A Torah Giant: The Intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg is a collection of nineteen essays by leading Jewish intellectuals on Rabbi Greenberg’s influence on contemporary Jewry.
A Torah Giant is divided into five sections. The opening three essays in the first section are personal tributes. Noting that he is affectionately called a “gentle giant,” Dr. Erica Brown shares Rabbi Greenberg’s impact as a teacher, mentor, and counselor par excellence on her and many other students and colleagues. Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber’s deeply personal essay shares his story of growing up with the Greenberg family; he recalls a unique night of Shavuot learning with a thought leader who was also father to his childhood friends.
In the section titled “Building Bridges,” five essays consider Rabbi Greenberg’s thinking on interfaith and denominational relations. Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn’s essay traces Rabbi Greenberg’s thinking on the distinction between religious pluralism and relativism. In a defense of Greenberg’s critics, Rabbi Korn emphasizes that Greenberg’s religious pluralism maintains that “Judaism is a non-subjective truth for Jews,” and “does not give up on absolutes or undermine their authority. It limits them so that they do not turn into instruments of intellectual, religious, or political oppression.” In doing so, Rabbi Korn connects Rabbi Greenberg’s thinking to that of Isaiah Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks.
In the section titled “Modern Orthodoxy & Halakhah,” five essays consider Rabbi Greenberg’s thinking on a renewed understanding of Jewish law, where halakhah refers to the process “whereby the idealistic vision of the biblical prophets – and the contemporary voices that echoed the prophetic call – could be made real in the world.” Rabbi Dr. Joshua Feigelson’s essay considers this in light of Rabbi Greenberg’s shift from a cautious to outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, which included testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970. In his opposition to the war, Rabbi Greenberg broke new ground in exploring the failure in Vietnam as an arena in which this understanding of halakhah could guide the United States in reversing its policy.
The final essay of A Torah Giant is by Rabbi Greenberg himself. Titled “The Journey to Pluralism: A Modern Orthodox Narrative and Plea,” Greenberg traces the development of his key topics of interest, including post-Holocaust theology, religious pluralism, and denominational dialogue, and interweaves these subjects into a final appeal to embracing a pluralist approach to Judaism that can serve as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and a “blessing on earth” (Isaiah 19:24).
For readers unfamiliar with Rabbi Greenberg’s legacy, A Torah Giant is a perfect introduction. To those who have enjoyed Greenberg’s writings, this collection of essays serves as an important reminder of the impact that Modern Orthodoxy’s “gentle giant” has had as we consider some of the most pressing issues facing modern Jewish life.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.