Arthur Hertzberg: Rabbi, Activist, Communal Leader


By Samuel Norich

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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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; he allowed me to call on the other students to join a walkout from his class. Outside, students were striking against the Vietnam War. He opposed the war, but he held his class.

After that experience, Hertzberg became a mentor to me. I learned of his childhood in Poland, where his family was prominent in the Belz Hasidic community. He told me of his time as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary during World War II, when he lived in constant anguish over the fate of his family in Poland. Throughout his life, he remained deeply steeped in both aspects of the Jewish life he absorbed from his home: Eastern European Orthodoxy and Yiddish secular culture. Those two things were no contradiction to him.

One of the most striking stories Hertzberg shared was about his father, an Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, who fell out with his congregation after demanding action on behalf of black rights. Hertzberg later followed his father’s lead in a rather direct manner when he castigated his own congregation in Englewood, N.J., for not taking enough concrete action to protest the Vietnam War.

Hertzberg was a critic by nature. It wasn’t a matter of negativity — it was a matter of holding himself and everyone else to a single, unbending moral standard. When other American Jewish leaders were proclaiming their admiration for Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, he had no reluctance to criticize them to their face.

That was a different time in Jewish life, and despite his differences with the Israeli government, Hertzberg still managed to rise up the ranks of the Jewish organizational world. He was president of the American Jewish Congress, and vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

One of the great disappointments of his life was that he never reached the pinnacles of Jewish community leadership. His desire to reach those heights grew out of personal ambition, but also out of his sense of communal responsibility. For Hertzberg, it wasn’t enough to be a thinker and a writer — it was essential to be a doer, as well. When the presidency of the World Jewish Congress opened up in 1978, everybody knew that Hertzberg was head and shoulders above all others, but everyone knew, too, that he was brash and wouldn’t back down for the sake of consensus. He was passed over.

As Hertzberg moved into his golden years, he remained a central voice in the Jewish world, but the community moved to the right while he moved further to the left. He deplored the messianism of Israel’s settler movement and the Labor Party’s flirtation with that messianism, which he saw as a betrayal of both Zionism and Jewish ethics.

Of all the commandments of Judaism, Hertzberg believed most deeply in the mandate to honor one’s father and mother. It was because of this belief that he read the Forverts until his last days — it was a part of his origins in which he still could participate. In the same vein, whenever he went to Jerusalem, his first stop was always in the court of the rebbe of Belz. Whatever his differences with the stance of the Belz Hasidim, his soul was generous enough to refrain from denying what he once had been.

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