Commentary Magazine


Some Attitudes Toward Jews

Formalist in the Kremlin

The Jews are a nuisance to Mr. Khrushchev, and he must wish that he could wake one morning and find that they had disappeared—though not by emigration, of course. Writing to Bertrand Russell, talking with foreign visitors, even making speeches to Russian intellectuals, he has to deny Soviet anti-Semitism. Khrushchev is not to be suspected of self-doubt, but it is just barely possible that what infuriates him all the more is a tiny worry he may have about the logic of his denials.

Not that he is worried when he proves to foreigners the impossibility of Soviet anti-Semitism by adducing the number of Jewish wives of the Soviet elite. Only the unfortunate inhabitants of capitalist countries will perceive a likeness between “some of my best friends are Jews” and “some of our best wives are Jewesses.” But when Khrushchev tells Russell that the Soviet Union overcomes crime “by educating and re-educating” criminals, it may occur even to him that it is hard to educate someone (for instance, a speculator, real or alleged, or an embezzler) who has been shot by the executioner. Our ancestors believed that after death they would be rewarded by an eternity of study in Paradise, but that is not a tenet of dialectical materialism. When Khrushchev tells Russell: “There never has been and there is not any policy of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, since the very nature of our multinational socialist state precludes the possibility of such a policy,” can he really have forgotten the Doctors’ Plot? After Stalin’s death the “collective leadership”—it all seems so long ago—denounced the accusation against the doctors as an attempt to “inflame feelings of national enmity,” which is to say, as a policy of anti-Semitism. And if Khrushchev tells Russell that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with the campaign against economic criminals, because others besides Jews have been accused and sentenced, can he have entirely forgotten that in the Doctors’ Plot, too, not all the accused were Jews? Only a majority of them were, as only a majority of the executed so-called embezzlers and speculators have been Jews.

To Russell, and in similar language to the Soviet intellectuals, Khrushchev insists that “which nation has more or fewer criminals of any kind at one time or another is a social and not a national question.” There are good, proletarian Jews, and there are bad, bourgeois Jews. There are good, proletarian Russians, and there were bad, bourgeois Russians. To the intellectuals, illustrating the difference between good and bad Jews, Khrushchev recalls that when the Soviet army captured Marshal von Paulus, a Soviet Jew was serving as his interpreter (bad); but that another Jew, Vinokur, well and favorably known to Khrushchev, was a commissar in a brigade that took part in the capture (good). It is curious that Khrushchev, a faithful collectivist, should have such a marked partiality for anecdotes about this man and that man. But then, if he were to talk of social movements and social forces, the bad Jewish interpreter would not count for much, and it might be more appropriate, in distinguishing between good Russians and bad Russians, to talk about something rather more significant than anecdotes—for instance, Vlasov’s turncoat army, which had no use at all for Jews, even as interpreters.

It is not the most important criticism that can be made of Khrushchev, but he is really a formalist. In the 19th century the formalist spirit of bourgeois law taught that trade unions were a conspiracy to be repressed, because nothing must be allowed to infringe upon the freedom of the individual worker to negotiate the terms of his employment with his employer. For the formalist, the poverty, need, and ignorance of the worker and the incomparably greater power of the employer were beside the point. Anatole France’s jeer summed it all up: “The law, in its majestic impartiality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.”

But times change. In countries like the United States there is less formalism than there used to be and more feeling for substantive justice. Our surviving formalists would abolish special protective legislation for working women, but they are in a hopeless minority.

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Today it is in the Soviet Union that formalism thrives. There is an embedded popular anti-Semitism; the government itself has admitted that only ten years ago an official anti-Semitic incitement was building up to something huge and ugly (from which the Jews were saved only by the providential death of Stalin); there are many points of similarity between the present Soviet publicity about economic offenders and the publicity then about doctors, rootless cosmopolitans, and swindlers; but Khrushchev says that what is going on in his country is designed only to “protect honest working people” and “the morals of socialist society.” To suggest anything else is “bourgeois propaganda . . . slander and falsification”—which is how Stalin’s faithful used to characterize anxiety about his anti-Semitism. For Khrushchev, the disproportionately large number of Jews among those executed for economic crimes is “a social and not a national question.” If Mr. Kennedy wanted to, he could say that about the disproportionately small number of Negroes in desirable government jobs; he could say that if they have not taken and passed the civil-service examinations, as individuals they must be unqualified. Instead, a special effort is made to recruit Negroes.

