Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity
by Irving Greenberg
Jewish Publications Society of America, 274 pp. $20 paper

The title of Irving Greenberg’s collection of essays” For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity ”neatly captures the thrust of the book. Judaism and Christianity must rediscover and affirm one another for the sake of heaven and earth. Each religion is incomplete without the other. Each has been tempted by an excess of otherworldliness (heaven) or this-worldliness (earth), by universalism or tribalism, by the spirit or by the flesh. Judaism and Christianity need one another for balance, criticism, “holy envy,” and a fuller perception of God’s saving purposes. Only in loving partnership can they fulfill their conjoint destinies as God’s strategies for the redemption of the world. These are remarkable assertions for a Jewish thinker raised in, and still in some ways associated with, Orthodox Judaism.

Greenberg’s bold Jewish theological vision grew out of two encounters: with the Holocaust and with radical Christian theologians whose own framework was shattered by the Holocaust. Greenberg’s en-counter with the Holocaust, which began with intense study in the 1960s, led to a profound shaking of his Jewish faith. The son of a noted Orthodox rabbi and a product of the modern Orthodox social and educational system, Greenberg was almost defeated by the Holocaust’s absolute devaluing of life. He did not know how to go on as a Jew until he met such Christians as Roy Eckhardt and Paul van Buren, who modeled for him both radical faith in God and critical fidelity to tradition. Their prophetic judgment on their own tradition’s contribution to the teaching of contempt for Jews showed Greenberg that one can”and must”be both faithful and critical.

Just as these theologians demanded a fundamental reappraisal of Christianity’s evaluation of Judaism, Greenberg, while affirming their program, makes a similar demand on the Jewish side: Jews must rise above their historic fear and dismissal of Christianity and affirm the full spiritual dignity of the Church. This entails more than Jewish tolerance; it requires Jews to affirm that the God of Israel has elected the Church to join gentiles to the people Israel. For Greenberg, this is not a matter of relativism or mere civil pluralism. It is a theological affirmation all the way down. Greenberg’s work in this volume”the distillation of more than three decades of writing and dialogue”lays the conceptual and moral basis for this affirmation.

At bottom, Greenberg’s theology rests on the conviction that the Holocaust was a revelatory event. It revealed God’s presence as an apparent absence. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, neither Judaism nor Christianity can continue with business as usual, lest they betray this new revelation. Faced with the absolute evil of the Nazi attack, first on Jewish life and ultimately on human life per se , Greenberg was tempted to take Richard Rubenstein’s approach and concede that the God of Israel was indeed dead. Instead, Greenberg came to a new understanding based on the biblical concept of covenant and the rabbinic concept of hester panim ”God’s hiding His face. In this view, Judaism is fundamentally about a divine-human partnership, a covenant, in which the divine partner increasingly cedes power and responsibility for creation to the human partner. The logic of covenant, progressively unveiled within the biblical process (compare, for example, Exodus with Esther), works toward the greater enfranchisement of the human for the sake of the redemption of creation. God’s increasing withdrawal is not abandonment but empowerment. Greenberg thus provides a radical endorsement of the epoch of maximal withdrawal, of secular modernity, as an emblem of the human maturity required by the God of covenant.

In Greenberg’s view, secular modernity has done much to affirm and enable the human, to free humans for greater, divinely intended autonomy. But it has also exponentially increased the risk of idolatry, the praxis of evil. Secularism was a necessary corrective to religious traditions, both Jewish and Christian, that had discredited themselves through their mutual hatred, their obscurantism, their spiritualist escapism. But the liberating impulse in secularism soon moved beyond a critique of historic religion to a total repudiation of the divine. Modernity became its own god and both Jewry and the gospel became its victims. The idols of modernity”race, nation, the state”tried to kill the people of God, Jewry in the flesh and Christianity in spirit. In the aftermath of an unfathomable tragedy, both Jews and Christians must do what God requires of His covenanted Israel”work with redoubled effort for the affirmation of life.

Christianity and Judaism must both fully embrace the new possibilities within modernity for human liberation and dignity, but they must also chasten modernity so that it remains a means, not an end. Judaism must shed its diffidence toward history and once again engage with the realities of power, statehood, and universal concern for the other. Christianity must shed its supersessionism, triumphalism, and privileged association with power; it must free the gospel of love from the ancient biases and habits that have compromised it. In Judaism, Christianity can find a correction of its sometimes world-despising spirituality. In Christianity, Judaism can reconnect with God’s saving purposes beyond its own garden. Greenberg roots the distinctive moments of Christianity”the messiahhood of Jesus, the resurrection, the great commission”in Judaism’s own soil. If Judaism does not produce messiahs, he insists, then it has failed because it has abandoned hope. For Jews, Jesus is”Greenberg laments the potential for misunderstanding implicit in this charged term”a “failed messiah.” Not false, but failed. But then, God’s purpose often seems to fail in the world, only to be realized in ironic ways. In his failure, Jesus is at his most recognizably Jewish.

All of the essays repeat this same cluster of ideas, developing their im-plications with different emphases and nuances. What are we to make of the project? I must confess to great ambivalence about it. Its boldness and hope are captivating as a religious vision but disturbing as a utopian politics. In Greenberg we find a theologian who calls on Jews to validate the realities of statehood and power”an almost Hobbesian affirmation of what survival requires in a world where Auschwitz is possible”and who also calls Jews and Christians to revise radically their theologies as the first step in the project of perfecting and redeeming the world as partners in covenantal pluralism. The proximity of sober political theology with intoxicated eschatological anticipation is disorienting.

At first, Greenberg sounds a Niebuhr-like note: power and statehood are necessary to secure the conditions under which Jews and others can flourish. But any sense of the obduracy of human sin is lost in the expectation that fully mature, covenantally empowered humans can bring God’s creation to redemptive perfection. Indeed, Greenberg rejects Christianity’s emphasis on the radicality of human sin. Overemphasis on miraculous salvation, on grace, is incompatible with his covenantal model. It is a stage to be outgrown. When Christians are truly ready to validate Judaism, they will take greater responsibility for the repair of this world, engaging side by side with Jews in the human project of bringing the Messiah. Christians are to be partners in what has become the watchword of the modernist Jewish religious project: tikkun olam ”“repairing the world.”

Greenberg is not satisfied with the view that Christianity is legitimate only insofar as it resembles Judaism. He goes so far as to affirm God’s incarnation in Christ”not, to be sure, as a plausible tenet of his own (or any other Jew’s) belief, but as a possibility for God. He declines to stipulate, on the basis of God’s covenant with the Jews, what God can or cannot do for the gentiles. And yet prescription cannot be avoided. In Greenberg’s view, Christianity acquires full validity only when it acts in ways that comport with his Jewish sense of the redemptive, world-perfecting task of religion”and, crucially, only when it repudiates its anti-Judaism. Christians are only a covenanted people if they cease to despise the Jews. Christianity is falsified by immorality. How do these judgments square with the radical affirmation that he also seems to propose? The problem, I believe, derives from an unexamined equivocation in his concept of covenant: it refers both to historical events of pact-making and, metaphorically, to divine-human relationships. If covenant is only a metaphor for relationship, then poor behavior may be thought to sabotage the relationship. But if covenant also describes a state- ment of historical fact”as Jews and Christians have been inclined to believe”then poor behavior may make for an angry God, but it does not retroactively annul what happened on Sinai or Pentecost.

Here we come to the deep problem with Greenberg’s project, the problem of truth. Greenberg wishes to endorse pluralism without endorsing relativism. Far from a noncommittal relativism, pluralism is “an absolutism that has come to recognize its own limitations.” There is such a thing as absolute truth, but such truth must recognize itself as absolute only within a particular context. The peaceful coexistence of various absolutisms is pluralism; their self-elected partnership as divinely mandated vehicles for redeeming the world is covenantal pluralism. And covenant, recall, entails the assumption of human finitude, responsibility, and enlightened maturity, the sign of which is epistemic modesty. Is this coherent or is it mere word play? How is a context-dependent absolutism different from a nonabsolute absolutism?

What Greenberg offers is a theology of civility, but it is unclear that any such proposal can escape the relativism it claims to surmount. I would have thought that an ethic of civility alone would suffice. To live by an ethic of civility requires a respectful engagement with the other, whether as fellow person or as fellow citizen. Sometimes this might require the suspension of absolute claims for the sake of peace. Often it requires the commitment to discourse, persuasion, and rational intercourse in which absolute claims are not weakened but opened; one displays one’s humanity as a principled difference. This is a feature of civilized conduct inter homines . The absolute is not de-absolutized; it is held in tension with complex moral and political conditions of conduct. I would think that a strong but nonutopian ethic of civility is preferable to a problematic theology of reconciliation. But perhaps this scants heaven in favor of earth. Or, then again, perhaps Greenberg advances purely earthly goods in the name of heaven. Although his questions are more compelling than his answers, Greenberg deserves our gratitude for the important challenges he puts to us.

Alan Mittleman is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute on Religious and Social Studies.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift