Jews: The Essence and Character of a People
by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer
Harper San Francisco. 304 pp. $25.00

While building his career as a pulpit rabbi and a figure in the Jewish establishment—he has served at various times as president of the American Jewish Congress and as a high official of various Zionist bodies—Arthur Hertzberg has always aspired to the role of intellectual gadfly and critic. The author or editor of a number of well-regarded historical works, most especially The Zionist Idea (1959), he is perhaps better-known these days for his polemical essays in places like the New York Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books, where he takes a self-consciously “prophetic”—i.e., negative, bordering on vituperative—stance toward Jewish public life in both America and, especially, Israel under the Likud government.

Hertzberg’s new book, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, combines the genres of history and polemics. Unfortunately, it also breaks down in incoherence, which makes it a particularly difficult work to summarize. An initial theme is sounded in the preface, where Hertzberg announces that, as one who is himself in touch with the “authentic mainstream of Jewish experience,” he is particularly well-placed to bring that mainstream to the fore. Toward that end, he informs us, he means to give voice in this book to “what I learned in my father and mother’s home, and during those nights when I sat at a desk” as a student in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical institution of Conservative Judaism.1

As for why the “authentic mainstream” needs to be recalled at just this moment, Hertzberg, striking his prophetic pose, says that he is on a rescue mission; he aims to save Judaism from both the “raucous voices on the religious Right who insist that only those who belong to their brand of religion are the true Jews, and . . . those on the Left who assert that being Jewish requires no learning and no obligations because the past is irrelevant to the new age.” Fair enough. But what, as against these distortions, is the “authentic mainstream of Jewish experience”?

What Hertzberg claims to have learned in his parents’ home and as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary is a tolerant approach to other Jews and an openness to diverse Jewish perspectives. His father and mother, he writes, were strictly Orthodox—“rav and rebbetzen of the hasidic community in Baltimore”—yet “ ‘everybody’ came to our home.” At the Seminary, which he found “exhilarating and full of surprises,” he encountered Jews of every stripe who nevertheless treated each other with mutual respect as members of a shared “community of Jewish learning.”

But rather than illustrating this allegedly “mainstream” model in the chapters that follow, Hertzberg drops the theme of tolerance almost as soon as he has raised it. In its place, he introduces another subject altogether: “the character of the Jews.” By “character,” which he uses in an old-fashioned sense, Hertzberg means “the Jewish nature,” something that he insists has remained constant—“lasting,” “continuing,” and “definable” are a few of his adjectives—over time:

The essential Jewish character . . . was already present and formed in the person of Abraham. It was reinforced for many centuries by Jews who were willing to bear the indignities of exile or even accept martyrdom rather than give up their faith in the one God. We view the Jewish character as an ancient river surging down into a delta—the delta being the modern age—in which it diverges into numerous streams. . . . It is the river that makes the delta, and its momentum has sustained the Jewish people to this day.

Whether any significant relationship exists between the supposed character of the Jews and an open and tolerant outlook, Hertzberg does not say. Nor, it turns out, is he all that taken by the “character” thesis, either, for after three chapters he abruptly abandons it as well, proceeding over the rest of the book to offer a summary history of the Jews through the centuries. As a pocket guide, this survey has its undeniable attractions, though it never even begins to deliver on its author’s now twice-promised agenda.



In any event, the main interest of Jews lies in the three chapters on character, which are indeed provocative and original, and very much in keeping with the self-image of an author who openly prides himself on having written a “scandalous” book. Let us now turn to them.

According to Hertzberg, the Jewish character has historically found expression under three key rubrics whose “interplay” yields the “essential Jew,” a type recognizable not only to Jews themselves but to anti-Semites as well. The first element of the triad is chosenness, a concept that for Hertzberg goes far beyond the biblical notion of a “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” Rather, the term evokes a conception of Jews as “aristocrats of the spirit” who have ever operated in the belief that what they do is of “transcendent significance to the whole of the human enterprise.”

In Hertzberg’s view, this “sense of moral mission” is a virtual genetic tic among Jews—so much so, indeed, that it manifests itself even among those who have become totally removed from Jewish life:

The most intricate permutation of the Jewish chosenness doctrine was fashioned by nonbelieving Jewish intellectuals who joined the ranks of the great revolutionary movements of Central and Eastern Europe. These men and women demonstrated a special passion for remaking the world, and they were willing to accept martyrdom as the price of realizing the promise of a better life for all.

Next on Hertzberg’s list is factiousness—i.e., the propensity of Jews to quarrel among themselves. Anti-Semites, of course, assume that Jews always act as one. But the sad truth, Hertzberg maintains, is otherwise. “By their very nature,” Jews are “a people of critics,” and their “terrible factionalism” throughout history has been “very serious and often very tragic.”

“Outsider,” the third of Hertzberg’s rubrics, denotes the “otherness” of Jews in Western civilization, the fact that they have been “persistent dissenters in every society in which they have lived.” In this adversarial strain Hertzberg locates the true source of anti-Semitism—“the fierce and often murderous anger of majorities against a people whose very existence keeps calling their verities into question.” Like chosenness, the outsider category applies both to Jews who “cling to their own faith and their own values” and to “Jewish unbelievers, such as Franz Kafka . . . or Sigmund Freud [who] challenged the seemingly self-evident beliefs and values of conventional society.”



What is one to make of all this? Perhaps the first thing to be said is that the notion of a fixed Jewish character, on permanent display over some 4,000 years of history, is a monument to ahistoricism. Without the slightest sensitivity to context, Hertzberg manages to treat as a singular experience the staggeringly different histories of Jews in ancient Canaan, 9th-century Yemen, 14th-century Italy, 18th-century Russia, and 20th-century America. Even if one grants the persistence of certain traits among Jews, which seems reasonable enough, the result in Hertzberg’s rendition is a cartoon version of reality.

A greater problem is that the triad Hertzberg focuses on is not a particularly deep or useful guide to the Jewish “character.” Divisiveness, for instance, has certainly been common among Jews, but far more consequential over the long term has been its opposite—namely, a shared sense of responsibility. In fact, Hertzberg acknowledges as much at one point—“the overwhelming Jewish experience through history,” he writes, “has been that Jews have accepted responsibility for their people”—but then inexplicably denies this trait a place in the magic circle of Jewish characteristics. No doubt, as compared with factiousness, it is much too tame and unsexy a disposition for a “scandalous” work.

And “outsider”? For much of their history, Jews have indeed been cast in that role—by outsiders (i.e., non-Jews). Precisely for that reason, however, the category tells us nothing about the self-image of Jews. The truth is that, prior to the modern period, Jews took it as a given that they were the ultimate insiders—God’s insiders—around whom the history of the nations revolved. This is sound biblical doctrine, and no experience of exile, however harsh, could sway Jews from believing in its verity.

Indeed, only by understanding Jews as insiders can we begin to apprehend the function of chosenness in the Jewish mentality. Hertzberg may well be correct that this doctrine conferred upon Jews a certain aristocracy of the spirit. (It also carried the potential of a decidedly unpleasant ethnocentrism.) But it is another thing entirely to apply this same idea uncritically and unqualifiedly to the participation of alienated modern Jews in the revolutionary Left. “They had joined the vanguard of the new elite,” Hertzberg writes of Jewish radicals, “ ‘suffering servants’ of the revolution, to perform the task that prophets and rabbis had set for humanity: to regulate the moral chaos of society by creating a just order.” That a rabbi and historian could write these words in full consciousness of the murderous regimes that these “suffering servants” helped to establish in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and without a word of moral judgment, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Worse, many of these same disciples of “prophets and rabbis,” once in power, worked overtime to destroy every vestige of Jewish life in their respective societies. The Bolshevik Leon Trotsky knew exactly what he was up to when (as Hertzberg duly reports) he refused to bury his father in a Jewish cemetery. If this is an example of what Jewish chosenness means in the modern world, one can only pray that the Jews will be spared any further manifestations of it.



That so obviously gifted a writer as Arthur Hertzberg should have descended to this level is a pity. But such are the pitfalls of equating the prophetic vocation with mere “scandalousness,” and of setting up on that slim basis to lecture the Jewish people on its duties and failings. To be a prophet in the biblical sense is to see clearly. If Jews: The Essence and Character of a People demonstrates one thing, it is how rare that quality remains today, perhaps especially in those claiming the mantle of prophetic insight.


1 Perhaps this is the place to note that Jews, though written with the “help and partnership” of Aron Hirt-Manheimer, the editor of Reform Judaism, is clearly Hertzberg’s book. As Hirt-Manheimer writes in his own preface: “Hertzberg and I agreed that his viewpoint and scholarship would drive the arguments. . . . In fact, he dictated almost the entire first draft.”


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