One lesson that we can learn from Khrushchev’s annoyance at being put on the defensive is the value of protest. His letter to Russell and his speech to the intellectuals can only help the Russian Jews. The signal may have been given to judges and prosecutors to relent a little, because the Kremlin now thinks it has had to pay too high a price in embarrassment. To be sure, Khrushchev chose to write to a friend of the Soviet Union, as Russell calls himself. But when, explicitly or implicitly, one makes concessions under pressure, it is always to a friend. That is elementary face-saving.

Finally, to cap Khrushchev’s anecdote, his friend Vinokur has been here for some time. In Russia, Vinokur wrote in Russian and Yiddish. Here, as Hershl Weinrauch, he has written a novel in Yiddish, The Commissars, recently published. It will not make Khrushchev happy. Khrushchev will move Vinokur-Weinrauch from the good-friend to the bad-enemy column, and be further confirmed in his belief that you can’t trust the Jews. If he were not a formalist, he might ask himself what there is about the Soviet Union that turns commissars into critics. Or, as the kolkhoznik asked the Agitprop man, “If everything is so good, comrade, why is everything so bad?”

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Unitarians, Trinitarians

Elsewhere in this issue Martin E. Marty reports at some length on Bernhard E. Olson’s Faith and Prejudice. What I found particularly striking in Dr. Olson’s work was his discussion of the treatment of Jews and Judaism in the materials prepared by the liberal Unitarian and the Neo-Orthodox Presbyterian educators.

American Jews are apt to know, or we think we know, more about Unitarians than Presbyterians: “Unitarians believe in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston,” or “Unitarians believe in one God—at most.” Ever since Moses Mendelssohn, Unitarianism has been the Christian persuasion that Jews have found it least distressing to pass into; in 1799 Mendelssohn’s disciple, David Friedländer, anonymously proposed to a Berlin clergyman that the Jews would become Christians if they were allowed to subscribe to a unitarian rather than a trinitarian credo. (In the Unitarian church of an Episcopalian friend and her Catholic husband—both agnostics—between a quarter and a third of the congregation are Jews.) We remember that the young Emerson was a Unitarian minister, and we remember The Education of Henry Adams:

In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution. Boston had solved the universe; or had offered and realized the best solution yet tried. The problem was worked out.

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible, and he learned religious poetry by heart; he believed in a mild deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. Even the mild discipline of the Unitarian Church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church.

About Presbyterianism most of us do not know much more than this: that Princeton was originally a Presbyterian institution; that the ethnic background is Scottish; that the theology is, or used to be, Calvinist; that Milton, punning etymologically, said: “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large.”

From Dr. Olson we learn that the educational materials of both the Unitarian and the Presbyterian Churches are against anti-Semitism, but that the Presbyterian materials are more affirmative about Judaism. Here are the Unitarians:

The liberal’s universality is predicated on a “many roads to truth” approach. . . . Mankind is bound together by its common search and by the oneness of truth. . . . “If you exchange ideas with a liberal of the Jewish faith, you will find him close to your own. . . . You will not be surprised if one of your friends calls himself both Christian and Buddhist, if you know something of the essentials of each faith. . . . And you will appreciate the Hindu affirmation that truth shines more brilliantly when it shines from many angles, like the diamond with its many facets.” . . .

The natural is prior to the historical, and for the liberal those experiences which antedate others are considered to be controlling in religion as in life. For example . . . the antecedents [of Hanukkah and Christmas] are found to be mid-winter festivals, celebrating the yearly cycle of death and rebirth symbolized also in the equinox. Seen in this way, it is recommended that in educating the young child Jews and Christians can unite in stressing those natural similarities which make sense and have value for all children rather than the particular historical meanings which tend to set off these holidays, and Jews and Christians themselves, from each other. . . .

There are . . . ideas which liberals feel they must surrender because they stand in the way of the emergence of a world faith. . . . [It is wrong for] Judaism and Christianity to regard themselves as proclaiming unique messages, therefore implicity contradicting the unitary conception of reality and truth. . . .

“The children . . . found that it [the Bible] was about ancient beliefs which somehow were not very different from the beliefs of the primitive people they had already studied.”

The Neo-Orthodox (Presbyterians) speak quite differently:

Although they also have a respectful, if critical, attitude toward other faiths, the neo-orthodox writers unqualifiedly identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this respect, neo-orthodoxy is particularistic; it places itself in one specific tradition in the world, and not in many. From within this tradition, however, it seeks to establish a firm basis for positive and responsible relations with other religious groups. . . .

