Disagreeing in the Service of God

Jews and Christians need one another, argues an esteemed Orthodox rabbi in his latest book.

After the publication of "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth," Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg spoke to Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about the book, which traces the development of his thinking about Jewish-Christian relations and argues for a pluralist theology that commands followers of each religion to embrace the unique contributions of the other.
You've spent many years dedicating yourself to Jewish-Christian dialogue. What is your goal?
Who said I have a goal? What I mean by that is that, as I indicated in the book's opening essay, some of this grew out of the experience. I didn't necessarily know what I was doing when I started. Therefore, my comment is, this is all retrospection. I think the big issue that I stumbled into unintentionally, perhaps, is one of the big issues of religion of our time—the encounter of powerful and meaningful religions with each other, in what I think is unprecedented in human history. It is a direct and unmediated encounter—and in what is in many ways a highly open and sympathetic environment between religions, identities, and cultures. This is the underlying issue of pluralism and of freedom. I confess I didn’t start with those ideas. In the modern era, people for the first time in history were brought together geographically in the cities, culturally open to one another. For the first time, the "Other" is no longer other.

This incredible, unmediated encounter has led to a kind of crisis and an opportunity. The crisis is that most identities and value systems were dependent on each group's superiority claims. Suddenly, every alternative lifestyle and value system and religion is available. And they're nice people; they're attractive. They're your next door neighbors. It's led to three different trends. The first, and the most powerful, is the trend of relativism. You discover that the portraits of the other in your tradition were false and demeaning. And in the end, nothing is fixed, and anything goes. That explains secularization and relativism.

