Yitz Greenberg’s Lonely Road


The book mirrors the man.

Like Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “Yitz Greenberg and Modern Orthodoxy: The Road Not Taken” (Academic Studies Press) is scholarly yet accessible, critical yet constructive, focused yet with broad sensibility. The newly published essay collection critiques the rabbi’s ideas while appreciating their redemptive qualities. It charts the twists and turns of Modern Orthodoxy since the 1950s and explores Greenberg’s up-and-down relationship with established Orthodoxy. The book also casts a wider light on issues that have exercised American Jews during that time: fitting into American culture, religious pluralism, feminism, the Holocaust, Zionism and modern sexuality. It’s the story of American Jewry coming of age, with perceptive commentary on its sociology, theology and ethics.

The volume arrives at a critical moment for Modern Orthodoxy, as the movement is being severely tested over whether LGBTQ Jews can find a home in it and whether women can be rabbis. Rabbi Greenberg is a significant voice in this debate, as he and his wife, Blu, are among the leaders working to raise the status of women and gay Jews in religious life.

Rabbi Greenberg’s influence has radiated well beyond Orthodoxy. In 1970 he was one of the founders of the Association for Jewish Studies, promoting sophisticated Jewish studies for Jews on campus. It was “Yitz,” as he is universally called, who first recognized the Holocaust as a critical turning point in today’s Jewish identity, modern Jewish culture and theology. He pioneered Holocaust studies throughout the American academy and beyond, and was the first executive director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust that led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where he served as chair of its Memorial Council. He taught us that after the Shoah, Jews could not think the same way about God or Jewish history.

Because of Rabbi Greenberg’s pluralist convictions about Judaism, he created CLAL (the Center for Learning and Leadership), which worked with federations throughout the United States to educate Jews of all stripes about Jewish values and tradition. He was one of the first Jews to see the potential of honest dialogue with Christian officials, and today he remains the deepest contemporary Jewish thinker about interfaith matters. And as an ardent Zionist, he and his son, JJ, staffed the original planning group of Birthright.

Edited by Adam S. Ferziger, Miri Freud-Kandel and Steven Bayme, the volume’s chapters are written largely by academics who gathered at Oxford University in 2014 at the first annual Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, to critically examine Rabbi Greenberg’s ideas and legacy.

The book opens with Rabbi Greenberg’s narrative of his growth and trials as a Jewish leader. He learned the values of tolerance, generosity of spirit and commitment to Torah early in life from his learned Orthodox European father. However, as the rabbi began his professional career, Orthodoxy started moving in an opposite direction from his pluralism and intellectual openness. In the 1960s his progressive vision was still within the pale of Yeshiva University, but was later rejected by Centrist Orthodoxy, which today finds more currency in the fervently Orthodox (charedi) camp. The rabbi’s program for a true integration of Torah and modernity, and his acceptance of Jewish pluralism, became the road not taken. In his essay, he acknowledges that this marginalization has been painful. 

Steven Katz reflects on Rabbi Greenberg’s conceptions of history and halacha, particularly his idea that the covenant invites Jews to take on more active responsibility as history unfolds. Alan Jotkowitz shows how the rabbi’s covenantal ethics help doctors deal with medical ethics dilemmas, and Darren Kleinberg examines his notions of “moment Judaism” and “post-ethnic” Judaism. The biblical scholar James Kugel probes the meaning of revelation in modernity, while Tamar Ross analyzes the rabbi’s ideas of “divine hiddenness” and human activism in our covenantal relationship with God.

Marc Shapiro explores the idea of religious truth in light of Rabbi Greenberg’s covenantal pluralism. Freud-Kandel discusses the fate of heresy and Jewish tradition within the framework of modern knowledge, and Jack Wertheimer asks whether Modern Orthodoxy can survive amid the sociological forces of contemporary America. Alan Brill searches for what is modern about Modern Orthodoxy, while Samuel Heilman traces the changing character of the Orthodox rabbinate. And Sylvia Barak Fishman fascinatingly discusses how Modern Orthodoxy has responded to today’s realities of extended singlehood, liberalizing sexual mores and changes in marriage,

Ferziger points out in the final chapter that with the passage of time, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein — Rabbi Greenberg’s primary spiritual wrestling opponent in the ’60s over the limits of Orthodoxy — softened some of his disagreements with Yitz’s positions. After years in Israel, Rabbi Lichtenstein too came to see the positive value of non-Orthodox life for the Jewish people, and the need for constructive Orthodox relations with heterodox Jews. He eventually acknowledged the importance of religious Jews engaging with critical biblical scholarship, as Yitz had called for, and came to understand that Orthodoxy had to grapple with modern attitudes toward sexuality, as Yitz argued for early on. Might the gap between entrenched Orthodoxy and Rabbi Greenberg’s progressive ideas be closing, if slowly?

Rabbinic culture makes a principle of preserving rejected halachic opinions. What was rejected at one time retains a modicum of religious legitimacy so that it may become normative sometime in the future. Jewish history has proven notoriously unpredictable, and what was at one time discounted has often come to life later. Yitz Greenberg’s open ideas and values, though largely rejected by his Orthodox peers, may yet prove to be the wiser guide for Jewish life. As the book makes clear, whatever the future holds, thinking Jews can learn from Rabbi Greenberg’s profound reflections on Jewish history and peoplehood, his honest probing of challenges confronting modern Jews, his conviction in ethical Judaism and his strengthening of Jewish life for so many of our people.

Eugene Korn is former academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel and a research fellow in Beit Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society. He resides in Jerusalem.