Micah Greenstein: Gift of the Rabbi
Nearly 30 years ago he answered a calling. Today people of faith respond to his
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“Maybe that land is Memphis.”
Greenstein passes the credit to others, going back to events surrounding the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. “The Memphis Ministers Association took a brave stand marching to City Hall to stand up for the sanitation workers,” he says. “Through the years, the bonds among ministers have become so strong, that we can’t imagine one demonizing another, or anyone condoning it.” Moving to the present, he says, “Name another city in America where a Methodist church, Heartsong in Cordova, offered its space to an Islamic mosque under construction, and now the congregations share an interfaith park. Other cities may have programs and make proclamations,” he declares, “but when it comes to real relationships, you won’t find them like the ones we have here.”
Ministers also unite on common causes, most recently forming Clergy for Equitable Education, which represents more than 50 faith leaders across all religious and denominational lines who are united in the belief that quality public education is a moral imperative for all children in Shelby County.
No matter what our path to God, Greenstein urges, “we should be building a better tomorrow for Memphis and the world. Remember in the Bible where God tells Abraham, ‘Go to a land that I will show you’? A lot of us think that land is Israel. But it doesn’t say that. Maybe what God is saying is, ‘You and I will create a land together, one that I will show you based on our mutual work.’ Maybe that land is Memphis.”
No doubt Memphis has its share of what he calls “bad religion,” which destroys in the name of God. Its biggest weapons are extremism and indifference. “I always tell the kids I teach here at Temple Israel: Dare to be different in the face of indifference. Dare to be passionate. It’s hard to be a passionate moderate.” Despite the ugliness that can rear its head in the name of God, he declares, “Religious ideas are still the best for building a better world.”
To that end, Temple Israel is reaching beyond nation’s boundaries into Cambodia to champion the education of that nation’s girls ages 14 to 17. They achieve this by partnering with the Harpswell Foundation, an American-based organization that provides education, housing, and leadership training to children and young women in the developing world. The idea was conceived by native Memphian Alan Lightman, an MIT professor, author, and product of Temple Israel. “Only boys are allowed to go to university and get educated in Cambodia,” says Greenstein, “because only boys can sleep in Buddhist temples. So we built the first dormitories in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, and we selected 84 girls who are at the top of their class.” Empowering girls educationally, he adds, is one of the global civil rights issues of our time and Lightman’s “genius and belief is making it happen,” he says. “I know we don’t have to leave the airport in Memphis to address problems, but we can learn from models in other places. Our work in Cambodia shows the power of education and the power of hope. And that’s how I think it relates to Memphis.”
“I know you may be surprised to see me and the Jewish people in heaven . . .”
As he tries to connect rather than divide people through bonds of faith, Greenstein is often called to speak at other churches. He participates in a pastor exchange program and in Theology on Tap, a young adult ministry held in pubs and sponsored by the Catholic Diocese. He’s also a regular contributor to the Calvary Episcopal Lenten Series.
He believes any theology that focuses mainly on heaven and hell, rather than seeking to advance God’s kingdom here on earth, and to exclude others from that kingdom, is based on a narrow image of God. As he told his audience at one Calvary lecture, “Two thirds of the world are not Christian, and there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists than there are members of Jesus’ own faith, Judaism. The challenge for our time is to affirm religious truth without defining it for others.”
During that same lecture, Greenstein said that more than one person had told him, “It’s because I love you and don’t want you to burn in hell that you need to be saved my way.”
“Yet what does that theology say about God?” he asked at the lecture and again in this interview. “A God who would whip you and burn you is a God who is into child abuse. That is not the Loving Parent, the God of love and praise that we worship.”
In speaking to evangelical audiences, he takes the heaven-hell issue a couple of steps further, saying, “I know you may be surprised to see me and the Jewish people in heaven,” then he adds with a smile, “I just hope you won’t be disappointed!” And finally, “If the only way to heaven is via the ‘my way or hell’ theology, then is Gandhi burning in hell?”
Worrying about heaven, he adds, is not only unnecessary but also detracts from what God wants us to do in this lifetime. To those who “talk about having a relationship with God, as if they’re going steady with Him” he suggests, “Think of how God needs us. Let go of self-absorption and materialism and focus on God’s message of light, love, and hope. Our spiritual horizons are small when we view God’s world only through Jewish or Christian theology. Obviously, God is much bigger. It’s not just important that we believe in one God, but how we treat each other.”
