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Reconciling Judaism, Islam & Christianity

October 8, 2005
A Rabbi's Journey From Pain of Holocaust to Reaching Out to Other Faiths
By Peter Steinfels

For Jews, this is a period of personal introspection more than theological probing. But can the two really be separated?

An extraordinary chronicle of such personal questioning and theological struggle appeared last year from one of American Judaism's leading thinkers, Rabbi Irving Greenberg. A leader in numerous Jewish organizations, Rabbi Greenberg enjoyed a traditional Orthodox upbringing capped with secular studies. Then came 1961, the year he spent in Israel as a Fulbright lecturer in American history.

"All my religious positions blew up in the course of an explosive confrontation with the Holocaust," Rabbi Greenberg wrote recently. Dim memories of his parents' anguish over the Holocaust were fanned into a reading frenzy absorbing days and nights. "The grip of death and destruction penetrated and froze me to the bone," he recalled. It generated questions about God and God's covenant with Israel, and about the Christianity that had injected toxic images into European civilization that combined with modern pathologies of power and race to produce the lethal anti-Semitism of Nazism.

Rabbi Greenberg and his wife, Blu, threw themselves into dialogue with Christians seeking to remedy that dark history. He was motivated, he acknowledges, more "by anger than by hope" or by any "loving opening to Christian faith."

The experience, however, was transformative. Encounters with Christians determined to purge their tradition of anti-Jewish malignancies, no matter how painful the process, "gradually revealed to us the intrinsic strength of Christianity," the rabbi wrote, without diminishing - indeed, while deepening - the Greenbergs' own Jewish commitments. "Ultimately, one could not go on honoring the other's humanity," Rabbi Greenberg decided, "while dismissing the religion in which the other was embedded and that shaped the other's character and values."

There is much more to this spiritual and intellectual autobiography, which appeared as the introductory essay in "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity" (Jewish Publication Society, 2004), a collection of papers that Rabbi Greenberg wrote over three decades.

It reveals a thinker who simply will not settle for theological positions that cannot be reconciled to his personal experience and the experience of Jews, to the undeniable benefits of modernity and to its demonic evils.

The Holocaust, he became convinced, was a "revelational event." It revealed, first of all, the need to combat "supercessionism," the Christian view that with the coming of Jesus, God's covenant with the Jewish people had been completely superseded by a covenant with Christianity. Supercessionism rendered continuing Judaism vestigial, stripped of religious meaning, except as a living rebuke to any who would reject Jesus.

Rabbi Greenberg took on the reciprocal question: Did Christianity have any positive significance in Jewish theological terms - or was it nothing but a ghastly wrong turn in history that had produced persecution and suffering?

Struggling with this question, he concluded that "It was the will of God that Christianity be born within Judaism, then separate itself and reach out to the gentiles with the good news of God the Creator, the God of Israel, and of the divine call to humanity to perfect the world."

For historical and cultural reasons, the new movement spinning off from Judaism was able to extend God's revelation to Israel to millions in a way that Judaism itself could never have done. This line of thought had been explored by the Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, who died in 1929, but Rabbi Greenberg was developing his own version in a very different post-Holocaust context.

What ultimately resulted was a radical theory of multiple covenants. Although the relationship between Judaism and Christianity remains central to Rabbi Greenberg, in principle his theory encompasses other religions as well.

He places a new emphasis on God's postflood covenant with Noah. God promises, the rabbi said, "to sustain the cosmos" while extending "a universal commandment to humanity: to revere life and to increase it." "Every religion that accepts these values and goals," he maintains, "derives its legitimacy, its direct access to God, and its partnership with the Deity from this covenant open to all people, all the time."

But there are particular covenants as well. These are "more comprehensive and more distinctive," he writes, "rooted in the culture, language and heritage of the covenanted group." The paradigm here is the pact God made with Abraham and Sarah and sealed at Sinai - a "pioneering, world-transforming revelation," Rabbi Greenberg states, "but one in a series of divine initiatives to redeem suffering humanity."

This summary is oversimplified, of course, and leaves out important aspects of Rabbi Greenberg's thought. Yet, even in its fullest, nuanced form, his theory cannot help being controversial.

To what extent, for example, does Rabbi Greenberg's theory of how religions must "make room for one another" gloss over contradictory truth claims? There are ambiguities and uncertainties at numerous points, beginning with his search for "a new conceptualization of absolute truth that would allow for the existence of two or more valid yet contradicting faiths."

What distinguishes Rabbi Greenberg's proposals from so many well-intentioned efforts at reconciling religious animosities, however, is his fierce attachment to a particular tradition and his determination to avoid popular relativism ("if it works for you, it's O.K.") or indifferentism ("all religions are pretty much the same"). At an important moment like this not only in Jewish-Christian relations but also in confrontations among all world religions, his approach deserves to be widely read - and debated.

Copyright New York Times, 2005

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