I first heard of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg some 45 years ago when a high school rosh yeshiva, recognizing my fascination both with history and with the then-emerging Orthodox left, encouraged me to take Rabbi Greenberg’s courses at Yeshiva University. This month I was privileged to host a reception at the American Jewish Committee honoring the rabbi and educator’s career upon the publication of a festschrift, a volume of scholarly essays in tribute to him marking four decades of intellectual leadership and Jewish public service.
As my erstwhile Talmud instructor correctly predicted, Rabbi Greenberg was a brilliant exponent of a Modern Orthodoxy with which I strongly resonated. Even his detractors acknowledged him as “the best lecturer in the place.” His history courses exemplified Yeshiva’s ideal of synthesis — comparing and contrasting the best of Western culture with Judaic heritage. Rather then disseminate information, Rabbi Greenberg challenged students to think for themselves and explore their relationship to Judaism and modern culture. His courses served as incubators of what later became his seminal ideas. As an undergraduate dean at Yeshiva put it to me some years later, “I was interested primarily in exposing students to Greenberg’s thinking” on the Holocaust and on modern scientific and religious currents.
Rabbi Greenberg’s understanding that the Holocaust had shattered many of the paradigms of modern culture was an intellectual breakthrough that was realized in 1993 with the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum. Theologically, he argued that in the post-Holocaust world Jews had to assume responsibility for a “voluntary covenant” between God and the Jewish people and utilize their power wisely in a world in which Jews were responsible for their own fate.
Similarly, Rabbi Greenberg challenged Jews to rethink inherited images of Christianity that were historically and theologically untenable. To replace them, he suggested new theological models that both embraced and critiqued Christians as partners in ongoing covenantal work.
Even Rabbi Greenberg’s detractors admired his passionate and persuasive defense of Israel in response to unfair Christian attacks. For him, the return of the Jews to sovereignty and statehood constituted a revelatory event no less momentous than the Holocaust. Thus American Jewish support for Israel embodied one of Rabbi Greenberg’s tropes that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but absolute powerlessness corrupts the most.”
In terms of Jewish public service, Rabbi Greenberg deserves credit for creating some of the most significant institutions in Jewish life. He served as executive director of the United States Holocaust Commission, which in turn recommended creation of the Holocaust Museum. He was founding dean of the SAR Academy in Riverdale, a paradigm of Modern Orthodox day school education at its finest. He helped create Birthright Israel, which in its first decade of existence has brought more than 200,000 young people on organized trips to Israel. As rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center in the 1960s, he oversaw its development into one of the nation’s leading Modern Orthodox congregations.
Perhaps most significantly, for two decades Rabbi Greenberg served as founding president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning. Here he encountered his natural constituency among federation leaders, whom he challenged to think more Jewishly and to infuse Jewish organizational life with Jewish content. Through Clal classes and retreats, Greenberg taught Jewish leaders the beauty of Jewish teachings and their salience in the modern world.
To be sure, there were setbacks. Despite his warnings about polarization among the respective Jewish religious movements, the community never devoted the passion and resources necessary for strengthening intra-Jewish relations. In addition, some, myself included, maintained that undue emphasis upon the Holocaust resulted in unintended consequences, namely, that images of destruction had supplanted a narrative of Jewish creativity as dominant Jewish historical memory.
Yet perhaps Rabbi Greenberg’s most profound disappointment lay in Orthodoxy’s shift rightward, which marginalized him, sidelined his brand of Modern Orthodoxy, and left his followers, in effect, theologically homeless. Rabbi Greenberg’s theological engagement with Christians and with non-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, his openness to modern biblical scholarship, and his call for relatively modest changes in Jewish law all curtailed his influence at Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution and Rabbi Greenberg’s base for years. As Orthodoxy moved rightward, Rabbi Greenberg lamented its loss of verve and its growing isolation. To Rabbi Greenberg’s personal gratification, some Orthodox leaders and institutions, notably the Riverdale Jewish Center, among others, stood by him, but his impact upon American Orthodoxy generally, once considered so promising, was eclipsed.
Rabbi Greenberg is writing a book synthesizing his ideas about Judaism, modernity, and covenant. Three core teachings stand at its center: First, that Judaism, with its central teaching that human beings are created in the image of God, calls upon humanity to partner in sustaining human life. Second, that in rebuilding Jewish life after the Holocaust, Jews had internalized the mandate of the Torah, “to choose life.” Last, that as covenantal partners, we must take responsibility for our fate. Power and freedom, although subject to abuse, bestow enormous potential for constructive action, and our obligation is to harness and exercise that power for positive purposes.
In many ways, Rabbi Greenberg remains what he always has been — an Orthodox intellectual with doubts about Orthodoxy’s current direction, a theologian struggling with the impact of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, a teacher and rabbi for Jewish leaders, and an ambassador of the Jewish people. As he approaches his sixth decade in public life, his legions of admirers and supporters continue to say, “I majored in Yitz,” and look forward to many more years of his continued teaching and leadership.
Steven Bayme is national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.