The death of Arthur Hertzberg last week marks more than the passing of a great American Jewish personality. It reminds us of the rarity of a figure like Hertzberg, who paid little heed to the boundaries separating academic scholarship, rabbinic service, social activism and Jewish diplomacy. Indeed, his death harks back to an era in which the public intellectual was an important presence in American and Jewish life, serving as a source of intellectual stimulation and moral conscience.
A hallmark of Hertzberg’s life was his constant willingness to cross borders, both geographic and cultural. Born into an Orthodox rabbinic family in Lubaczow, Poland, he came to the United States as a young man. He never ceased to call upon the vast repository of classical Jewish sources or the Hasidic traditions of his forebears.
And yet, he chose to study for the rabbinate at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. As a congregational rabbi, especially at Temple Emanu-El of Englewood, N.J., Hertzberg spoke in the language of Jewish tradition, as well as of Jewish modernity. That is, he knew to integrate as well as anyone traditional Jewish learning with the modern Jewish impulse to repair the world. It was this combination that prompted Hertzberg to assume an active role in the struggle for racial equality in this country in the 1960s.
Hertzberg was in this regard the perfect balance of particularist and universalist, able to speak both Jewish and American idioms. While fighting for the well being of blacks — including in the South, where he served as a rabbi for a period — he never surrendered his deep and instinctive love for Jewish faith and peoplehood.
It was this love that animated his labors on behalf of the American Jewish Congress, of which he was president from 1972 to 1978, and the World Jewish Congress, of which he served as vice president from 1975 to 1991. Like his mentor Nahum Goldmann, Hertzberg felt a sense of responsibility to Jews the world over.
In this context, it is important to note Hertzberg’s pivotal role in opening new channels of communication between the Jewish community and the Vatican. Together with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he had an important hand in framing the historic document “Nostra Aetate,” commonly known as Vatican II.
Both men worked through Hertzberg’s cousin, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, to keep Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik apprised of what was happening with the Holy See and to receive his consent, at least tacitly. While Hertzberg felt a special sense of historical mission in forging a path of reconciliation with the Catholic Church, he was also keenly aware of the political nuances and machinations involved with both Catholics and fellow Jews.
Hertzberg’s mix of historical knowledge and political savvy will be sorely missed. All too often, Jews today are represented by organizational leaders and diplomats who do not derive their authority from their learning. Clearly, Arthur Hertzberg was a different kind of Jewish leader.
What makes Hertzberg’s life so impressive and worthy of emulation is that, alongside his rabbinical work and communal activism, he was also one of the most significant Jewish scholars of his generation. A student of the towering historian Salo Baron, Hertzberg wrote a dissertation on the French Enlightenment that exposed strains of antisemitism in the thought of prominent 18th-century thinkers. Though at times a bit overstated, Hertzberg’s study, which eventually became his first book, participated in an important corrective to the view of the Enlightenment as the source of universal benevolence.
This work revealed a sharply critical eye that served Hertzberg well in his many other books, including his 1989 history of four centuries of American Jewish life. Typically provocative and even irascible — but hardly inaccurate — he begins this book on American Jews by noting that the best did not come to these shores, and certainly not the most learned.
But perhaps Hertzberg’s most important work of scholarship is his well-known anthology of Zionist thought, “The Zionist Idea.” Although published in English, the book has become an authoritative source on Zionist thought in Hebrew as well, a measure of its status as a canonical work of scholarship across the globe. The volume includes a selection of leading Zionist thinkers from Leo Pinsker and Ahad Ha’am to David Ben-Gurion, each of whom is introduced by a short but incisive profile.
At the beginning of the book, Hertzberg wrote a lengthy introduction that situates Zionism in the context of modern Jewish history, as well as the history of modern nationalism. “The Zionist Idea” remains an indispensable tool for any serious study of Zionism and the modern Jewish experience.
Hertzberg’s interest in Zionism was not merely academic. Friend to leading Israeli politicians, fluent Hebrew speaker and passionate supporter of the State of Israel, he felt an enormous existential bond to Israel. This did not prevent him from criticizing the country’s policies when he felt them to be misguided.
He was a frequent critic of Israel’s occupation, attacking it as morally and politically debilitating to Jews and inhumane to Palestinians. In fact, as recently as 2003, Hertzberg suggested that American aid to Israel should be reduced by the amount of money that Israel spent on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
This was a radical suggestion, especially for a well-known Jewish community leader. But it was issued from a position of concern and love. It is in this sense, too, that his death is significant, for it reminds us of the possibility, even necessity, of responsible criticism.
While few can lay claim to Hertzberg’s unique stature as scholar and community leader, his example reminds us that Zionists speak in many different voices and that conformism is not necessarily a Jewish virtue. Never a conformist himself, Arthur Hertzberg was a different kind of Jewish leader — a true intellectual, a first-rate scholar and a tireless community leader with a global Jewish vision.
It is a combination of qualities that we will not likely see again soon. As individuals, we should never cease to emulate them in our own lives. As a collective, we must be wide enough and wise enough to include our learned men and women in communal life.
David Myers is a professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism.