Commentary Magazine


Toynbee, Pro and Con

To the Editor:

Rabbi Jacob B. Agus has placed us in his debt by his discussion on “Toynbee’s Epistle to the Jews” [September]. He demonstrates what all perspicacious readers have realized right along, that the new Toynbee does not differ from the old except in vocabulary. However, Rabbi Agus’s summation of Toynbee’s position needs a slight emendation. Agus writes: Toynbee “now thinks of the Jewish religion stripped of non-essentials as the hope of the world, while he is convinced that Jewish nationalism is almost certain to cause a resurgence of anti-Semitism.” Toynbee’s view would be better summarized as follows: “He now thinks of the Jewish religion stripped of all its Jewish characteristics as the hope of the world, etc.”

So much for Dr. Toynbee’s prescription for the Jewish people. If the patient follows the doctor’s advice, a glorious destiny awaits it—it will assimilate and disappear like the ancient Romans, leaving a trail of glory behind. If the patient proves recalcitrant and refuses to take the doctor’s medicine, an inglorious fate awaits him—he will be annihilated by a recrudescence of anti-Semitism. As a religious believer, Toynbee holds fast to the doctrine of free will, and gives the Jewish people a fair choice: “Heads I win, tails you lose.” But it serves them right, since Zionism, as every inhabitant of Dr. Toynbee’s never-never-land knows, is responsible for the emergence of Nazism and can scarcely be told apart from it.

Oh for a few good old-fashioned enemies with whom we could hope to cope! It is clear that our friends and their apologists are too much for us.

(Dr.) Robert Gordis
Temple Beth-El
Long Island, New York

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To the Editor:

Why has Rabbi Agus become the one Melitz Yosher—pleader—for a man who has openly declared the Jewish people to be nothing more than a fossilized group with vestigial remnants of ancient Syria? Is Rabbi Agus so naive as to think that Professor Toynbee has changed his mind because he seems to have “reconsidered” his first allegations in his new “reconsiderations”? . . .

Dr. Toynbee reminds me, I am afraid, of a very fine woman in our community who spoke rather unkindly about another. Then suddenly I was surprised to hear her reverse her approach and speak very favorably. I was convinced that when she saw that nothing had happened after speaking evil of the person, she came to believe that if she failed to use the expression “Kein ayin hora” (“may no evil eye attack her”) after speaking well of the woman, evil would befall her. Toynbee, I am afraid, is using the same tactics. He saw he got nowhere with his first attack; he now resorts to the second method of telling the world what a wonderful people the Jews are and that they have the solution to the world’s problems through Judaism. . . .

Judaism holds no such dreams, and Rabbi Agus should let dead dogs sleep. His defense of this arch enemy of the Jews—Toynbee compares the Jews to the Hitlerites when he sees the “poor” Arabs being left out in the rain by the establishment of the State of Israel—is in poor taste. Toynbee is no “babe in the woods.”

(Rabbi) Abraham E. Halpern
Congregation B’nai Amoona
St. Louis, Missouri

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To the Editor:

Rabbi Agus’s article . . . undoubtedly will aid in exonerating Dr. Toynbee from charges of anti-Semitism; indeed it would be intellectually untenable to sustain such charges in view of Dr. Toynbee’s lecture to the British section of the Jewish Congress.

But what else does his new book contribute to . . . Jews perplexed by their persent-day dilemma which the existence of the State of Israel has called forth? Dr. Toynbee’s charge that nationalism is one of the major causes of the rise of anti-Semitism may aid him in the pattern he imposes upon history, but the question remains whether this theory . . . is adequate. . . .

Ever since the dispersion, anti-Semitism has been an aspect of Western civilization. The medieval Jew suffered as did the Jew in the modern nation-state. . . . The fanatic Crusader killing Jews whom local Church authorities often tried to protect, the French bourgeoisie ranting against le juif Dreyfus, and the holocaust in Germany point to more universal and more general causes, and to name nationalism as THE cause seems oversimplification. . . .

Arthur Dermer
Brookline, Massachusetts

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Rabbi Agus writes:

Dr. Gordis’s letter illustrates a rabbinic adage—“his very acuteness leads him to error.” While Toynbee condemns Zionism in the most bitter terms, even referring to Zionists as “disciples of the Nazis,” he does not ever state that Zionism was “responsible for the emergence of Nazism.” At the time when “our good old-fashioned enemies” brought about the annihilation of six million Jews, it is hard to see why we should strive by subtle “emendation” or crude distortion to add the worldwide renown of a great savant to the armory of our foes.

Friends may be wrong. “Whisper it not in Gath”—even we rabbis can be wrong. Toynbee’s concept of the Jewish “mission” does not differ from that of the great Reform masters—Geiger, Montefiore, Einhorn, and Kohler.

I happen to concur in Dr. Gordis’s judgment about the indispensability of Jewish ritual and “communal identity.” My dissent is expounded at length in the essay which is printed as XV Annex in Toynbee’s last volume, Reconsiderations.

As to nationalism, Toynbee regards it as the pseudo-faith of many moderns. Few will doubt that, in the 20th century, anti-Semitism derives from the racial myths and ethnic idolatries of Gentile nations. Since by the law of Newton, every action evokes an equal and opposite reaction, a renascent, worldwide Jewish nationalism might lead to a resurgence of Gentile racism. Toynbee rejects the notion that anti-Semitism is the inevitable and inescapable lot of Jews in the Diaspora.

In answer to Rabbi Halpern’s question, I agree that I served as a Melitz Yosher, but in the original Hebraic sense of the term—i.e., as “a just interpreter.” I sought to interpret Judaism and Jewish history to Toynbee and Toynbee to the Jews. A breakdown in meaningful dialogue on the highest levels of scholarship leads to melancholy consequences on the lowest levels of popular mythology. So Fichte and Treitschke led to Wagner, Chamberlain, and Rosenberg. Furthermore, our own people are more likely to read Toynbee than the works of Jewish historians.

As to the folklore and myth in his letter—it is delicious. And it speaks for itself.

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