An Optimistic Skeptic

Arthur Hertzberg's argumentative temperament is apparently not just a matter of heredity. It is also a matter of heritage.

Eli Eyal
Eli Eyal

"A Jew in America: My Life and A People's Struggle for Identity" by Arthur Hertzberg, Harper San Francisco, 2002, 468 pages, $29.95

Arthur Hertzberg's argumentative temperament is apparently not just a matter of heredity. It is also a matter of heritage. When he was a child, his father, an educated Hasid who immigrated to America, told him a story that shaped the conduct of his life. This is a story attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

In a remote village in Poland, a prohibition was issued on eating the wheat that grew in the adjacent fields because it was infected with a bacterium that made those who eat it go crazy. The wise men of the village convened and decided to set aside part of the previous year's harvest, enough to feed one person. The others - they would eat the infected wheat. They would go mad but they would survive, and at the end of the year one person would remain as an example of sanity. All the rest would be able to drop their madness by following the one sane person, and when the next crop ripened the wheat would be clean.

The specific cure during periods of madness is the isolated individual who maintains his sanity. Hertzberg, who as a teenager was already argumentative and opinionated, saw this story as the essence of his father's testament, which he winnowed into an interpretation of his own: Possibly being a lone voice of sanity is not a fateful matter, but it is certainly a difficult task and full of struggles. Eventually his father said to him: You have no alternative. You must defend what you see as right!

This stormy temperament engendered a stormy book, and had the name not been taken by Isaiah Berlin's book of essays, it should have been called "Against the Current." The memoirs are just like Hertzberg himself: disturbing one's rest, disagreeing with received opinions, slaughtering sacred cows, stinging with harsh criticism - and all with warm irony, in clever language and astonishing learnedness.

Although this is an autobiography, it also sets out the history of several generations of Jews in America in the 20th century. As Jacob Nuesner, a restless intellectual who is sparing of compliments wrote in The Jerusalem Post, "Arthur Hertzberg is Judaism's leading public intellectual, and this is his masterpiece: a document of American Judaic literature framed in a genre of American writing, but animated by the mind and heart of Judaism. If we had no history of American Judaism in the 20th century other than Hertzberg's memoir, we could reconstruct from its pages pretty much everything important that shaped the period and understand much that conventional histories would not tell us."

But Hertzberg's memoirs are not written from the perspective of a research historian who observes the past through distant eyes and writes an autobiography that is clotted by much documentation. It has already been said that it is doubtful whether someone whose entire power lies in summarizing the contents of historical sources is worthy of the title historian. Hertzberg instead is an active participant in events and the pattern of his writing is taken from "The Education of Henry Adams," a Harvard man, whose personal memoirs at the beginning of the last century became a classic about the transition from the world of yesterday to the modern world in Western and American culture.

Emerging from the book is the figure of a son of immigrants from East Europe, who succeeded in combining the values of his Judaism with the basic values of America, which he respects: civil rights, equality before the law, tolerance, moderation, hostility to extremism and the ability to digest the strange and the unusual. Even when Hertzberg rants and rebels, he is not out of the ordinary; even when he is skeptical and asks and wonders - sometimes with self- flagellation - and does not always find a solution, he is optimistic, faithful to the American mythology of opportunity; even when he preaches sticking to the truth without taking friend or foe into consideration, and impales himself on the horns of the dilemma, he accepts compromises in a peaceful way, according to the well-known experience that it is not always possible to act mercifully without cheating justice. The New York Times Book Review noted that "Jewish culture is evoked here in terms that are truly sensuous, while Jews themselves are, on the whole, excoriated."

Hertzberg does not have a comprehensive answer, as life is not just a series of solutions to problems. There is always a need to think and rethink the important issues in life and not to wake up in the end and say: I was not myself. I was just a miserable copy of others. As an arch-liberal he talks about a tortured book by Viktor Frankl published after the Holocaust that contains a description of the gravitational pull there had been toward Fascism and Nazism, in that these ideas helped people escape from liberty towards determinations that freed them from the need to think for themselves. Therefore his warning is against choosing the easy and comfortable options. Our humanity, he says, is a mixture of what we decide the truth is and the hesitations and self-doubts that we must always allow to continue to exist.

There were days when intellectuals, scholars and rabbis who were university graduates were involved in the American-Jewish establishment. Gradually, the wealthy swelled with self- confidence and the intellectual class was eliminated from the Jewish leadership. Hertzberg himself, who has lectured at Columbia University, Dartmouth and New York University, was also a member of the Zionist leadership, the vice president of World Jewish Congress and president of the American Jewish Congress. But even when he was serving in a leadership position in the establishment, he did not develop a thick skin. Although he fled the grip of the establishment, he did not become an outsider. The difficulty in cataloging this nonconformist in any given camp derives from his nonsimplistic statements that cut through opposing outlooks.

Well-known American Jewish neoconservative intellectuals, such as Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer were convinced he was about to join them. What was the reason for their hope? In 1990, Hertzberg published a book entitled "The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism" (Columbia University Press), in which his main argument was that the birth of modern liberalism in Europe was accompanied by an ambivalent attitude toward the Jews. The ideological core of the liberal movement followed Voltaire, who said that the Jews are a group that is incapable of change and are irredeemably guilty of being "enemies of the human race." Hertzberg, in his search for the roots of modern, secular anti-Semitism, found them in the Enlightenment as well. The neoconservatives honed in on this theory as if it were a beacon to guide their way: The real source of liberalism and enlightenment included a sick element with respect to the Jews. But they were shocked when this "Jewish Jew" in their midst, the one who had smashed some of the ideological fathers of modern liberalism, stood on the side and did not join them.

Why? Although these liberals often sullied the ideals of liberty and equality and betrayed them, nevertheless it was precisely the liberal ideals that gave hope to the Jews, the blacks and all the persecuted throughout the world. In all the new mantras of the neoconservatives, Hertzberg found no alternative to that vision of enlightenment expressed with stunning clarity in Thomas Jefferson's American Declaration of Independence. Incidentally, Jefferson too did not like Jews, and in Hertzberg's opinion he made amends for this in a powerful formulation of universal ideals that became the basic values of the United States. After he refused to be numbered among the ex-liberals who were the torchbearers of the new conservatism, the latter requited him by refusing to listen to the nuances in his opinions - which were, in fact, the most important parts of them.

In his Zionist outlook it is also worth paying attention to the nuances. His devotion to Zionism was a source of inspiration to other writers as well. Living in America means living in the Diaspora. This is a religious position, in his opinion. A Jew's surroundings in a democratic reality erode Jewish uniqueness - not by hostile attack but in fact by its openness. Thus, the Jew as an individual is not in the Diaspora in a democratic regime; it is his Judaism that is in the Diaspora. The beginning of the cure for the pains of the Diaspora begins with this recognition. Hertzberg has always argued that the great paradox in the situation of the Jewish people is in that the only Jews whose Judaism is not facing danger are those who recognize that they are living in the Diaspora. It could be that dropping out of the Jewish community, and the personal trauma and the emptiness that many Jews feel, are all connected to the illusion that is common to many Jews that the Jewish exile ended with the last of the pogroms. But this is the mystery in our existence: The day after the pogrom a new exile begins.

The relations between Israel and the Diaspora appear like the relations between a married couple. As in every marriage contract - "and especially one that does not allow for divorce" - the couple sticks together in times of trouble, while in quiet times each side tends to go his own way. But Hertzberg writes explicitly that his ties to Israel "did not include automatic political obedience: I was largely in opposition to the dominant policies. I found myself restating this view year by year, as repeated attempts were made to silence me from Jerusalem and by its lackeys in New York and Washington. I insisted that we in the Diaspora could represent the best interests of the Jews worldwide - never mind the political and moral foolishness that governments in power might be proclaiming. I was no biblical prophet; I had no such delusions. But I also had no fear that I was committing treason by denouncing what I knew was wrong and foolish, and I laughed off the label of `maverick.'"

However, as with the heads of Israeli governments, he also spoke assertively in a confrontation he had with Edward Said about the Israeli-Arab conflict, and with the anti-Zionist Noam Chomsky. Hertzberg was enchanted by the values of modern American democracy but he did not follow them blindly. One of his heroes was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a descendent of American Puritans, who rebelled against his religious heritage and became a Unitarian. Emerson wrote that every individual is a cart on which all his ancestors ride, while Hertzberg came to this realization through the Talmud.

An amazing chapter is the dialogue he conducted with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Hertzberg was a student of Kaplan's, who disagreed with his ideas, but admired his courage. Kaplan stirred up theological ferment 70 years ago when he dropped any mention from the liturgy of the Jews as the "chosen people." Orthodox rabbis excommunicated him, as in effect Kaplan's amendment showed the children of Jewish immigrants how it was possible to be a modern individual and simultaneously faithful to one's Judaism and one's Americanism. That is, it became apparent to Orthodox Jews that it was possible to abandon Orthodoxy in good conscience while continuing to maintain Jewish beliefs and values that are connected to the new world.

In Kaplan's idea, God symbolizes universal values, and this is the name that people give to sublime values. Hertzberg - who does not accept Kaplan's ideas in their entirety - saw in Kaplan's conduct his isolation, a kind of American incarnation of Baruch Spinoza, who in his day argued that no community has the right to claim exclusive ownership of truths and human aspirations that are open to reason.

Therefore, even if Hertzberg had reservations about some of Kaplan's ideas (which he called "a thinly disguised humanism") he regarded him as a wonderful person in his modesty and as a role model in his faith, his consistency, his courage and his independence.

These memoirs read like the story of the situation of the Jews in America over a number of generations. He was involved in most of the events, and of some of them was a witness. Hertzberg, the "leftist liberal," tells about his deep friendship with Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson), the Irgun man and a fascinating figure in his own right. Kook confirmed something Hertzberg's father once told him: "What is there to be afraid of in America? They might fire you from your job, but you won't really starve because you can always sell shoes." He tells about the activities of the American Council for Judaism, the most aggressively anti-Zionist Jewish organization, which fought the establishment of the Jewish state and attacked it during its early years; about president Franklin Roosevelt's broken promises to Stephen Wise; about the Biltmore Conference for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine; about the Partition vote and the declaration of the State of Israel; about McCarthyism; about the Eisenhower period and the Sinai Campaign; about the coalition of Jews and blacks in the civil rights movement; about the new Jewish intellectual elite that began to emerge during John F. Kennedy's administration ("Of course it was widely noticed in the Kennedy years that more Jews were being appointed by him to high posts than had happened before under any other president. But this was explained as the immediate result of a government based on `merit' - that is, of appointments to high posts of those who were judged to be the ablest and most competent and not those who were descended from the `right people'"); about the Jewish tradition of support for the Democratic party and the ambivalence toward the Republican party; about his struggle for the freedom to express his political views from the pulpit of his synagogue in Englewood, New Jersey (he was up against influential figures like Herman Kahn and Abram Lebson, but Hertzberg won and blazed a trail for other rabbis); about the atmosphere during the Vietnam War; about the debate with Hannah Arendt, at the end of which Salo Baron wanted to say kaddish on her grave.

Hertzberg was an activist in the Zionist movement, and in the summer of 1947 he was asked by the Jewish leadership to persuade the Jewish gangster Bugsy Seigel to refrain from trying to assassinate the anti-Zionist British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin when he came to New York.

For a few decades now, Hertzberg has been considered one of the leaders of the liberal Zionist-Jewish left, a "dove" with ties to moderate intellectuals in Israel. As a devoted liberal, he was a leader of the movement for equal rights for blacks and a leading spokesman in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Indeed, to ecumenical discussions with cardinals and bishops the Jewish organizations sent those who were familiar with Scripture and theology.

On the book jacket, where the publisher has printed praise by well-known people, there is a blurb from writer Anne Roiphe: "If Huck Finn went adventuring with the Talmud as his raft, and the history of the Jews as his river, he would be Arthur Hertzberg, nonconformist, skeptic, outsider among outsiders, but always inside, where the action takes place. Like Huck, he bears a moral light that never dims." This is the book of a priest and a prophet over whose critical tone hover warm humor and great knowledge.

Eli Eyal is the editor of the journal Kivunim hadashim ("New Directions")



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Next Prime Minister

Lake Kinneret. The high water level created lagoons at the northern end of the lake.

Lake Kinneret as You’ve Never Experienced It Before

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All