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Jonathan D. Sarna, Richard L. Rubenstein, and others




Theodor Herzl

TO THE EDITORS:

Ella Florsheim’s editorial applauding the Knesset’s establishment of a national day in honor of Theodor Herzl (“Giving Herzl His Due,” AZURE 21, Summer 2005) and Natan Sharansky’s essay on the prescience and pragmatism of Herzl (“The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl,” AZURE 21, Summer 2005), who predicted the Jewish state and set in motion a political program for its establishment, remind us of the importance to every nation–and person–of remembering our heroes.

In our post-modern world, as Florsheim correctly asserts, “it is generally more fashionable to belittle the qualities of founding heroes than to revere them.” In doing so, however, we are doing ourselves, and particularly our young, a terrible disservice. The media, academics, and the rest of us are so critical of political, military, intellectual, and religious leaders that there is no one left to admire. Worse, the ideals that heroic figures advocate and symbolize are deprecated and debunked as the personalities of these heroes are tarnished. We are in danger of turning every “somebody” into a nobody through our withering critiques.

The result is a weakening of idealism in general. Since everyone—including our erstwhile heroes—is flawed, why should anyone engage in idealistic endeavors? If Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and, yes, Ariel Sharon are portrayed as morally, ethically, and intellectually blemished at least, and Machiavellian manipulators at worse, why devote one’s life to Zionism, love of Israel, and leadership of the nation?

In fact, the veneration of heroes is one of the most powerful stimuli for heroic and idealistic behavior. I recall as a child in Camp Massad, a Hebrew speaking, Zionist educational camp in America, that the first Sabbath of the summer was known as “Sabbath Herzl and Bialik.” Our discussions, dramatic presentations, songs and lectures over that Sabbath all served to instill in us a love of Israel, a belief in the need for a Jewish state—in 1945, my first summer, there was as yet no state—and an appreciation for the vitality and essential nature of the Hebrew language. Because of that first Sabbath, my life and that of thousands of other young people were decisively influenced.

The post-modern tendency to find flaws in our heroes, however, does more than render idealism unattractive to the young. The critical approach, focusing on one flawed idea or pattern of behavior, is often misleading as one tries to evaluate a heroic figure. Ecclesiastes correctly warned that “There is no person in the world who always lives righteously and does not sin.” Every hero has weaknesses; no leader is right all of the time; but that doesn’t make him or her non-heroic. It rather renders the hero human and, therefore, more worthy of emulation.

If we focus on the negative elements and not on the total personality and behavior, no human being will ever be worthy of praise. Shammai the Elder advises us in The Ethics of the Fathers to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but he doesn’t actually use the word “everyone” (kol adam). Instead, he chooses the awkward expression kol ha’adam, “the whole person.” Judge a piece of a person, and one will find flaws; judge the “whole person,” and one can give that person the benefit of the doubt—and maybe even find him or her worthy of veneration and emulation.

Haskel Lookstein
Senior Rabbi, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun
New York



American Judaism

TO THE EDITORS:

I am grateful for Jerome A. Chanes’ many kind words concerning my American Judaism: A History (AZURE 21, Summer 2005). Readers of the review, however, may not realize that what Chanes describes as errors of “fact” in my book are really disputes over interpretation. Moreover, Chanes gets some of his own facts wrong.

In the case of the Orthodox-Conservative divide, for example, it certainly is not a “fact” that the 1950 enactment permitting driving to the synagogue on the Sabbath was the “defining issue” separating the two movements. I discuss that enactment on pp. 284-285—not in a sentence, as Chanes claims, but in a whole paragraph. I continue to believe, however, that the issue of mixed seating was more significant. The latter visibly distinguished Conservative from Orthodox synagogues. Parking lots, by contrast, could be found in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues alike in the 1950s. Moreover, in much of the country, suburban Orthodox parking lots were only slightly less likely to fill up on Saturday mornings than Conservative ones.

