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Jewish Polemics
by arthur hertzberg
columbia university press, 259 pages, $27.95

Jewish Polemics is a collection of essays written over the past ten years or so by the well-known American rabbi, professor, and communal leader Arthur Hertzberg. The title of the collection is aptly chosen: anyone who has read him or who knows him will surely testify that, whether endearing or infuriating, he loves polemics. 

Now the word “polemic” comes from the Greek word polemos meaning “war,” and in this book Hertzberg is waging war on three fronts. To begin with, he is waging war with the “establishment” of the American Jewish Community”and by extension, with the former Israeli governments of Begin and Shamir, which he charges that establishment of having supported uncritically. Second, he is waging war with many of his fellow Zionists for what he takes to be their spiritual blindness. And finally, he is waging war with God”at least with the God of his father, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg. 

The first quarrel, with the leadership of organized American Jewry, is the one for which Hertzberg is best known, especially through his articles in The New York Review of Books , most of which are reprinted here. His main argument is that these leaders conduct their politics without the moral concerns that alone make politics more than a rationalization of power. For Hertzberg, this lack of moral appreciation seems to stem from the sad fact that, by and large, American Jews and their leaders are Jewishly illiterate. This he convincingly illustrated in his previous book, The Jews in America , in which he reminded us of the historical fact that the vast majority of American Jews happen to be descendents of the most ignorant stratum of shtetl society. When the mass immigration of Jews to America was taking place early in this century, most of the more learned Jews stayed in Europe or went to the Land of Israel, then known as Palestine. The classical literary sources of Jewish morality, therefore”in Hertzberg’s view the only morality that could or should inform Jewish politics”are foreign to the Jewishly ignorant children and grandchildren (however secularly cultured) of these uncultured immigrants. (One hopes that this will begin to change as more and more children are graduated from Jewish day schools.)

Perhaps it is this shallow foundation in Judaism itself that accounts for some of the influence of Begin and Shamir on American Jewish leaders: they appeared to be so much more Jewish and so much more secure in their relation to the Jewish past. One can thus appreciate the pathos of Hertzberg’s quarrel with Elie Wiesel. Wiesel, like Hertzberg, has had an extensive education in both Talmud and Hasidism. Therefore, Hertzberg can find no excuse for Wiesel when the latter seems to him to be morally obtuse in the face of the harsh dealings of the Israeli government with West Bank Arabs. One can almost hear him berating Wiesel, as he claims to have berated Martin Buber for his too easy justifications of the ways of God after the Holocaust: “We must act justly, especially when such action seems imprudent or embarrassing”because there is a Jewish moral tradition.” 

His criticism of American Jewry for their uncritical support of Likud governments is, however, inconsistent. For he does not seem to recognize that the uncritical political liberalism of most American Jews, of which he presumably approves, stems from precisely the same Jewish ignorance. In his polemic against Jewish neoconservatives in general and Irving Kristol in particular, for instance, Hertzberg cites the Talmudic principle, “When in doubt, and the leaders confuse you by divided counsel, go into the street and see what the people are doing.” But surely Arthur Hertzberg”who has been immersed in the Talmud since before I was even born, and who was a favored student of the late Professor Louis Ginzberg, one of the giants of modern Talmudic scholarship”knows perfectly well that this principle only applies when a point of law is being debated in a religiously observant Jewish community (see Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 14b; Palestinian Talmud: Pesahim 6.1/33a; cf. Mishnah: Peah 4.1). It is thus very much like the Catholic principle of sensus fidelium

Why does Hertzberg assume that the political liberalism of American Jews is any more authentically Jewish than the blind spot of many of their leaders regarding the actions of any Israeli government? Or, for that matter, than their tendency to ignore Jewish law and tradition by doing such things as intermarrying in increasingly (and alarmingly) large numbers? This is not to say that Irving Kristol’s politics are any more Jewish than Arthur Hertzberg’s. It is, however, to say that Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, almost certainly both more observant and Judaically learned than Irving Kristol, would be less than fully convincing should he make the claim that his politics are grounded in Judaism and are not merely the outgrowth of his secularized opinions.

