Lynn Kroll, a longtime lay leader in the Jewish community, attributes her involvement in Torah study and ritual observance to the time she spent taking classes almost 40 years ago with Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
At the time, Rabbi Greenberg, one of the most influential thinkers in Jewish life, was president and co-founder, along with Elie Wiesel, of CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Especially popular in the federation movement, CLAL focused on providing pluralistic Jewish learning for future communal leaders and offered intra-faith dialogue programs to rabbis of all denominations.
“There was no dogma, always openness,” Kroll recalled during a recent interview. Having grown up far removed from active Jewish life, she said “the thrill for me was finding this age-old but bright new way of looking at the world” through Rabbi Greenberg’s teachings.
“I can honestly say that the trajectory of my life changed as a result of the way Yitz taught his teachers to teach.”
Kroll, who became increasingly active in communal life and Jewish study, is far from alone in crediting Rabbi Greenberg with her growing respect for and interest in Jewish thought and tradition. Much of his success is based on his ability to be that rare scholar whose teaching is widely accessible.
In a career that has spanned more than 60 years, the rabbi, teacher, author and lecturer has touched the lives of many engaged Jews through his postmodern narrative of Jewish life, particularly his pioneering work on post-Holocaust theology, pluralism, and the ethics of Jewish power. He has been a role model for many rabbis, lay and professional communal leaders and academics, not only for his scholarship but his ability to transmit Jewish tradition in contemporary terms and his personal warmth. He and his wife of 63 years, Blu Greenberg, a writer and founding leader of the Orthodox feminist movement, are often thought of as a single unit — YitzandBlu — to those who know them.
Now, at 87, Rabbi Greenberg and his teachings are about to expand their reach significantly. He will soon publish his magnum opus, a book entitled “The Triumph Of Life,” which he has been working on for more than a decade. It reflects much of his life’s work: an assertion that the central tenet of Judaism is to choose life in working toward the betterment of society through goodness in every action, ethically and ritually.
Perhaps the most revolutionary concept of the book’s thesis, Rabbi Greenberg told me, is that the God that interacted directly with Biblical figures and then pulled back after the age of the prophets, has become increasingly “self-limited” — but even closer to humanity in God’s role as a hidden presence.
“The paradox most people miss,” he said, “is that God is actually closer to us, even as we humans are now fully responsible in this partnership to carry out the covenant.”
A New Alliance
In addition, Rabbi Greenberg is joining the faculty of Hadar, the post-denominational, fast-growing educational institute committed to empowering younger Jews. Its goal is to “create and sustain vibrant, practicing egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer and service,” according to its mission statement. The rabbi’s J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life (JJGI), named in memory of his greatly admired son and dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity in a post-modern culture, will also become part of Hadar.
On Sunday, Sept. 13, Hadar and JJGI will welcome the new alliance with a live, online program featuring Rabbi Greenberg in conversation with Rabbi Shai Held, president, dean and chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar.
For those familiar with both institutions, this new alliance is a match made, if not in heaven, then certainly among leading educators who share a commitment to engage and inspire a new generation of thoughtful Jews.
“In many ways, Hadar is based on the same belief as that of my personal life and career,” Rabbi Greenberg told me in a phone interview this week from his home in Jerusalem, where he lives part of the year. “It’s the idea that the Jewish future depends on ensuring a high level of education and meaningful experiences. And Hadar provides both while also reaching a wider audience. It’s a natural fit.”
Since its founding 14 years ago, Hadar has grown from a small summer learning program for 18 students to a wide network of classes, courses and initiatives focused on building a pluralistic and socially conscious spiritual community that engages many thousands of people in person (pre-Covid) and far more online. The overall goal is to encourage and facilitate the growth of like-minded communities in the U.S. and around the world.
Rabbi Held, a longtime student of Rabbi Greenberg, said he and his colleagues are “excited” to welcome the rabbi as senior scholar in residence. “We see him as a teacher and role model for us with his distinctive reading of Jewish history and abiding commitment to learn with all Jews.” Hadar’s goal in this new venture, he said, is to “get Yitz’s ideas out there to influence and invigorate a new generation of Jews,” to promote his “theological legacy and to make it enduring.”
