Your Messiah Or Mine? 11, 2005
By Neil Rubin

In the early 1960s, an emotional and intellectual crisis wrought from intense study of Holocaust documentation threw the young Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg's life into turmoil and forced a response.

He set out for the nascent Christian-Jewish dialogue. He did not, however, do so to embrace fellow spiritual leaders. Rather, he had a message for Christianity, which he believed aided the Nazi effort of extermination.

"I was frankly worried that it had not stopped [hating Jews]. My first child had just been born, and I was worried for my children and grandchildren. I didn't join the dialogue to love and learn, but to tell them to stop," Rabbi Greenberg told a few hundred people last Tuesday night, Feb. 8, at Chizuk Amuno Synagogue in Stevenson.

The result - chronicled in the theologian's latest book "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity" - was a remarkable evolution in his own Jewish life.

Along the way, he learned that some Christians "were prepared to go any distance and break their heads and even to, as I once said, to crucify themselves to make sure that Christianity would not be anything other than a source of love, which it wants to be," he said. "And they transformed themselves. It changed my thinking."

That is because Jews and Christians, after nearly 20 brutal centuries of a highly degrading and often bloody relationship, have been given a second chance, Rabbi Greenberg said. This time, if they get the relationship right, he said, they might achieve a mutual goal - the arrival of the messiah.

Earlier in the day, on behalf of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, Rabbi Greenberg led workshops for about 70 area clergy and educators.

In his evening lecture, after tracing traditional Jewish and Christian views of each other, he said the Holocaust has forced both groups to look deeply and reevaluate their relationship. He reiterated his controversial theory of Jesus not being a "false messiah" but a "failed messiah, and I mean that as a compliment."

Noting the world's 1.7 billion Christians and 14 million Jews, he said Jews must ask if "all of these people are stupid and so spiritually and intellectually unsophisticated that they can be sold a bill of goods."

In turn, Christians, he said, must inquire of Judaism, "If this religion was meant to be replaced, to go on and pass on, then how can one account for the fact that a religion that is 3,500 years old is not only alive but going through a great renaissance and rebirth with all its crises?"

Rabbi Greenberg added, "It seems to me that after the Holocaust that Jews should be the first to recognize that the world needs help to be redeemed. Far from asking to be the only valid religion, we need help."

God actually wanted Christianity to spread monotheism, but not to destroy Judaism, Rabbi Greenberg said, citing Jewish thinkers such as the medieval sage Maimonides, but admittedly adding modernity's teachings to such works.

Had Christianity "stayed inside of Judaism, it may have taken over Judaism. But God didn't want that covenant and way of life to disappear. And if Christianity had not spread among the gentiles, it would not have spread monotheism," the rabbi said.

While Christians believe the messiah arrived as Jesus, they acknowledge that Jesus must return, meaning "the redemption has not yet come," Rabbi Greenberg said. And Jews, who say the messiah has yet to arrive, celebrate Shabbat "as a moment of messianic time in behavior - no worries. So the messiah is here, but is not fully here," he added, while delving into the boundaries and bonds of the two religions.

The stakes in such thought, Rabbi Greenberg said, are incredibly high. "I'm convinced that if we could do this," he said, "it would be such an extraordinary breakthrough that we could in fact bring the messiah, a world of peace."

The risks of such a dialogue, Rabbi Greenberg said, are that Christians might not follow through, "that it's premature messianism on my part." For Jews, he said, the worries include exploitation of the effort by such groups as Jews for Jesus and the reality that Jews - many of whom are already assimilated - could meld into the majority culture. "But the gain," he added, "I think it is too much to pass over."

And if the messiah does indeed show up, Rabbi Greenberg joked, he would call a press conference, and the first question would be, "Is this your first coming." The messiah would then smile, Rabbi Greenberg said, and respond, "God told me to say, 'No comment.'"

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