For the sake of Heaven and Earth:New encounters between Judaism and Christianity


Author: Irving Greenberg
Reviewer: Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Some books are so provocative that they stay on the mind for weeks and months. They demand to be read and re-read, discussed over and over again. For the Sake of Heaven and Earth is such a book. Rabbi Irving “”Yitz”Greenberg has spent most of his professional career promoting Jewish pluralism and exploring new and creative models of Jewish life. At the same time, he has written several important theological works and has been one of the pioneers in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Although the focus of the book is the Christian-Jewish encounter, it is not possible to isolate Greenberg's understanding of the respective roles of Judaism and Christianity from the larger context of Greenberg's overall theological position. He sees the encounter between God and humanity as one of growth and responsibility. Like any good teacher or wise parent, God knows that humanity needs to accept more responsibility, but in a gradual fashion. God therefore began a relationship with a specific family, that of Abraham and Sarah, but always promised them that they would be a blessing to all humanity. Gradually the covenantal relationship spread from this one family to a nation and then to all of humanity itself. Concomitant with the growth in numbers of the covenant community, God allowed, indeed forced, the human partners to accept more responsibility through an act of tzimtzum, a kabalistic term meaning voluntary self-limitation. Thus, within Judaism, the synagogue and study hall came to replace the Temple, while rabbis and scholars replaced prophets and priests.

The separation between the two religions was always part of God's plan. According to Greenberg, it was never God's intention for the entire world to become Jewish, but it was God's intention to have a relationship with all of humanity. “”It was the divine intention not to replace the original, but to reach a new set of nations with a new modulation of the message of creation, redemption, and covenant.”The separation between the two religions was always part of God's plan: “”Had the Nazarenes not been cast loose, it is likely that the Jewish ethnic elements of the Gospel would have been strengthened, making the new faith more difficult for Gentiles to join.”” History teaches us, according to Greenberg, that both Christianity and Judaism misread God's intentions in allowing this split. Christians took the fact of their “”new covenant”to mean that the “”old”one from which they sprang was dead. Jews, meanwhile, accepted the Christian understanding that only one iteration of the covenant could be valid, and rejected the legitimacy. This was perhaps understandable in view of the way in which Christians often oppressed Jews, but it had a heavy spiritual cost. Jews came to downplay indigenously Jewish religious ideas that were shared by Christians. No less significant was the diminishment of the Jewish soul as the sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world shriveled. Greenberg wants his readers, whether Jewish or Christian to break free of the binary thinking that has dominated both religions for nearly two millennia. He wants both Christians and Jews to acknowledge that their experience of the truth of their own religious tradition does not exhaust God's possibilities for revelation and relationship. In the past, both Jews and Christians have agreed that only one group's beliefs could be true. Either Jesus was or was not the messiah.

Christians have erred. The doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation were either true or false. Showing no interest in entering into this sort of disputation, he says that the experience Jesus' followers had of his triumph over death was an authentic experience which they interpreted, as Jews, in the only way they knew how: as evidence of God's breaking into history and the coming of redemption. Christians have erred not by virtue of their believing in the resurrection and the incarnation, but rather in assuming that their experience was proof that their religion was universally true, to the exclusion of all others. If Christianity was intended by God to supplement rather than replace Judaism, Jews need not insist on the falsity of Christian beliefs. “”Exactly what happened in the first century is of limited import to Jews . . . they need only insist that, open as they were, God did not give them the Christian signal — because God had another plan for them.”

Greenberg is both a theologian and a historian (his Harvard Ph.D. is in American history). He firmly believes that God acts in and through history; our task as humans is to determine what exactly God was trying to tell us. Readers will need to judge for themselves whether or not Greenberg's interpretations ring true. I suspect that many readers, whether Jewish or Christian, will find, as I did, some of his theological formulations to be jarring. Given the history of polemics between Judaism and Christianity, it is hard for members of either community to accept that another community's revelations may be authentic revelations but directed only at that particular community and thus of little import to the faith life of another community. Readers familiar with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' distinction between absolute truth and universal truth will find echoes of this idea in Greenberg as well. Greenberg, however, goes far beyond Sacks in his willingness to see Christians and Jews as part of the same story and indeed part of the same overall covenant. Greenberg acknowledges the fears and concerns that his writings inspire. The ””voluntary covenant”concept can clearly be misused to justify non observance and religious indifference. His positive evaluations of Christianity can be used to justify assimilation, intermarriage and syncretism; or that they may be misused by Christian missionaries and so-called “”Messianic Jews”in attempts to convert Jews to Christianity. He writes a number of times that such is not his intent and he hopes his intellectual honesty will not be misused or misconstrued. And yet, a concern remains. Greenberg has made the case that both Judaism and Christianity are organic outgrowths of the religion of biblical Israel; that the world needs both religions, that they are complementary, albeit distinct and that they are both legitimate and valid ways of worshipping the God of Israel. What he has not done in this book is address the question of why, given that this is the case, any particular Jew ought to remain Jewish. Is it enough merely to write that he does not intend his theological work to be used to justify syncretism or conversion? I wished Greenberg had addressed this question more fully. Having said that, I still believe that For the Sake of Heaven and Earth is important, challenging, and generally convincing.

This is an abridged version of the review originally published by Rabbi Charles L. Arian, who is Staff Scholar at the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies (Baltimore)

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