Search the Site

The Life and Death of Arthur Hertzberg

Arthur Hertzberg was a prolific and polemical rabbi, scholar, and thorn in the side of Jewish institutionalism. (Although I rarely talked economics with him, I’m sure he would have embraced Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” as his own.) I was very fortunate to have known him, even more fortunate to have been married by him, and very saddened by his death this week at age 84. He wrote a variety of important books, including The Zionist Idea, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, and the memoir A Jew in America. He was at work on another book when he died, about how traditional Judaism has been hijacked by certain elements of the Orthodoxy. Arthur was many, many things, but there was one thing he never was: satisfied. He was always striving to learn, to teach, to decode and explore and analyze beyond what had come before. He taught this brand of creative dissatisfaction to all who would listen, and his lessons went far beyond the topic of Judaism.

There was a solid obituary in The New York Times, but to my mind, the scholar Jonathan D. Sarna did a much better job capturing what made Arthur so valuable. Here’s the Sarna article, from The Jewish Week:

The death of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg this week called to mind a course I took as a Brandeis undergraduate with the legendary YIVO Institute for Jewish Research scholar, Zosa Szajkowski. Szajkowski’s idea of teaching was to talk about whatever was on his mind that day, and for a good portion of the course what was on his mind was his ex-friend Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Just a few years before, Rabbi Hertzberg’s brilliant book entitled “The French Enlightenment and the Jews”(1968) had appeared, and Szajkowski charged that much of Rabbi Hertzberg’s research was cribbed from his articles. “I am going to sue him,” he fumed.

The charge was absurd. Szajkowski, an autodidact whose English was weak, could never have written the powerful thesis-driven book that Rabbi Hertzberg produced. But this did not prevent the two hard-headed ex-friends from having an acrimonious quarrel. Nevertheless, a few years later, when Szajkowski died suddenly, it was Rabbi Hertzberg who conducted his funeral and eulogized him. That was his way.

Rabbi Hertzberg spent the better part of his life teaching, writing and – as he put it – polemicizing. He devoted himself, consistently, to thinking, to learning, to the life of the mind. He was the very model of the engaged scholar, the public intellectual.

Rabbi Hertzberg’s two most famous scholarly works dealt with Zionism and the French Revolution. Both books were widely read beyond the academy, and both raised important questions that scholars continue to debate. The bulk of his writing, however, focused on America. He commented on the state of American Jewish religious life, on the synagogue, the rabbinate, and on a host of contemporary Jewish issues and problems, particularly assimilation, anti-Semitism and American policy in the Middle East. Even those who did not agree with him on every issue – and it is safe to assume that almost nobody did – knew that what Rabbi Hertzberg wrote could not be ignored. For half a century he was one of the most challenging, illuminating and engaging commentators on the American Jewish scene.

Rabbi Hertzberg’s best-known and most enduring contribution to the study of American Jewry was his one-volume survey entitled “The Jews in America,” published in 1989. Beginning with the book’s subtitle – “Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter” – Rabbi Hertzberg signaled that his approach to American Jewish history would differ from that of many of his predecessors. Much of American Jewish historical writing emphasized the contributions and achievements of American Jews: their heroes, their “adventures in freedom.” His goal, by contrast, was “to explain the whole course of American Jewish experience as leading naturally, and inevitably, to … contemporary problems.” He did not see his as another uplifting book about American Jews. Ever the contrarian, he closed his survey on a deeply pessimistic note, warning that absent “some kind of spiritual revival, American Jewish history will soon end, and become a part of American memory as a whole.”

In many ways Rabbi Hertzberg’s book was shaped by a series of interrelated questions that bothered him for most of his life. Why, he wondered, was the inner life of the American Jewish community so shallow? Why weren’t American Jews more Jewishly learned? Why didn’t Judaism and Jewish culture play a larger role in American Jewish communal life? These, he understood, were not the kinds of questions that social scientists could ever answer. He believed instead that history held the master key to their solution. And that is the kind of history he produced: not a history that made Jews feel good, but a history that made Jews think.

“The Jews in America” is an easy book to criticize. In places it is sloppy, in places facile, in places just plain wrong. But its central thesis remains powerful and challenging, and it stimulated a great deal of debate. It demonstrates, as all of Rabbi Hertzberg’s best work does, that history can be a powerful interpretive tool for understanding the Jewish experience as a whole.

Near the end of his life, Rabbi Hertzberg published an autobiography entitled “A Jew in America: My Life and A People’s Struggle for Identity.” It opens with a chasidic story whose message Rabbi Hertzberg seems to have made his own: “The saving grace of times gone mad is the lonely person who keeps his sanity.” But as he demonstrated at the funeral of Zosa Szajkowski and on many other occasions, he also lived by another message set forth in the book: “Being a Jew is rooted in the values that you affirm and not in the enemies that you fight.”