On Rabbi Greenberg

  • Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has spent a lifetime asking and answering some of the most important questions in contemporary Jewish life, and has done so with profound wisdom, great sensitivity, and total integrity.
    While I personally have a special appreciation for his work in founding Clal, and his role as one of my most influential teachers, anyone who cares about the vitality of the Jewish people as a whole, the importance of religious pluralism in our increasingly polarized world, or the ability of Jewish thought and practice to guide people toward more meaningful and ethical lives, stands in his debt, and has benefitted from his decades of work as a rabbi, teacher, theologian, interfaith activist, and communal leader.

    –Brad Hirschfield, President, Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

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  • Yitz Greenberg has been an amazing influence on me personally and the Jewish world in general. He sits on our Foundation’s board of trustees, guiding our decision making with wisdom and grace.
    He suggested that Israeli soldiers should be part of Birthright and convinced us to put money into this effort. Now it is a key part of the Birthright experience.
    Yitz has been instrumental in shaping the growth of “PJ library” in both Israel and America. PJ now is distributing 300,000 books to Jewish families, many of whom are unaffiliated. I am blessed to call him a dear friend.

    –Harold Grinspoon, Harold Grinspoon Foundation

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  • Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has had a profound influence on an entire generation of volunteer leaders in North American Jewish life through his teaching in the Wexner Heritage Program.
    Yitz was instrumental in the original thinking and design of the program in the mid 1980s. Les Wexner and Rabbi Herb Friedman (z”l) turned to Yitz and a small cadre of other thinkers and teachers to design an experience that would deepen lay leaders’ sense of themselves as part of the sweep of Jewish history. The theory was that deepening their knowledge of Jewish tradition, history, texts, and thought would deepen their sense of responsibility for exercising leadership in Jewish life today.

    Yitz’s own teachings about the various stages of the covenant and his interpretation of the significance of Jewish history, with an emphasis on the paradigm-shifting impact of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel, have long served as the core root system and intellectual backbone of the entire Wexner Heritage experience. Year after year, hundreds of Wexner members have sat transfixed as Yitz has taught his Torah of the Triumph of Life. They have emerged from his classroom on fire with the passion of commitment to moving the Jewish project forward. (Many of them also emerged with a passion of a different kind: to show their commitment to “choosing life” by populating Am Yisrael through the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply.” Not a few babies were born in the spring following Wexner Summer Institutes…)

    Yitz’s groundbreaking and courageous commitment to Jewish pluralism is another key element that has made the Wexner community—one which shares Yitz’s innovative cross-denominational approach—the perfect laboratory for testing his ideas. Reflecting Yitz’s open-heartedness and self-scrutiny, Wexner members have learned to respect serious Jewish leaders with whom they profoundly disagreed, while at the same time coming to grips with the shortcomings of their own movement or synagogue or personal theological system.

    Personally, in addition to being profoundly influenced by Yitz’s intellectual and spiritual teachings, I have also been touched deeply by Yitz’s chesed, the kindness which is so deeply rooted in his soul. Where other teachers and leaders of Yitz’s stature often seem inaccessible, Yitz always has time to talk, always had a kind word, always remembers the details of his encounters with us all. When my son was born, a personal note from Yitz reflected on the meaning of the name we had chosen. Wexner members and faculty look at Yitz not only as an intellectual and spiritual teacher, but as a personal mentor and rebbe.The nearly 1800 Wexner Heritage alumni have gone on to drive innovation in Jewish life, creating new institutions, innovative programs, and unique collaborative efforts across communities. They have done so in no small part due to Yitz Greenberg’s message, delivered with compassion, pathos, and wisdom: as leaders, you are either moving things in the direction of death or the direction of life. Choose life.

    –Jay Henry Moses, director, Wexner Heritage Program,The Wexner Foundation

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  • Greenberg is not only a popular theologian. The accessible form of his publications often masks the intensive, consistent, systematic nature of his endeavor. He has chosen unusual forms for the presentation of his views,
    but he is unmistakably one of the most interesting and most creative of the Jewish thinkers today. He has shaped my views and for this I will remain ever grateful.Essential to Greenberg’s theological vision is the recognition that history has altered the forms and the content of Jewish life. In the generation after the Holocaust and the rise of the state of Israel, the nature of Jewish existence must remain pluralistic. Greenberg’s view of these two monumental events and their impact on Jewish life and though and his evolutionary perspective on Jewish history represent the boundary line—the limits of contemporary Orthodoxy.

    –Michael Berenbaum, writer, lecturer, teacher, consultant in development of museums and films

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  • My first encounter with Yitz, in September 1965, was one of the most intimidating fifty minutes of my life. I had just spent my morning at Beit Midrash and Talmud Shiur on my very first day as a freshman at Yeshiva University.
    I always liked history, and world history was a core requirement. Professor Greenberg was teaching World History 101, and I was about to learn what college would be like in the first non-Judaic class of my university career.

    Tall, lanky, a bit odd looking but soft-spoken and very articulate, the professor welcomed us and distributed our first semester syllabus. And then the shock…Thirty books – in addition to a textbook , mostly full volumes, some articles. One immediately grabbed my attention – “the New Testament.”  Someone raised their hand to ask if this was the year-long syllabus? We had heard correctly—it was the semester list only. Panic, utter panic. So this was college, imagine the other classes (seven of them.)…Imagine the load…all on top of Judaic studies…for four years. There would be essays, quizzes, a midterm, and a final for each semester. Class participation was an important part of the grade and it would be clear who came prepared to class, who had done the readings and who hadn’t.I couldn’t possibly remember what that first lecture was like, I was too glued to the reading list to pay much attention—but the names of the books were wonderful, dealing with the history of ideas, the elements of revolution and even anthropology.

    Some of the fear subsided by the end of the day when all my other professors had presented nothing that came near the magnitude of the Greenberg syllabus. But the next challenge came when we talked to the upper-class students about our teachers. All expressed admiration for Professor Greenberg. We were told that “getting him off on a tangent,” particularly about Orthodoxy and modernity, would be rewarding and perhaps delay some the rapid pace of his standard course progression. We also heard he was (other than organic chemistry) the toughest A in the school.

    I wanted that A. A wonderful history teacher at MTA (Yeshiva University High School for Boys) —Mr. Aronson from Waco Texas—had awakened my interest in history and more importantly shown me that I could really buckle down and work hard for a good grade. So I began to study, and I never worked harder for school grades. By June I had earned two As. By the time I had finished the year I learned the meaning of hard academic work that required discipline but, more importantly, brought the sheer delight of engaging with Professor Greenberg as he presented one brilliant exposition about intellectual and political history and civilization after another—lecture after lecture. My classmates were inspired and often we challenged and argued with someone I still believe was the most talented teacher I ever had. The experience that year transformed me intellectually, but getting to know Yitz as a rabbi and mentor and later a friend meant more than anything. 

    I realized soon that what I loved about history was the political elements and along with a decision to spend my non-school work time volunteering at City Hall, I also decided to make political science a career. The late Charles Liebman, another dear friend from YU (later head of the Department at Bar Ilan) pushed me along—nominated me for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and I finished my Ph.D. at Columbia in 1975. My career in government along with adjunct teaching followed before I started a business with my wife in 1986 that we run to this day. We continue to be involved with Israel and Jewish communal activities professionally and personally.

    Yitz started it all, directing me to my intellectual pursuits and shaping my way of thinking (I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take his remarkable advanced courses – the Mussar Movement and the Holocaust).

    But as I grew older and engaged as a Jewish communal volunteer and activist I knew that it was Rabbi Yitz who had contributed even more to my growth as a Jew than Professor Yitz had contributed to my career. His tangential in-class discussions, his writings and lectures and the hornets nests he stirred at YU and in the community revealed a courage born of unflagging ahavat Yisrael.

    No one ever taught me more about the importance of tolerance and the importance of baseless love of one’s fellow Jew as Yitz did. He honored and sanctified our marriage by offering a blessing under our chuppah and my ongoing encounters with Yitz and Blu are always cherished moments. 

    No amount of spoken or written tributes is enough. Those of us who were blessed to be his students strive to reflect his ideals and lessons in our lives in countless ways. We pass them along to our children. That is the real tribute.

    –Perry Davis, Ph.D.,Yeshiva College 1969, president Perry Davis Associates, Inc.

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  • Rabbi Yitz Greenberg models Torah brilliance, with deep sense of compassion for Clal Yisrael. I heard Rav Yitz speak for the first time when I was a CLAL intern, and he shared his heart wrenching journey to understanding the mammoth destruction of the shoah. It was this experience that shaped his groundbreaking interpretation of
    ‘tzelem elokim.’ And, his teachings, that combine his ethic of deep Torah knowledge, with a deep sensitivity for the Jewish people, continue to influence the way I teach and interpret Jewish text. Rav Yitz is a stellar thinker and teacher. He has the ability to weave together Jewish texts and modern philosophy that somehow offer practical solutions to some of the central issues that face the Jewish people. His guiding principals are morality and integrity, which, in his view, will ensure that democracy and tolerance will shape the community.

    –Rabba Sara Hurwitz , rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, dean of Yeshivat Maharat

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  • The Olympics That Were Not Kosher…In early 2008, the Chinese government announced that a kosher kitchen would be established to serve visitors to that summer’s Olympic games in Beijing. It was
    the kind of news that usually makes Orthodox Jews smile with satisfaction at the thought that even in such a far-flung corner of the world, where there are virtually no Jewish residents, it is possible to keep kosher. Gone are the days when those who adhere to traditional dietary restrictions had to forsake enjoying sports events or other forms of secular cultural entertainment.

    And yet, there was more to the issue than kosher egg rolls or wonton soup. China was no ordinary Olympics host. It was the first time since the Moscow games of 1980 that the Olympics would be held under the auspices of a totalitarian regime. Not only did the Chinese government deny basic civil rights to its own citizens, it was actively engaged in the suppression of the people of Tibet and was helping to prop up the rulers of Sudan, who were perpetrating genocide in Darfur. Moreover, friends of Israel had special reason to be wary of Beijing: the Chinese were supplying advanced missiles to Iran and Syria and building friendly relations with the new Hamas regime in Gaza. Hoping to attract American Jewish tourists (and their foreign currency), the Chinese imagined that the lure of kosher food might suffice to make some Jews forget about Beijing’s brutality and its support for Israel’s enemies.

    All of which, in Yitz Greenberg’s view, posed an important moral question: should the stamp of kashrut be awarded only on the basis of a food product’s ingredients and method of preparation, or should moral considerations also be taken into account?

    This was a problem Rabbi Greenberg had addressed before. In 1971, he and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein were the only Orthodox rabbis in America to declare that non-union lettuce and grapes should be regarded as non-kosher. He explained to me (in 2008) that they had learned from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ‘the idea that Halacha is not just a list of ritual dos and don’ts, but a comprehensive worldview that applies to everything that happens around us. The Torah prohibits the exploitation of workers—so why shouldn’t that apply to migrant farm workers picking lettuce or grapes? They were being mistreated, so it was natural for us to apply the principle of non-exploitation to their situation, too.’

    In the spring of 2008, Rabbis Greenberg and Lookstein, together with The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, began circulating a petition calling on American Jews to boycott the Beijing Olympics. Needless to say, the Chinese government was not happy about the initiative. (I myself received angry phone message from an official of the Chinese embassy in Washington, saying that he was ‘instructing’ me to cancel the petition.) Jewish organizations with business interests in the Chinese food industry were not very pleased, either.

    But Rabbis Greenberg and Lookstein refused to back down. On Yom HaShoah, they released the petition, which bore the names of nearly two hundred prominent rabbis and Jewish leaders from across the religious and ideological spectrum. The range of signatories testified to Rabbi Greenberg’s well-known emphasis on bridge-building and intra-Jewish unity: it included the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the executive vice-president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, and the (Othodox) chancellor of Yeshiva University. ‘It’s wonderful that leading rabbis from every branch of Judaism are willing to set aside their differences and come together on an issue of overriding importance,’ Rabbi Greenberg said in an interview at the time. ‘Whether it will translate into a more cooperative spirit on other issues remains to be seen. But the main thing is that right now, it may help people who need our help. We all have seen what kind of damage Jewish disunity can do. Now hopefully we’ll see the kind of positive impact that Jewish unity can have.’

     As a former chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Rabbi Greenberg also took the opportunity to remind the Jewish community that ‘Holocaust museums and institutions have a particular obligation to help the public understand how to apply the lessons of the 1940s to today’s problems. As the Torah teaches us, we remember what happened to us in ancient times not just for the sake of remembering, but for the sake of learning from it and understanding how to apply it today.’

    That sacred principle should be on the first page in the instruction manual handed to every rabbi who assumes a pulpit, and every man or woman who becomes head of a Jewish organization. And they should call it Yitz’s Rule, because Yitz Greenberg has devoted his life to teaching the centrality of that concept in Judaism and Jewish communal life.

    –Rafael Medoff, founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

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  • Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s teaching, his wisdom, his persona had a profound influence on the community of undergraduates at Yeshiva University who were privileged to be his students.  We were searching for
    a Jewish intellectual, religious and experiential ‘comfort zone’ then, and Yitz provided a good part of that with his engaging insight, his innovative thinking and his living example of the modern man of mussar.  He was the only professor whom I can recall, who could keep fifty seniors only days before their graduation, to stay for three additional classes beyond the end of the spring semester.  He simply had more to say, and we were thrilled and thirsting to hear more from him. Years later we also realized how far ahead of his time he was and how significant a role he has had in setting the tone and the content of the communal conversation and focus regarding the Shoah.

