As the United States observes the 50th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre, this month also marks a half-century since a related event in American Jewish history which has largely been forgotten: the testimony of Rabbi Irving Greenberg to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Greenberg testified on May 7, 1970, at a hearing entitled “Moral and Military Aspects of the War in Southeast Asia.” The hearing came just three days after four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during campus protests against the Vietnam War. Three of the four students killed — Sandra Scheuer, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller — were Jewish; the fourth victim was William Schroder. Krause and Miller were protesters, while Scheuer and Schroeder were bystanders.
Committee chairman Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR) was the leading congressional critic of American policy on the Vietnam War. Since 1966 he had held hearings at which opponents of the war, ranging from businessmen to returning soldiers such as future Secretary of State John Kerry, voiced their critique of the continuing military campaign.
At the charged May 7 hearing, the committee invited three clergymen to speak: one Protestant, one Catholic, one Jew. The Christian representatives had distinguished resumes. John C. Bennett, the Protestant, had been president of Union Theological Seminary in New York since 1964, and was a leading figure in the antiwar movement. Bishop John J. Dougherty was a former president of Seton Hall University. By contrast, the Jews were represented not by a gray-haired institutional leader, but by the 36-year-old Modern Orthodox Greenberg.
Most likely, Greenberg was there in place of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the white-maned philosopher-theologian of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was a leading voice in the antiwar movement and the most prominent Jewish interlocutor with Martin Luther King. Heschel was recuperating from a heart attack during the early months of 1970 and was unavailable to testify.
Greenberg, who would go on to become one of the preeminent teachers and institution-builders in American Jewish life, was at this point known as a dynamic young professor of history at Yeshiva University. He was also rabbi at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and was drawing attention for his proposals for Jewish life and his involvement in interdenominational and interfaith dialogue.
Fifty years later, Greenberg’s testimony bears re-examination not so much for the originality of his critiques, which had been voiced by liberal clergy for years, as for his testifying from the perspective of halakha, or Jewish law. Greenberg’s Senate testimony provided an occasion for him to show Jews and the world that the Jewish legal tradition could be applied to the most pressing political problems in the present.
Beholding the image of God
The last of the three clergy to speak, Greenberg began his remarks by reflecting on the role of mass media in creating the cultural climate. The amplification and reverberation of the images of the war through broadcast media were creating a “moral disaster,” he said. Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were dehumanized, not seen as images of God, and therefore God’s presence in the world was diminished.
Massive aerial bombardments, napalm, and the continued futility of the war effort combined to desensitize American soldiers and civilians alike to “the human qualities of the enemy” and the innocent civilians being killed in such great numbers.
“Every image of prisoners pushed out of a helicopter, or children napalmed, becomes a hideous moral example,” he said.
In a society dominated by images on television, film, and in newspapers, Greenberg argued that political leaders were powerful agents in generating a national moral sensibility.
“Public life is the primary moral example in the United States today,” he said. The messages conveyed through media “are perceived by everyone and learned environmentally, which means they are more likely picked up, internalized, and influence the actions and standards of everyone.”
As such, it was not only clergy, but even more so government officials, who would shape American cultural values. “All the sermons and classes in America reach a fraction of the people reached by one action of the US Army or one speech of the president,” he said.
All the sermons and classes in America reach a fraction of the people reached by one action of the US Army or one speech of the president
Thus, he argued, clergy had a duty to act politically, and political figures had a duty to act morally.
Likewise, the country’s leaders, like all human beings, needed to recognize their wrongs and admit their errors. Greenberg acknowledged that in the mid 1960s, there were good reasons to believe that the war was not only strategically correct, but morally right.
“There was a phase,” he said, “in which we saw communist China, then in its commune period which seemed to deny the elemental dignity of man,” and North Vietnam as its satellite. “In this phase the fear of another Munich and the conviction that we dare not sell out or be indifferent lest World War II repeat itself colored the judgment of many.”
But when those assumptions proved unfounded, he said Americans should have heeded the example of the Biblical King David, who “could recognize and confess his errors and in most powerful contrition turn from his ways and redress injustice.”
The Johnson and Nixon administrations had done precisely the opposite, he continued, continually escalating the conflict on the assumption that one more battle, one more bombardment, would bring capitulation. The inability to admit error out of a misguided sense of pride was the ultimate failure of moral leadership.
These dimensions informed Greenberg’s idea of halakha as the process whereby the idealistic vision of the biblical prophets could be made real in the world, applicable not only to private individual questions, but to collective issues like government social welfare policy or the Vietnam War.
Religion and politics
In Greenberg’s view, public and private were overlapping spheres. Each contributed to a larger frame in which individual images of God made decisions — a frame that was extended through mass media. Morality was thus a common project of religious and political leadership, and each informed the other.
This argument was most dramatically played out in the following exchange:
Senator [Claiborne] Pell [RI]: The churches, the moral leaders, have the responsibility here. You have the moral responsibility to make the people upon whom you depend for bread and butter take effect in the general community…
Greenberg: But each act provokes other acts. When I read in the paper of the Senator who risks his future in reelection to cast a certain vote, next time I say it to affect my leadership or the board of trustees. I can say if the Senator can do it, how can I look myself in the mirror as a rabbi and not do it.
For Greenberg, reading of a senator’s courage in the newspaper prompts him to want to act likewise. Just as the senator confronted his constituency with courage, the rabbi can now confront his own community with the same courage. Greenberg defined that courage as the rabbi, or the senator, being able to recognize the image of God in himself as he looks in the mirror.
There is such a great gap between what ought to be and what actually is
“There is such a great gap between what ought to be and what actually is,” Greenberg observed. This implied lessons for leaders: Any moral leader, whether he is temporal or spiritual, must continually be in conflict with both sides of the argument.
The leader served to keep the conflict between the two sides from erupting into violence. Holding this nexus point formed the essence of not only policy-making, but halakha. And if the religious was political, and the political was religious, then halakha itself was not a strictly formal, idealized process, but rather a dynamic, political one.
Living in history
For Greenberg, this approach was linked to his understanding of living in history. “There are two choices in history,” he said. “Either you let the historical forces dominate you as our presidents, three of them, have allowed momentum forces to dominate them instead of exercising control. Or you have the choice of human will and leadership exercising a creative momentum of taking charge of destiny.”
You have the choice of human will and leadership exercising a creative momentum of taking charge of destiny
Greenberg feared that the failure of leaders “to take charge and pull out and admit our error raises the real possibility that the momentum of history will get us out the other way — through the breakdown of legitimacy of our institutions. I think that would be a disaster of global proportions.”
Greenberg applied this diagnosis to his own Orthodox community. Leaders, like all human beings, could be anchored down by their fear of admitting error and embracing change. In Vietnam, that resulted in increasing escalation. In Orthodoxy, it meant increasing resistance to new legal formulations and practices. Greenberg warned that in both cases the unwillingness of leaders to exercise agency and responsibility in the present would result in institutions losing credibility in the eyes of their constituents.
In his final words to the committee, Greenberg summed up his testimony: “There is a worldwide challenge to authority and to force — but it is not a challenge to the principle of authority. It is asking that authority justify itself, that power justify itself by serving. Authority can no longer maintain itself by simply being there or by using its power because it has it.”
A half-century on, the United States alongside the rest of the world are living through a massive global crisis. Governmental officials and clergy must reckon not only with what authority they have and whom they serve, but how the tools of mass media shape our ideas about who we recognize as an image of God.
There is a worldwide challenge to authority and to force… It is asking that authority justify itself, that power justify itself by serving
The proper role for religion in politics is still deeply contested in both America and Israel, and our leaders — in political and religious institutions alike — still struggle to admit their wrongs and ask forgiveness. And as we depend on authorities and institutions to protect us, the challenge remains for authority to justify itself by serving.
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