Let it be noted that creating this state was accomplished by religious and secular Jews alike, in partnership.


Although I personally came to this insight through reflecting on the Shoah, the realization dawned on me immediately that this maturation of the human role in the covenant was implicit in the very concept of the brit. Entering into covenant is God’s statement of respect for human freedom. Never again will HaShem coerce people to be good (as was done in the flood). Like a great teacher or parent, HaShem delegates freedom and responsibility in accordance with the capacity of the student/child/people. Therefore, throughout Jewish history, the brit has been renewed periodically in the crucible of Jewish historical experience. At each point, God calls humans to take on more power and more responsibility in the brit.


In Biblical times, HaShem dominates the partnership – punishing disobedience, saving with miracles, sending prophets to give exact directions about the Divine will. After the destruction of the Second Temple, God self-limits and humans take on more responsibility. This paves the way for rabbinic Judaism in which the age of prophecy is ended. The rabbis study the record and judge what God wants of us now. The Torah she b’al peh and halachic process unfold as humans – at God’s request – become the religious authorities giving God’s directions now.


It is noteworthy that when God is in ‘full charge’, then if two prophets come with conflicting messages, then one of them is a liar, a false prophet. (See Jeremiah, chapters 27-28) But in the rabbinic period, with the greater delegation of responsibility to humans, there can now be legitimate machloket. Two rabbis may contradict each other – yet “both are the words of the living God.” (Eruvin 13B) (For practical reasons, you follow the majority.)


The Gemara recognized this transformation. The Talmud suggests that the covenant of Sinai (which operated in a world of revealed miracles and overt Divine intervention) had to be reaccepted in the age of Purim when God is hidden. There is no overt mention of God’s name in Megillat Esther; the human agents took on the major responsibility for saving Jewry from the attempted genocide. Kiymu v’kiblu (Esther 9:27) – by reaccepting the covenant, Jews upheld the covenant that they had already accepted at Sinai. This re-acceptance – under conditions of less overt divine intervention and more human responsibility – is what binds Jewry from rabbinic time on. (See Shabbat 88A)


It is my contention that after the Shoah we again have an historic renewal. By not intervening to stop the Holocaust, HaShem signaled another tzimtzum and a call to humans to take on full responsibility for achieving the partnership’s goals. (Think if all the Jews had gone to Israel to build the Jewish state in the 19th century. Think if the Allies had intervened to stop Hitler early. This could have prevented the Shoah.) Correspondingly, such a delegation of full authority justifies a pluralism which goes beyond machloket. The delegation of freedom and power means that even Rabbis who do not share the traditional halachic assumptions, even people who are secular in their principles can be legitimate partners in shaping policy. This is the meaning of full responsibility – which includes the humans’ right to conceive their own path to achieve the covenantal goals. Freedom includes the right to be ‘wrong’ in one’s views and still be heard. This, too, is God’s will.


Micha: Within the context of your theology of responsibility, how do you view the settlers, and the dispute about the future of the territories?


Yitz: If God has empowered humans fully, then humans must use their best judgment and follow realistic policies. It is theologically irresponsible to seize land which generals and political analysts say we cannot hold onto militarily, politically or demographically and to argue that we will be saved by messianic miracles. Thus the followers of Rav Kook who were right in asserting the theological significance of the state, took a wrong turn after 1967 when they concluded that the messianic process was in high gear. Therefore, they felt that this entitled them to build the settlements and disregard all political constraints and even the demographic imbalances which could undermine the Jewish State. The Shoah was a clear signal that a miraculous Messiah was not going to come. Faithful but wise messianists would now work realistically to bring the redeemer and the final redemption. Instead, theological utopianism endangers many lives on the one hand, and on the other hand it leads to talk of transfer and killings, i.e. to denigration of the Tzelem Elokim of Arabs and non-Jews. One ends up with respected rabbis inciting violence against a Prime Minister and a Rav Dov Lior and others saying that gentile lives are worth less than Jewish ones. This type of teaching is a flagrant violation of the Torah’s message that every human being is b’tzelem elokim (Genesis 1:27); it is also a hillul HaShem which jeopardizes Israel’s standing in the eyes of decent human beings throughout the world.


Micha: What should religious Zionism be saying and doing?


Yitz: The followers of Rav Kook were right in saying that building the state is a supreme fulfillment of God’s will and a great event of Redemption. After the triumph of death in Auschwitz, the rebuilding of Jewish life and the restoration of the land of Israel is the primary way to restore credibility to yahadut which speaks of a loving sustaining God who loves life and works with humans for a triumph of life (= Messianic age). Creating the State is a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that “the days will come…when [people] will not speak of God who took the Israelites up out of Egypt. Rather [they will speak of] God who the Israelites out of the North land [Russia?] and from all the lands where God scattered them…” (Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:7-8) Religious Zionism should build on the remarkable accomplishment of the State by advancing the messianic agenda but only through humane, responsible and realistic policies.

