Remembering Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg died this past Monday, but I am only able to now find the time after the end of the Passover holiday to blog about this news. I never met Rabbi Hertzberg, a liberal Conservative rabbi ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943, though I taught Religious School in his synagogue for a year. About once-a-month I would venture up the stairs to his office in the old, run-down synagogue building hoping to run into him. His was the door at Temple Emanu-El marked “Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Rabbi Emeritus.” At the time, Temple Emanu-El was located in Engelwood, New Jersey though it since has moved to a beautiful, million-dollar facility in Closter, New Jersey.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg - Rabbi Jason MillerHad I met him, I no doubt would have told him how helpful his book The Zionist Idea had been to me in formulating my own academic understanding of Zionism and Zionist history, as well as how I understand the role of Israel in my own personal life. I’ve read many of his books and articles over the years and at times agreed with him and at other times I could not have disagreed more. But that seems to have been Arthur Hertzberg. He was a brilliant, provocative speaker and writer who could never be dismissed or disregarded because he was never irrelevant. Certainly, no one could ever accuse him of failing to speak his mind. For that, I admire him greatly though I never had the honor of meeting him personally. We also have in common that our rabbinates began in the Hillel world (he at UMass and me at UMich) before taking a full-time pulpit position.

Yehi zikhro barukh – May his memory be a blessing.

Here is a selection from his obit in the Times:

From the New York Times


Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a provocative scholar of Judaism whose contrarian religious and political views and dedication to civil rights found prolific expression in books, articles and essays, died on Monday. He was 84 and lived in Englewood, N.J.

The cause was complications of heart failure, said Eli Epstein, a friend. Mr. Epstein said Rabbi Hertzberg died on the say to Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J.

Rabbi Hertzberg seemed to savor taking on partisans from opposite sides of the same issue. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, for example, he rankled many Jews by proposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet when the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, the Jesuit antiwar activist, accused Israel of “militarism” and “domestic repressions” of Palestinians, saying they echoed those of the Nazis, Rabbi Hertzberg condemned him for “simplistic moralizing.”

“Let us call this by its right name: old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism,” he wrote in an article.

As president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978 and vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991, Rabbi Hertzberg was in the forefront of efforts to protect the civil rights of Jews. Marc D. Stern, the assistant executive director of the American organization, said Rabbi Hertzberg “reveled in his iconoclasm.”

“There’s no question he was a man who created debate, in a healthy sense,” Mr. Stern said. “He was sufficiently independent that he did not need other people’s approval before he would take a position. Yet one of the dangers of being an independent thinker is you develop the habit of being countercultural.”

Rabbi Hertzberg even tweaked those whose programs for fortifying Jewish identity were grounded in Israel and the Holocaust. He called the Holocaust Museum in Washington “the national cathedral of American Jewry’s Jewishness.” As someone whose European relatives had died at the Nazis’ hands, he said he was trying to make the point that Jewish leaders needed to find more cerebral and spiritual programs for retaining the allegiance of believers. He urged Jews not to become reclusive and insular in the aftermath of the Holocaust but to open themselves to the pain of others.

His approach to any issue was consistently liberal, said Mr. Epstein, a businessman, adding, “But he came at it from his deep Jewishness and from his obsession with the Holocaust.”

The rabbi was also an early advocate of full equality for black Americans and an ally in the civil rights movement. He was among the prominent participants in the March on Washington in 1963, during which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

He started out as a Hillel chapter director at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then took pulpits in Philadelphia and Nashville. In the early 1950’s he had a two-year tour as a United States Air Force chaplain based in Britain, where he met his wife, the former Phyllis Cannon, a British bibliographer.

After his return to the United States, he was appointed to Temple Emanu-El in 1956. But he continued to pursue his scholarship, completing a doctorate in history at Columbia and teaching there and eventually at Rutgers, Princeton, Dartmouth and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After 1991, he was Bronfman visiting professor of the humanities at New York University.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |