Commentary Magazine

Rome & Jerusalem

Their Problem, Our Problem

We had an outbreak of Jewish self-respect this summer. Orthodox rabbis in their convention, Reform rabbis in theirs, the National Community Relations Advisory Council, the World Jewish Congress assembled in Jerusalem—all were scornful of active Jewish interest in having the Vatican Council issue a declaration on Christian relations with the Jews and Judaism. The cry was that anti-Semitism is a Christian, not a Jewish problem, for Christians to solve on their own and for self-respecting Jews to stay away from. Though no offender was mentioned by name, the newspapers made it clear that the self-respecters had the American Jewish Committee in mind.

The orthodox, if not entirely candid, at least were unmoved by institutional envy. Basically, and with ever-lessening dissent, they oppose a softening in the ancient hostility between Christians and Jews. They now believe, almost to a man, that Judaism can survive only behind ramparts; and if Jews are to keep the ramparts strong and to avoid venturing out from behind them, they must either be or expect soon to be under siege. But improved Catholic attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism, decreed from the Vatican itself, would weaken the Jewish sense of being besieged and might lead to a crumbling of the ramparts. For the Orthodox, then, a Jewish contribution toward improving Christian attitudes would be wrong not as sinning against self-respect—that is only useful rhetoric—but as weakening the appeal of the ramparts policy. The dwindling minority who disagree are about as well-regarded in their communion as Republican liberals in the Goldwater party.

The other critics' equation of Jewish self-respect with leaving it to the Christians to deal with their anti-Semitism has its comical side. A week after the New York Times, covering the World Jewish Congress, had reported that “Goldmann Criticizes Jews for Seeking Pope's Aid,” Civiltà Cattolica recalled a visit and “a long memorandum” by Dr. Goldmann to Cardinal Bea. (But that was in another country . . . .) Reform Judaism has the Jewish Chautauqua Society, founded more than seventy years ago, to enlighten Christians about Jews and Judaism, and its seminary boasts of the Christian divines enrolled in its graduate courses. Conservative Judaism, one of whose spokesmen led the attack on deficient self-respect at the NCRAC, later, at a meeting of its World Council in Mexico City, formally expressed the hope that Vatican II would issue the right kind of declaration. That anti-Semitism is a Christian problem is what Jews have been saying for as long as anyone can remember. If it is the kind of Christian problem that self-respecting Jews do not meddle with, why are all those self-respecting Jewish defense agencies prolonging their existence?

It is normal politics to deprecate what someone else did that you would have liked to do yourself, but there is a worrisome possibility that the punch-line of the old joke applies here: “Rabbi, that fellow doesn't understand subtleties, he means it.” Can it be that some Jews, and even rabbis, really believe that anti-Semitism is a Christian problem—believe it, that is, as something more than a tautology?

Nazism was a German, not a Jewish problem: manifestly, to embrace such nonsense and to be devoted to a Hitler could only mean that Germany had a real problem, as we say of a severely disturbed person that he has a problem. In the German case the psychotic's problem meant his neighbor's death. In the United States the denial of justice to the Negroes is not a Negro, it is a white problem, but the Negroes suffer, not the whites. They are constantly aware of the problem, and we only occasionally. It was Negroes who had to demonstrate, North and South, before some whites started to demonstrate, too. They are only about one in ten of the American population, but they were about three of four in the March on Washington. Were they lacking in self-respect because their share of the Washington marchers was so disproportionate to their share in the American population?


One way of trying to make sense of those statements about self-respect is that we Jews in America have been leading such a quiet and comfortable life lately that we may have begun to believe that anti-Semitism is not even a Christian problem. Perhaps the calculation goes something like this: Christian thinking about Jews and Judaism has changed so greatly for the better in the last generation—with some encouragement from the Jews, when the need was desperate—that we can now depend on the Christians to be carried by their own momentum, without our continued encouragement.

I hope that that is not what they think, because I would rather believe them disingenuous than foolish. John Maynard Keynes said that businessmen tend to have little memory of the past or imagination for the future but to live in an eternal present, expecting that tomorrow will be much as today is. With Sholem Aleichem's tailor, Keynes's businessman is like a human being: most of us live in an eternal present. But our rabbis should not be like most of us. Of them especially we have the right to expect a sense of history—as the presentness of the past—and an awareness of mutability. Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism are better than they used to be, but they are nowhere within sight of being nearly good enough, and the line on the chart can turn down as well as it can keep going up.

