A pragmatist explores the promised land
A Jew in America: My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity, Arthur Hertzberg, Harper San Francisco: 468 pp., $29.95
By Adam Bresnick
Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.
LATimes - February 9 2003
On the last page of this compendious memoir, "A Jew in America," Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg cites Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Every man is a charabanc (a conveyance) on which all of his ancestors ride." Although his forebears were American Puritans, Emerson rebelled from their strict ideological line and became a progressive Unitarian. Hertzberg, the son of a Hasidic rabbi who emigrated in 1923 from the Polish shtetl of Lubaczow to New York, left the Orthodox fold to become one of the most prominent figures in 20th century American Conservative Jewry.
Over the course of his tumultuous public life, Hertz- berg has managed to honor Judaism's past by way of profound knowledge of the Talmud and wide-ranging historical scholarship, and to herald its future by way of his critical thinking about such pressing issues as Jewish assimilation and the problem of a Jewish state. Like Emerson, the 81-year-old Hertzberg is at once thoroughly in touch with the Old World and thoroughly American, maintaining a pugnacious openness to what is new on the spiritual horizon.
From his early days in Baltimore to his student years at Johns Hopkins and New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, Hertzberg evinced a passion for learning and deep commitment to the mysteries of the word. Under the wing of his authoritarian father, Zvi Elimelech, Hertzberg was inculcated with the love of religious lore of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and the Mishnah. While his father in no way endorsed the godless authors of post-Enlightenment Europe, neither did he sequester his inquisitive son from their stimulating influence. Indeed, Hertzberg writes that his Hasidic father "was at one with the rabbis of the Talmud eighteen centuries earlier, who had known, and argued against, 'the wisdom of the Greeks.' " Hertzberg's forthright filial piety is touching in the early pages of this volume, where he does a wonderful job bringing his father to life, warts and all.
By the time Hertzberg made it to graduate school, he was a prodigious scholar who attracted the careful attention of his mentors because of his intellectual seriousness. Hertzberg's portraits of the "towering" scholars at the Theological Seminary and Columbia during the late 1940s are among the most engaging sections of "A Jew in America," as he reveres these men for their learning but is never intimidated by their legends (and so succeeds in humanizing them for the reader). Among the giants Hertzberg encounters are Louis Ginzberg, perhaps the greatest of the modern scholars of the Talmud; Mordecai Kaplan, a follower of American pragmatism who shunned the notion of Jewish "chosenness" in the name of democratic pluralism; and Ernst Cassirer, the great exiled scholar of Kantian philosophy, from whom the starry-eyed Hertzberg learned the central lesson that "intellectuals were no more likely to be moral and decent than anyone else."
Such wisdom would serve Hertzberg well when he left the academy for professional life as a rabbi and political life as president of the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Policy Foundation. In the wake of the revelation of the Nazi horror, Hertzberg, like so many other religiously minded individuals, wrestled bitterly with the idea of a God who could have absconded during a time of such unimaginable atrocity. "I was aware then," he writes, "in 1946, that I could never return to the Orthodox faith in God." At the same time, Hertzberg never lost faith in Judaism, construed as a living work of culture. Hertzberg's humanist studies and his reckoning with the Holocaust removed the transcendental halo from his Jewishness and transformed him into a man entirely of this world.
By the time he assumed his first rabbinical post in Nashville in 1947, Hertzberg was a rather paradoxical figure: a Jew with a Hasidic depth of knowledge and a modern skepticism about religious faith in and of itself. He knew that "the greatest scourge to humanity is not a pirate or a highway robber" but "the uncompromising defender of the faith -- any faith." Not surprisingly, Hertzberg's liberal politics would clash with the conservative style of Nashville's Jews, and his tenure in the home of the Grand Ol' Opry was nothing if not contentious. In Nashville, Hertzberg was confronted by the problem of race relations and quickly plighted his troth with antisegregationist forces by joining the board of the Highlander Folk School, an adult camp and education center dedicated to eradicating educational segregation in America. In his commitment to the cause of black equality, Hertzberg helped pave the way for Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.
In addition to committing himself to the cause of black dignity, Hertzberg threw his lot in with early Zionism and traveled to Palestine in 1947 to do political work on behalf of the future state of Israel. There he debated David Ben-Gurion about the problem of Jewish history, arguing that the Jewish past could not simply be dispensed with in the name of a new polity. This marked the first of many moments in which the cantankerous Hertzberg would go to bat against the stewards of the Jewish state. Indeed, for the last 30 years, he has been outspoken in support of the Peace Now movement and has condemned Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Given the stentorian moralism and political arrogance of so many of the Israeli leaders, one cannot but applaud Hertzberg's cheeky verve. As he suggests, his politics are passionately moderate; ironically enough, in a region dominated by extreme voices on both sides, such moderation appears surreptitiously radical.
Hertzberg mounts a fascinating defense of the Zionist idea in the name of another famously embattled ideology, one for which civil rights era Jews fought: affirmative action. Contrary to those Jews who would ground their claim to Israel's hallowed land in the name of God's biblical promise of Judea and Samaria to the ancient Israelites, Hertzberg offers a practical justification of Zionism: "We could not possibly make the case for the Jewish settlement in Palestine within the last century ... without invoking the need of the Jews for a homeland of their own after twenty centuries of being persecuted in every country in Europe and to a substantial degree in the Moslem world. The basic argument for Zionism was that the Jews required an act of 'affirmative action' to make their continued life possible."
While it is clear that the Palestinians in no way assented to this, perhaps it is the case that the United Nations was motivated by a kind of affirmative action ideology when it approved the transfer of some Arab lands to Jewish settlers in the wake of the catastrophe of European Jewry in Hitler's Holocaust.
In a career spanning six decades, Hertzberg has been an admirably pragmatic gadfly who has done much to advance Jewish and humanitarian causes. While his ideology of pragmatic moderation has occasionally led him to make peace with odious figures, among them Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, whom he credits with saving Israel during the Six-Day War, Hertzberg has remained true to his belief that Judaism can only sustain itself by way of creative engagement with the life of the world and critical engagement with the life of the mind. At the same time, he understood from a very early age that simple rejection of the past leads one to recapitulate in a simple fashion, even as one thinks one is avoiding its clutches. A steadfast supporter of Israel, he comes across here as a true American, committed to secular pluralism and the thriving life of the Jewish diaspora. As he puts it in the book's final piquant paradox: "I had become an American by refusing to assimilate."