Sparks of Light: Irving Greenberg’s Post-Holocaust Theology

Irving Greenberg’s post-Shoah theology provides a blueprint for the post-Shoah reorientation required from both Judaism and Christianity in order to guide the world toward redemption. This paper summarizes the foundational elements of his theology.

“There is an alternative for those whose faith can pass through the demonic, consuming flames of a crematorium. It is the willingness and ability to hear further revelation and to reorient. That is the way to wholeness.” (Irving Greenberg)

Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg, born in 1933, is a Jewish-American theologian and scholar, and a modern-Orthodox rabbi. Educated at Harvard University with a PhD in History, he taught at Yeshiva University, at City University of New York and was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Tel Aviv University. In the wake of Vatican II’s statement on the Church’s relationship to Judaism in 1965, Greenberg emerged as a major advocate and active participant in Christian-Jewish dialogue. In 1974, he founded the National Center for Leadership and Learning (CLAL), which was focused on promoting intrafaith (intra-denominational) Jewish unity and pluralism. He was a key leader in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, having been named to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by President Carter as an advisor to Elie Wiesel and later serving as its Chair from 2000 to 2002.

The enormity of the Shoah led Greenberg to view it as a major point of reorientation in Jewish history and as a theological touchstone leading to radical transformation of some of the core paradigms of both Judaism and Christianity. While the Shoah is unprecedented, such reorientation has been a pattern to the Jewish people’s response to crisis, such as after the destruction of the Second Temple. Greenberg based his theology on such previous reorientation in Jewish history. His post-Shoah theology can be sub-divided into several concepts.

A Working Principle of post-Shoah Theological Discourse

Greenberg proposes a working principle as a means of verification, which must predicate any post-Shoah theological discourse: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”[1] Greenberg is referring to the Hungarian children who, after arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944, were thrown live into the crematoria or onto adjacent fire pits, instead of being sent to be gassed.[2]

The Shoah as the Third Era of Jewish History

In his monograph, “The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History,” Greenberg writes that Judaism is a Midrash on history itself—that both human life and history are rooted in God as humanity moves toward redemption, which in Judaism takes place in “actual human history.”[3] Greenberg points out that while the Shoah itself is unprecedented, there is a pattern to the Jewish people’s response to crisis as well as an evolving process of covenant and redemption. In order to move toward redemption, Judaism could not remain unchanged by these historical events.

Greenberg argues that the Shoah is an event of such shattering proportions that Judaism must respond to it (as it did to other such events) by transforming its basic paradigms, so that humanity may once again move toward the final perfection of redemption.[4] He elaborates this idea further, explaining that there have been three cycles or eras in Jewish history that are important elements in the unfolding story of the covenantal partnership, each of them marked by reorienting points. In each of these three eras, God becomes more hidden and calls on humans to take on a greater role in the human-divine partnership. In a post-Shoah world, we no longer look for or expect God to bestow miracles upon His Creation; it is the duty of humanity to look after Creation.[5]

In the Biblical Era, the covenantal relationship is unequal and is marked by a high degree of divine intervention: God performs miracles, speaks directly to Israel through the prophets and eventually maintains the Divine presence at the Holy of Holies.  During this period, the role of humans toward redemption is expressed in cult and prophecy.

The Rabbinic Era is preceded by the destruction of the Second Temple, the massive loss of life in the wars against the Romans, the disastrous fighting among fellow Jews, and the expulsion and sale into slavery of so many Jews, marking a crisis of faith and a reorienting point.[6] God no longer intervenes directly in human history and the covenant is reconfigured to become a more equal partnership, opening the door to human responsibility as well as initiative.