To Greenstein, the religion of Jesus — or Judaism — is near and dear to his heart, while the religion about Jesus “is another path to God, with a completely different understanding of sin. In Judaism, sin is something you do, not something you are. We don’t believe you need a blood savior to get right with God.”
That said, he avows his love for Christians “because their beliefs are what make them the generous, selfless people I know.” And he recalls a lesson he learned years ago while in Boise, Idaho. While staying in a hotel room, he discovered The Book of Mormon instead of the usual Bible. “While it was too weird and outlandish for me to embrace,” he says, “the Mormon people were something else altogether. I found them to be among the most honest, ethical people I’d met and I learned at the age of 25 not to judge people by their theology. It’s how you live it, how you make your faith shine through.”
With that same metaphor he recalls an essay by the late Unitarian pastor, Forrester Church, titled “The Cathedral of the World.” “Church said that we all stand in that cathedral, and each stained glass represents a different faith tradition,” explains Greenstein. “God is the light outside. The fundamentalists say the light shines through their window only. The fanatic breaks all the other windows except his. But some are able to see this light shining through all the windows.
When you see the faces of others, you’re supposed to see the image of God smiling back. I think a lot of religious people haven’t learned that yet.
“[Bear Bryant] is like a god down there.”
Maintaining a packed work routine, the rabbi has little time for leisure activities. He does, however run in marathons because they help clear his mind, and he tries to avoid theological discussions with other runners. “If someone beside me asks what I do, I tell them I work with funeral homes – which is true; I do a funeral every week." And his response usually works. “They hear that and I don’t have to talk anymore!”
Most spare time is spent with his family. He met his wife, Sheril, at summer camp when she was 9 and he was 12. As teens he joked with her that someday they’d get married. As serendipity would have it, they ran into each other on, of all places, King David Street in Jerusalem when he was finishing his first year of rabbinical school and she was enjoying the trip after graduating from Stephens College. “That meeting was enough to turn a skeptic into a mystic,” smiles Greenstein. “We were engaged within six months, and have been married 24 years.”
He recalls courting her in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. “We’d go to receptions in the homes of doctors, lawyers, educated people, and there’d be this picture of a guy on the wall. If I had asked who it was, that would have blown the courtship!” he laughs, referring to Alabama’s revered football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, who “is like a god down there,” adds Greenstein.
Sheril, who owns a special events business called Shindigs by Sheril, helped put her husband through rabbinical school. Today they’re the parents of three children, Cara, 21; Jake, 19; and Julia, 14.
“The rough valleys . . .”
Although “richly blessed,” Greenstein knows firsthand that life holds disease, death, and heartbreak. He faced all three in 2007 when his father died of lymphoma at age 71. Howard Greenstein was a rabbi near Boston, in Dayton, Ohio, and in Jacksonville, Florida, and with his wife Lenore raised their son and two daughters. “In August he was leading a congregation and playing tennis,” recalls the son. “Two months later he died in my arms. He was a real renaissance rabbi and was my model in every way. He taught me what he lived, that the journey is the goal, not the end game.” Describing that loss as the “roughest valley” of his life, he holds close God’s love and promise. “He said He will be with us through it all, even the rough valleys. That to me is what faith is all about.”
“What took you so long?”
On a recent Sunday morning, Rabbi Greenstein is introduced in the Fellowship Hall of First Baptist Church at East Parkway and Poplar as part of an interfaith pulpit exchange. He speaks to a group of mainly middle-aged and older members and visitors, who listen as he tells them what happened 75 years ago this very day, November 10th: Kristallnicht, when the Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues, littering the streets with shards of broken glass. “That was really the beginning of the Holocaust,” says Greenstein. “But look at us now. I imagine God is smiling but also saying, ‘What took you so long?’”
His talk is followed by a question-and-answer session. One woman asks, “What do you like most about Memphis?” He remembers a moment from 21 years ago when his daughter was born, and he was picking up some photographs at Walgreens. He said the clerk there asked his name and when he told her, she replied, “I know Micah,” and she proceeded to quote the Bible verse, Micah 6:8: . . .what does the Lord require of you but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That moment said a lot about this city, Greenstein tells the group that day — the love and goodness in everyday people. Sure, we have problems, but undergirding it all, the rabbi sees a strong community of faith. “The notion of a Baptist minister and Jewish rabbi exchanging pulpits on each other’s Sabbaths is a foreign concept to any other lifetime in the history of our two faiths,” he says. “We may have a long way to go but we have come so far. It’s important to remember that."
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.