Charles Liebman, widely regarded as the pre-eminent social scientist of Jews and Judaism in the latter third of the 20th century, died last week in Petah Tikva at age 69. A political scientist by discipline, his dozen books and scores of scholarly articles deftly interpret the culture of Judaism and the Jewish people in the United States, Israel and around the world. Earlier this year he received the Israel Prize for his life’s work, awarded to Israeli political scientists only once every three years. He was also a recipient of the Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry as well as several other prestigious awards.
Known for his incisiveness, honesty and imagination, Liebman pioneered several influential and pivotal concepts in the study of contemporary Jewry. In “The Ambivalent American Jew,” published in 1972, he persuasively argued that American Jews struggle to integrate into the larger society while trying to maintain a distinctive group identity. Reflecting his profound concern over modernity’s challenge to Jewish authenticity, Liebman doubted that American Jews were prepared to distance themselves sufficiently from a culture and society that were, in his view, inimical to Jewish tradition.
To those of us who knew him as a friend and colleague, Liebman will be remembered not only for his originality and insight but also for his fierce devotion to honesty, even at the risk of unpopularity. He believed as a matter of principle in telling audiences what they did not want to hear, and he often critically assessed his colleagues’ work, pulling no punches in public or private. Yet his warmth, wit, curiosity and passion for his fellow Jews won him extraordinary affection and admiration from students, colleagues and the international fraternity of social scientists of Jewish life.
Born in New York, Liebman was brought to Israel as a child and completed his high school studies at the prestigious Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv. Returning to the United States after graduation, he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami and his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at the University of Illinois, where he met his wife Carol. The couple moved in 1969 to Israel, where he helped found the political science department at Bar-Ilan University.
Building upon the work of sociologist Marshall Sklare, a man he admired as his friend and teacher, Liebman is remembered for advancing the influential notion of “Jewish personalism,” elaborated in “Two Worlds of Judaism,” the study of Israeli and American Judaism upon which he and I collaborated in 1990. By personalism, he meant the tendency of American Jews to pick those parts of Judaism they find personally meaningful, rather than complying with external requirements of religious law, Zionist ideology or ethnic obligation.
Liebman believed that Judaism has an authentic, albeit always evolving, core that is continuous with the past — whether real or imagined — and is essential for the unity of Jews and Judaism in our own day. Troubled by what he saw as the rampant tendency of American Jews to radically innovate, Charles frequently argued that Judaism is not anything you make of it. In particular, he was troubled by the tendency of American Jews to conflate Judaism with political and cultural liberalism.
A religiously observant Jew, Liebman was deeply committed to Jewish ethnicity and peoplehood. He found the decline over the years in close ties among American Jews to be deeply troubling and once remarked to me that this may be the most telling finding in the study of American Jewry. He was deeply pained at the rise in intermarriage, and even more pained by the readiness of organized American Jewry to soften its historic opposition to intermarriage. He feared that attempts to make Judaism attractive to intermarried families would make American Judaism less ethnic and less distinctive.
Notwithstanding his personal identification with cultural conservatism in the American context, Liebman counted himself as a religious dove with respect to the Israeli-Arab conflict. He often opposed Israeli government policies for reasons of both pragmatism and morality. He severely doubted whether Israel had the moral right to curtail the human rights of Palestinians, even in the interest of Israeli security.
To me personally, he was a caring and protective friend and, not least, a loving mentor. His personality shaped my work as strongly as his thinking and teaching.
A prolific scholar, he remained academically productive until his dying day and was preparing a new book with his younger friend and colleague Yaacov Yadgar, comparing approaches to Jewish traditionalism among Sephardic and Ashkenazic Israelis.
Charles spent most of his academic career teaching at Bar-Ilan University. In addition to his wife he is survived by three children, Rivkah Lubitch, Aaron Liebman and Avigayil Liebman, as well as six grandchildren.
For his service in the Israeli army, he served in the education branch and was fond of saying, “When war breaks out, others will start fighting, and I’ll give speeches.”
Steven M. Cohen is a professor at the Hebrew University and director of the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center.