The Shoah marks the end of Rabbinic Era and the beginning of the Third Era of Jewish history. God is more hidden than ever before and the Jewish people are called upon to take on the senior role in the covenantal partnership. In this new era, God acts through human activity, rather than intervening directly. “Full responsibility is given to the covenanted human partner to redeem history—under and with God’s hashgachah (divine providence).”[7] Greenberg does not question God’s omniscience. Greenberg interprets God’s lack of intervention as a further sign of his withdrawal—and as a call for humans to take on more responsibility: “If God did not stop the murder and the torture, then what was the statement made by the infinitely suffering divine Presence in Auschwitz? It was a cry for action, a call to humans to stop the Holocaust, a call to the people Israel to rise to a new unprecedented level of covenantal responsibility. It was as if God said, “Enough, stop it, never again, bring redemption.”[8]

A Voluntary Covenant

Greenberg elaborated his voluntary covenant theology as a thoughtful response to Christian theologian Roy Eckardt’s presentation of his 1974 “The Recantation of the Covenant” paper.[9] Greenberg argues that when Israel accepted the partnership of the Sinaitic covenant, it did so in blind faith without knowing the suffering that lay ahead. After all, God had promised to protect the Jewish people if they would serve God wholeheartedly.

After the Shoah, the Jews could have rejected the covenant completely. The Shoah and the death of six million challenge the traditional notions of salvation and redemption. The covenantal relationship could no longer be one of obedience, based on fear of divine punishment, because any divine punishment described in the sacred texts pale in comparison to the experiences of the Jews in the Shoah. Similarly, after the Shoah, it is clear that by remaining Jews, one risks exposing oneself and one’s children to “ultimate danger and agony.[10] It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that after the Shoah, the commanded stage of the covenant demanding a higher standard of ethical behaviour from Jews had come to an end.  

However, God could lovingly ask for Israel’s ongoing partnership. Some Jews were still devoted to Jewish tradition and the Torah—others to the idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and social justice. Even the decision to recreate life after such overwhelming tragedy signifies enormous faith in ultimate redemption and meaningfulness. Released from the imposed obligations, Greenberg suggests that the Jewish people have chosen to continue its covenantal mission. Freely given, the renewal of the commitment is stronger than ever.

He refers to Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s words: “There is no heart so whole as a broken heart.” Greenberg adds, “After Auschwitz, there is no faith so whole as a faith shattered—and re-fused—in the ovens.”[11] He is explaining that the covenant between God and the Jewish people has been strengthened after the shattering experience of the Shoah, and if anything, it is now even stronger.  

That said, the era of voluntary covenant is also “a covenant of being,” defined by actions as opposed to the strict observance of the classical mitzvot (commandments). This demonstrates a voluntary recommitment, whether by an observant Jew, or even one who is professing atheism. The theological language of covenant that was appropriate before the Shoah no longer applies; the denial by the atheist of his or her Jewishness illustrates the hiddenness of the Divine and the reorientation and subsequent revelation in the post-Shoah era.[12]

While all Jews could have turned away from any notion, secular or religious of a Jewish identity after the Shoah, for survivors, it is an especially important recommitment. The decision to recreate life and have children signifies a belief that redemption is possible. Greenberg also points to the active participation from both secular and religious Jews in the creation of the modern State of Israel, a biblical symbol validating the covenant.[13] This is not to say the six million were sacrificed in exchange for the modern State of Israel, in exchange for redemption. That theology would fail the test of Greenberg’s working principle.

A Covenant of Redemption

A voluntary covenant is also a call for humans to create a redemptive society as they assume the primary responsibility of ensuring that redemption will one day take place. The restoration of human dignity is not merely the counterpoint to the idolatry of the Shoah; it is a responsibility to fix the brokenness of the post-Shoah world. When the covenant becomes voluntary, redemption is no longer a singular goal, imposed by God. Those who voluntarily renew their covenant take upon themselves the responsibility to influence others to engage in tikkun olam.

