June 9, 1921, is the birthdate of Arthur Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi and one of the most influential figures in American Judaism during the 20th century.

Outspoken on many big political issues, Hertzberg had a well-deserved reputation as a contrarian – one whose positions sometimes seemed intended to stir up controversy. But heacted as he did out of love for Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people in all their variety and beliefs, not from a desire to divide.

Avraham Hertzberg was born in Lubaczow, Poland, into a family with a long history within Hasidic Judaism. His grandfather, Avraham Hertzberg, for whom he was named, had been the librarian of the Rebbe of Belz, and teacher of his younger children; his father, Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg, was a rabbi too – and also became known for speaking his mind, sometimes to the detriment of his career.

His mother, Nehama Shifra Herzberg, also came from a Hasidic background.

Stint in the U.S. Air Force

In 1923, Zvi Elimelech traveled to the United States in search of a livelihood, and brought the family over to join him three years later. After brief sojourns in New York and in Youngstown, Ohio, they moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Zvi Elimelech had been offered a congregational pulpit.

Arthur grew up speaking Yiddish, and studying Talmud on a daily basis with his beloved father. But when he came of age, he decided that he identified with Jewish modernity. He studied at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his B.A. in history and Oriental languages, in 1940, and then went on to study for the rabbinate at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

After ordination, in 1943, Hertzberg’s first job was as a Hillel rabbi at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also briefly held several congregational jobs, and served for two years as U.S. Air Force chaplain in the United Kingdom, which is where he met Phyllis Cannon, a bibliographer, whom he married in 1950.

In 1956, Hertzberg became the rabbi of a large Conservative congregation, Temple Emanu-El, in Englewood, New Jersey, where he remained until 1985. At the same time, however, he completed a Ph.D. in history (Columbia University, 1966), was a member of a delegation of Jewish theologians that met with Vatican representatives in the 1970s to discuss the Roman Catholic response to the Holocaust (Hertzberg was instrumental in pressing the Church to open its archives and acknowledge its shortcomings).

Make Israel pay?

Rising even further in Jewish society, Hertzberg was president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978, and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991. He stood out for publicly calling, after the 1967 Six-Day War, for the creation of a Palestinian state, which was almost unheard of in Jewish circles at the time.

Much later, in 2003, Hertzberg wrote an oped in the New York Times urging the Bush administration to deduct from the annual U.S. aid package to Israel an amount equivalent to the cost of maintaining Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Needless to say, that proposal didn’t get very far.

He also ruffled feathers by warning of the danger he saw in American Jewry grounding its communal identity in Holocaust commemoration.

Hertzberg held appointments at several universities, and wrote or edited 13 books, including “The Zionist Idea” (1959), an anthology of Zionist writing that remains a classic because of his 100-page introduction, which lays out the major philosophical strands that characterized the movement since its 19th-century origins. Another book, “The French Enlightenment and the Jews,” from 1968, was based on his Ph.D., and traced the roots of modern European anti-Semitism to the Enlightenment itself, rather than as a reaction to that liberal movement. 

Hertzberg could be impatient, if not pompously so. One obituary for him recalled a younger colleague asking his secretary to call Hertzberg, only to find that the older man had hung up when he himself got on the line. When he called the Hertzberg back, he was told that, “the only person I hold for is the president of the United States.”  

But Hertzberg was a man with such intellectual and moral breadth that presidents did call him, and even people who disagreed with him wanted to hear what he was thinking.

Hertzberg died on April 17, 2006, at the age of 84.