This is particularly relevant to his discussion of affirmative action, an issue hotly debated in Jewish circles. Hertzberg enthusiastically endorses affirmative action. Now, it is true that there is some precedent in Jewish tradition for giving certain specific considerations to persons who have inherited economic disadvantages (see, e.g., Babylonian Talmud: Baba Metsia 70a). But that is a far cry from the claim that certain ethnic groups are to be compensated in the present for past injustices, particularly by people who were not themselves responsible for these injustices. This seems to violate the biblical prohibition of “recognition of persons in judgment” (Lev. 19:15). 

It is in his polemic with his fellow Zionists that Hertzberg does argue more Jewishly and, therefore, more persuasively. He espouses the Cultural Zionism of the Russian Jewish thinker Ahad Ha’Am (d. 1927), who insisted that Zionism requires the spiritual and moral regeneration of the Jewish people and not just their return to political power. Hertzberg is very effective in showing how much more Jewishly attuned is this type of Zionism than the East European-style nationalism of Vladimir Jabotinsky (d. 1940) and his disciples Menachem Begin and Itzhak Shamir. Cultural Zionism makes claims on the Jewish people, even against the Jewish people, and not just for them. 

Despite his great admiration for Ahad Ha’Am, however, Hertzberg is required in theological terms to admit that Ahad Ha’Am’s agnosticism is an inadequate foundation for the Jewish moral and spiritual renewal Zionism should bring. At this point Hertzberg turns to the thought of the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (d. 1982), who unlike Ahad Ha’Am insisted that Zionism, like Judaism itself, must be theocentric. Hertzberg puts himself in Scholem’s school of theism”which is, to be sure, theism of a most unorthodox kind. (He also has some very powerful things to say against the rather anemic theism of another Ahad Ha’Am follower, Mordecai Kaplan [d. 1983], who was and still is an extremely influential American Jewish thinker, and who was also a teacher of Hertzberg’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1940s.) 

As for his polemic with God, Hertzberg is to be credited with refusing to avoid his problem (and that of all Jews who survived the Nazis, directly or, like him, even indirectly) with the God of Israel who did not save six million of his people. Hertzberg refuses to take the easy way out of the problem, that is, into atheism or agnosticism, as did many of his contemporaries. Such an escape is too easy a solution to the problem because it avoids it rather than confronting it. Nevertheless, Hertzberg does seem to have missed the point that many American Jewish atheists and agnostics merely use the Holocaust as a rationalization for their denial of God, rather than honestly admitting that this denial is really a function of their secularism, not their suffering or their religious angst . He may have missed this point because in his many nontheological moments, such as when he reduces Jewish-Christian dialogue to politics, he too is influenced by the secularism that grew out of the French Revolution”more influenced than he would like to admit or than he himself knows. 

Even though he has been deeply troubled by the silence of the Lord God of Israel since his Bar Mitzvah in his father’s hasidic synagogue in 1934, Arthur Hertzberg has chosen to remain a believer. The expression of his existential discontents with God constitutes the most moving part of the whole book. Here Hertzberg is most compelling because here he is most Jewish. We Jews have never had an easy time with the God who chose us for the most mysterious of reasons. Our father Jacob had to “strive with God” in order to gain the name Israel (Gen. 32:28). We Jews are not allowed to rest; we must constantly remind God to redeem his people and his world (Isaiah 62:6–7). 

If I may be so bold, I would suggest to Arthur Hertzberg that he begin his next book where this one leaves off. He should deepen the truly theological sensibilities that emerge from these polemics. Such an effort would reveal more of the Torah’s truth, something that would be better for Jews and for the world than skilled polemics. 

David Novak is the Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things .