Moment Faith

For many survivors, the issue of continued faith after the Shoah is a difficult one. There are moments of joy in the lives they have rebuilt, but also moments of great difficulty as they remember the tremendous loss and pain they have suffered. Greenberg has responded to the times in his life when his faith was tested with his concept of “moment faith,” describing a post-Shoah dialectic of faith and uncertainty or even despair. In his 1973 paper, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust,” Greenberg wrote of “moment faiths”— “moments when a Redeemer (God) and visions of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of burning children blot out faith.”[14]

Greenberg writes that for some, while one may keenly feel God’s presence at certain moments, there is a reality to the expectation that during times of chaos, of genocide, one may not live in that presence. This dialectic of faith and uncertainty is to be expected in a post-Shoah world. This also ends all certitudes of positions, which existed for many Jews before the Shoah. The dichotomy between the secular or even atheist Jew and the observant Jew is no longer as easily demonstrated.

It is a position that is particularly important for survivors. It allows those who have experienced a tremendous trauma and loss to accept that periods of great sorrow may test their faith. “Moment faith” allows one to respond to the tragedy of loss as well as the redemptive victory of the survivors. Greenberg equates an ability to live within the dialectic of moment faith with an ability to live with pluralism, and “without the self-flattering, ethno-centric solutions, which warp religion, or make it a source of hatred for the other.”[15]

Renewal and Remembrance

According to Greenberg’s 1995 article, “The Unfinished Business of Tisha B’Av,” “the classic Jewish response to catastrophe is to renew life.”[16] Throughout Jewish history, Jewish sages have attempted to interpret catastrophic destruction as a difficult stage on the covenantal path toward final redemption. However, they ensured that these tragedies, many of which are traditionally remembered to have taken place on the ninth day of the month of Av, the same date as the destruction of the both Temples are properly mourned. The rabbis created many rituals to commemorate these tragedies and these rituals provide an outlet for grief within certain limits.[17]

Greenberg reminds us that the modern rituals, memorials and other forms of memorializing the Shoah allow for a respectful mourning and remembrance of the six million. These new paradigms include adding a special El Male’ Rahamim (God full of mercy) prayer dedicated to their memory to the Yizkor (memorial) services and Yom Hashoah memorial events.[18]

Tikkun Olam and the Image of God

How do we recreate, define and maintain morality after all limits of morality have been broken? Greenberg seems to be telling us that the only way we can do this is to rediscover the innate image of God that we hold within ourselves. Greenberg views the qualities of life such as freedom, relatedness, and freedom from oppression, poverty and sickness, as inherent to the nature of the image of God. “Since it is the task of religion (and all religions) to uphold, protect and advance the sacred image of God, then religion must also pursue and uphold these values. Conversely, the dignity of the image of God is scorned by violence, oppression, poverty, and degradation.”[19] In this way, when humans participate in tikkun olam, every human will have achieved the fullest realization of the image of God.[20]

Greenberg’s vision of tikkun olam calls upon humans to do everything to eliminate all discrimination that reduces or denies the image of God in the other. He cautions that religion itself sometimes participates in the process of the devaluation or denial of the absolute dignity of the other and reminds us that if we remain as bystanders, we are also participants in the process.  

Secularism and Human Dignity

Inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas of “religionless faith,” Greenberg writes that the sacred is more present than ever in the secular.[21] Any activity that advances the cause of human dignity is one that also advances tikkun olam and moves us closer to redemption. It does not matter whether the activity itself appears to be in the secular realm or whether the person who is initiating this tikkun is Jewish or not, since every human being is made in God’s image.

