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Friday, October 07, 2022
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On November 4, 1979, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg stood at a podium in the auditorium at Hebrew Union College facing more than 600 people. Many of them were friends and acquaintances who never realized until they saw each other in that space that they shared a status as the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors.  Before the day was over, they coalesced into the roots of the international movement known as Second Generation, the 2Gs (they do not call themselves Second Generation Survivors, because they are not survivors). The rabbi introduced two women, Dr. Eva Fogelman and Dr. Bella Savrin, who had done seminal research on the psychology of Holocaust survivors and their sons and daughters and gleaned information that in later years would prove helpful in the treatment of other survivors of genocide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The room was packed with 2Gs thirsty for knowledge about themselves because events had conspired to increase their consciousness of being somehow special and no longer alone, and to fill a need to become proactive in their communities. One was the airing of the NBC docudrama Holocaust, another was the publication of Helen Epstein’s groundbreaking book, Children of the Holocaust, and last, but not least, was the oil crisis in the midst of a recession that kicked up antisemitism and the need to counter it.

In the midst of this maelstrom of current events, at the podium there stood this tall, lanky fellow with a soft voice, who spoke intelligently about how the Holocaust had changed the nature of the universe. He talked about God and Hashkafah and the need to heal and bring ourselves closer to Him. At the same time, he was a realist who understood that people needed to know more about the Holocaust and its aftereffects. The conference was sponsored by Zachor, the Holocaust Resource Center, the first of its kind in the United States, which later morphed into the Center for Learning and Leadership, or as we know it today, CLAL.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the rabbi’s mentor, and inspired him to be a teacher. Greenberg’s students, Dr. Michael Berenbaum and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, both consider him their mentor. Berenbaum, who was the director of the content team of the United States Holocaust Museum team when Greenberg was affiliated with it, told JLBC that, after decades of the survivors’ silence and denial, the rabbi already understood the importance of addressing social, religious/theological and psychological issues that come up when confronted with the blunt reality of the Holocaust. It was clear he was struggling to find logical answers for the actions/non-actions of Hashem, who he was taught to love and fear.

Greenberg is passionate about Tikkun Olam, and thinks about our relationships with Hashem as a covenant, a partnership to improve the world with the goal of making it perfect. Jews took up the task of being pioneers, setting ethical standards and seeking peace, becoming role models for the world, whereby we became Or La Goyim. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen, since it is so difficult to reach people and have them understand that you have to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Yitz, as most people call him, recently celebrated his 80th birthday. He looks back at what happened that day and realizes that it was one of those moments that profoundly changed the world. “It was a watershed event, almost a miracle. After such a major conference of children of Holocaust survivors, things could no longer be the same. In truth, the Holocaust changed everything. The only problem is that for many the change was not applied enough or in a major way. ” It was, he told JLBC, the beginning of the third cycle of Jewish history.

He has been writing about “The Three Cycles of Jewish History” for decades. First came the Biblical and then Rabbinic Eras that were shaped by Yitziat Mitzrayim and the destruction of the Batei Mikdash. Each evoked a response that changed Judaism as it existed in the earlier periods. He argues that the third cycle, our current cycle,is marked by the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. These seminal events have shaped and pushed the Jewish people through their survival throughout history, and they have implications for our relationship to Hashem. In each of these eras, Hashem has become more hidden, and our obligations as His people have—by God’s will—increased. According to Greenberg, after the Holocaust, as after the Churban, there was a sea change in the way Jews related to Hashem, and the rabbi has struggled for decades to reconcile the hidden God of our era with the responsibilities we face as Jews and as members of the human race.

Targum Shlishi, in celebration of Greenberg’s 80th birthday, has put many of his writings on line.They are evidence of his struggle with attempting to answer the question that most people ask when confronted with enormous tragedy and horror, especially when humans inflict it on one another. Where was God?

In a conversation with JLBC, Greenberg was asked if he realized that he was responsible for Holocaust education proliferation beyond what anyone had expected. He allowed that perhaps it did, but that “it didn’t go far enough.”

