In only a few short weeks, Valley Beit Midrash will open our Jaburg-Wilk Learning Series 2017-2018 with Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a true Torah giant, presenting what will be a fascinating lecture entitled “The 10 Jewish Moral Imperatives: A Jewish Response to a Fractured Society.” While I am excited for this event for many reasons — to share Jewish wisdom with the Greater Phoenix Jewish community and to get back into the swing of regular VBM events — I’m most exhilarated for yet another chance to learn with my esteemed teacher and mentor Rav Yitz!
For those who may not know, Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is undoubtedly one of the most significant Jewish voices of our generation. His years of service in the rabbinate — as organizational leader, author, lecturer, Holocaust theologian and long-time activist for a multitude of spiritual causes — has led to the perpetuation of Jewish values across Jewish life and the spectrum of other religious traditions and cultures.
Rav Yitz is this generation’s consummate bridge builder and modern founder of Jewish pluralism. He constructs bridges within the Jewish community, as well as between different faiths and over the vast gulf that separates tradition and modernity.
While committed to modern Orthodoxy, Rav Yitz made great contributions across all of Jewish life, always remaining rooted within a forward-looking halakhic observance. He is that rare pedagogue who demonstrates the relevance of a modern Judaism, while assembling and nurturing the vibrant Jewish institutional landscape that we know today.
Rav Yitz’s preeminence in Torah thought is but a minor aspect of his larger role in shaping contemporary Jewish attitudes toward the world. From the time he was ordained at Beth Joseph (Novaredok) Rabbinical Seminary and earned a doctorate in American history at Harvard University in the 1950s, to his tenure as a professional in stimulating the Jewish community, Rav Yitz has been a tireless proponent of a more engaged Judaism.
In his understanding of Judaism, pluralism is the ideal, while narrow parochialism must be eschewed as a remnant from earlier, more precarious times. Rodger Kamenetz’s elucidating take on interfaith relations, “The Jew in the Lotus,” contains perhaps the most succinct summation of Rav Yitz’s concern for expanding the vocabulary of Jewish social action: “There was no question in [Rabbi Greenberg’s] mind that Judaism takes place in real history and that Jews had to learn from other cultures . . . [He] was particularly concerned that Orthodox Jewish culture had withdrawn into itself, shunning contact with the challenge of pluralism.”
Perhaps most consequential to Rav Yitz’s spiritual integrity is that he has never been merely an armchair philosopher. He has lived a life committed to serving and advocating for public service. For him, there is no worthy task without personal involvement and heavy lifting.
Moreover, Rav Yitz has a unified vision of the Jewish people: Jews have a unique ethical, religious and moral obligation to serve our communities, and thus we must be active participants in building a more just society. “Personal service,” writes Rav Yitz, “must be brought to the fore as a central value of Jewish tradition and culture.”
On a personal level, I’ve always appreciated Rav Yitz’s many contributions to Jewish social justice, especially with regard to his advancement of Jewish ethics on a global level, his expansion of modern conceptions of Tzelem Elokim theology and centrality of tikkun olam. In addition, Rav Yitz has a unique clarity and accessibility that not only expands pluralism in the spheres of intellectual Judaism, but also welcomes all to engage with it.
I cannot wait for Rav Yitz’s return to Phoenix. He truly is a one-of-a-kind educator and thinker. Not often do we get a chance to learn with someone of such deep and sensitive knowledge. I invite you to join Valley Beit Midrash for a special night of learning, engagement, and Torah-sharing. I hope it is an opportunity you will not miss! JN
Valley Beit Midrash’s opening event with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg will take place at 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 22 at Temple Chai. Cost is $18 (suggested donation). There is also a book club meeting on Oct. 16 for those who read “The Jewish Way.” Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 11 books on Jewish ethics.