God wants us to respect the tzelem elokim of all people, including non-religious Jews and non-Jews. (Rav Soloveitchik, citing Ramban, says that the laws bayn adam la-chavero are built on the principle of tzelem elokim.) Possessing tzelem elokim means that each individual is of infinite value, is equal and is unique. Then one is forbidden to degrade the non-Jew who is also tzelem elokim. If haredim claim the right to learn Torah and do mitzvot but not serve in the army while at the same time expecting the non-religious Jew to endanger his life to protect them, then this is a denial of the equal value and dignity of the non-religious Jew. To build a society that enhances and upholds the value, equality and uniqueness of every tzelem elokim is the mission of religious Zionism. (This implies education for all, overcoming poverty and discrimination for all, ending war and curing sickness for all, etc.)


Far from coercing people to observe or politically seeking to suppress people’s religious freedom and choice, religious Zionism should affirm and take up the challenge of living and communicating the Torah and its norms in a free marketplace of ideas and practice. Why should the Orthodox fear freedom and instead manipulate the political system for one-sided advantages? Why do the religious school systems tend to look with distrust upon democracy? Consider that the best, most effective institutions emerge out of freedom. The armies that fight the best are democratic armies, the economies that produce the best are free market economies, the governments that work the best are not those that have to constantly use force against their citizens. Why should we doubt for a moment that free, voluntary religion will be of a higher order than one that is understood in terms of establishment, authoritarian commands and blind submission?


I think that a rabbinate that has to compete to draw adherents will be far more able to participate and understand its own peoples’ struggles and lives. Secular Israelis have told me that the only time they meet a rabbi is at key moments in their lives – weddings, births, funerals – when they were most ready and responsive. But instead, the rabbis were culturally in a different world and oblivious to their personal values and human needs. These moments became terrible turnoffs. In sum, I reject the idea that a halacha that is perceived as voluntary will be more vulnerable or will create less commitment than a halacha whose central authority is a monopoly legal system, politically established and imposed from without.


Micha: Do you see Orthodoxy in America splitting into two, right down where the center used to be, with one part of what is commonly called modern or centrist Orthodoxy joining the haredi world, and one leaning towards Conservative and Reform models of religiosity?


Yitz: A substantive fraction of Modern Orthodoxy has moved to the right, as part of a general polarization or American Jewish life. Everyone ahs gotten more intense at whatever it is they are doing. The split is also political, with Orthodoxy overwhelmingly conservative politically, voting for Bush, and the rest politically left. In the 1980s I wrote an essay titled: “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?” People approach me and say: “So, it’s past the year 2000 – three still is one Jewish people – I guess you were wrong.” But unfortunately, the prophecy did come true. The two groups live in two different worlds with differing lifestyles, alienated from each other. Orthodoxy has gotten more sheltered, while the rest of American Jewry is completely committed to integration. The Orthodox live within their own parameters, insulated, to a large extent cut off from everybody else. So, for example, while 80% of Jews are for gay liberation, the 20% influenced by Orthodoxy often is close to homophobia. On many social issues (abortion, birth control, freedom of artistic expression, feminism, etc.), the Orthodox are from Mars and the other Jews are from Venus.


The cutting off policy of the right is often consciously aimed at delegitimating other forms of Judaism – for example through the deliberate closure of mikvaot to the Conservative and Reform Jewish community so that they will not be able to use them for conversion. Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a psak halacha that was brilliant, and was meant humanely, dealt with the problem of mamzerut by declaring Reform marriages invalid. This approach has spread and it leads to denying all value to liberal groups’ religious behavior. I just had an experience in which Orthodox rabbis invalidated a Conservative marriage whereas they could have simply validated the Conservative Get which ended the marriage. The Get was invalidated even though the Beth Din was religiously observant and the witnesses were religiously observant. What went wrong here? We set up CLAL to avoid this split. I would have to say that we were defeated. The forces of polarization won out. And I think both sides are responsible. The Reform embrace of a patrilineal criterion for Jewishness was another form of acting out: It said, “I don’t care about Orthodoxy and their criterion of Jewishness. I’m going to do my own thing.”


Micha: Why did this happen? Why the polarization?


Yitz: I think freedom affected the movements in two ways. On the one hand, people were no longer afraid of the gentiles, so they could act out their impulses. Chabad could light a giant Menorah in the White House – something that drives Reform Jews crazy, because they believe strongly in the separation of religion and state. The liberal movements could become more radical and tilt to the left in their thinking and behavior. Each side felt so free to be themselves that they refused to restrain themselves for the sake of Jewish unity. The initial impact of freedom from fear was to act self-centeredly and irresponsibly vis-à-vis others. This can be compared to the Biblical account of what happened in the generation of the desert. The liberated slaves thought that freedom meant they did not have to work anymore. When there was no water or food, instead of going to forage, they put the whole blame and burden on Moshe.


