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Arthur Hertzberg

This is a stub for Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

Arthur Hertzberg

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was born in Poland in 1921. Hertzberg, was 5 when he left Europe with his parents in 1926, recalled that as a teenager in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, he would not accept the notion that the literary world of talmudic learning, the kabbalistic books and the writing of the chasidim were less worthy as compared to the "Iliad," the "Odyssey" or Dante's "Inferno." His father was an Orthodox rabbi trained in Eastern Europe, his father taught Arthur to appreciate the richness of the Talmud and the other great works of Judaism. Although Hertzberg would later stray from his Orthodox upbringing and be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he "never used my 'heresy' as the excuse to prefer the majority culture to my own." He has been married to the former Phyllis Cannon since 1950. They are the parents of two daughters.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

His love of Judaism and the Jewish texts is at the core of his controversial life as a rabbi, scholar, educator and Jewish communal leader. Over the course of his 50 plus year career, Rabbi Hertzberg has served as a congregational rabbi, president of both the American Jewish Policy Foundation and the American Jewish Congress, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a leading representative of world Jewry in the historic Catholic-Jewish dialogue that commenced during the papacy of Pope John XXIII. As a major public figure in the world of Jewish organizational life, Hertzberg has been at the epicenter of the crucial events shaping American Jewish life since the end of World War II. He walked with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1963 March to Washington and Bloody Sunday at the height of the American civil rights movement, and Henry Kissinger. Hertzberg played a major role in some of the most significant issues the world Jewish community faced in the decades following World War II, including discussions with the Catholic Church over the still unresolved conflict over the Vatican's release of documents pertaining to Pius XII and the Holocaust, as well as his outspoken criticism of the policies of Israel toward the Palestinians.

Hertzberg also made his mark in Jewish scholarship. His landmark book, "The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism" (1968), argued that the source of modern antisemitism could be traced to the "liberal" ideas of such "enlightened" philosophers as Voltaire. Similarly, his "The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader" (1970) pioneered the study of Zionism and provided generations of students with the understanding that modern Zionism was a secular movement to remake Jewish identity into one of the many modern secular nationalisms. Finally, although a self-styled pragmatic liberal, Hertzberg saw no contradiction between his political convictions and his reverence for a Jewish tradition shorn of its religious fundamentalism.

The Great Gadfly

Mordecai Kaplan was also an influence on the young Hertzberg, who attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Kaplan taught and served as dean. Kaplan had proved, writes Hertzberg, that with talent and guts, you can be your own man even in mainstream America. Both from Kaplan and later from the eminent scholar of Jewish history, Salo W. Baron, Hertzberg accepted the hypothesis that cultural and religious identity in America would exist in the future "only if they were redefined and reconstructed."

Kaplan's influence is apparent when considering the breadth of Hertzberg's public career and reputation as gadfly. Never one to eschew unpopular stands when it came to core issues that impacted on the Jewish community, Hertzberg's reputation as a maverick was perhaps most in evidence in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 when he called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a position that was anathema among most America Jews. He had recounted his public battles with both Golda Meir and Menachem Begin over their policies toward the Palestinians:

I was largely in opposition to the dominant policies. I found myself restating this view year by year, as repeated attempts were made to silence me in Jerusalem and by its lackeys in New York and Washington. I insisted that we in the Diaspora could represent the best interest of the Jews worldwide — never mind the political and moral foolishness that governments in power might be proclaiming … I also had no fear that I was committing treason by denouncing what I knew was wrong and foolish, and I laughed off the label "maverick."

Hertzberg's early support for accommodation with the Palestinians, coming from a leader of the American Jewish establishment, subsequently added credibility to the Israeli peace movement.

Hertzberg challenged the wisdom of what he views as banking the future of Jewish continuity on the twin pillars of unquestioned support for Israel and the veneration of the Holocaust. Referring to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as "the national cathedral of American Jewry's Jewishness," Hertzberg questions whether the memory of the Holocaust is sufficient to keep Jews "on the reservation." Citing demographic studies, he contends that the proliferation of courses on the Holocaust will not be sufficient to stop a large number of Jews from leaving the Jewish community.

Arthur Hertzberg received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943 and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1966. He has taught at Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, and Dartmouth. Since 1991, he has been the Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University.

In addition to his academic posts, Rabbi Hertzberg served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force from 1951 to '53 and rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, New Jersey, from 1956 to 1985, where he remains as rabbi emeritus. He has also served as president of the American Jewish Policy Foundation since 1978, president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to '78, and vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991.

Rabbi Hertzberg is a co-editor of "Essays on Jewish Life and Thought" (1959) and the author of "The Zionist Idea" (1959), "The Outbursts That Await Us" (1963), "The French Enlightenment and the Jews" (1968), which won the first Amran Award as the best work of nonfiction in the Jewish field, "Judaism" (1961), "Being Jewish in America" (1978), "The Jews in America" (1989), "Jewish Polemics" (1992), "At Home Only With God" (1993), "The Zionist Idea" (1997), and, with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, "Jews: The Essence and Character of a People" (1998).

Hertzberg would remind us that Ralph Waldo Emerson, a descendant of American Puritans who revolted against his heritage and became a Unitarian, wrote that "every man is a conveyance on which all his ancestors ride." Hertzberg may not have opted to agree with every word of his Jewish forebears but, as he says, "my respect and reverence for them is the foundation of my being."


“I became an American by refusing to assimilate.”
“Everything that I have written in the last half century has rested on this premise that I learned from Kaplan and Baron.”
“I never identified the ghetto with backwardness.”

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