In addition to having Rabbi Greenberg teach in Hadar programs in the U.S. and Israel, “we’ll be using 21st century platforms” for disseminating his interpretations of Judaism and Jewish life, including podcasts, film, websites and online courses, explained Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, president and CEO of Hadar.
Jeremy Pava, chair of JJGI, said in the last year the institute had gone through a process of “honing its mission and looking for the best strategy for disseminating Yitz’s Torah teaching in the most efficient way possible.” This led to a search for “a kindred spirit that shares his views and his Torah. And Hadar seemed ideal,” in part because its faculty already includes a number of Rabbi Greenberg’s intellectual heirs, known for their dynamic and inspiring work.
Friction Within Orthodoxy
Rabbi Greenberg’s professional career of more than 60 years encompasses virtually every aspect of service to the Jewish people. He was a founder of the Soviet Jewry movement; rabbi of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale; founding dean of SAR Academy day school; professor and chairman of the Jewish Studies department at City College of New York; president of CLAL and of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation; executive director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and later chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In the mid-1960s Rabbi Greenberg taught history and offered one of the first college-level courses on the Holocaust, at Yeshiva University. It was there as a student that I first experienced his dynamic and innovative approach, and have been an admirer ever since. It was also at YU that Rabbi Greenberg first ran into controversy over his liberal and pluralistic ideas, which ran counter to the Orthodox establishment, a contentious relationship that has prevailed ever since.
Most notably, Rabbi Greenberg, along with his wife, Blu, has been a leading advocate for enhancing the status of women and, more recently, gay Jews in religious life.
That has led to his being perceived as either the far-left marker of Modern Orthodoxy or outside the movement altogether. Rabbi Greenberg has written about the painful experience of being marginalized by his peers, but that has not altered his convictions. (About 17 years ago, during the height of the Second Intifada, I interviewed Feisel Abdul Rauf, imam of a mosque in Lower Manhattan, who sought to blend his religious views with modernity. When I asked him why he was reluctant to fully condemn suicide bombers, he told me: “I’m no Yitz Greenberg,” suggesting that he did not want to risk being isolated by his peers.)
The fact that Rabbi Greenberg will now be affiliated with Hadar, an egalitarian institution, is sure to revive criticism of him in some Orthodox circles. But Rabbi Greenberg said he is not turning his back on Modern Orthodoxy. “I’m trying to strengthen the progressive element of the Modern Orthodox through my work with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,” the self-styled “inclusive” Modern Orthodox institution in Riverdale, where he is a member of the rabbinical school faculty. He said his affiliation as Modern Orthodox does not contradict his work with Hadar, which sees itself as post-denominational.
“Yitz has always seen past the denominational labels and focused on the substance,” noted Rabbi Kaunfer of Hadar. “He understands us for what we are rather than the label. He hasn’t changed, he isn’t leaving Modern Orthodoxy. He sees us as the next logical step” on the path toward reaching serious Jews seeking meaning in their contemporary lives.
Felicia Herman, a board member of JJGI, has had a long association with Rabbi Greenberg as a student and colleague of his at the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, where she worked when she was a doctoral candidate in Jewish history.
“Yitz’s theology and way of thinking about the place of Jews in the world fundamentally changed how I thought about myself and my place in the Jewish community,” she said. “In these dark times, his is a story of progress and triumph and goodness in moving toward a better society. And I see this partnership” between JJGI and Hadar “as a beautiful story in how important innovation is for Jewish institutional life.”
It’s also a hopeful sign that leaders of the older and younger generations can close the gap between them, seeking to ensure the Jewish future by transforming study into action.
Gary Rosenblatt is The Jewish Week’s Editor At Large. Gary@jewishweek.org
On Sunday, Sept. 13, to mark the occasion of the joining of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life and Hadar, a live, online program will feature Rabbi Greenberg in conversation with Rabbi Shai Held of Hadar, moderated by Arna Poupko Fisher. It will take place at 9:30 a.m. To register: www.hadar.org