“The reality is that Muslims didn’t learn the lesson at all.They are heavily involved in Holocaust denial and many want to destroy Israel, a good example of Holocaust education’s failure. The better impact took place in the west and not in the Muslim world. In places like Europe they knew what had happened and were willing to be ashamed of it, and repent. On the other hand, today, I cannot believe the antisemitism and the erosion of the support for Israel.

“And in our own communities, hareidim responded to the Shoah by rebuilding their communities and rebuilding their lives, but they too didn’t go far enough in changing religious understanding. They fail to see that they can’t have a theology of powerlessness and a paternalistic and punishing God. One result of that thinking is the Israeli draft exemption and the inability [or unwillingness] to hold down a real job. We have to build a nation so work is sacred. We need to defend ourselves,  and in that light, the draft exemption is irresponsible. If Israel didn’t have an army, then what? And we top it off with generations of hareidim on welfare. They say they do not want to be part of the state and yet they take advantage of its medical and welfare systems. It is simply unethical.

“The fact of the matter is that such a model is unsustainable; you cannot renew the nation on the old model. The perfect lesson for that comes from the historical record in the book of  Ezra. But one of the problems is that the hareidim don’t study Tanach. The ultimate point is that if you become more and more frum, you insulate and isolate yourself more and more and you weaken the rest of the Jewish people.”

Secular and liberal Jews have their weaknesses as well. Said the rabbi, “They refuse to trust and accept the Evangelical Christians who have come out to strongly support Israel because they are suspicious of their motives—though not so much the Christians in the West, especially the American Catholics, who mounted protests, did repentance and have tried to reach out. But that friendship has not been reciprocated. People are told they aren’t permitted to walk into a church, and that’s very offensive. We should accept those who support the Jewish people, and we should believe anyone who threatens us wants to do us harm.”

And then comes the crux of the issue: If you don’t have shalom bayis at home, how will you implement it elsewhere?

“Unfortunately, the bulk of Modern Orthodox centrist leadership was talked into treating other denominations like dirt. They are wrong. The minimum response should be one of dignity and respect for your fellow Jews. They took risks and suffered and gave you what you needed to survive. After the Shoah they didn’t walk away, and they renewed Jewish life.

“And then there is the issue of women.When God was visible there were only one or two leaders, and they were appointed by Him. In our time God says humans must take leadership roles; God wants women to join the process. Women are perfectly capable of performing the pastoral function of rabbis, and are now supposed to be part of the leadership.

“We no longer live in an age of powerlessness. You cannot tell me that God says that women can be bought and sold (see Exodus 21 verse 7—and that can’t change). We have the ability to correct anything that degrades people and we should do that. One of the main claims against changing anything is that it is the authority of the biblical period that is dominant. But we don’t live there anymore.

“Chazal understood that we can develop the Halakha. What made the rabbinic tradition possible was the recognition that God is self-limiting and that  ‘physical miracles’ disappeared and humans are the discoverers of Divine Revelation. This is not because He went away. God comes closer to us as Shechina.

“In the Third Era, Halakha actually expands to cover more of life. For example, take kosher food. It matters that the rituals be observed, but now it also matters how you treat the animal beforehand, and how you treat your workers and the very food itself. The mitzvah is to eat the holy food God gives us without harming the planet. We used to go to the Beit HaMikdash for a holy meal. After the Churban, the rabbis extended holiness to meals at home. We are the ones who apply Torah, who make a bracha when we eat instead of the cohanim. We are the ones who sit at a table that is our mizbeyach. This is just one way that we show the hidden God. And from Torah she baalpeh, we learn that God is both more hidden and more present, and humans are to be God’s partners in Nature/Creation and in expanding Torah. As Rabbi Soloveitchik said: In the Halakha, you use your human brain and learn what God expects and then fill those expectations—that is the human contibution to Torah.”

By Jeanette Friedman

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