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Book Review: For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity

book cover, For the Sake of Heaven and EarthFor the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity.
By Irving Greenberg
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2014.
274 pp.



A conversation with an Orthodox Jewish friend led me to purchase and read Irving Greenberg’s collection of essays on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. She said that this book was “bold and courageous,” especially in view of the fact that Greenberg is an ordained Orthodox rabbi. A comment on the back cover explains, “A pioneer in the area of pluralism and interfaith relations, Rabbi Irving Greenberg has spent a lifetime working to overcome the history of hostility between Judaism and Christianity. This book is studded with provocative ideas, which challenge believers on both sides to grow in good faith. In sum, this book is a call for Christians and Jews to work closely together in their evolving partnership with God.”

For many, these comments would be reason enough to put down the book or click to another blog. It might appear that the reviewer, an evangelical seminary professor, has gotten soft on theological issues and the vast gap that separates Jews and Christians. But I would ask you to read on. I certainly can’t agree with everything that Greenberg says. But I appreciate so much his willingness to dialogue and work toward greater mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s tradition. Jews and Christians are much closer than past experience or history would seem to indicate.

Christianity and Judaism

Greenberg begins by recounting his personal journey growing up in an American Jewish immigrant home. At an early age he was exposed to Christianity and found the Christian tradition and Scriptures “emotionally compelling and religiously moving” (p. 5). Then he began studying the Holocaust. How could God allow this to happen? How could a “Christian nation” abandon and betray European Jews in the hour of their greatest need? Then he met some Christians who were “eager to connect to the Jewish roots” of their faith (p. 8). Through their friendship Greenberg discovered “the power of Christian ethics . . . the beauty of Christian religious practices . . . [and the] intrinsic strength of Christianity” (p. 9).

As a result of his own spiritual journey in dialogue with genuine Christian friends, Greenberg concludes that God “actively willed the opening of Sinai’s revelation and covenant to the gentiles through the formation of a new religion, Christianity, emerging out of Judaism and the Jewish people” (p. 38). Greenberg embraces the concept of “Covenantal Pluralism,” which recognizes both Judaism and Christianity as valid and committed to the same ideal of tikun olam (perfecting the world).

Greenberg does not ignore the differences between Judaism and Christianity. He says that Christians have focused more on the individual’s salvation while Jews have stressed the “collective history of God’s revelation and liberation” (p. 64). And he voices his regrets that “Christian triumphalism” played an “indispensable role” in setting up the Jews as targets for annihilationist hatred in the holocaust. But he wants to move beyond the past and to recognize “Christians as a branch of the people of Israel” (p. 95).

Greenberg proposes that Christianity be recognized as “a branch of the Abrahamic family” and “honorary members of the house of Israel, spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah.” Astonishing words coming from an Orthodox rabbi!

Rather than view Jesus as a “false Messiah,” Greenberg believes he was a “failed Messiah.” He defines a “failed messiah” as one who “has the right values and upholds the covenant, but does not attain the final goal” (p. 153). Bar Kokhba is a 2nd century example in the same category. But Greenberg insists that failure isn’t bad because it arises out of a Jewish messianic hope that is yet to be fulfilled. Hence the Christian theology of the second coming. For Christians the “final goal” will be achieved when Jesus comes again.

Greenberg believes that Christians should purge themselves of supersessionist claims and hatred of Jews so they can be embraced as “people of Israel,” witnessing with the Jewish people the story of creation, covenant, and redemption even as they practice different religions.

Reflecting on the person of Jesus, Greenberg doesn’t rule out the Christian concept of Christ’s incarnation because it “reflects the need to achieve redemption, the desire to close the gap between the human and the Divine” (p. 232).

Like most Jews, Greenberg is unwilling to accept the concept of “Jews for Jesus.” He insists that a person can’t be both Jewish and accept Jesus. Jesus is for the Gentiles under the New Covenant; Rabbinic Judaism is for the Jews under the Mosaic Covenant. But does a person have to stop being Jewish to be a follower of Jesus? The first “Christians” were thoroughly Jewish and yet recognized Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. They lived and died as Jewish people, going to the temple, observing Jewish feasts and rituals, praying Jewish prayers, reading Jewish Scriptures.

Steps towards reconciliation

Greenberg has taken huge steps toward understanding, appreciating and embracing Christians as fellow members of the people of Israel whose faith is rooted in God’s promise to Abraham. It is time for Christians to take some steps toward reconciliation with our Jewish friends and family members. I conclude with a few suggestions.

  1. Refer to the Jewish Scriptures as the Hebrew Bible, not the “Old Testament.” The adjective “old” suggests something that is out of date, antiquated and no longer useful.
  2. Refer to the “Old Covenant” as the “First Covenant” as does Hebrews 8:7,13; 9:1,15 for the same reasons as above.
  3. Reject any (replacement) theology that would hand to the church what God has promised ethnic Israel. According to Paul, ethnic Israel has a future (Rom. 11:26).
  4. Recognize that Jewish people don’t need to be “converted.” Like the first followers of Jesus, they can embrace his teachings and messiahship as Jewish people, living out their Jewish culture and traditions.
  5. Take a strong stand against anti-Semitic thoughts, words and actions that have regrettably characterized much of the history of the Christian church.

Christians have a message for the nations. But we have much to do in terms of understanding and reconciliation before our Jewish friends and neighbors will be ready to listen. Irving Greenberg has reached out and offered his hand. Will we embrace it?

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).