After the Shoah, in a time where God is so hidden, he suggests that there are many areas that may appear to be in the secular realm, but which are holy acts and move us toward redemption. Among these are improving the economy, curing disease, combatting modern slavery—acts which may on the surface appear to be secular. Greenberg calls these acts of “holy secularity:”[22]

But in the profoundest sort of way these activities are where God is most present. When God is most hidden, God is present everywhere. If when God was hidden after the destruction of the temple, one could find God in the synagogue, then when God is hidden after Auschwitz, one must find God in the street, in the hospital, in the bar. And that responsibility of holy secularity is the responsibility of all human beings.[23]

The End of the Religious/Secular Dichotomy

Greenberg suggests that the Shoah has put an end to the religious/secular dichotomy. He applies this concept to both the perpetrators as well as the victims. The categories of meaning have been dissolved and turned upside down as both believers and neo-pagans participated in the Shoah. The Nazi, Himmler, was a neo-pagan who linked “de-Christianization” with “re-Germanization,” yet he still referred to a higher being (so that his SS men would not be like the atheistic Marxists).[24] The Deutsche Christen, a schismatic faction of German Protestants, supported Nazi ideas about a superior Aryan race. Many called for the removal of any Jewish traces from the Old Testament, removed Hebrew words like 'Hallelujah' from hymns, denied the Jewish ancestry of Jesus, and defrocked any clergy who had Jewish ancestors.[25]

 In Nazi Germany, secular authority unchecked was transformed into absolute authority. A value-free system of science, technology and culture united together to create the framework for a bureaucratic campaign of mass murder. Yet, in the post-Shoah era, secularity must be an important factor to be respected as one way of defining a Jewish identity. As well, by creating the State of Israel, a biblical symbol of redemption, both secular and religious Jews took responsibility for the continued existence of the covenant; thus the line between secular and religious is blurred.[26] However, as he examines secular Israeli society, Greenberg is critical of those (secular) Israelis who are cognizant of the importance of preventing another Shoah, yet fail in their responsibility to build a redemptive society, based on dignity for all.[27]

Intrafaith Pluralism

Another important theological interpretation of the voluntary covenant is its theological implication for intrafaith pluralism: “Pluralism is not a matter of tolerance made necessary by living in a non-Jewish reality, nor is it pity for one who does not know any better.”[28] While Greenberg defines himself as modern-Orthodox, he emphasizes that all denominations lead toward the same goal (of redemption) and that it is important to respect the choices and commitments that each individual makes for himself or herself.

He understands the notion of voluntary covenant as the theological basis of (intrafaith) pluralism. Therefore, he calls on Orthodox Jews to recognize that their own commitment to uphold the entire tradition is a voluntary one which, while it can be modeled, cannot be demanded of others: “Thus, the Orthodox must accept and respect the commitment and contributions of the other movements of Judaism. It is only when the validity and legitimacy of others is recognized that the shortcomings of Halakha can be admitted and corrected.”[29] An example of this is the feminist correction of Halakha, which he describes as an “attempt to move more urgently toward the covenantal goal of humankind being in the image of God, which implies equality for women, rather than a rejection of the concept of obligation or of the traditional feminine positive roles.”[30]

The Modern State of Israel and The Ethics of Jewish Power

The creation of the modern State of Israel is a topic that appears in many areas of Greenberg’s writings. Most importantly, he views this event so soon after the Shoah as God’s return to history, a sign of God’s care for the Jewish people, and a biblical symbol, validating the covenant. “Coming after the incredible destruction of the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the rebuilding of Jewish life constitute an unparalleled reacceptance of the covenant.”[31]

Greenberg is cognizant of the importance of the delicate balance between having enough power to survive and defend the Jewish people and the ethical use of this power. The ethic of power is first defined by the following principle: “No one should ever be equipped with less power than is necessary to assure one’s dignity.”[32]

With the creation of the modern State of Israel, Jews are now in a position of exercising power. Greenberg is clear that power must not be abused. He calls for an eventual Palestinian state with Israel seeking maximum Arab autonomy in the West Bank “by encouraging the emergence of Indigenous leadership willing to live in peace with the Jewish state.”[33] He also identifies a free and unfettered press and religious pluralism as key to an ethical power structure. He cautions (Israeli leadership) “that turning Arabs into refugees or into victims of violence is to continue the Holocaust, not oppose it.” At the same time he is critical of groups that have sought to delegitimize Israel by using such accusatory terms as “crucifying Palestinian children.”[34]