“The God of the Hebrew-Christian tradition is a God who has acted in history. This accounts for the superior quality of Judaism and Christianity over other religions that have worshipped a god who is primarily a nature deity.” . . . This understanding of God’s reality comes to man through a specific religious history, namely the history of the Jewish people and the church. . . . As one writer asserts: “and in understanding the history of Israel, we gain an understanding of mankind.”

Essentially . . . prejudice and intergroup hostility is a rejection of God through the substitution of personal, cultural, and tribal gods.

If everyone acted in the future as Unitarian or Presbyterian children are now being taught, all would be well, and in that sense the Unitarian and Presbyterian materials are equally good. Dr. Olson is objective and impressively successful in thinking himself into the other man’s “faith perspective.” Yet it is clear that he likes the Presbyterian outlook better than the Unitarian. So do I, though as a Jew I am bewildered by trinitarianism.

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Whatever the statistics of affiliation may be, Unitarianism approximates closely to “the American religion”—what most Americans really believe, as distinguished from what the several churches tell their members they ought to believe. On the Jewish side, Unitarianism is often seen as not much different from Ethical Culture; and Ethical Culture was a kind of left-wing Reform, created by Jews, where ex-Jews and ex-Christians could unite in honorable equality. Only somehow, to this day, Jews remain more eager than Christians to be ex.

For some Jews, therefore, the Unitarians’ lack of regard for Judaism is unlikely to be a fatal defect. It goes with a perhaps even greater lack of regard for traditional Christianity. More importantly, it points toward a future when both Judaism and Christianity have dwindled away. Since Mendelssohn, that has been the form that messianism has assumed among many. For those attracted to a revolutionary variant of this kind of messianism, the favorite verse in “The Internationale” has been “No more tradition’s chains shall bind us”: the modern, acceptable equivalent of Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek.”

Conversely the Neo-Orthodox Protestant insistence on the special place of Judaism and the Jewish people in the divine economy repels rather than attracts such Jews. But it does not repel only the un-Jewish Jews. Reconstructionists, for example, certainly do not want the Jewish people and tradition to disappear, but they are theologically not very different from Unitarians and Ethical Culturists. And even Jews more traditional than the Reconstructionists could apply to Christian esteem for Judaism and the Jewish people an aphorism of the Rabbis: la mi-duvshakh we-la me-‘uqtaskh—“don’t kiss me and don’t kick me” (literally, “neither your honey nor your sting”). For while the Presbyterian educators are exemplary people, historically there was a line that connected the special place of Judaism in Christian thought with the persecution of Jews. Even pious Jews, in their anguish, have sometimes debated with themselves whether the destiny for which God chose us—as we say when we thank Him, “Thou hast chosen us from among all the peoples”—is a blessing or a curse. That was one reason why Zionism wished to “normalize” the Jews, i.e., to make them less special.

Having said all this, knowing that the curse has been the verso to the blessing’s recto, I still think that the Neo-Orthodox position is better for the Jews—hallowed phrase!—than the Unitarian. Why are the African intellectuals and their European and American friends so concerned to discover and reveal a glorious African past? In principle, it should be enough for Africans to know that Europeans and Americans respect them for the humanity that we all have in common. So Melvin Lasky has argued in Encounter, questioning the need for rehabilitating the African past and suggesting that in their enthusiasm some of the Africans and pro-Africans may be mixing invention with discovery. But for the Africans, obviously, equality with other human beings, as human beings, is not enough. They need to know for themselves, and they need to have others know, that the African past is not empty, let alone contemptible. They feel that their present, human as well as African, cannot be suspended over a past that is void or worthless. They want their ancestors and their ancestors’ achievements to be respected, and they will not believe you if you tell them that you respect them and their present but not their fathers and then-past. I hope the Africans are successful in uncovering and making public a past they seek. For myself, I resent know-it-all teachers who encourage know-it-all children to judge my ancestral tradition as primitive.

I doubt that Arnold Toynbee is a dues-paying Unitarian, but he might as well be. In his religious syncretism, in his preference for Oriental religion (which in Occidentals is often a sign that something nasty is about to be said of Judaism), in his distaste for the Jewish tradition, and in his harsh judgments upon us, he does not differ greatly from the Unitarian writers. As late as in Reconsiderations, Toynbee could say: “. . . in the Jewish Zionists I see disciples of the Nazis.” Similarly, after the Israelis caught Eichmann a Unitarian minister wrote in the Unitarian Register: “In the ethical sense I can see little difference between the Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew.” A Neo-Orthodox writer would not say that, if only because he would feel himself implicated in the corporate sin of Christendom against the Jews. The Unitarian, for whom sin is a primitive concept and who may not identify with Christendom, has no scruples about saying it—especially since his ethical sense is so uniquely well-developed.