    Beyond his stimulating classes and thought-provoking ideas, he deeply impressed with his genuine caring for students. A particular but very moving gesture that he did for me one evening made a lasting impression on me. It was classic Yitz to demonstrate sensitivity for the personal needs of students. He is a genuine Baal Mussar and follower of all that was good in the Beis Yosef-Novardok tradition, where he studied for his rabbinic ordination. His envisioning and establishment of SAR Academy in Riverdale, an exceptional school that dramatically transformed the Riverdale community, reflected his own deep concern for a different and meaningful Jewish education which has impacted profoundly on the lives of thousands of families and students, including, I am very pleased to say, my own children. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg will always mean to me an imaginative, inspired, and inspiring intellectual giant and a gentle, genuinely caring human being.

    –Stuart Zweiter, director, The Lookstein Center  Bar Ilan University

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  • Rather than disseminate information, Rabbi Greenberg challenged students to think for themselves and explore their relationship to Judaism and modern culture. His courses served as incubators of what later became
    his seminal ideas. As an undergraduate dean at Yeshiva put it to me some years later, ‘I was interested primarily in exposing students to Greenberg’s thinking’ on the Holocaust and on modern scientific and religious currents.Rabbi Greenberg’s understanding that the Holocaust had shattered many of the paradigms of modern culture was an intellectual breakthrough…Similarly, Rabbi Greenberg challenged Jews to rethink inherited images of Christianity that were historically and theologically untenable….

    In many ways, Rabbi Greenberg remains what he always has been – an Orthodox intellection with doubts about Orthodoxy’s current direction, a theologian struggling with the impact of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, a teacher and rabbi for Jewish leaders, and an ambassador of the Jewish people. As he approaches his sixth decade in public life, his legions of admirers and supporters continue to say, ‘I majored in Yitz,’ and look forward to many more years of his continued teaching and leadership.

    –Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee

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  • No Jewish thinker has had a greater impact on the American Jewish community in the last two decades than Irving (Yitz) Greenberg.
    –Steven Katz
  • “…the very name of the foundation that I founded, Targum Shlishi, was inspired by Yitz’s teachings, that of our being in a new third era (following the Temple and the Rabbinic eras). For his keen insight, for his dynamic leadership, for his daring intellect, and above all his radiant warmth, I, on behalf of my generation, thank him.
    –Aryeh Rubin[/expand]
  • There are few contemporary Jewish thinkers who have framed and addressed in as steadfast a manner the crucial questions about the future of Jewish life, the role of Judaism in the world, and the challenges of the Shoah.
    –Michael Oppenheim
  • Throughout his career, Irving Greenberg has broken down religious barriers both inside and outside of the Jewish community, striving to unify the American Jewish community and reintegrate it with Christian culture.
    –Marc A. Krell
  • Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg[’s]…thought about the Jewish People has always been a courageous effort to describe and understand where we have been, where we are now, and what we must do to achieve that tikkun olam, that repair of ourselves and the world, which is our historical purpose and goal.
    –Shalom Freedman
  • Rabbi Greenberg…represents the power of independent thought and the indispensable role of moral example in carrying out positive revolution.
    Barry Sterlicht
  • No matter what the topic….Greenberg’s addresses always include a greater vision of the whole. He weaves his specific topic into a statement on the totality of Jewish history—and memory.
    –Michael Berenbaum
  • I believe that Greenberg’s thinking is only beginning to make its impact, and that it will prove to have ever-increasing significance to Jews, theologically sensitive Christians, and open-minded secularists throughout the next century.
    –Joseph Telushkin
  • With Greenberg’s originality and creativity, even something that is already known takes on new meaning.
    –Barbara White
  • I am among that legion of Christians who have been brought to new levels of awareness about Jewish experience and belief, as well as about my own Christian faith, through the life’s work of Rabbi Irving Greenberg
    –James Carroll
  • Greenberg provided much of the vocabulary of contemporary Jewish thinking. He consistently underscored the Judaic teaching that the purpose of the mitzvoth was ‘to live by them’ interpreting tradition as teaching to advance human life. He helped capture the transformation in Jewish self-image from one of weakness and vulnerability to one of asking how best to harness Jewish power and strength for ethical and just purposes.
    –Steven Bayme
  • Some of Yavneh’s most innovative ideas during the sixties emerged from Greenberg’s fecund mind, including the Merkas HaRav Kook study-in-Israel program, the Yonah project, and the agreement between national Yavneh and national Hillel, and he worked tirelessly to see them realized.
    –Benny Kraut
  • Some rabbis I love, of course—in my time, I’d have taken a bullet for Shlomo Carlebach, Yitz Greenberg, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
    –Jonathan Mark