Rabbi Irving Greenberg
POV: Rabbi Greenberg, thanks for being with us. The filmmaker of Hiding and Seeking, Menachem Daum, grew up in a post-Holocaust Hasidic community and has witnessed what he views as a growing insularity in that world. Within his own family, he’s concerned that his sons are “so immersed in their insular, parochial brand of Judaism that they have lost sight, to some extent, of the larger moral universe outside the walls of their study hall.” My first question is, do you recognize the dynamic he’s talking about — drawing away, a mistrust or even an ill-will towards the outside world? Is there a different way you would describe this?
Rabbi Irving Greenberg: I think the film is an extremely sensitive and thoughtful film that probably has captured very well the dynamic particularly of the Hasidic community in the last 50 years since the Holocaust. As it has gotten stronger and as it has rebuilt it has been more able to shut out the outside world and it has somewhat skewed, or Orthodoxy and not just Hasidic, but non-Hasidic orthodoxy as well, as they’ve gotten stronger they’ve tended to turn more insular, turn more inward and the movie captures that.
POV: What would you say are the roots of this dynamic? Is there a connection to Orthodox Jewish theology and practice? Or is this primarily a social response to Jewish historical experience?
Greenberg: It’s a good question and of course I think the answer is that it’s a mix. By which I mean to say that some of it is in fact the impact of the Holocaust itself. In that world, considering the extraordinary losses and the pain and the disaster involved, it’s a source of anger, it’s a source of disillusionment, it becomes a kind of moral refutation of the rest of the culture. The modern culture, the outside culture is tainted, it is the source of this horrific destruction, which was in fact, let’s be honest, made possible by modernity — by its technology, by its bureaucracy, by some of its strong tendencies — and in effect the democratic world did not stop it. So part of it is the after-effects of the Holocaust and the survivor psychology of resentment at what was done, the mistreatment. Part of it, I have the feeling, however, is a different reaction. It’s a reaction to modernity and its excesses. On the one hand, modernity is very attractive. Equality, dignity, affluence. And there’s a big pull on the Hasidic community and orthodoxy, and in a way, dismissing or turning insular is a way of defensive reaction, in part reflecting the temptation and the attraction to that world. So you might say that again, part of it is response to Holocaust or Jewish historical experience, I think some of it is reaction to what is perceived as the excesses of the contemporary culture and a defense against them.
POV: So you’d say, in that sense, then, that there’s nothing in theology or the instruction of how to practice faith, that there’s no aspect of an idea like “a chosen people” where the other side of that is a rejection of others?
Greenberg: Well, let me separate that. Hasidic or Jewish orthodoxy is the most unreconstructed or the most traditional of the denominational positions. It therefore has a stronger tradition pre-modern, and in the pre-modern or medieval period, all religions including Judaism, and including Orthodox Judaism, had a built-in self-centeredness, a built-in “othering” of the outside religion, just as every religion, including Christianity and Islam, overwhelmingly taught that the only salvation is their beliefs, everybody else is going to hell. So, orthodoxy comes out of that medieval tradition with strong insularity, strong particularist tendencies that are in tension with some of the universal themes of the tradition but those universal themes are the ones that are subordinated. Having said that, it’s not just the tradition, it’s the tradition as skewed by the Holocaust and the impact of modernity, negative and positive, on the traditional community.
“Chosen” is a good example because historically, chosen-ness, I believe, was a statement of affirmation of distinctiveness, of the right to be different. Chosen does not necessarily imply inferiority or degradation of the other, it means election, it means a special relationship with God. More than one group can have such a special relationship. Just because God spoke or loved or chose my people, my religion, doesn’t mean God never spoke, loved or chose another people. Because God revealed in my tradition, doesn’t mean God doesn’t reveal in other traditions. So again, the superficial version of modern says, the very claim of chosen is inherently offensive or undemocratic — I don’t think so. I think that problem again is the clash of the inherited absolutism and self-centeredness and insularity of the medieval period, but the counter problem is the simplistic, “we all should be the same and any claim to be different is at risk, and is wrong” [mindset]. So I think the challenge, and in fact it’s the challenge hinted at in this movie repeatedly, is to set legitimate limits. Can you recognize the right to be different without building that difference on the inferiority of the others? Can you build a universal ethic that is truly respectful of particularity, differences and diversity? And that’s the challenge on both sides.
POV: To address some of the psychological effects of this superficial aspect of modernity, let me pose this to you. The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has said that to be a fundamentalist of any religious persuasion, to his mind, means to be “wholly immersed in your own theology, your own suffering, your own historical and theological drama, to the absolute exclusion of any other drama.” What’s the antidote to this psychological tendency?
Greenberg: Yeah, well one of the beautiful things about the film is that it creates the emotional empathy that leads to pluralism. Fundamentalism is not just orthodoxy or just a tradition. It’s tradition or orthodoxy of any religion stressed and challenged by the openness, by the dignity and the beauty of the other people who it meets in the course of modernity. And what do you do next? You’re threatened because your whole religion has been built on the superiority and the self-evidence of your side, and suddenly it’s not so evident. The other side is beautiful, the other side is powerful, the other side is attractive. So what do you do? What the fundamentalist does is say, choice is dangerous. Given a choice people will choose pornography and drugs not freedom and human responsibility. So the fundamentalist says you have to use your choice to give up choice. Reject the alternatives, you have to impose by force if necessary, the control of the media, control of the mind, control of the culture. And of course we’re seeing now violent forms of fundamentalism and jihadism, where you have to wipe out the alternative because they’re dangerous and threatening. So I think Yossi Klein Halevi is right that the heart of fundamentalism is to remove all sympathy except for your own tradition, your own drama, your own people, and this gives you the capacity to impose a unilateral which you feel to be the word of God or the only way that will save family and the other good values we supposedly stand for.
Now obviously I’m implying that I don’t agree with it, and of course that is true. Personally, my own people ask me what does it mean to be orthodox, because I believe the tradition is open to change and open to development. My answer is orthodox means you bring the whole tradition with you, but as you meet and as you expose and as you see the reality of the other truth, and the other beauty, and the other religious lives, you can integrate some of that into your own. If you do it right, you can enrich, humanize and make deeper the tradition. If you don’t do it right, you get totally assimilated, undermined. In other words, having built it on the exclusion of the other, when the other comes in, you can’t stand for anything and you don’t know where to say no, and what is still legitimately a judgment. So it is a major historical world-wide crisis here: will this new exposure to each other lead to relativism, to assimilation in the case of minorities like the Jews? Will it lead on the other extreme to fundamentalism, withdrawal and violence, if necessary? Or, as I hope, it will open up a new era of pluralism.
POV: Let me ask you this. Menachem Daum says, “In every religion you have the beautiful universal teachings, ‘My house is a house of prayer for all people.’ But you also have the very parochial and narrow teachings which are sometimes derogatory of ‘the other.’ And if you are in a religion where you buy the whole thing as a direct transmission of God’s revelation, you can’t pick and choose the teachings.” This is an issue, of course, that’s not just faced by Judaism but by all the faith traditions. What would you say to that challenge which Menachem is struggling with?
Greenberg: The extraordinary power of modern culture is that the media, the communications, living together in the city, going to university, there are a thousand ways in which the insulation has been stripped away; people are totally exposed to each other. And, as I said, this is a world-wide crisis for many identities, for many religions, they are simply undermined. Because a lot of people think the only conclusion is relativism. The alternative I believe, and this is, I believe, the great religious calling of our time, really, is to say, can one make finer distinctions. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. God, revelation, faith, authority, truth, these are all important commitments, important insights. But, you have to know the limits of that. As I recognize the power of Christianity as a religious Jew, I come to realize that my frames of analysis, my understanding of revelation, didn’t exhaust all the possible meaningful, powerful, religious ways of life. And therefore I have to understand that my faith, even if it’s 100% true — and it may not be, listening to others I may learn that some things are wrong — but even those things that are 100% true don’t exhaust either God, or religion, or revelation. Other religions work, and work powerfully well; secular value systems work, and work powerfully and well. So, that is the great alternative: can one have committed disagreements, not based on indifference, but based on I have a strong, powerful commitment to my faith and yet I have learned to make room for others, for other revelations, for other people’s experiences, for other people’s suffering. Could one be passionately committed to this kind of diversity? Up until now, the answer is no. People who were passionate, they said, this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth and you have nothing. I personally remain an optimist but it’s fascinating to see the struggle worldwide and it’s lead to pathologies like fundamentalist, particularly violent fundamentalism. It’s lead to other pathologies — I said indifferentism, and relativism, but hopefully it’s one of these creative moments where religion can renew itself.
