‘The Triumph of Life’

‘The Triumph of Life’

Local rabbis talk about their six months of study with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and he talks about his work

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

If it’s true that age refines a person, sanding away the irrelevant and showing the true character underneath, then Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, now in his late 80s, is revealed as an exemplar not only of intellectual agility and wide-ranging curiosity but also of openness to new ideas, the ability to assess those ideas, keep the ones that are worth keeping, assimilate them into his life without compromising the older ones, and also, even beyond that, of warmth, sensitivity, delicacy, and goodness.

Those characteristics are widely accepted in the Jewish world in which he moves, and that’s what most compelled the cohort of 32 participants from across the denominational divide to join the JJGI Fellowship for Rabbis and Senior Educators. The fellowship, a Hadar program — Hadar is a New York-based institute that according to its website “empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah, Avodah, and Hesed,” and does it through a deep commitment to smart, deeply rooted Jewish study — was a six-month, mainly online series that culminated in a two-day in-person meeting.

Two of the participants — all rabbis, many but not all of them educators, all at least five years out of rabbinical school, most of them young and a few of them decades into their careers — included two who are local. Jennifer Schlosberg is a Conservative rabbi who heads the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and Justin Pines, who grew up in Livingston and lives in Englewood, is an Orthodox rabbi and the director of lay leadership at the Sholom Hartman Institute of North America.

Rabbi Greenberg, who lives in Israel now and was unable to travel to New York for the institute’s last session, taught it on Zoom.

The program is based on his upcoming new book, “The Triumph of Life,” a 13-chapter work that sums up his theology, based on his life’s experience but still is open to change and revision.

“Two years ago, I created the JJGI Fellowship in memory of our son,” Rabbi Greenberg said. J.J. Greenberg died in 2002; he was an active and highly respected 36-year-old Jewish communal professional out for a bike ride in Tel Aviv when he was hit by a car. His mother, Blu Greenberg, is a pioneering Orthodox feminist; together, the Greenbergs created institutions in their son’s memory. That includes the fellowship.

“I am still very concerned with a question that has been a central part of my life,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “What kind of Jewish culture, what version of the Jewish narrative or tradition will be strong enough to sustain Jewish identity?”

It’s a question that became potent in the 1960s, he said. “It was a revolution, and not just for Jews. For the first time in human history, every ethnic group is living in each other’s presence. Historically, Jews lived in a ghetto; others had ghettos of their own, even the majority group.

“In the ghetto, you are able to control what your people learned. You were able to present our version of yourself, and of them, and of course you always knew that your version was superior. You would not offer nuanced ideas about the others.

“Starting in the ’60s, I saw American Jews break through. And it wasn’t just Jews. All of America opened up in the ’60s.”

Rabbis Justin Pines and Jennifer Schlosberg

This was decades before social media changed everything, Rabbi Greenberg said. In the 1960s, change wasn’t based on technology. “It was postwar, post Holocaust. People were ashamed of how bigotry led to the horror. In the 60s, everything was up for grabs. It used to be that children should be seen and not heard, and so should women, and Blacks, and Jews.” Starting in the ’60s, though, “each group had to learn how to present itself in a way that respected other groups, or they’d be seen as bigots.”

Jews easily could be seen as looking down on others, Rabbi Greenberg said. “That became a major part of my concern, so I founded Clal,” the Center for Learning and Leadership — “klal Israel” also means the community of Israel, all Jews — “to create what I thought was the only possible answer — pluralism. To bring together different Jewish groups to learn from each other.

“What gave me the idea was being exposed to Christians. Blu and I went to Israel for a year in 1961; I had a Fulbright visiting lectureship at Tel Aviv University.” (Rabbi Greenberg also earned a doctorate in history from Harvard; his biography is full of more positions, honors, and accomplishments than possibly could be listed here.)

In Israel, “I stumbled into the Holocaust,” he said. “I knew about it, of course, but I didn’t understand it. Religiously, it made me go through a personal crisis. How do you continue to believe? How do you continue with a religious life?

“I wrestled with it, and one of the side effects was this feeling that Christianity had been guilty of antisemitism and anti-Judaism for 2,000 years, and that set the Jews up.

“Christians also had this realization, which led to acts of repentance, and of course Vatican II started to change things. So I decided to join the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

“Christians wanted to meet Jews, to learn from them, and we joined, I know, to criticize the Christians and to tell them to stop hatred and antisemitism. And we discovered the most attractive version of Christians, who were trying to clean up their act. So the unexpected side effect was that I developed a much more positive understanding of Christians.”

These dialogues — Rabbi Greenberg, back in New York by then, joined them in the city, but there were similar dialogues, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, all around the world — “were set up to be pluralistic, and Jews came in as equals.

“So in my naivete, I said, ‘This is great! Now we have to do the same things for Jews with Jews.’

“Jews had a lot of organizations set up for dialogue with Christians, but there were none for Jews to meet other Jews. I would joke, maybe to Gene Borowitz” – Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the prominent, highly respected Reform theologian, taught at HUC in Manhattan — “that instead of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, we needed the National Conference of Jews and Jews.

The JJGI Fellowship for Rabbis and Senior Educators met for two intense days at the end of their six-month program. Yitz Greenberg, on the screen behind them, Zoomed in from Israel. Justin Pines is second from the left, and Jennifer Schlosberg is in the front row, in the left section, wearing a colorful dress.

“And that’s what Clal became, in the 1970s.”

One of the vital lessons he took from his interfaith work, and the way the Christian groups presented themselves, Rabbi Greenberg said, was “that if a religion doesn’t develop a positive version of itself, it will sound bigoted and lose credibility. So then the question became how you can speak positively and affirmatively about your own religion without putting down the other side? And if you present it fairly and fully, how do you keep people in?” This dilemma is central in both inter- and intrafaith work.

