It has been a slow summer for my blogging. That’s because most of my writing energy has been going into my qualifying exams and now my dissertation prospectus. So my apologies if you’ve missed getting something from me every week. But this is probably how it’s gonna be for a while.
My dissertation is taking shape, and it surrounds Yitz Greenberg (who I know is a reader of the blog; not many doctoral candidates can say that!). In 1993, the Jewish intellectual historian Steven Katz wrote that Yitz was the most influential thinker in American Jewish life over the past two decades. Katz argued that Yitz’s work through CLAL and his various other pluralistic educational endeavors changed the way Federation and communal leaders thought of themselves and related to Jewish learning and tradition. Yitz helped to create a new kind of discourse in American Jewish life, where today it is not unusual for Federation meetings to include a dvar Torah or for communal leaders to study Jewish texts. Yitz’s influence can be felt every time someone deploys the idea of “tzelem elokim,” humans created in God’s image, or talks about Covenant as an organizing concept in Jewish thought. Yitz did not invent these terms, but he made them into powerful teachings that spoke to a wide audience across denominations. I share Katz’s assessment: there aren’t many figures who have been as influential across so many communities.
Within the Orthodox community, of course, ‘Yitz Greenberg’ means something very different. For nearly fifty years, Yitz has become a marker in the Modern Orthodox zeitgeist, denoting an alternative might-have-been to what mainstream Orthodoxy became. To both his supporters and his foes, Yitz represented something powerful–to his supporters, powerfully inspiring; to his foes, powerfully threatening.
One of the distinguishing features of Yitz’s biography and thought is that he is an historian. This is significant for a number of reasons. As Alan Brill has observed, most of the major figures of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 60s worked in philosophy: Most notably, of course, Rav Soloveitchik, but also figures like Samuel Belkin, Eliezer Berkovitz, Norman Lamm, Walter Wurzburger, and Sol Roth. Emanuel Rackman was a lawyer and wrote his PhD at Columbia on law, and his approach to Modern Orthodoxy–which was, in its day, an even more powerful challenge than Yitz’s–was through law and halakha.
Unlike these other figures, Yitz’s PhD was in American history (on Teddy Roosevelt and the American labor movement), and his teaching appointment at YU in 1959 was to teach just that. Within a few years, and particularly after his sabbatical in Israel in 1960-61, he taught modern Jewish history as well, and was among the first people to teach about the history of the Holocaust. Yitz was a very popular professor, and not only because of his charisma. There was something striking in his approach to history. He didn’t teach the past as dead. He taught it as living. Similar to what I wrote a blog post last year about Daniel Sperber, this represents a different approach to history than we often think of as the norm, one which doesn’t see nearly as firm a split between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ as Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor might argue. For Yitz, history represented something we learn from for the sake of our own lives. This enabled him to talk about even Biblical criticism, one of the most challenging areas not only for Orthodoxy, but even Conservative Judaism in the 1950s. The problem of academic Biblical critics, he taught, was not that they excavated the Bible, but that they ruled out the possibility that humans could have a relationship with God. Biblical criticism could show how humans in their time and place responded to God, and that could then inform us today about how we should do the same.
This approach to history thus had two compelling features: It made the past come alive, and it made the present a continuous flow from that past. Listen to what Yitz’s students at YU or Yavneh in the 1960s said about him, and this is what comes through. It led to Yitz’s calls for major halakhic adaptation and innovation, not only in internal Jewish areas like conversion or egalitarianism, but strikingly in the realm of American politics (social welfare legislation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, etc.). Yitz’s work as an historian made him unique within Orthodoxy, and beyond Orthodoxy as well. He is not an historian who lets the past simply live in the past.
I would argue that for many Orthodox Jews it is this challenge that is so difficult. Orthodoxy (a term which demands a great deal of excavation itself) has successfully encountered modern science, modern philosophy, and modern culture, and proved able. There are great examples of Orthodox scientists, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and performers. But the realm of modernity in which it has had the most difficult challenge is history, particularly Biblical history, but also history that challenges the saintliness of great figures of the past. That is why Yitz was, and remains, simultaneously inspiring and threatening–he was willing to embrace such histories without reducing the past to a purely man-made affair. As Yerushalmi argues, modern historiography is built on the idea that there is a radical break from the past, one that enables us to stand and gaze objectively at it. Yitz agrees with this, but then makes the dialectical move of saying, There is no break: we are the inheritors of that past, and the past demands our action in the present.For Orthodoxy, this is a significant challenge.
But why? As we approach Tisha b’Av, I think we see an answer. Tisha b’Av was a holiday that Rav Soloveitchik took very seriously. All day he would recite Kinnot and teach about them (a tradition which Rabbi J.J. Schacter now admirably continues). For the Rav, the halakha generated a requirement to feel the magnitude of the hurban (destruction), to feel God’s absence. And for Jews, as so many Jewish philosophers have told us, God’s presence or absence is felt primarily in history. Our narrative as a people is built on the idea of God intervening in history. Yet Tisha b’Av marks the first–sadly not the last–cataclysmic moment when God seemingly wasn’t there, when God hid Godself and allowed the destruction to happen. Though the challenge of God’s presence or absence is one we encounter every day through our prayers and performance of mitzvot, on many days we can go through the motions, or we can focus on the celebratory aspects in which we enjoy feeling the presence of God (a bris, a wedding, Shabbos dinner, holidays). Tisha b’Av, however, is the day of God’s absence, a day when the problem of Jewish history and its meaning for our individual and collective relationship with God is most forcefully expressed. The observances of Tisha b’Av are made meaningful not through joy, but through feeling the absence of God, longing for God’s return, and committing ourselves to bringing it about.
But then we come out of Tisha b’Av, and we don’t really have to deal with God in history any more–or so we tell ourselves. We can focus on our performance of mitzvot, we can feel God’s presence in other ways. Tisha b’Av can exist on its own, and we can be happy on any day when we don’t have to say Tachanun. We can engage ‘modernity’ through science and philosophy and culture, and we can avoid the challenge of confronting the question of God’s role in history. (I save the question of Israel and history for another time; this blog post is already long enough, and my focus is on American Judaism.)
Yitz Greenberg’s challenge to Orthodoxy, and to American Jewry, was not to put our heads in the sand. The elephant in the room is God’s place in history. Modern historiography had already made this a challenge; the Holocaust made it inescapable. And yet, 40 years after Yitz left Yeshiva University, the challenge is one with which we have yet to fully come to terms.