October 14, 2019

Partners With God

“For the Sake of Heaven and Earth,” by Irving Greenberg (JPS, 2004).


In a passage from the Talmud (Makkoth 24a), Moses' blessing in Deuteronomy is cited: “And Israel dwells in safety alone.” The Prophet Amos arose to revoke that dubious blessing: “Oh God, cease, I beseech you! How shall Israel dwell all alone.”

Then the Lord repented concerning Moses' questionable blessing and declared, “That shall not be.”

Like Amos, Irvng Greenberg, in his compelling book, “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth,” knows that it is no blessing for Judaism or any religion to be alone. Religions need each other and are called to find each other in the imitation of godliness.

Greenberg's “partnership theology” transcends the theologically correct acceptance of the legitimacy of each faith. With imaginative foresight, he calls for a covenantal coalition of faiths to help fulfill God's dream of a universe created in God's image.

After the Holocaust, Greenberg expects more from religion than a polite tolerance toward other faiths and more than a begrudging acceptance of religious pluralism. He calls all religions to jointly see themselves as “shutafim lakodosh baruch hu b'maaseh bereshit” — joining each other in sacred partnership with the Holy One in creating and sustaining the universe.

The uniqueness of each religion Greenberg holds inviolate, but our times call all religions to transcend their individual particularity and join together in the repair of this broken world.

Greenberg steps in where only prophets dare to tread. He thus finds himself in the position of the prophet, the man “between.” His position leads him to stand between his institutional home base and his call for transcendent conscience. He knows full well that Holocaustal wounds and scars make it painful to extend the hand to the “other” and difficult to look into the eyes of the “other.”

Greenberg has written extensively of the long, sad history of contempt, the theological inquisitions that mock interfaith theological conversation as betrayal and dismiss dialogue as naively utopian. But he knows that to continue the status quo ante vitiates the possibilities of Christian, Jewish and Islamic solidarity.

He fears perpetuating the precarious polarization that only immortalizes the perennial rupture between “them” and “us,” the “chosen” and the “rejected,” the “elected” and the “superseded,” the “triumphant” and the “defeated.” Such split-thinking and believing leaves in its wake anger and suspicion.

With characteristic moral courage, Greenberg confronts “the failed Messiah” with empathic respect and refuses to dismiss the sacred intuitions of non-Jewish spirituality. Attention to the family resemblance of all monotheistic faiths may help them to overcome the parochialism that destabilizes globalization.

For such an approach, the man between will be held suspect. He will have to struggle against the threats of excommunication and even the charges of heresy. But the reader will find heart in Greenberg's confessional witness to the trajectory of his theological evolution.

While reading Greenberg's book, I was reminded of a passage from Rabbi Abraham Kook in his “Orot HaKodesh.” Kook had a profound influence on the spiritual life of Greenberg. The passage from Kook reads: “It is forbidden for religious behavior to compromise a person's natural moral sensibility. If it does, our fear of heaven is no longer ours. An indication of this purity is that our natural moral sense becomes more exalted as a consequence of religious inspiration. If the opposite occurs, and the moral character of the individual or group is diminished by a religious observance, than we are certainly mistaken in our faith.”

Throughout his essays, Greenberg is sustained by his natural moral sensibility and his fear of heaven.

The author makes a significant contribution to authentic inter-religious dialogue. His vision is rooted in the awareness that Judaism is a world religion that must engage other world religions in a quest for global unity.

Theological conscience cannot accept the segregation of God from His world and from His children.

This book I place on the shelf in my library that is most easily accessible. I know it will be consulted often, for God's sake and my own.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino