Judaism and the Jewish People
To the Editor:
I should like to comment on Mr. Himmelfarb’s review of my A Partisan History of Judaism in the February 1952 issue of COMMENTARY.
1. Mr. Himmelfarb’s “review” nowhere states the position I have taken in the book. This, he might have seen at least as an obligation—and then felt perfectly free to be as critical of that position as he chose.
2. Mr. Himmelfarb’s “review” most nearly approaches what he apparently considers to be a resumé of the book’s thesis when he says, categorically, that I “would empty Judaism of any content at all.”
The whole thesis of the book is that the content of Judaism, surviving “people-hood” (nationhood) and the particularistic customs, ceremonies, or ritual of any one time or place, is to be found in the immortal and transcending ethical insights of the literary Prophets; and that it was the spiritual descendants of these men who sustained Judaism.
If this affirmation is to “empty Judaism of any content at all,” then perhaps Mr. Himmelfarb owes it to the world—or at least to Jews—to delineate the content of Judaism. Is it to be found in praying in Hebrew? Then let us rule out the large numbers of Jews who today—and for years past—have spoken their prayers in languages they understand. Is the content of Judaism to be found in the “people-hood” with which Mr. Himmelfarb is so concerned? Mr. Ben Gurion’s? Kaufmann Kohler’s? Samuel Shulman’s? What does the term mean? And to whom? Can Judaism survive without deification of this particularism—whatever it may mean—as Judaism has survived while other particularisms have changed or passed? Or is Judaism, after all, a tribalism, in which worship of God without worship of “people-hood” is a heresy? And even if “people-hood” has been regarded as unexpendable in the past (which I do not admit to be so in any realistic and practical sense) must it remain as one of the immutables of Judaism? And if so, who is prepared today to make the concept a meaningful part of the lives of those Jews who no longer consider themselves a “chosen people,” or their Judaism a religion superior to all other faiths?
Mr. Himmelfarb to the contrary notwithstanding, Judaism is not now and never has been one “seamless web.” If it has not been a constant struggle, visible on every page of its history, between the “universal and the particular,” then Mr. Himmelfarb owes the world a new interpretation of the conflicts between the Prophets and the Priests; between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; between the Maimunists and the anti-Maimunists; between Isaac M. Wise and Isaac Leeser; between any Orthodox and Reform congregation in any small community (and some large ones) in America today.
3. Mr. Himmelfarb’s straining for places to attack, despite his seeming philosophical detachment, is nowhere more evident than in his—and they are his—lines about what I am supposed to have said about Deborah and the State of Israel. Mr. Himmelfarb has “assimilation” on the brain. I nowhere “disapprove” of Deborah for “hindering the assimilation of the Israelite tribes to the civilization of Canaan.” How can one approve or disapprove of history! One observes it and draws conclusions with which others are free to disagree. About Deborah, I simply stated a fact with which most historians agree, that some Israelitish tribes responded to Deborah’s call and others did not—and that it was loyalty to a common divinity that unified the tribes that did respond.
As to my comments on Israel, which are few enough in a modern book about Judaism, Mr. Himmelfarb simply does violence to truth when he says that I claim “Israel has served no humanitarian purpose at all.” There is not a line in the book that would support that contention. I did argue that the Zionist idea for a “Jewish state” was not essential to the solution of the refugee problem or the survival of Judaism. This was not an original thought with me. And it is something again about which Mr. Himmelfarb may disagree. But in order to disagree he does not have to set up his own straw man to have something to knock down.
4. Mr. Himmelfarb really goes too far by putting words in my mouth when he says there is no reason to suppose that I “would say an atheist cannot be a Jew.”
5. Finally, of course, Mr. Himmelfarb leans comfortably back to pontificate that the growth of “either extreme”—of Jewish nationalism or universalism—would be damaging to Judaism, although it would probably not be fatal.
If I may be excused for saying so, I do not know what this sentence means. But I believe nothing would be as fatal to Judaism as Mr. Himmelfarb’s “seamless web.” For Mr. Himmelfarb nowhere gives the slightest indication of ever having seen any threads of variegated color, differing strengths, or uneven lengths. I do not know where he finds this kind of Judaism, either in history or today. But even if he does, to many Jews searching still for the ultimate truth and believing that Judaism is one of the noble ways in which to conduct the search, there is the challenge to weave into the tapestry a pattern conceived by human needs today, using those threads of the existing tapestry which are serviceable and—as countless Jews have done before—leaving those we have out-grown for the dispassionate, removed ambivalents like Mr. Himmelfarb.
American Council for Judaism
New York City
To the Editor:
1. As to my alleged failure to tell what Rabbi Berger’s book was about, his own summary adds nothing of consequence to what was said in my review.
2. Is my meaning, when I say that Rabbi Berger would empty Judaism of any content at all, really such a mystery? I said that there is no content left in a Judaism that cannot be distinguished from Unitarianism or from humanist doctrines like Ethical Culture. Rabbi Berger has a good deal to say in his letter about such things as the language of prayer, which are completely beside the point. He is silent, however, about my assertion that the religion he advocates, which he persists in calling Judaism, is indistinguishable from the religion of a Christian denomination, and for that matter from doctrines entirely indifferent to any concern with God. I take issue with the name—Judaism—that he seeks to give to his ideas and with his attempt to ground them in Jewish tradition, whether it be ancient prophecy or modern Reform. It will not do for Rabbi Berger to talk of the Prophets’ universalism and to obscure the fact that they simultaneously taught a particular relation between God and Israel. Similarly, Rabbi Berger is free to decide that Isaac Mayer Wise was mistaken, but Rabbi Berger must be challenged when he says, as he does in his book, that he stands for a return to the Reform of the Pittsburgh Platform. The Pittsburgh Platform expresses Wise’s Judaism, not Rabbi Berger’s. In answer to Rabbi Berger’s incredulous question, Wise (a moderate Reformer), Einhorn and Kohler (radical Reformers), Shulman and Morgenstern, would all say yes, Judaism is superior.
Rabbi Berger gives a long list of pairs of controversialists in Jewish history. It would have been even longer if he had added Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Raba, Saadia and Ben Meir, Eybeschuetz and Emden, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Wise and Einhorn, and a host of others as well—longer, but equally irrelevant. Our teachers have always enjoyed controversy, believing that “every controversy for the sake of heaven will in the end be confirmed.” I am sorry I cannot give Rabbi Berger a new interpretation of the conflict between prophet and priest. What I can give him is an interpretation that is not new, but that he does not seem to have heard of yet. Rabbi Berger’s notion that the relation between Prophets and Priests was one of conflict only, the Prophets standing for ethics and universalism and the Priests for ritual and particularism, prevailed among scholars before the First World War; it no longer prevails among them and its survival as a tag of popular enlightenment is another instance of cultural lag. Modern scholarship has few reservations in denying an implacable conflict between Prophets and Priests. The disagreement was about emphasis, not about ethics or ritual, universalism or particularism.
My metaphor of a seamless web is clear enough: controversy has continued to be about emphasis, down to the present; there has been tension in the fabric, but it has not been torn apart. Who more than Einhorn and Kohler exalted ethics and universalism over ritual and particularism? But both Einhorn and Kohler believed in a Jewish community and in the synagogue as the bedrock institution of Judaism. It remained for Rabbi Berger to reject the idea of community and the “paraphernalia of the clerics and professionals”—which must mean the synagogue.
3. There are two references to assimilation in my review—hardly enough to corroborate the results of Rabbi Berger’s venture in mind-reading. I should imagine that it is the business of a man concerned with morals and ethics to “approve or disapprove of history,” but if Rabbi Berger says no, that is all right with me. Still, it is hard to reconcile his disclaimer with such a passage as his account of the origin of the autonomous medieval community—“those Jews who wanted power saw their golden opportunity to rise to power on the backs of other Jews.” As for Deborah, Rabbi Berger did not confine himself to what most historians would say. Speaking of the Israelite tribes, he tells us that “some of them had achieved a considerable degree of assimilation” and that this being so, she had to count on “a lingering memory, which she hoped to find, of a desert god.” His own feeling about it is clearly shown by the verb he chooses—they “had achieved. . . assimilation.” We achieve success, victory, and good things, not failure, defeat, or bad things. For Rabbi Berger, Deborah was a trouble-making nationalist like the later Ezra and Nehemiah, whom he reproves for wanting “to offset the integration [!] that had taken place in Babylon and in Palestine [!] during the years of captivity.”
The jacket of Rabbi Berger’s book describes it as “The Jewish Case Against Zionism.” In the text he declares that the State of Israel “was not necessary to the solution of the refugee problem.” In the light of his own stress on the word “essential” in his letter, I think it clear that I rendered his views accurately in my review. Much could be said about refugees, but it is enough to recall that while some 150,000 non-Jewish displaced persons remain in Europe—which is an abomination and a reproach—practically no Jewish displaced persons remain. The State of Israel made the difference, and one need not be a Zionist to recognize this fact.
4. In writing that “there is no reason to suppose that Rabbi Berger would say an atheist cannot be a Jew,” I made it clear that I was drawing a logical inference, not quoting. Rabbi Berger makes a great show of indignation, but he does not deny the validity of the inference.
5. The extremes that Judaism must reprehend are a desire for Jews without religion and a desire for religion without Jews. The nationalists advocate one extreme. Rabbi Berger is a spokesman for the other, in a particularly extreme form—a “Judaism” without tradition, without a Jewish community, without the synagogue, and quite possibly without God either. For Rabbi Berger, these are outworn threads that he would discard from the tapestry of Judaism, but they are really the warp and woof, and when they are discarded there is no tapes-try left. If Rabbi Berger still does not understand, I would remind him of two remarkable men who were contemporaries, Isaac M. Wise and Felix Adler. Wise’s Judaism is part of the seamless web I was talking about, and Adler’s Ethical Culture is not.
New York City