Greenberg describes “the reborn State of Israel as this fundamental act of life and meaning of the Jewish people after Auschwitz.”[35] However he cautions against the rising tide of Messianism and absolutism in certain Israeli Orthodox circles.[36] He notes the dangerous texts that give license to expel or kill Arabs as the reincarnation of Amalek and which equate a return of any inch of land with a disobedience of God’s command. He blames absolutist, uncritical thinking as having paved the way for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995.[37] Greenberg mentions that there has been an upsurge in the writing of dangerous tracts based on this type of uncritical thinking in Orthodox circles. Greenberg also appeals for a critical and careful interpretation of even the most difficult texts.[38]

A final comment on ethical power notes Greenberg’s discussion of Amos 3:2: “Of all the families of the Earth I have known you singularly, therefore I will call you to account for all your sins.” Does this mean that Israel is held to a higher standard than other nations? His response is that after the Shoah, neither God nor humanity has the right to demand that Israel justifies its existence with a perfect morality.

Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism

Greenberg submits that pluralism is rooted in the Imago Dei concept originating from Genesis 1:27 (“So God created humankind in His own image. In the image of God [B’tselem Elohim] He created them; male and female, He created them.”).[39] This is further underscored in the Mishnah and in the New Testament.[40] Every human being has been created in the Divine image and is therefore of infinite value, equal and unique. If we do not accept an individual as an equal or if we engage in “othering,” we are rejecting him or her as an image of God. Greenberg is clear that one may experience the power, the validity, and the nurturing value of another faith system without sacrificing the same qualities one experiences in one’s own religion.[41] This is what differentiates pluralism from relativism.

Greenberg’s development of the B’tselem Elohim—Imago Dei concept is foundational to his assertion that “at the end of human life (as Judaism understands redemption), when tikkun olam has been achieved, every human life will attain his or her fullest expression as a creation in the image of God.”[42] It is a reaction to the failure of human beings to respond to the magnitude of suffering and the failure to value human life. To consider human beings as “subhuman,” is to scorn the image of God. For many survivors, the B’tselem Elohim idea has become an implicit part of their work, as they reach out to help those in need, viewing all people according to Greenberg’s definition.

Greenberg’s post-Shoah theology is uniquely pluralistic. It evokes a mechanism of protection against absolutism, fundamentalism, hatred and indifference. Greenberg defines pluralism as “the living together of absolute truths/faiths/systems that have come to know and accept their own limitations, thus making room for the dignity and truth of the other.”[43] Greenberg’s ongoing dialogue with Christian theologians allowed him to express comfortably the true essence of pluralism—that one can engage in dialogue and honour other faith traditions while still “leaving room to say ‘no’ to other religious faiths and moral value systems.”[44] Within this definition, he calls on Jews to embrace both intrafaith and interfaith pluralism.

New Revelation in the Relationship of Judaism and Christianity

Greenberg’s singular reflection on Orthodox Judaism’s delegitimization of Christianity and his willingness to explore a positive theology of Christianity is exceptional and courageous.  In 1984, Greenberg proposed a radical theological challenge to Jews: a positive Jewish theology of Christianity. As it had been for Christians, it was a challenge for Jews to give up absolutist and monopolistic claims, which recognize Judaism as the only valid relationship to God.

Greenberg begins by introducing Christianity from a Jewish perspective: both religions emerged from the Abrahamic covenant and out of the Exodus in a prophetic interpretation of an event that promises future redemption. Christianity, then, was imagined or divinely inspired as a way of bringing the covenant of tikkun olam to the Gentiles.[45] As well, each faith can be enriched by the other. He is careful to specify that an acceptable model allows both religions to respect the full nature of the other in all its faith claims.[46]

