For the Sake of Heaven and Earth book cover
In Review

From Trauma to Trust?

By Ernest Rubenstein

In the history of Jewish-Christian relations, affirmations of either religion by the other have been a rarity. Christian affirmations of Judaism became less unusual in the wake of Vatican II, whose groundbreaking document “Nostra Aetate” opened up prospects for a new, mutually respectful dialogue between the two religions. If the church can take credit for initiating that conversation, that is be-cause, after centuries of presuming from a position of power to supersede Judaism, it bore the responsibility for making the needed amends. Isolated appreciations of Christianity dot the history of Judaism, from Menachem Meiri in the medieval period to Franz Rosenzweig in modern times. But as Christianity has turned a more benign face toward Judaism, Jewish theologians have been exploring more creatively whether and how they can affirm Christianity’s own self-conception without unduly compromising their own. Irving Green-berg, a former Yeshiva University professor and long-term participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue, has added his seasoned voice to those efforts with a new book, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter  Between Judaism and Christianity.

The distinctiveness of Irving Greenberg’s contribution owes in part to the fact that he is an Orthodox rabbi. For doctrinal, historical, and pragmatic reasons, the Orthodox stream within Judaism has been most reluctant to engage in dialogue with Christianity. Indeed, a poignant theme of this book is the criticism its author has suffered from colleagues for adopting toward Christianity such an open attitude. The book is a collection of essays spanning nearly four decades. Seven of them are reprints; two are new; a final chapter gathers several appreciative responses to Rabbi Greenberg’s work by Jewish and Christian thinkers who share his dialogical commitments.

The older essays would have profited from more annotated updates. For instance, the reference to Harvey Cox in the first reprinted essay, from 1967, should have been footnoted with an acknowledgment of Cox’s recent book Common Prayers, about the author’s participation, as a Christian, in Jewish ritual observances. Apart from that, the chronological arrangement was a stroke of editorial wisdom, mirroring as it does a key theme of the book, that the meaning of events often shows itself retrospectively, against a backdrop of advancing time. One way to read the book is as a theodicy. In his opening, autobiographical essay, Greenberg traces his interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue back to the first, supportive responses he received from Christians to the outrage he felt over the Holocaust. (Greenberg is former chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

It does not diminish the pure evil of the Holocaust that, from the cultivated memory of it, Jews and Christians should find basis for new, mutually supportive relations. That dialectical feeding of the negative, retrospectively considered, into the positive, becomes the schema through which Greenberg reads the founding traumas of church and synagogue. Christianity’s trauma was the crucifixion of Jesus; rabbinic Judaism’s was the destruction of the second temple. The death of Jesus became the occasion for Christians to find sustaining hope in the widely shareable idea of salvific resurrection; the destruction of the temple became the means by which Jews learned to trust a divine presence simultaneously more pervasive and hidden than the biblical Israelites had known, and that invited them to assume more responsibility for their own lives. Each of these positive outcomes answers to a different goal in God’s redemptive plan for humanity: the Christian outcome, to the goal of bringing God’s providential love to all; the Jewish outcome, to the goal of shaping a more responsible, less divinely dependent humanity. The goals are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Judaism and Christianity are invited not simply to tolerate each other, but also to partner proactively in the further unfolding of God’s plan.

Efforts to uncover meaning in what Simone Weil called the “tissue of base and cruel acts” of history may meet with a healthy skepticism. Where does divinely supported suffering end and gratuitously inflicted, humanly caused suffering begin? Can God really have planned, as Greenberg suggests, for Christianity to spread on so dark a stimulant as the Jewish rejection of it? Can God not have suspected that so negative a spur to Christianity’s growth would haunt it for centuries, turning what should have been irony, that the religion of love could generate so much hate of its parent, into the heaviest and most expectable of grim realities? We would like to think God was a better psychologist. But that very wish places us on the cusp of just the kind of dialectical turn Greenberg relishes. For the outrageous presumption in that wish returns us to the gaps in our knowledge of God’s plans. And now that humble admission of limits to our knowledge can be put to good, inter-religious account.


For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity, by Irving Greenberg. Jewish Publication Society, 274 pages, $20.00.

Part of Greenberg’s call to Judaism and Christianity is that they cede their claims to unlimited absolutes and  adopt more modest self-conceptions.

By the very nature of its unitary focus, monotheism does not easily share divine space with other religions (especially other monotheisms). Part of Greenberg’s call to Judaism and Christianity is that they cede their claims to unlimited absolutes and adopt more modest self-conceptions. In imitation of the divine love, which expresses itself, paradoxically, through self-limitation, the religions should see them-selves and the truths they carry as limited. But Greenberg shifts the focus of dialogue away from the divisive category of truth, toward a concept that is already inherently much more actively relational—namely, covenant. Unlike binary issues of doctrine, which force a choice, covenants, like the love that founds them, expand without coercion, and without any loss of binding force. They can also multiply without any one of them having to yield its uniqueness. As Greenberg notes, the Bible already suggests a multiplicity of divine covenants with the nations of the world.

It is a tribute to Greenberg’s own deep love of Judaism, and to his success in building a Judaism-preserving meta-theology for interreligious dialogue, that a quintessentially Jewish concept grounds his enterprise.  But this is also a limitation. Covenant is a fainter category for Christians, and barely one at all for the Muslims Greenberg would also like to engage in dialogue. As Greenberg pushes the concept to its universalist limits, he himself encounters uncertainties over how other-affirming it can be. Are Christians (and Muslims) part of the special covenant God made with the children of Israel? In some places Greenberg goes so far as to say so, but in other places holds back. The uncertainty is appropriate, especially in light of Krister Stendahl’s doubts, which he expresses in the final responsive essay, that Christians can with integrity adopt the name of Israel for themselves.

Doctrinal issues that trouble the Jewish-Christian dialogue also inevitably surface. On the one hand, Greenberg can affirm Christianity’s incarnationalism and trinitarianism, for how can he judge how God might choose to show himself to other nations? And yet, he cannot suppress a hope that Christianity will move away from those teachings, toward ones more harmonious with Judaism’s.

A meta-theology of interreligious dialogue must express itself in terms that all in the dialogue can accept. In this still largely uncharted territory, Greenberg begins to clear a path. The book is rich with suggestions toward other foundations for dialogue. In the first essay, he briefly turns for help to scientific vocabulary, especially relativity theory, which implies that perspective is not simply an accidental condition of knowledge but also an essential component of it. The pluralism Greenberg wishes to locate between the poles of absolutism and relativism could draw nourishment from a scientifically underwritten perspectivism. His richly suggestive concept of the bounded absolute, which has precedent in nineteenth-century philosophical idealism, points toward the concept of symbol, and to the openness of certain kinds of singularity to multiple interpretations. He even illustrates the self-limitation he advocates when he leaves it to one of his responders, Mary Boys, to develop the helpfulness of symbology to interreligious dialogue. Like the covenants themselves, the theoretical foundations of interreligious dialogue can be plural. So harmonious a match of form to content, of theory to practice, suggests a wholeness within Rabbi Greenberg’s approach to interfaith dialogue that inspires trust, even as some of the details of his thought await further clarification.

Ernest Rubenstein is librarian of the Interchurch Center, in New York City, an adjunct instructor in religious studies at New York University and the New School, and author of An Episode of Jewish Romanticism.

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