The last time I heard Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg speak was more than 30 years ago when he addressed a Jewish Federation gathering of young leaders that my wife Barbara and I were a part of in San Francisco where I served as the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel. “Yitz,” as he is widely and affectionately known, was compelling then, a favorite speaker of the organized Jewish community, a Jewish scholar of note, a significant theologian and thinker, a teacher par excellence, and a writer always worth reading.
In the intervening years I have read his books and marveled at his courage as a modern Orthodox Rabbi who insisted that all the religious streams had to keep talking together, critiquing each other honestly, listening to one another, and striving for mutual understanding, at the very least. He is courageous because, despite his intellectual heft and taking a back seat to no one, his pluralistic outreach to Jews of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements set him up for calumny heaved at him by the small-minded right-wing orthodox rabbis and Jews, who have now taken over far too much of the traditional world in America and Israel.
Today, here in Los Angeles, I joined with more than 170 rabbis and rabbinic students at the annual Board of Rabbis of Southern California High Holyday practicum to hear Rabbi Greenberg, hosted by Stephen S. Wise Temple over the 405. In the intervening years he has lost none of his luster. Aging gracefully, tall and still lean, Yitz is a towering intellectual and spiritual figure. Having earned his s’michah (rabbinic ordination) in 1953 at Yeshiva Beis Yosef, he was a student of the great Rav Joseph Soloveitchik.
Rabbi Greenberg shared with us the essence of his forthcoming book; the grand Jewish narrative that embraces the themes of Creation, Covenant and Redemption. He argued persuasively that this narrative of Jewish tradition is the most influential narrative of any religion in human history. Upon it Judaism has based its sacred literature, liturgy, holydays, rituals and observance. This narrative theme also is found at the basis of Christianity, Islam and modern western civilization thereby including 2.5 billion people living today.
The High Holiday Practicum, a highlight of the Board of Rabbis calendar year, is NOT where we all get our sermon ideas for the holidays, as so many congregants suspect. Nevertheless, this day of learning does feed the heart, mind and soul, and as a result ideas begin to percolate as we rabbis struggle to find something meaningful, spiritual, Jewish, and personal to say when the Yamim Noraim arrive in just 6 weeks!
Yes – if you are wondering. I have been thinking now for several months and I have begun writing. Yet, what I write in these initial days of preparation is never what my congregants end up hearing, for “writing” is really all about “re-writing,” and that continues literally until the moment I stand on the bimah and start talking.
Rabbi Greenberg’s talks today were wonderful, and it was great to see and hear him again.