The best declaration by the Vatican Council must still fall short of removing the grounds for Jewish uneasiness, because the essential scripture of Christianity is the New Testament, which is ineradicably anti-Jewish. And even if Christians, with all the good will in the world, try to mute the anti-Jewish animus, it must constantly be reintroduced from what can be called the New Testament culture.


What could be more innocuous than a Greek grammar? Tennyson thought poorly of Jowett, the Plato translator and Master of Balliol who was also an Anglican cleric, for not knowing Hebrew: “Fancy a priest unable to read the scriptures of his own religion as they were written!” By the same reasoning, Christian ministers ought to know Greek. A standard textbook used in Protestant seminaries is J. Gresham Machen's New Testament Greek for Beginners (published 1923, thirty-fifth printing 1962). By the 1920's classical studies had so declined in the United States that large numbers of college graduates were entering the seminaries Greekless. The book continues to meet their need, not even assuming some knowledge of Latin.

Machen was an interesting figure. A learned Fundamentalist and something of a reactionary, he seceded from the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary to protest against the growing liberalism and modernism of most of his colleagues and helped to found Westminster Theological Seminary. He regarded theological liberalism as soft-headed and dangerously anti-intellectual, and H.L. Mencken himself, not noted for a partiality to the Fundamentalists, thought that Machen had the better of it in controversy.

Of course this does not appear in the textbook, which would not have been very different if Machen had been a liberal. What the book does is to present the grammar and some of the vocabulary of the New Testament. Instead of translating “My aunt's pen is on the table” (or its equivalent for classical Greek, “Why did the triremes not flee more rapidly?”), the student is asked to translate “The Lord will come to His Church in glory.” But here and. there one also finds translation exercises like these: “After the Lord was risen, the Jews persecuted His disciples. . . . When they have killed Jesus, they will cast out of their synagogues those who have believed on him. . . . This is the race that killed those who believe on Jesus. . . . The king of the Jews was doing these things because he wished to kill the children in the village.”

Suppose that every last professor of theology or New Testament or history goes out of his way to soften the anti-Jewish import of his material and every professor of Christian education to warn against biased lesson materials for the young. That is not only unlikely, it also would be inadequate. Learning neither theology nor history but only grammar and vocabulary, while their guard is down, so to speak, well-intentioned future ministers and prelates of a religion that for sixteen centuries has been dominant rather than dominated, who study and reside in stately, well-endowed edifices, come to identify themselves once again with a Church poor, pure, and persecuted by a Synagogue big, bad, and bullying. Rulers of the earth see themselves as the poor in spirit whose kingdom is in heaven; builders and occupants of cathedrals are still, in their own minds, being cast out of synagogues. If it does not happen when they are learning theology, it can happen when they are struggling with the Greek verb.

Christian anti-Semitism is going to be with us for some time to come, and Christians will always need nudging to accept it as their problem.

Our Fundamentalists

An outward and visible sign of the new Orthodox aggressiveness in the United States is the year-old English-language publication of Agudath Israel, Jewish Observer. Agudath Israel was founded in Europe before the First War, an uneasy coalition of East European Hasidim and Mitnaggedim, unfriendly to each other, who spoke Yiddish and disliked secular education, and Germans of the Hirsch-Breuer school, who had a good secular education. Here nearly all the Agudah's followers are of East European origin or background, but in the circumstances of American life and in the publication of an English journal, the German element naturally tends to be somewhat emphasized.

In principle, Agudath Israel's great enemy is secularism and apostasy; in practice, an Orthodoxy that is not intransigent enough for its taste. The Agudah is harsh to assimilationists, harsher to secular Zionists, still harsher to Reform and Conservatism, and harshest of all to the Orthodox who in one way or another cooperate with or merely recognize other Jews—Mizrachi Zionists; rabbis and synagogues in organizations (like the Synagogue Council or rabbinical boards) where non-Orthodox rabbis and synagogues are also represented; and, unmistakably though not quite explicitly, Yeshiva University and the more or less moderate Orthodoxy that is staffed by the graduates of its seminary. The message is simple and repeated like an incantation: total opposition to all that does not totally oppose what is not totally Orthodox.

The first time I read that R. Moses Schreiber (Sofer), better known as the Hatam Sofer, had raised against the nascent modernization of his day the slogan, “Hadash asur min ha-Torah”—what is new is forbidden by the Torah—I was suspicious. It seemed to me that this must be an invention of his enemies and that no one in his right mind could have thought it, let alone issued it as a political-religious catchword. Later I learned that I was mistaken. Now Jewish Observer, proclaiming its fidelity to the Hatam Sofer's tradition, repeats the slogan. It has reprinted a comparison of Prague and Bratislava (formerly Press-burg) by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, who died in the 1930's. In Bratislava, where the Hatam Sofer was rabbi, a relentless war was fought against the modernizers and anyone who would compromise with them. Not so in Prague. A hundred years after the Hatam Sofer's death, Bratislava was still a fortress of Jewish piety and learning, while Prague was a wasteland. Q.E.D.—on the assumption that the only significant difference between Prague and Bratislava was that the Hatam Sofer was rabbi of one and not of the other. But what an assumption! As well compare Odessa with Shnipishok. Yet this is the sort of thing that can be published today for devotees who are shown by letters to the editor to include an Air Force officer and a college teacher.

The attack is on the Orthodox who refuse to declare war on the non-Orthodox, and the logical step is taken from attacking them to questioning their Orthodoxy. Of course, the Agudists never give the title of rabbi to Rabbi Louis Jacobs of England—though he was ordained at a yeshiva of the kind they like, it would be astonishing if they called him that. But they also withhold the title from a congregational rabbi who is both a Yeshiva University professor and a former president of the rabbinical association of Yeshiva's alumni. He, too, becomes Doctor. In effect, therefore, non-Agudah Orthodox rabbis are being threatened with contemptuous rejection of their qualifications, as if they were Conservative or Reform rabbis. (A parallel: thirty years ago Communists, Socialists, and connoisseurs understood exactly what Earl Browder was doing when he addressed Norman Thomas as Mister, not Comrade.)

But let the Orthodox of the Yeshiva kind take heart. Though the Agudah complains of heresy, what bothers it more than anything else is the inclusive communal policy of Yeshiva's alumni. If they accept the Agudah's exclusive policy, much will be forgiven. Today Israel Azriel Hildesheimer has an implicit near-equality with Samson Raphael Hirsch as a spiritual ancestor of the Agudah, but in his lifetime he had trouble with the scions of the Hatam Sofer. Before establishing in Berlin the rabbinical seminary that came to be called by his name, he was active in Hungary-Slovakia, and there the Soferim gave him a hard time. For them his school, or rather the very type he represented, was a Torah-forbid-den novelty. They denounced the school to the government and hounded him in every way they could. Even when he sided with them against the reformers, they would have nothing to do with him, until finally he had to organize a bloc of his own. (He called it kulturorthodox—civilized Orthodox.) But in Berlin he stood for the Austritt (secessionist) Orthodoxy that Hirsch stood for in Frankfurt, and today Hildesheimer has been rehabilitated, to borrow a term. Which shows, like Hasidism itself, that one generation's forbidden novelty can be a following generation's ancestral tradition.


The strikingly new element in the way Agudath Israel talks now, in the United States, is the sharpness about the Catholic Church. In Central and Eastern Europe the Agudah got along rather well with the Catholics in politics. (It also entered into understandings with the Jewish bourgeois assimilationists.) The old tone is heard in the Agudah's support of federal aid for parochial education—in the interest of its own schools as well as out of a desire for governmental encouragement to religion generally—while the new tone is heard in the insistent repetition that Christianity has always been anti-Semitic and that the Catholic Church aided Hitler. Jewish Observer was pleased with Hochhuth's Deputy, has quoted at length from Professor Guenter Lewy's The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, and has said some strong things about the Popes and a cardinal or two.

Why the difference? The Agudah in Poland in 1934 was hardly likely to be unaware of Christian anti-Semitism, of which it is so aware in the United States in 1964. Once again, the real fight is with the near rather than the far. Among Jews, the Agudah disputes most fiercely with the Orthodox to its left; as between Christians and Jews, more fiercely with Jews. The attack on the Church is not so much on the Church as on the Jews who hope to encourage an improvement in the Church's attitude, and the derision that greets anti-anti-Semitic statements by Pope or cardinals is a derision of the Jews who welcome such statements. In Poland Agudath Israel could be pro-Catholic because that was politics, not influencing private relations or intimate attitudes, but in the United States it fears that relations and attitudes will be influenced. That would be bad for the policy of retreat behind the ramparts. (Yet the Roman Jesuits of Civiltà Cattolica were glad to quote the jeering language of a now loudly anti-Church “Orthodox Jewry against the action of those [Jews] who almost seem to implore the Catholic Church for an explicit declaration absolving the Jewish nation from the deicide accusation.” What is their game?)