Nor is it a “fact” that Jewish involvement in civil rights was “rooted… in Jewish self-interest.” While I specifically note “Jewish self-interest,” on p. 309, I also observe that some Jews “considered Jewish organizational involvement in civil rights ‘not an advantage but a liability.’” I also discuss other motivations underlying Jewish support for civil rights. Instead of reducing the motivations of millions of Jews to a single factor, as Chanes would have had me do, I insist in this section, as in the rest of my book, upon complex and sophisticated interpretations. Chanes may consider this evidence of my having a “tin ear,” but I consider it to be the very definition of responsible scholarship.

Moreover, Chanes seems not to have read the manifesto of Ezrat Nashim. In that document, the women specifically define themselves “as products of Conservative congregations, religious schools, the Ramah Camps, LTF, USY, and the Seminary.” My supposed “error of fact” is thus no error at all, and what is “troubling” instead is that the reviewer did not bother to look up the original source which I cite in my footnote.

Finally, Chanes also seems to have missed my reference to the journal Judaism, which he includes in his list of “glaring omissions.” The journal is discussed on p. 281.

I am grateful that Chanes realizes that “in a book of American Judaism’s scope it is not possible to include everything.” Reasonable people may disagree as to what should have been included, but it is important to emphasize once again that such disagreements concern the interpretation of facts, and not the facts themselves. Reviewers, above all, need to know the difference.

Jonathan D. Sarna
Brandeis University


TO THE EDITORS:

In his review of Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism, Jerome Chanes identifies a major omission in Sarna’s work: Its lack of “any serious discussion of theology.” This omission is particularly glaring in view of the fact that religion and theology have played a significant, albeit occasionally subterranean, role in the two decisive events in modern Jewish history, the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Moreover, religion and theology continue to shape contemporary attitudes, both pro and con, toward Jews, Judaism, and events in the State of Israel.

Chanes is also correct in stating, contra Sarna, that the Holocaust was not on the American Jewish communal agenda before 1967. He notes that I was the first American Jewish theologian to “insist that the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel be viewed in theological, and not merely historical, terms….” My views on this issue became a matter of public notice with my contribution to the symposium on “The Condition of Jewish Belief” published by Commentary in its August 1966 issue and the publication of my book After Auschwitz later in 1966. The symposium itself offers an excellent overview of American Jewish religious thinking at the time. Thirty-eight “distinguished rabbis and theologians” were asked to answer questions concerning belief in the Tora as divine revelation, belief in the election of Israel, and whether Judaism had anything “distinctive… to contribute to the world.” The final question was:

Does the so-called “God is dead” question… have any relevance to Judaism? What aspects of modern thought do you think pose the most serious challenge to Jewish belief?

What was striking about the responses was their lack of connection, for the most part, to recent Jewish history. The disconnect was, I believe, not unrelated to the fact, reported by then-editor Milton Himmelfarb, that the greatest single influence on the respondents was Franz Rosenzweig. It was largely Rosenzweig’s personal story that so many American Jewish thinkers found meaningful. At the time, the principal source in English on Rosenzweig was Nahum Glatzer’s Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, first published in 1953. William Hallo’s translation of Rosenzweig’s complex, highly nuanced The Star of Redemption was not published until 1972. Unlike Herzl, there was little, if anything, that was useful or relevant in Rosenzweig’s thinking on the issues of history, politics, and power as his community approached the terminal crisis of its long history. As the sinister shadow of the swastika lengthened across Europe, Rosenzweig made the astounding claim that, unlike Christians, the Jews are an eternal people “already in the Father’s presence.” The price they had to pay for that blessed condition was withdrawal from the concerns of power and “the course of world history.”

One cannot say that Jewish thinkers of the period were indifferent to history and power in their practical lives. No Jew could be. Nevertheless, in the realm of thought they were hopelessly prone to fideism, defined by Zachary Braiterman as the “stubborn act of faith by which religious believers persist in their belief notwithstanding powerful, empirical counterevidence” ((God) After Auschwitz, Princeton, 1998, p. 138). In the Commentary symposium, the late Emil Fackenheim claimed that the “great religious demand” for contemporary Judaism was “radical t’shuva—a turning and a listening to the God who can speak even though he is silent.” A year later he had other thoughts. He told his readers, “Doubtless the greatest doctrinal change in my whole career came with the view that at least Jewish faith is, after all, not absolutely immune to all empirical events” (To Mend the World, Schocken, 1982, p. 13).

 



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