I welcome you to this website dedicated to my life and work. What is in it for you? Allow me to explain by providing a brief overview of my career and primary areas of focus.
Early on in my career, I concluded that we were living in possibly the most remarkable period of Jewish history ever—with Jews situated right in the middle of one of the greatest human civilizational transformations of all time. The vast majority of Jews were living in post-modern civilization—an extraordinarily dynamic and magnetic culture that was sending its messages through an unprecedented number of channels and communications media. American Jews were living in the most open and welcoming society ever—the United States of America. After living for two thousand years behind the shelter of ghetto walls, we were fully integrated now and playing in the major leagues of culture. Unless Judaism could speak persuasively in the presence of the other value systems, unless it could offer a richer life, Jews would assimilate. I wanted to work on making sense of Judaism and demonstrating and advocating for its capacity to enrich life in our society. If this topic interests you, you will find a good deal of relevant material on this website.
In 1961–62, my wife, Blu, and I spent a year in Israel, living in Jerusalem. There I stumbled into a life-changing personal and spiritual encounter with the Holocaust. I came to understand that we were living after the Holocaust—the greatest assault on Jewish life and the most devastating destruction in our history. We were living in the era of the State of Israel—an Exodus that dwarfed the biblical Exodus in the numbers involved and in the sheer extent of the swing from degradation to liberation. Jewish religion was organized around the Exodus event that inspired the Bible and guided Jewish life over the ages. Jewish tradition was reshaped by the destruction of the Temple and the exile that drove the creation of the Talmud. Rabbinic literature together with the Bible sustained Jewish existence for the following millennia. If the Bible followed the Exodus and the Talmud followed the Destruction, what incredible creation would Jewry come up with in response to two such extraordinary events coming together? That was a challenge that excited me. Specifically, I tried to help in the development of the thought and values that would articulate the implications of the Shoah and Israel for Jews and for the world. Such thinking would be an extension, not a replacement, of the tradition that guided us for four thousand years and which I have always deeply loved. I believe that such a renaissance of culture and religion will be dynamic enough to enrich personal life and enable Judaism to speak persuasively in the presence of others. Such a renewal also will allow Jewry to ally with other peoples and cultures to make major advances toward tikkun olam.
On this website you will find downloadable, audio files of many of my lectures as well as writing that deals with post-Holocaust theology. Among the topics I have explored in depth are: after the Shoah, can you believe in God and how to do so; taking power and creating life as a response to the Shoah; the State of Israel as the renewal of the Jewish covenant; the ethics of Jewish power; pluralism, internal and external, as a credible way of articulating religion in the presence of all the others; the challenge of freedom and choice; and the challenge of tradition and change and how to do justice to both. Another major theme of my work is Jewish-Christian relations. With my wife, Blu, I joined in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, working to shift Christianity from contempt to affirmation of Judaism. In the process, I came to affirm that a repentant Christianity is a worthy partner of Judaism in repair of the world.
In addition to scholarly research, teaching history and Jewish Studies at various universities, and writing, all of which have fed into an active speaking schedule (as reflected in the lectures digitized on this website), the other main focus of my career has been to develop Jewish institutions that would empower Judaism to compete in an open society. Vital institutions and programs are essential to enable Jews to flourish in freedom by living out the values, old and new, in the tradition. In the 1960s, this commitment took the form of working with Yavneh—a student organization trying to enable Orthodox Jewish students to meet the challenge of college and to grow as Jews. I joined with Jacob Birnbaum and others who followed him in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. The goal was to liberate Soviet Jews and to prevent a repetition of the indifference and bystanding that enabled the Holocaust. I served as rabbi of Riverdale Jewish Center, seeking to create a model synagogue as a welcoming, learning community. We also created SAR Academy, a day school focused on maximizing the students’ personal dignity, growth, and autonomy while imparting the best of tradition and contemporary culture. Drawing inspiration from the British open school movement, SAR’s classrooms had no walls. Nor were there any walls between the tradition and contemporary life or between observant and nonobservant Jews.
In the 1970s, to advance these goals, I went to City College of City University of New York to create a department of Jewish Studies. Believing that Jewish Studies at the university level were a frontier for a Jewish renaissance, I became one of the founders of the Association for Jewish Studies, the professional association of academic teachers of Judaica at colleges and universities. From CCNY, together with Elie Wiesel and Steven Shaw, we created CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. CLAL’s message was: 1) Jewish leadership must itself partake in Jewish living and learning in order to function effectively in an open society; 2) The Holocaust and Israel were turning points in Jewish history. Jews of every stripe were in this together and all were needed to try to understand and apply the lessons; 3) All spiritual explorations should be done on the basis of pluralism and unity. All types of Jews should learn together and from each other. One outgrowth of CLAL’s work was the nucleus of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which recommended (and whose members later guided) the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. CLAL’s project, called Zachor, also guided the creation of numerous community Holocaust Memorial Centers in the United States and Canada. CLAL’s work in spreading leadership learning was quite successful, especially in the Jewish Federation world. However, its work for pluralism and unity was set back by the polarization that swept through the American Jewish community in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 1990s and 2000s, I was given the opportunity to work with Michael Steinhardt and with my son, JJ Greenberg, of blessed memory, in the Jewish Life Network (JLN)/Steinhardt Foundation whose goal was to create new institutions to revitalize American Jewry. Among the outcomes of this work were: Birthright Israel, a gift of a ten-day educational trip to Israel to every Jewish young person, which was intended to link them to the Jewish State and the Diaspora community, Judaism, and each other; the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which worked to operate day schools and make them available to every family that wanted them; and MAKOR, outreach to young Jews in their twenties and thirties through a “night club” format featuring cutting-edge music and arts. We also tried to stimulate Jewish service learning opportunities and Jewish early childhood education and a host of other initiatives.
Looking back, one particular failure in my career stands out. With the help of others, I made repeated attempts to create a retreat center for the Jewish community at which individuals and families could experience immersion learning, charismatic teachers and role models, and bonding experiences with each other. While we ran many weekends and Shabbatonim at CLAL and JLN, we failed to create a permanent retreat center. I still believe that there is no project out there that could do as much to strengthen Jewish life and loyalty as the gift of a learning retreat to every member of the Jewish community.
If you care about Jewish life, if you’re interested in Jewish thought and learning, if you would like to enrich your life with Jewish values, if you would like to affirm the dignity and potential contribution of all religions, if you would like to explore the Holocaust and Israel and their implications, you will find much provocative material here. My thanks to Aryeh and Raquel Rubin and Targum Shlishi for making this website possible.
I would be delighted to hear from you as you join in the never-ending search to make sense of our times and/or seek to personally participate in the renewal of Judaism and Jewry and increase its contribution to the world. Doing this work enables contemporary Jews to be agents in fulfilling two of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. “I will make you a great nation” and “through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Irving (Yitz) Greenberg