≡ Menu

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is Dead

arthur hertzbergRabbi Arthur Hertzberg (photo: Central Scholarship Bureau)

Arthur Hertzberg was probably the greatest scholar of Zionism in this country. His writing and lecturing influenced virtually all other Jewish scholars writing on subjects like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli society and Zionism itself. Hertzberg was a commanding presence, a persuasive speaker (I heard numerous lectures by him), and supremely articulate in expressing his views. And while he was influential, he never seemed to compromise his highly independent views to achieve this status.
The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader
Hertzberg did not “toe the line” in terms of embracing mainstream pro-Israel views as do most American Jewish leaders. While an ardent Zionist, he was always a dove on the Mideast conflict. He never accepted Israel’s views on its conduct unless his own examination persuaded him that they were right. He always questioned prevailing wisdom. I saw him as a breath of fresh air both in the academy and in the rabbinate which was so often made up of “yes men” acceding to the norm of Jewish opinion.

This is how the NY Times began its obituary:

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a provocative scholar of Judaism whose contrarian religious and political views and dedication to civil rights found prolific expression in books, articles and essays, died yesterday. He was 84 and lived in Englewood, N.J…

Rabbi Hertzberg seemed to savor taking on partisans from opposite sides of the same issue. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, for example, he rankled many Jews by proposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet when the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, the Jesuit antiwar activist, accused Israel of “militarism” and “domestic repressions” of Palestinians, saying they echoed those of the Nazis, Rabbi Hertzberg condemned him for “simplistic moralizing.”

The Fate of Zionism : A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine
And to find an example of a Jewish leader who profoundly misstates Hertzberg’s legacy we have no further to look than the American Jewish Congress. This is a group that Hertzberg once led proudly, but which alas has veered away from its previous ethical and political commitments in a much more conservative direction. That is evident from the timorousness of this evaluation of Hertzberg’s contribution:

Marc D. Stern, who is assistant executive director of the American [Jewish Congress] organization today, said Rabbi Hertzberg “reveled in his iconoclasm.”

“There’s no question he was a man who created debate, in a healthy sense,” Mr. Stern said. “He was sufficiently independent that he did not need other people’s approval before he would take a position. Yet one of the dangers of being an independent thinker is you develop the habit of being counter-cultural.”

Can someone explain to me what this guy is trying to say? All I can say is “Ooooh!” poor Rabbi Hertzberg was “counter-cultural.” What is that anyway and why is it something to be embarrassed about??

The good rabbi also had a terrific take on the Holocaust megalith that seemed to overwhelm American Judaism and become its sole reason for existence. He was one of the early few who warned that formulating a religious identity primarily based on a single catastrophic historical event was an awfully thin reed:

Rabbi Hertzberg even tweaked those whose programs for fortifying Jewish identity were grounded in Israel and the Holocaust. He called the Holocaust Museum in Washington “the national cathedral of American Jewry’s Jewishness.” As someone whose European relatives had died at the Nazis’ hands, he said he was trying to make the point that Jewish leaders needed to find more cerebral and spiritual programs for retaining the allegiance of believers. He urged Jews not to become reclusive and insular in the aftermath of the Holocaust but to open themselves to the pain of others.

The Times adds this cogent evaluation of Hertzberg’s role as public intellectual within the Jewish community:

Rabbi Hertzberg was a compactly built man who spoke in stately sentences but who also flashed an impish, sometimes self-deprecating wit. He was unusual in combining a quiet life of scholarship with an outspoken advocacy of the causes he held dear, finding platforms in the American and World Jewish Congresses of the 70′s and 80′s. But Mr. Stern said that Rabbi Hertzberg would probably not have succeeded in the organizational world of the 21st century, which requires the leaders of these groups to show more political finesse in what they say. Rabbi Hertzberg could not resist the arena of combat. He once said, “A rabbi should be where the real issues of society are, not where the safe platitudes are to be preached.”

Actually, I’d argue that Stern’s “put down” of Hertzberg’s outspokenness says nothing about Hertzberg’s deficiencies but speaks reams about the impoverishment of today’s American Jewish leaders. They have little to say that’s new, creative or interesting. They parrot old ideas or repackage them in new ribbons and pass them off as new. They toe the party line especially about Israel. Mostly they posit fantasies of Jewish life and belief that have little or no bearing on how Jews really live and what they really believe. Otherwise, how can we explain that our leaders have radically more conservative views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the Jews they allegedly lead? This fact would bring a sad twinkle to the eye of the mischievous Rabbi who understood such ironies supremely well.

Zichron tzadik l’vracha (“May his saintly memory be for a blessing”).


{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Arieh Lebowitz April 20, 2006, 3:00 PM

    A great loss. The English-language Forward had a very good, personal and heartfelt, article by a student of Hertzberg. You can find it here:


    Here’s how it begins:

    Arthur Hertzberg: Rabbi, Activist, Communal Leader
    by Samuel Norich / April 21, 2006

    Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who died this week at 84, had an enormous capacity for friendship and generosity. But at the heart of everything he did was an unbending moral standard that he applied to everything and everyone he knew.

    The sharpness of Hertzberg’s mind was legendary among his acolytes, among whom I was honored to count myself. His acuity marked him as one of the most articulate and engaged leaders of the Jewish people in our time. Early on he was a rabbi, schooled by the likes of Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Heschel. Then he was a scholar, compiler of the seminal anthology “The Zionist Idea” and the author of a dozen other essential works. Later on he became a civil rights activist and a Jewish communal leader of worldwide importance. In everything he did, he seemed to be playing all his previous and future roles.

    I first met Hertzberg when he was teaching my graduate seminar on Zionism at Columbia University. It was the spring of 1968 …

  • Richard Silverstein April 20, 2006, 8:45 PM

    Arieh: Thanks for that link. I will read it later this evening.

    I was never a student of Hertzberg’s but wish I had been. I attended the Joint Program during the period when he still taught at Columbia. But my JTS Judaica course load so subsumed my academic interest in sacred subjects that I couldn’t imagine taking a Judaica course at Columbia. I did strictly secular stuff there. I should’ve made an exception. Hertzberg would’ve been much more stimulating than many of my JTS teachers I’m sure.

    He was part of this great learned generation of rabbis who were fabulous preachers & teachers AND politically engaged. Leonard Beerman and Harold Schulweis are 2 other examples fr. LA. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

    UPDATE: That was a truly remarkable obituary. Truly a tzadik!

  • James April 29, 2006, 5:49 AM

    Arthur was a friend of my family’s and my Dutch godfather, as he put it. I studied with him when I was 18, and worked briefly for him after college. He was a truly good and lovely man, although he had an ego to go with his intellect and a sharp tongue when he was annoyed. I wish the obits had talked more about his relationship with his father, who was one of the great heroic influences on his life.

  • Richard Silverstein April 29, 2006, 10:51 AM

    James: Thanks for that comment. Yes, one could tell he had quite an ego. I’ve known several extraordinary rabbis and almost all of them have the same sized egos. I guess it comes w. the territory. For the great ones you have to make some allowances. Bearing in mind that those great egos sometimes encourage some of them to do things that are less than worthy of their gifts (though I’m sure that was not the case w. Rabbi Hertzberg).

Leave a Comment