POV: In talking, we’ve already come upon the theme of certainty and doubt. Menachem feels that it’s our certainties which divide us. He says, “I think our doubts have a better chance of bringing us together, because in our honest moments we all have doubts.” So he says he has a problem with people who profess not to have any doubts at all. What is your response to that? How is doubt a productive part of faith? What is the role of doubt? How does one go about doubting as a serious religious person?
Greenberg: Let me come back to the Holocaust, since that is the subtext of Menachem Daum’s film. Any serious religious person, it seems to me, has to be challenged in all kinds of doubts about God. I mean how could God allow such cruelty, such evil, to go on unchecked? And it certainly challenges the traditional idea of a controlling God who brings punishment on people, bad things happen because they were bad. I mean, there’s nothing, there’s no crime, there’s no sin, that the Jews ever did that could justify such a fate. So it raises doubts, serious doubts. And I believe that in this case doubt is both legitimate and salutary, because it challenges the simple certitudes of the past. What Daum is saying is that the memory of the Holocaust should drive us to a greater compassion and humanism and a sense of insight, suffering. For him it raises religious doubts, but those doubts temper the absolutism of his religious faith, they don’t destroy his faith but they make him more tentative and more respectful of other alternatives. So the doubt in this case, I think properly understood and properly responded to, leads to a certain modesty. The religious person speaks with modesty, and there’s more respect for the nonbeliever.
I once argued that the difference between an atheist and a believer now was not a matter of black and white or contrast from zero to 100 but it’s the frequency. Atheists disbelieve in God most of the time, and a believer believes in God most of the time. There are moments when you confront Auschwitz where, I don’t care how deeply religious you are, it’s got to shake or challenge. You’ll also understand how God is suffering, if these children were being burnt alive and they were suffering, imagine the suffering of a God who has infinite consciousness and feels every pain magnified by cosmic dimensions. So again it means you have to jump in as a religious person and end God’s suffering by ending human suffering, by saving children from being burnt alive. It seems to be that this is the point of the doubt now. It is to put some limit on the certitude, on the authority claims, and make you realize the extent to which you have to still improve the world to make God credible again, to make faith credible again, you have to improve your own tradition. Now again, some people, the risk is when you open the door to doubt it may overcome faith. I recognize that risk, but the risk the other way, it seems to me, is greater, that faith is so impervious to suffering or to evil that it would be unshaken.
POV: I wanted to ask you to think about the film’s title, and specifically the word “tolerance.” The film is called Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust. I wonder what that word calls to mind for you?
Greenberg: The film is more dynamic than the title. I think the word tolerance to me is no longer an adequate word. Tolerance means I get to meet the other side and I want to allow room for them, and that certainly was a big step forward and one of the great contributions of modern culture. A separation of church and state led to allowing religious freedom. Many good things came from tolerance. Having said that, I don’t think tolerance is good enough and we’re seeing now the weakness of tolerance when it meets highly-charged, highly-emotional religious faith — it’s somehow not enough to overcome them. They are so dynamic, they are so demanding and so total and ruthless sometimes that mere tolerance cannot stop them. So it’s more than tolerance. I don’t feel tolerant when I recognize the beauty or the goodness of another person. I feel loving, I feel respectful, I feel a certain sense of awe. And the film challenges us not to tolerance but to understand in an empathetic way the humanity of the other person and the power of their religion, to be able to hold contradictions together, to hold faith and doubt together, to hold a sense of group and yet a respect for the universal humanity I’m part of. Then it’s possible to have a more humane set of relationships. Possible to develop pluralism where religions with strong commitments nevertheless make room for the goodness and the greatness of others. It seems to me that again is one of the moments we’re living in. It’s a moment when humanity reaches new levels of accomplishments — of affluence and medicine, science, and freedom — it also reaches new levels of power and ability to inflict pain and evil and cruelty and nuclear wasteland and God knows what else one could do now. So the challenge becomes, can we rise to greatness and can humanity hold these dynamic truths together in a way that is life-giving.
POV: Thanks so much for talking with us, Rabbi Greenberg.
Greenberg: And I’m happy for the chance to talk and think about these ideas with you.
An ordained Orthodox rabbi and a Harvard Ph.D. and scholar, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg has been a seminal thinker in confronting the Holocaust as an historical transforming event. He has written extensively on the theory and practice of pluralism and on the theology of Jewish-Christian relations. He is currently President of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. Previously, he was founding President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the Rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Associate Professor of History at Yeshiva University, and a founder, chairman and Professor in the Department of Jewish Studies of City College of the City University of New York. Among other published work, he is the author of For The Sake Of Heaven And Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism And Christianity.