The invincible self-righteousness and self-satisfaction are not new. Adams, reflecting on the Unitarian Boston of his childhood, said:

. . . that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future, and should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.

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Of the educational materials that Dr. Olson examined, he writes:

Liberal teachings are more abstractly relevant and the neo-orthodox more concretely relevant to the given situations. . . . The liberal’s monistic view of reality leaves little place for the fundamental cleavages in society, for a recognition of basic conflicts which may perpetuate endless pluralisms, for the prime importance of the particular as against the universal and the uniquely historical as against the natural. On the other hand, the neo-orthodox faith centers in a personal God who has acted in a specific history. . . . This . . . view of reality, revealed to a particular people, makes a much larger place for deep and fundamental cleavages in society, for basic conflicts, for differences, concreteness, and specificity than does a monistic faith. . . .

Does anti-ethnocentrism make a place for all by affirming some common denominator, or does it do so by affirming the right of each group to its own particular existence, its uniqueness, or its right to be different and to contradict the assumptions of those who affirm a common core? . . . There are a variety of ways of crossing group lines, and there are different kinds of antidotes to ethnocentrism. . . .

For the 1,600 years or so between Constantine and Hitler, in the Western world, our persecutors were Christians. It has remained for the 20th century to produce anti-Christian persecutors of Jews, worse than all their Christian forerunners—Hitler and Stalin. The historical record now shows that neither the religion nor the irreligion of gentiles, nor gentile religious liberalism, guarantees friendship or even minimal humanity toward Jews. In Germany Hitler’s theologians included liberals, who despised Jewish (or Judeo-Christian) particularity and who saw themselves as being enlisted in a crusade to liberate Christianity from an unbecoming and constrictive attachment to its Jewish origins.

The liberals offer me friendship because I am a man, but slight my tradition and memories. The Neo-Orthodox offer me friendship because God is my father, and the father of all men; and they also honor my tradition. If most Jews nevertheless prefer the liberals, as I believe they do, that is only because our modernity is by now creaky with irrelevance.

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Gracious Living

Does anyone still doubt that Orthodoxy is as American as Madison Avenue and apple pie? Let him consider these advertisements:

  1. PLANNING A MOVE TO THE SUBURBS? I would suggest that you seriously consider West Hempstead. In addition to its country-like spaciousness and its nearness to the city, West Hempstead has a flourishing Young Israel and an excellent Yeshiva going from kindergarten through Junior High.
  2. ARE YOU PLANNING TO MOVE? ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AN ORTHODOX COMMUNITY? CONSIDER . . . WINDSOR PARK. The advantages of country club living. . . . Two blocks from the YOUNG ISRAEL OF WINDSOR PARK, in the heart of a thriving ORTHODOX community.
  3. Spacious 4-bedroom, 30-year old brick home, in most desirable section of Far Rockaway, New York’s fabulous Modern Orthodox Suburban Community, 50 minutes from mid-town Manhattan. Home has large kitchen and dinettepantry and washing machine room [etc.] . Choose from 3 of the country’s best Yeshivas for the education of your children. Walk to [Congregation A] or [Synagogue B (Spiritual leader: Rabbi Reuben X)] , or [Synagogue C (Spiritual leader: Rabbi Simeon Y)], or other Synagogues. Price: $26,500. Cash: $6,500 above 25-year mortgage. . . .
  4. “ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO” in Far Rockaway. Luxurious split-level house in estate-like setting in exclusive area. A distinctive home designed for gracious living for the executive on the way up. 3 Master Bedrooms, Maid’s Room, 3 Full Baths, Walnut Paneled Den, All Birch Kitchen, Cedar Closet, 13 x 20 Screened Porch, 2 Patios, All Appliances, Carpeting, Built-ins and many, many other extras. Within walking distance of [Congregation A, Synagogue B, Synagogue C] and other Synagogues. Your choice of 3 excellent Yeshivas. Friendly and active Orthodox community. A buyer’s dream at $37,000. With adjoining beautifully landscaped plot $45,000.

It is easy to poke fun at this sort of thing, but choosing a community to live in because of the fame of its rabbis, synagogues, and yeshivot is more admirable than choosing one because of the social prestige that attaches to it. Still, that last ad is a bit much.

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