On the other hand nobody anticipated that when freedom came, how far it would be taken. No one knew that the sexual revolution, the feminist revolution, permissive attitudes towards drugs and all the rest that characterized the 60s and 70s would explode with such force. It was shocking. The Modern Orthodox were not prepared for it psychologically or theologically. Everyone was traumatized by freedom. Both sides expressed the shock by acting fearfully and by acting out. The Reform also panicked. They saw their ranks being decimated by assimilation, so they tried to stem the hemorrhaging by adopting patrilineal descent as a sufficient criterion for Jewishness. Both sides clutched at straws – of lowering standards or of withdrawal – rather than taking on the challenge of developing a more learned, more experiential, more autonomous yahadut.


Micha: Is the Orthodox strategy of sheltering themselves from the influences of a secular and permissive society working?


Yitz: I think that whatever Orthodoxy has gained by putting up walls of insulation is only temporary, a stopgap that may delay assimilation for a generation. In the long run, freedom is the right move. But Jewish life and observance would have to mature enough to handle freedom, just as the Dor HaMidbar had to give way to a generation that was willing to take on the responsibility of entering the Land of Israel.


Orthodoxy has changed. It has become more aggressive; more self-confident and even triumphalist. But still, in numbers, if Orthodox Jews think they can abandon the rest of the Jewish people and survive on their own, they are wrong. Orthodoxy does not have the critical mass anymore. In numbers, according to the national census of American Jewish population, the Orthodox have lost 50% over the last twenty years, because they have driven away all those who were partly observant. Twenty years ago, the Orthodox were 14.4% of the American Jewish population, now they are only 7.7%. So Orthodoxy has already lost about 50% through the insulation policy.


Insulation is no substitute for long-term vision. And theologically, the attitude that we can insulate ourselves from the rest of society is wrong in any event. God wants us to be active in society. We can’t recreate a fundamentalist religion that is always in danger of collapse through exposure. We cannot sustain a religion where women are not treated equally, where higher education is feared for the ideas to which it will expose our children. buying the shelter bought 25 years, that’s all. This is a trivial, evanescent time period in the long span of Jewish history. Instead, what we need is a halacha that can deal with choices, can deal with and incorporate history into its equations. We need to say that halacha does change – with learning and principles guiding the change. That capacity to change is part of its strength.


Micha: You’ve just written a book about Judaism and Christianity, and the opportunity that exists for cooperation and understanding between the two religions. What do you make of Evangelical Christian support for Israel and for the settlers? Is it good for the Jews?


Yitz: Jews have to overcome the stereotypical negative feelings towards Christians and Christianity that are based on the last 2000 years of history, because something really has changed. There has been a real teshuva among many Christian churches. There is now a new dynamic on the other side of the fence. We have put aside the instinctive negative reactions that always accompanied the news that religious Christians had come to power, because what was true for 2000 years is not true today, at least not in America.


The evangelicals, of course, do have their limitations. They are still supercessionist – they believe that ultimately the Jews will have to disappear and become Christian. They don’t have a theology of pluralism. but they also have a genuine love of the Jewish people, and recognize the Biblical prophecies of the return of the Jewish people to their land as being fulfilled in the State of Israel. We need to dialogue with them and lead them from love of Jews to full respect for our religion and its ongoing validity.


The majority of Jews need to learn to take religion more seriously, and have to treat Christians more respectfully. Ironically, Orthodox Jews are capable of taking religion seriously, but have a hard time seeing Christians positively. Liberal Jews have no problem in saying that Christians are nice, but they lag in taking Christian religion seriously.


Micha: What do you make of the new anti-Semitism, which takes the form of demonization of Israel?


Yitz: Israel is at this point so intertwined with the United States; both are attacked as ‘satans’. Yet Israel is so isolated in other respects. It is very frightening. Too many on the left, in regard to Israel and to other matters, have internalized a grossly distorted set of judgments. Yes, the occupation causes antipathy, but the scale of the hatred, the demonization that is directed toward Israel is outrageous and is unjustified by Israeli behavior, including the occupation.


Something went seriously wrong with the moral calculus of the Left, which brought so many important contributions to American society. Perhaps they were in power too long – basically from the 1930s to 1980. They didn’t recognize when the welfare state began to lead to dependency and that this was bad for the poor. They didn’t recognize when black nationalism was compromised by hatred. Gradually, this led to a romantic fervor for the third world and for the ‘underdog’ which has paralyzed all judgment. Europe and the left also backed away from the use of power. And they couldn’t recognize evil when they saw it. They couldn’t see that the Soviet Union really was an evil empire. We saw it – those of us who were involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. But most of the left couldn’t see it. The pathological attack on Israel is the early warning signal of the decay in moral judgment in Europe and in the left.

Right now, I see no cure for this situation. Therefore, I find the resurgence of anti-Semitism very disturbing. I don’t know exactly what to make of it, what causes could overcome the barrier of the memory of the Shoah. Perhaps in a certain way it is an expression of Western self-hate, with Israel standing in as an avatar for the West. In the interim, we must remain very strong, able to defend ourselves even as we seek to understand and cure the re-born pathology of anti-Semitism.

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