A Torah Giant: The Intel­lec­tu­al Lega­cy of Rab­bi Dr. Irv­ing (Yitz) Greenberg

  • Review
By – May 1, 2018

A Torah Giant: The Intel­lec­tu­al Lega­cy of Rab­bi Dr. Irv­ing (Yitz) Green­berg is a col­lec­tion of nine­teen essays by lead­ing Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als on Rab­bi Greenberg’s influ­ence on con­tem­po­rary Jewry.

A Torah Giant is divid­ed into five sec­tions. The open­ing three essays in the first sec­tion are per­son­al trib­utes. Not­ing that he is affec­tion­ate­ly called a gen­tle giant,” Dr. Eri­ca Brown shares Rab­bi Greenberg’s impact as a teacher, men­tor, and coun­selor par excel­lence on her and many oth­er stu­dents and col­leagues. Rab­bi Dr. Seth Farber’s deeply per­son­al essay shares his sto­ry of grow­ing up with the Green­berg fam­i­ly; he recalls a unique night of Shavuot learn­ing with a thought leader who was also father to his child­hood friends.

In the sec­tion titled Build­ing Bridges,” five essays con­sid­er Rab­bi Greenberg’s think­ing on inter­faith and denom­i­na­tion­al rela­tions. Rab­bi Dr. Eugene Korn’s essay traces Rab­bi Greenberg’s think­ing on the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious plu­ral­ism and rel­a­tivism. In a defense of Greenberg’s crit­ics, Rab­bi Korn empha­sizes that Greenberg’s reli­gious plu­ral­ism main­tains that Judaism is a non-sub­jec­tive truth for Jews,” and does not give up on absolutes or under­mine their author­i­ty. It lim­its them so that they do not turn into instru­ments of intel­lec­tu­al, reli­gious, or polit­i­cal oppres­sion.” In doing so, Rab­bi Korn con­nects Rab­bi Greenberg’s think­ing to that of Isa­iah Berlin, Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, and Rab­bi Dr. Jonathan Sacks.

In the sec­tion titled Mod­ern Ortho­doxy & Halakhah,” five essays con­sid­er Rab­bi Greenberg’s think­ing on a renewed under­stand­ing of Jew­ish law, where halakhah refers to the process where­by the ide­al­is­tic vision of the bib­li­cal prophets – and the con­tem­po­rary voic­es that echoed the prophet­ic call – could be made real in the world.” Rab­bi Dr. Joshua Feigelson’s essay con­sid­ers this in light of Rab­bi Greenberg’s shift from a cau­tious to out­spo­ken crit­ic of the Viet­nam War, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ny to the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee in 1970. In his oppo­si­tion to the war, Rab­bi Green­berg broke new ground in explor­ing the fail­ure in Viet­nam as an are­na in which this under­stand­ing of halakhah could guide the Unit­ed States in revers­ing its policy.

The final essay of A Torah Giant is by Rab­bi Green­berg him­self. Titled The Jour­ney to Plu­ral­ism: A Mod­ern Ortho­dox Nar­ra­tive and Plea,” Green­berg traces the devel­op­ment of his key top­ics of inter­est, includ­ing post-Holo­caust the­ol­o­gy, reli­gious plu­ral­ism, and denom­i­na­tion­al dia­logue, and inter­weaves these sub­jects into a final appeal to embrac­ing a plu­ral­ist approach to Judaism that can serve as a light unto the nations” (Isa­iah 42:6) and a bless­ing on earth” (Isa­iah 19:24).

For read­ers unfa­mil­iar with Rab­bi Greenberg’s lega­cy, A Torah Giant is a per­fect intro­duc­tion. To those who have enjoyed Greenberg’s writ­ings, this col­lec­tion of essays serves as an impor­tant reminder of the impact that Mod­ern Orthodoxy’s gen­tle giant” has had as we con­sid­er some of the most press­ing issues fac­ing mod­ern Jew­ish life.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions