In the inaugural issue of this magazine, which was published in November 1945, its founder and editor, Elliot E. Cohen, offered a masterful summary of the role an intellectual journal can play in a free society. “In the search for light on the basic issues of peace and freedom and human destiny which challenge all mankind,” he wrote, “COMMENTARY hopes to be of service.” He continued:
It goes without saying that the best magazine in the world will not solve our problems. But we have faith that a good magazine can help—by fairness, by searching out the truth, by encouraging fresh and free-ranging thinking, by bringing to bear upon our problems the resources of science, philosophy, religion, and the arts, by seeking out authentic voices and giving them the open-house in which to be heard.
Cohen called the creation of COMMENTARY “an act of affirmation.” What was being affirmed was the process of intellection itself “in the midst of this turbulence and these whirlwinds.” Cohen was writing only weeks after the surrender of Japan, when the world was still reeling from the destructive power of the atom bomb and the haunting possibility that now a “single blow” could “end the human race.” Worse still was the inescapable fact of the Holocaust, with its revelation of an evil “force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atom bomb itself.”
In the face of such horror, what possible purpose could a magazine serve? COMMENTARY, Cohen wrote,
is an act of faith of a kind to which we seem peculiarly capable, we who, after all these centuries, remain, in spite of all temptation, the people of the Book. We believe in the Word. We believe in study—as a guide to life, for the wisdom it brings to the counsels of men, and for its own sake.
COMMENTARY was an expression of belief in the United States, perhaps most of all; in America’s central role in the preservation and advance of Western civilization, and, most immediately, the continuing existence of the Jewish people. “With Europe devastated,” he said, “there falls upon us here in the United States a far greater share of the responsibility for carrying forward, in a creative way, our common Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage.”
COMMENTARY, in the words of its founder, “is an act of faith in our possibilities in America.”
Sixty-three years later, the publication of COMMENTARY remains an act of faith—faith in the power of ideas, in tradition and the value of defending tradition, and faith in America and the West.
At a moment in which the latest communication craze is Twitter, which could be described as the perfect medium for the person who finds a one-sentence blog post too challenging, it may seem almost a quaint exercise to produce a monthly whose articles, stories, and reviews ask their readers to slow down and spend some time in consideration and rumination.
COMMENTARY is an act of faith in the importance and transformative effect of ideas, set out in the form of carefully crafted and highly nuanced argument that seeks to engage the reader not viscerally but intellectually, not by provoking unreasoning anger but by stimulating sober reflection. Indeed, you might say COMMENTARY is an expression of faith in the act of reading itself, in its unparalleled capacity to enlarge the perspective and knowledge of those for whom reading is an activity as central to their lives as the drawing of breath.
COMMENTARY is an act of faith as well in its singular approach to matters Jewish. How Jews live and the role their heritage plays in the lives they make for themselves are our primary subjects in this realm, but they are far from the only ones. Questions theological, historical, cultural, and political in which Judaism plays an integral part have been posed monthly in articles, works of fiction, and memoirs since the inception of this magazine, and the act of posing them will remain perhaps COMMENTARY’s most distinctive feature.
The traditions of Judaism and Jewish life are not, however, the only ones to which COMMENTARY has committed itself. The traditions of Western civilization, of which the Hebrew Bible is the wellspring, are our constant concern. COMMENTARY is a reflection of and, taken as a whole, a reflection on the manifold glories of the West and the inestimable contribution it has made to the betterment of humankind.
Arguing for these linked traditions, the faith tradition of the Jews and the civilizational tradition of the West, requires taking up polemical arms against many of the flippancies of the present moment—combating the seductive notion, both ahistorical and narcissistic, that we of the 21st century need not consult with the past to know how best to organize our families, to lead moral lives of practical value to ourselves and to others, to serve as stewards of the earth, and to extend the blessings of free thought and free action we enjoy to those who are denied them.
In particular, COMMENTARY remains “an act of faith in our possibilities in America.” As I write these words, “the possibilities in America” are being subjected to a time of testing due to a series of financial shock waves whose reverberations are being felt worldwide. But the breathless tendency to imagine that we are on the verge of civilizational collapse, that we have it worse than anyone has had it in 75 years, and that democratic capitalism itself has been invalidated, is an example of the self-same ahistorical narcissism that leads so many today to believe they are possessors of a wisdom inaccessible to their forbears.
Booms are followed by busts. Bubbles burst. Crooks go to jail. A period of laxity is followed by a period of excessive control, the irritations of which help produce the conditions for the loosening that will, in turn, allow bust to turn to boom once again. It stands to reason that the higher the altitude the bubble achieves, the more vertiginous and disorienting will be its fall to ground. Thus it is with us at this moment, and thus has it ever been. This is the way of a free society, which will, by definition, exhibit all the virtues and flaws of the hundreds of millions of free people who constitute it—the creative energy that must, in some sense, be coupled with at least a measure of foolhardiness.
What can keep us anchored, in times of dislocation and exhilaration alike, is intellectual and spiritual distance, the freedom to stand apart from the rush to immediate judgment and take the longer view. This, above all, is the contribution that COMMENTARY can make to the common discussion. And in so doing, to fulfill the publication’s mission from the days of Elliot E. Cohen, its first editor, to Norman Podhoretz, its second, to Neal Kozodoy, its third, and now to me:
To take inventory in and increase the storehouse of the best that has been thought and said; to maintain, sustain, and cultivate the future of the Jewish people against the nihilistic disease that led to the Shoah and that now, with a Persian aspect this time, is again threatening the mass extinction of Jews; and to stand with and for the West and its finest flowering, the United States.
Plus, you could also maybe enjoy a little.