There is something else, too. The Agudah probably feels let down by the Church. As long as Catholicism represented intransigence on the great scene, the Agudah did not feel alone in representing intransigence within Jewry. The Church's Syllabus of Errors, a hundred years ago this year, condemned as an error the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff should and can reconcile himself with progress and modern civilization.” In a Jewish frame the Hatam Sofer had already said the same sort of thing, and Hirsch was condemning proposals “to bring Judaism up to date, to adapt it to the needs of the time. . . . instead of complaining that it is no longer suitable to the times, our only complaint must be that the times are no longer suitable to it.” Now the word in the Church is aggiornamento—bringing things up to date—and the Syllabus of Errors has turned into an error.


If I had lived when Enlightenment was clashing with the Hatam Sofer's kind of Orthodoxy, I would have been of the enlighteners. (A Marxist historian now shows them to have been rather less attractive than we their heirs have been brought up to think.) If the Orthodoxy of Agudath Israel were able to affect how I have to live, I would fight. Yet I feel a certain reserve in my opposition to the Agudah and what it stands for. There may be others like me.

Recently I heard a distinguished Israeli man of letters praise the Jewish and humane worth of modern Hebrew literature. He remembers young men and women in the Russian Revolution who killed in the cellars of the Cheka, so devoted were they to the revolutionary ideal; yet, though Hebrew was beginning to be regarded as counterrevolutionary, in secret they still read the poems of Bialik and Chernikhovsky. For him that proved the attraction and power of Hebrew literature. For me, though to say so would have been offensive, it proved the weakness of mere literature, or mere culture. That some of the Nazis who kept the crematoria burning were moved to tears by Beethoven does not prove that music is evil, but neither, certainly, does it prove that music has great power for good. The idealistic Cheka killers who loved Hebrew poetry were not pious Jews. Piety would have kept them from such idealism; culture—whether the Hebrew poetry of Bialik or the Russian of Pushkin—did not keep them from it. They helped to establish the reign of pitilessness. They also helped to suppress Jewish culture, and to oppress Jews.

Throughout our history it has been the stubbornly pious who have resisted the persuasions of self-interest and idealistic universalism, and their resistance has kept them and their descendants from becoming idealistic killers. The moral account of those who yielded to self-interest or what seemed to be idealistic universalism—the two temptations often appear to be one—is not so clean. Spanish apostates from Judaism wanted the Inquisition, to prove their good faith. Among their descendants, we are told, were a St. John of the Cross and a St. Teresa of Avila, but among them also, or such of them as were somehow able to merge with the Old Christians, were men who helped to make Spain what it is, a country whose history is called a tragedy—of fanaticism, hatred, and blood. The intransigent Jews have no guilt for that tragedy, either for themselves or for their descendants. They chose to be victims of oppression, not oppressors.

In another place and at another time, Heine paid the price of baptism for a ticket of admission to Western culture. If he had had descendants, even by the Nuremberg standard they would have been echt Aryan, and some, therefore, would have been Nazis. That cannot be said of the followers of S. R. Hirsch. So that whether we look to Spain or Germany or Russia, and whether from the point of view of Jewish or of universal humane values, we are in no position to laud ourselves above the intransigents.


That may help to explain what I think is a change in historical outlook. It is my impression that while the 19th-century medieval Jewish historians were essentially pro-Sephardi, the 20th-century ones are pro-Ashkenazi. In the 19th century the Sephardim of the Middle Ages were an attractive model for Jews who wanted to be modern. They showed that Jews could remain Jews and still be at home in the general culture, or even do remarkable things in philosophy, literature, and science. That was necessary for reassuring the modernizing Jews, half-suspicious of their own motives, and was thought useful for persuading the Gentile authorities to take the last step toward full emancipation.

In the 20th century we are no longer so impressed with Jewish achievements in general culture. The edge is off our hunger and we worry now about the cost of the achievements. German Jews from Heine and Moses Hess to Kafka (culturally German) and Franz Rosenzweig respected the backward East European Jews for their Jewish and human authenticity more than they did German Jewry, with all its modernity. In the same way our historians today, looking back to the Middle Ages, have noted virtues in medieval Ashkenazi Jewry and vices in medieval Sephardi Jewry that their predecessors were not prepared to see. The philosophically naïve Ashkenazim of the Middle Ages—so the picture is now seen, broadly—preferred a martyr's death to apostasy; the Sephardim were too philosophical for that (that is to say, those who were most essentially Sephardi, i.e., most philosophical). During the Crusades the Jews of the Rhineland went to the stake rather than to the baptismal font. In 1492 more than a century of pogroms, threats, and accommodations had baptized most of Iberian Jewry; and then, in turn, only a minority chose expulsion over baptism.