The counter-reaction, we're seeing now in a scary way, is fundamentalism and all its off-shoots, including the violent offshoots. We have to violently repress the alternatives, because that's the only way we can save the truth. So you close down the TV, as in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli) community, or you blow up the alternative, as in the jihadist psychology and you impose the "will of God" on other people.
When I started, it was the shock of the Holocaust. It was coming to grips with the legacy of hatred and hostility that Christianity had generated in Western culture and around the Jews. So I joined the issue initially with a kind of not very dialogic approach. I felt like I was coming to challenge and criticize Christianity to stop spreading hatred about Jews. The only thing I'll say in self-defense is that I discovered in the dialogue that I was right. I also came to see that that was not a refutation of Christianity, it was a call for Christianity to live up to its own best values.
And of course, as I describe in the book, there were Christians ahead of me who saw this. So paradoxically, in this encounter, it became a true dialogue, where I began to realize the true power, and the values and the strength of true Christianity. And so I began to ask myself, is Judaism fair and proper in its understanding of Christianity? That's how I moved into a pluralism, because I came to see the power of the other's side and realized that it was exactly the denial of pluralism that explains much of the hostility and the hatred of the Holocaust.
In this book, you've set out to reconcile the theology of Judaism with that of Christianity.
You use the word "reconcile." The book argues that there are and will be important ongoing conflicts between the two religions. It's just that those disagreements are for the sake of heaven, not to be seen as denying the other side. In other words, part of pluralism is that you don't necessarily reconcile or come to agreement. But you do understand the validity and the role of the other even when they disagree.
So you're uncomfortable with the term "reconcile"?
Yes, because in some sense, I feel one of the great lessons of pluralism is that you end up with religions that are in some ways contradictory or disagreeing, nevertheless you recognize that there is a legitimacy or a truth behind them. And I've come to see that that is good. Even though we continue to disagree, we can be disagreeing in the service of God, or about what's the best way, without undermining the basic legitimacy of the other side.
What would you say are the three biggest theological problems Judaism has with Christianity?
There's disagreements that should continue, and disagreements that are problems and should be stopped. For example, the Christian claim to absolute truth which supercedes Judaism, and which says that Judaism has lost its validity—that has been historically the main problem. And of course it took a much uglier form in violence and suppression and hate-mongering. So that's probably the single biggest problem, that has to be ended. And my argument is  that Christianity—various denominations—has already taken major moves in that direction. In the book I refer to papal statements, including Pope John Paul II's statements, that affirm the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant.
The renunciation of violence, the recognition of past sin—those are all serious attempts to overcome the main historical problem, which is the claim of supercession, and the consequent tradition of contempt—that Judaism is legalism, it's soulless, that Jews are Christ-killers or children of the Devil. It produced everything from the charge that Jews drank Christian children's blood to stereotypes on a more subtle level—that Judaism's God is the God of wrath while the Christians believe in a God of love, for example. The Christian attempt to renounce these perspectives is the most heartening examples in history of self-correction, and I credit Christians for it.
It's not finished yet, because there's a gap between the advanced thinkers and the authorities, and the people in the pews. It's not finished yet because the Gospels themselves remain sources of some of these ugly images.
How about the messianic conception of the two religions?
The other two main ongoing differences I think will remain, at least until the Messiah comes. The first of these is the Christian claim that God became flesh—Jesus as one of the personalities of God, and the Trinity. That whole complex is the second major disagreement. From a Jewish perspective, that is a departure from pure monotheism. Now, having said that, it's one of the strong arguments in my book that Christianity is a monotheistic religion. That trinitarianism doesn't mean three gods, and therefore while it's a departure from the purity of Jewish monotheism, it doesn't invalidate Christianity.
I think Jews have to be open to the idea that God speaks in different ways to different people. It's God's way of speaking to the gentiles, bringing them in parallel without replacing Judaism. Therefore Jews don't have to sit around trying to refute other religions. We can say firmly and respectfully, that the logic behind incarnation and God becoming flesh is the shared value system: Both religions believe that life will win out over death—resurrection is the climax of that process—because it's God's will that the world will be made perfect, and that this will be accomplished by a partnership, a covenant between God and humanity, which expresses itself in many religions and many covenants, including Judaism and Christianity.
Why does Christianity end up saying God became flesh? The logic is that humans can't do it alone, they need a leader, a mediator, a role model. Judaism also acknowledges that, but Judaism argues that the mediating and the role modeling has been humans, whether Moses or a priest in the Temple or rabbis. Judaism doesn't deny the need for mediation. It just said, despite their sinfulness and limitations, humans can connect to God directly. Whereas Christianity says God had to personally overcome the human limitations. So as a Jew I can respect the logic of that, coming out of the Jewish tradition—namely idea of covenant—but Judaism doesn't view God needing to become human. Rather, humans can become more godlike. God reaches humans through speech, through revelation, and humans reach God through repentance and through spirituality.
Christians have to resist the temptation of saying, well my God became human, and therefore it is superior. Jews have to resist the other temptation: You claim God became flesh, you must be idolaters. Let's face it, that's where the majority of Jewish traditional views ended up: viewing Christianity as idolatry. The anti-Christian polemic was, you're worshipping idols. The real concern was, you're teaching hatred, you're killing Jews.
Jews should see that trinitarianism should not be dismissed as idolatry, but be recognized as an attempt bring non-Jews to worship the same God as the Jews worship. Jews should not dismiss it as idolatry. That view doesn't do justice to the richness and complexity of Christian faith.
So again we'll have a fundamental difference ongoing between the two religions. I don't expect Christians to give up Jesus or make him into simple a human being. Although I think one of the most striking things about modern Christian theology independent of the Jewish question is just that: that Christians have tried to articulate that Jesus brings people to God, Jesus is the vehicle. They're trying in many ways without repudiating—although some rationalist groups such as Unitarians have in fact repudiated the trinity—to minimize that aspect and to deepen the point that in the end it is the God who happens to be the God of Israel that we're also worshipping.
Some Jews think of Jesus as a "failed Messiah." Can you explain that?
That's the third major ongoing difference. Classically, the Christian position was the Messiah came. Classically, the Jewish answer was, the Messiah didn't come. Look around and see the evil world. I argue in the book that that difference will continue—is meant to continue—until the Messiah completes the job. Both sides tacitly admit the truth of the other's claim, in part.
For example, Christians, in talking about the Second Coming, admit tacitly that the Messiah didn't finish the job and that the world is still not redeemed and perfect. The wrong way Christians sought to solve that tension was to say the Messiah is not a matter of politics or economics; the Messiah is spiritual, and that's 100% available right now. Jews, in contrast, insist that perfection includes economic, social, and cultural dignity, and the triumph of life is not just spiritual, it's physical as well.
So I think that was a Christian mistake, growing out in part of their superiority feelings toward Judaism. You're carnal and we're spiritual: That's why we're superior. That was a bad way of handling the controversy, and it shows that arrogance leads to conflict.
The Jews argued that all you had to do was look at the world to see that the Christian messianic claims were false. Yet the Jewish Sabbath is a kind of mini-messianic world. There are a hundred ways that Jews act on Shabbat as if the Messiah has come already, as if the world is perfect.
So the claim that the messiah is already here is a legitimate claim to make. But the Jewish claim that the world is not yet redeemed is also legitimate. What I'm calling for in the book is that the two sides should get together and work for that.
In the history of this polemic, Christians said Jews are blind; otherwise you would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but someday you'll wake up. And the Jewish reaction was, this is a false messiah; you're preaching nonsense.
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