“In a certain sense, it was an act of faith that Judaism could do that.

“That’s what Clal did,” Rabbi Greenberg continued. “We would bring students together, to learn together, to get a 360-degree understanding of the other person. It’s hard to do major or even minor putdowns when the other person is sitting right there. So the idea of bringing together Jews in general — and rabbis in particular — across denominational lines became a central part of the organization’s work.”

Both those goals — to bring Jews together across otherwise divisive theological, sociological, and philosophical lines, and to look at Judaism both accurately and positively — fueled the institute.

He began his most recent book and convened the program because “I feel that I have not gotten my ideas out as widely as I had hoped I would,” Rabbi Greenberg said.

His book starts with the “Jewish vision, the very utopian vision, of tikkun olam. It claims that the world can be repaired to the point where we treat every human in the image of God — as infinitely valuable, equal, and unique. True, you have to overcome poverty, discrimination, war, sickness, to get there. It is a messianic vision that insists that it can and should be done.”

That is a universal goal.

“The second part of the book is unique to Judaism. It’s about the brit — the covenant — between God and Jews. It’s gone on for 4,000 years, and we haven’t gotten it quite right yet. It’s the opposite of utopian. It’s step by step, group by group, Jew by Jew. The whole point of the covenant is that it’s one step at a time.

“When the Bible was given, slavery was rampant,” he continued. “That is incompatible with human dignity. But the answer wasn’t to abolish it then, because that wouldn’t have worked. So the Bible did it one step at a time. Hebrews could be slaves only for six years. They were free on Shabbat. So one step at a time, the Talmud improves the conditions. One step at a time.”

Rabbi Greenberg dances with the groom, Justin, and his wife, Blu Greenberg, dances with the bride, Tali, at Justin and Tali Pines’ wedding. (Fred Marcus Studios)

That’s one of the concepts that is core to Rabbi Greenberg’s thinking — the idea that most of the time Judaism evolves slowly, gradually incorporating change in response to the world around it, but that so far there have been three revolutionary events that created new paradigms.

The first is the exodus from Egypt, which was liberation; the second is the fall of the Second Temple, which was destruction; and the third, whose birth pangs we still are feeling because we are just a generation or two removed from it, is the combination of the desolation of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the State of Israel that followed it. “That third iteration is being born before our eyes,” he said. “It will take centuries, but we are seeing the birth.”

Rabbi Schlosberg found that the six-month institute was powerful and gave her much to think about. She was particularly moved by the last two days, because then, finally, almost everyone could be together in real life. “That really solidified the importance of being together in the flesh,” she said. “Even though we’d tried to develop relationships and learn together over Zoom, it’s just not the same.”

She found that Rabbi Greenberg’s ideas “are incredibly important for modern Jewish leaders to think about. They include how we are meant to reengage in the acceptance of the covenant with God, and how our role has changed.

“In biblical terms, God was supernatural, thunder and lightning at Sinai. God is not understood to be in our lives in that way now. Rabbi Greenberg talks about the three great eras of Jewish history, the biblical and the rabbinic and then now. Now is what he’s calling a lay-led era, and part of that is that it is on us to reaccept the covenant every day. To create tikkun olam, healing and repair of this broken world.

“I’m not speaking here as a rabbi, but as a Jew.

“God was very dominant and very visible in the biblical period. Over time, God has become more hidden in our lives, and that increases the need for a more human role in creating change in the world. Rav Yitz said that our great challenge in this third era is to develop ourselves as responsible partners with God; that is the way to reenact the covenantal relationship with God.”

Another of Rabbi Greenberg’s emphases was on “the importance of tzelem Elohim” — of how people were created and continue to be in God’s image — “and how incredibly important it is to see others as being in God’s image too, and as having infinite value.”

Rabbi Pines has known Rabbi Greenberg for a long time, and had been able to learn from him, in work that he did for Hillel and in other contexts as well. He applied for the institute because Rabbi Greenberg “is just such a humble mensch. I wanted to be in this man’s presence. He has so much Torah to teach. He has such an influence on the modern Jewish world. He is so open and understanding; he listened to other’s opinions and beliefs, and does it all from a place of kindness and menschlicheit.

“He is like a rabbi’s rabbi.”

Rabbi Pines valued the institute for many reasons; among them is that “in a world where everyone is polarized — it’s pretty much ‘I’m on this team, you’re on that team, so let’s shout at each other’ — this was let’s look at the big picture. What’s the mission? How do we think about it over the course of many generations? That’s very different from I need to scream at you today about something that someone has posted.”

The institute was “much more thoughtful discussion, must less dividing into camps.” The group discussed incrementalism versus radical change. “It was let’s talk about what the idea means,” Rabbi Pines said.

“One of Rab Yitz’s core ideas, in my understanding, is that our relationship with God, as a society, evolved over time. Think of it as a parent. When you are child, God changes your diapers; God was super present in the Jewish world. Over time, you develop independence. And then, eventually, God becomes a grandparent. So it went from God having to take us out of Egypt to now us having to clean up our own messes.”

Rabbi Pines talked again about Rabbi Greenberg. “Rab Yitz lives his theology,” he said. “If he is speaking about the idea of being created in God’s image, about seeing every person as equal, infinitely valuable, and unique, you see that he means it, and that he treats people that way. He is striving for truth. He presents ideas and asks people to push back at him. He has the humility to understand that we are all working in the same way.”

Rabbi Greenberg hopes that “The Triumph of Life” will be published next year. There’s a video of him talking about the ideas he writes about; just google “yitz greenberg video” to find it. There’s an easily findable section of Hadar’s website, hadar.org, that has audio files of some of his talks.

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