Greenberg suggests that at times of great despair and setbacks, Jews have traditionally looked to messiahs and presents Bar Kokhba as one of many examples. While hailed as a messiah by Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kokhba failed to bring about redemption because his rebellion was crushed. Greenberg presents Jesus in the same way. He accuses the rabbis of erring in their description of Jesus as a “false messiah” rather than a “failed messiah.” In this sense, he compares Jesus to other “failed” biblical figures, such as Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah, all of them, figures “at the heart of the Divine and Jewish redemption.”[47]

By 2015, Greenberg, having gained support for his ideas from a number of modern-Orthodox rabbis, co-authored an ecumenical statement with Rabbis Eugene Korn, David Rosen and Shlomo Riskin. Signed by twenty-eight Orthodox rabbis, it puts Christianity in a distinctly Jewish and positive theological perspective:

“We acknowledge that the emergence of Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies.”[48] According to Greenberg, this statement expressed the conviction, that “there is room in traditional Judaism to see Christianity as part of God’s covenantal plan for humanity, as a development out of Judaism that was willed by God.”[49]


Irving Greenberg’s post-Shoah theology is pluralistic and it invites engagement by Christians, Jews and other faiths. He has provided a remarkable post-Shoah response, which inserts the Shoah into the core paradigms of Judaism (the Sinaitic covenant, the historic pattern of crisis—reorientation); yet it is accessible to survivors whether they are secular or observant.

The inclusivity of his vision is courageous on the part of an Orthodox rabbi, since he looks at Christianity as a division willed by God, rather than as a heresy, which has been the traditional Jewish interpretation. Nevertheless, he has gone from a position of being a lone progressive voice in the Orthodox world, accused of heresy in the 1980s, to a leader among the American modern-Orthodox movement of Judaism whose name is synonymous with tikkun olam and prominent on issues of theological importance. He continues to publish, and others continue to write about him. He remains deeply engaged in interfaith dialogue, as is evidenced by his many lectures at Christian universities, despite his age—now in his late-eighties.

REFERENCES (see also

Greenberg, Irving
- “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust.” In Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?: Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Eva Fleischner and International Symposium on the Holocaust, 7–55. New York: KTAV, 1977.
- For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
- “Judaism and Christianity: Covenants of Redemption.” In Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 141–158. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
- “Judaism, Christianity, and Partnership after the Twentieth Century.” In Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, 25–36. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
- “New Revelations and New Patterns in the Relationship of Judaism and Christianity.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 16, no. 2 (1979): 249–267.
- “Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism: In the Image of God and Covenant.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 34, no. 3 (1997): 385–394.
- The Jewish Way: Living The Holidays. New York: Summit Books, 1988.
- “The Relationship of Judaism and Christianity: Toward a New Organic Model.” Quarterly Review 4, no. 4 (1984): 4–22.
- “The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History.” Perspectives. (1987): 1–24.   Cycle-1987-CLAL-1-of-3.pdf.
- “Theology after the Shoah: The Transformation of the Core Paradigm.” Modern Judaism 26, no. 3 (2006): 213–239.
- “Voluntary Covenant.” Perspectives. (1987): 27–44.   Covenant-1987-CLAL-2-of-3.pdf.
- “Yitzchak Rabin and the Ethic of Jewish Power.” CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. 1995: 1–28.  Rabin_red.pdf

Greenberg, Irving, and Shalom Freedman
- Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998.

Editorische Anmerkungen

Belle Jarniewski is the Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre (JHC) of Western Canada and since 2013, has served on the federally appointed delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Belle’s 2010 book, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors, serves as an important document in the history of 73 local survivors before, during and after the Shoah. Through her work at the JHC, she brings education on the Holocaust and antisemitism to thousands of students each year. She is also the past president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council and has co-founded both a Catholic-Jewish and a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group.

Source: Summary of Belle Jarniewski, “Irving Greenberg’s Post-Shoah Theology”, chapter 1 of  in her Master’s Thesis Sparks of Light: Survivor Narratives Reflected Through the Lens of Irving Greenberg’s Theology (University of Winnipeg, 2018), 21-54; available online at: