The scene was Yarnton Manor, an estate outside Oxford and home to the British University’s Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Professors Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University and Miri Freud-Kandel of Oxford recently convened 16 scholars from the U.S., Israel, and the U.K. for the Centre’s inaugural Oxford Summer Institute in Modern and Contemporary Judaism to assess the work of Dr. Yitz Greenberg, the rabbi, scholar and teacher, and his impact on Modern Orthodoxy.
This was a conference I ardently wished to attend. I have known Rabbi Greenberg for almost five decades and consistently found him a source of wisdom and inspiration. From the time I had been his student at Yeshiva University, he has articulated a vision for Modern Orthodoxy synthesizing Jewish tradition and modern culture that I have found truly compelling. The opportunity to pay tribute to him, to express hakarat ha-tov, or appreciation for past acts of kindness, and candidly engage in discussions about why his was the “road not taken” heightened my expectations greatly.
Indeed, I was not disappointed. The sessions were electrifying. The recent intra-Orthodox controversy over “partnership minyanim” [where women lead certain parts of an Orthodox service] lent the conference urgency and timeliness. Rabbi Greenberg’s “covenant theology,” on which he is preparing a massive volume culminating a lifetime’s work, raised critical questions of whether once humanity had graduated to “covenantal partner” with God, did it have the authority to continue the process of halachic development or did the Law stand independent of human needs and aspirations. For Rabbi Greenberg, God had undergone a process of tzimtzum — a contraction of Divine power, thereby making room for enhanced human initiative.
No less compelling were numerous communal issues: How should Orthodox Jews relate to contemporary biblical scholarship? The past year has witnessed the growth of TheTorah.com, a weekly blog with highly estimable content analyzing biblical texts in the light of modern scholarship and considerations of faith and tradition. Rabbi Greenberg and a number of conference participants argued that not only does biblical scholarship enhance appreciation of our foundational texts, it also strengthens belief in Revelation.
As might be expected, considerations of feminism occupied center stage at several sessions. Two ironies were evident: At a time of heightened communal concern over assimilation, some Orthodox leaders appear more preoccupied with condemning women who wish to assume greater Jewish responsibilities. Second, while Orthodox feminism has been subject to vociferous opposition, its leadership persevered, and it has become a Modern Orthodox success story.
Similarly, Rabbi Greenberg’s understanding of the Holocaust has elicited resonance within Orthodox circles. Decades previously he challenged the prevailing theological model of “punishment for sin” and invoked alternatives drawn from Job, Lamentations and the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah: 53. Today, relatively few Orthodox spokesmen invoke the “punishment for sin” paradigm, perceiving it as unjustified blaming of innocent victims.
Yet Rabbi Greenberg’s most controversial ideas lie in his perspectives upon Christianity and Jewish religious pluralism. Notwithstanding Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s opposition to theological dialogue, Rabbi Greenberg has engaged leading Christian thinkers, critically at times, approvingly at others. Many Modern Orthodox Jews, embarrassed by oft-expressed Orthodox contempt for Christianity as a faith, have applauded these efforts. Few, however, have gone so far as to understand Christianity as Revelation itself. Similarly, some participants, while repelled by Orthodox dismissal of the non-Orthodox movements, asserted that Rabbi Greenberg’s “principled pluralism” may slide into relativism. Rabbi Greenberg denied vigorously the equation of pluralism with relativism. Pluralism, in his view, functioned as a brake upon religious extremism and encouraged Jews to learn from one another.
Why, then, did this vision for Modern Orthodoxy fail to take hold? Some underscored the domination of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel by the West Bank settlers’ movement, notwithstanding key Israeli roles in recent innovations such as partnership minyanim and engagement with academic biblical scholarship. These may have been possible because Israeli Modern Orthodoxy experienced reduced need to define itself in opposition to progressive forms of Judaism. Social scientists noted that American haredim now far exceed in numbers those of the Modern Orthodox, who constitute but 3 percent of the total Jewish population. Moreover, the prevalence of haredi instructors in American day schools and one-year gap yeshiva programs in Israel has transformed the intellectual culture of American Orthodoxy. Still others looked to developments at Yeshiva University, long the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, and the intellectual ascendency of a cadre of roshei yeshiva there.
May an assertive Modern Orthodoxy regain its past eminence? Some Modern Orthodox institutions, e.g. coed day schools and women’s prayer groupings, have prospered even in the face of strong opposition. Other initiatives, e.g. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, the partnership minyanim and TheTorah.com, have demonstrated robust impact. Given the above-stated concerns regarding halacha, revelation and religious relativism, much more work is required to refine a viable theology of Modern Orthodoxy. Most important, I believe, Modern Orthodox leaders must recommit themselves to their distinctive synthesis of tradition and modernity as the preferred model, acquire the fortitude to withstand unrelenting criticism, and recall constantly that the task of leadership is to shape reality rather than submit to it.
What, then, resulted from these remarkable nine days? The conference was an academic think-tank and was not intended to issue a manifesto, or to craft a platform acceptable to all participants. Some urged that the Modern Orthodox needed to reach out more to the non-Orthodox, build bridges with them and assist their efforts to counter assimilation. Others advocated greater focus on the internal Orthodox scene and reassert the compelling agenda of Modern Orthodoxy. Yet, in reflecting upon these inspiring days at Oxford, I can think of no better conclusion than one penned over five decades ago by a student columnist in the pages of the Yeshiva College Commentator: “As I sat facing him, I could not help but feel that the light of Torah and the future of Judaism will forever burn so long as there are Yitz Greenbergs to care about it.”
Steven Bayme serves as AJC’s national director, Contemporary Jewish Life.