Commentary Magazine

A Partisan History of Judaism, by Elmer Berger

Anti-Zionist Ideology: Religious Style
A Partisan History of Judaism.
by Elmer Berger.
Devin-Adair. 140 pp. $3.00.


Fanaticism, in Santayana’s definition, consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. Fifteen years ago Rabbi Berger started to protest that secular Jewish nationalism (particularly Zionism) was exploiting, corrupting, and undermining Jewish religion. Setting himself to oppose that danger by preaching a return to the ideals of the ancient prophets and the leaders of 19th-century Reform, he has in the heat of battle come around to the position he announces in this book, which would empty Judaism of any content at all. The result is that he does a disservice to the very purpose that he originally sought to further.

Rabbi Berger attempts to justify his frankly partisan document by the plea that since so much Jewish writing gives undue stress to the element of particularity in the Jewish tradition, he is merely trying to restore the balance by considering only the element of universality in it. In considering a green object that some have described as yellow, are we required by truth to describe it as green, which it is, or as blue, in order to redress the balance that has been disturbed by those who call it yellow? Rabbi Berger would call it blue. What is more, he would end by believing that it is blue and would condemn anybody calling it green as deficient in zeal against the yellowists or as actually in covert league with them. A great Christian authority on Judaism, George Foot Moore, who surely was free of the ideological biases that Rabbi Berger detects in Jewish scholars, showed that it is false to talk of Judaism as universal or particular, and that the essence of Judaism is precisely its combination of the universal and the particular in one seamless web. To revert to our metaphor of the colors, the object is green, uniting in itself both yellow and blue.



With fanaticism come other qualities. One of these is a sort of contempt for the ordinary run of men, who are not privy to the great, simple, blinding Truth. If Rabbi Berger did not have this contemptuous attitude toward the unconverted reader, he could not bring himself to present the teaching of Amos in one verse: “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel?” The Bible is not yet entirely a closed book, and there are still people who know another text in Amos: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (Reinhold Niebuhr sees in the tension between these two verses the clearest possible statement of one facet of the complex relation between God and Israel; Niebuhr puts special emphasis on the “therefore” of the second verse.)

There is the loss of a sense of reality and human feeling. Thus Rabbi Berger, who might be expected to have more understanding of historical scholarship than most, can be guilty of such a ludicrous anachronism as disapproving of Deborah for hindering the assimilation of the Israelite tribes to the civilization of Canaan. In contemporary matters, he can seriously assert that the establishment of the State of Israel has served no humanitarian purpose at all.

There is a coarsening of thought, leading to an analysis of the development of social institutions in terms of what can only be called a racket interpretation of history. The autonomous medieval community, he explains, arose because “when the church-state combine emerged following the Constantine decree, those Jews who wanted power saw their golden opportunity to rise to power on the backs of other Jews.” Similarly, as executive director of the American Council for Judaism he is proud to say that the Council stands for “the Judaism of the Prophets . . . without all the paraphernalia of the clerics and professionals”—the implication being that the institutions of religion are merely a clerical racket.

All these things considered, it was probably inevitable that Rabbi Berger, for a book purporting to discuss with his fellow Jews ‘the proper development of Judaism, should solicit an introduction by a publicist and clergyman of another faith who frankly states that he knows little of Judaism. He does dislike the State of Israel, however, and he does worry about the interest of American Jews in that state. Was Rabbi Berger unable to find someone genuinely informed about Judaism who shares his point of view?



Just as Rabbi Berger seeks to lay claim to the prophetic tradition, so he seeks to appropriate the tradition of classical Reform, especially as it is expressed in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.

That the Reformers of the past century were deeply hostile to Jewish nationalism there can be no doubt. But there can also be no doubt that they believed in a Jewish community dedicated to religious ends and spreading God’s truth in the world. The Pittsburgh Platform itself, after saying that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation,” immediately adds, “but a religious community.” It uses the even stronger word “people,” as when it asserts a belief in “the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission.” (The standard work on the theology of Reform, Kaufmann Kohler’s Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered, has been described as being informed by Kohler’s “warm love for the Jewish people.” In this the most impressive intellectual exponent of Reform is at one with the Hasidic saint Levi Isaac of Berditchev.)

The idea that the Jews constitute a people, though in a spiritual sense and for spiritual ends, would be unacceptable to Rabbi Berger. Perhaps he is right in suspecting the word, the perils of semantics being what they are today. But Rabbi Berger would not even accept the idea or the word of community. For him there are only individual Jews. A keystone of Isaac Mayer Wise’s religion, to which Rabbi Berger says he would have us return, was the mission of Israel—in Biblical language, to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” He quotes the verse only to laugh at it. The Jews he knows, he says, are ordinary well-meaning people, and it would be ridiculous to think of them as a priesthood with a mission. They themselves would be embarrassed by such a thought. Presumably Isaac Mayer Wise, as he looked at the congregations he served, was also aware of the discrepancy between the actual and the ideal; that would not require unusual acumen. Wise nevertheless believed in the mission. Rabbi Berger rejects it.

Actually, it is not easy to determine what Rabbi Berger believes, in any positive sense of belief. He does say that he disapproves of “complete assimilation,” defined as “leaving Judaism altogether.” But it is hard to understand how anyone can leave Rabbi Berger’s Judaism, which is like the ether that the physicists used to talk about: very rarefied, and therefore ubiquitous and clinging. Indeed, it is hard to understand why Rabbi Berger chooses to call his religion Judaism. It might just as well be Unitarianism; he urges “mounting attention to the universal, moral truths which Jeremiah and Jesus found in the intimacies of the spirit of the individual.” Or it could be any one of the variety of humanist doctrines; the moral truths he talks of derive from man exclusively, and in no way from God. There is no reason to suppose that Rabbi Berger would say an atheist cannot be a Jew. Such inclusiveness is normal in nationalist thinking, whether of the Bundist or of the Zionist sort, but it is somewhat unexpected in the philosophy of a man so deeply committed to an exclusively religious criterion of Jewish identity. Once again, les extrêmes se touchent.



Rabbi Berger begins with a quotation from Job: “Would that mine adversary had written a book,” wryly conceding that his nationalist opponents will welcome the opportunity of joining the issue with him. He could hardly have cooperated better with his adversaries than by writing exactly this kind of book. They will like his definition of the issues because they know that you can’t beat something with nothing, and the Judaism that Rabbi Berger seeks to oppose to their nationalism is pretty close to nothing. They will especially like his insistence that to disagree with him necessarily means to agree with them. Actually, of course, both he and they distort the tradition and the relevance of Judaism. The growth of either extreme would probably not be fatal to Judaism, which has survived worse dangers, but it would be damaging.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.