Throughout the late Middle Ages, among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there was a kind of underground skepticism and free thought of the philosophically enlightened. It was in the cosmopolitan Sicilian court of the Emperor Frederick II that the De tribus impostoribus seems to have had its origin. (The three impostors were Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. The Three Rings of Nathan the Wise, a less negative statement of that idea, go back to the Middle Ages, too.) Earlier, in Golden Age Spain, an unfriendly Muslim had reported a conversation overheard among three Jewish physicians. The three agreed it was best to remain loyal to your own tradition: the first because he thought Judaism, Christianity, and Islam equally true; the second because he thought them equally false; and the third because he thought that only one could be true, but no one could tell which.

From mid-15th-century Spain we possess a kind of handbook for Jewish religious polemic-polemic was not yet impossible—by the physician R. Hayyim ibn Musa. Magen wa-romah (“Shield and Spear”) tells the following story at the expense of the philosophizing preachers, whom it accuses of having “led Israel astray from within”:

In the days of my youth I once heard a certain preacher expounding God's unity in the analytical manner of the philosophers. He would say repeatedly: “If He is not one, then such and such must follow.” Finally a certain householder rose, of them that tremble at the word of the Lord [Isaiah 66: 5], and said: “In the massacre in Seville [in 1391] they robbed me of everything I had and beat me and wounded me and left me for dead. All this I bore for my faith in Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Now you attack the tradition of our fathers by way of philosophical analysis, saying, ‘If He is not one, such and such will be the case.’” And the householder said: “I believe more in the tradition of our fathers. I do not wish to listen to this sermon.” Then he left the synagogue, and most of the congregation with him.

Skeptics are not the martyrs' breed. The Jewish philosophizers were friendly with Christian philosophizers and thought it foolish for skeptical Jews to die or flee rather than become skeptical Christians. (Not all of Christianity in Spain was fanatical. Erasmus had a Spanish following.) How they and their descendants fared, we know. It is not so much that they were shamed and terrorized as New Christians; it is that the best of the descendants of those prudent, skeptical Jews, especially if they were lucky enough to escape the New Christian trap, were themselves Christian fanatics.

In the Soviet Union possibly the noblest Russian of our lifetime was Boris Pasternak. He was born a Jew, but he lived and died a Christian, and he had a Christian's irritated impatience with Judaism. The revolutionary freethinkers did not expect that the best spirit in the land of the revolution would be a Jew who was consciously, deliberately Christian, and the Jews who worked for the revolution—because it would at last make Judaism equal with Christianity, as outmoded superstition?—expected it least of all. Still, they helped to bring it about, though that was the least of their crimes. Of all those crimes the faithful Jews were innocent. And when the story is finally told, we shall learn that many were more than innocent: they were heroic, prolonging over the years a kiddush ha-Shem—hallowing the name of God—that makes our enlightened reasonableness, and especially the particular sorts of idealism into which it sometimes boils over, look shabby.

Writing in Midstream about the tensions between European and “Oriental” (North African and Asian) Jews in Israel, Nissim Rejwan, a journalist of Oriental origin, has quoted a historian:

. . . what the Jews of Eastern Europe in Israel really dislike about their fellow Jews from the Orient is. . . that the latter tend to remind them of the social and cultural conditions prevailing only a few decades ago in their own now rejected shtetls and ghettos in Russia and Poland. It is this . . . eagerness . . . of most East European Jews in Israel to forget and disown their own past, their own selves, almost, which has led, on the one hand, to their present rejection of the “Sephardo-Orientals,” and, on the other, to the dangerous drift away from their own true traditions and culture.

The Orientals are not alone in reminding us of what we would like to forget, and being resented for it. There are also the devout. Their presence reminds us that from Philo of Alexandria's nephew, Titus's staff officer in the destruction of Jerusalem, to the Chekists, they that tremble at the word of the Lord have played a more honorable part than we or our predecessors. Today the intransigents' organized zealotry is worse than tiresome, but even as we strike back, something stays our hand. We would like to forget, but in a part of ourselves we remember.

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.