How Odd of God . . .
Milton Himmelfarb on the worlds of Judaism.
Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Jews and Gentiles
Milton Himmelfarb was the Samuel Johnson of modern (or postmodern) life: A brilliant essayist with an uncanny ear for language and the ability to deliver large truths in small packages. His essays are tightly written and argued, and the same holds for nearly every paragraph and sentence they contain: Like Johnson, Himmelfarb was a formidable stylist, one of the best of his age. Like Johnson, he knew how to point out deep truths that seem obvious in retrospect. Like Johnson, he was profoundly religious and knew how to say so plainly, movingly--and wryly and wittily.
He resembled Dr. Johnson in leaving us at the end of each essay, and at the end of his life (he died last year), wishing he would go on. And he was like Johnson, above all, in being like nobody except himself. This book of essays was compiled and edited by his distinguished sister Gertrude Himmelfarb--aka Mrs. Irving Kristol; America's great Neoconservative Families are as intricately interconnected as England's ducal houses--and is called Jews and Gentiles. Should you happen to be a Jew or a Gentile, you will find it indispensable.
Of the imposing, mostly Jewish, intellectuals who changed America forever by inventing neoconservatism (i.e., "new conservatism," progressive conservatism), Milton Himmelfarb was the one who cared first and most about religion--in particular, Judaism. Repeatedly, he described the mood of the moment with absorbing precision, but kept his eye fixed on politics and historical and religious truth.
The essays here span nearly half a century, from 1949 through 1996--the time during which intellectuals took over America's universities, the universities took over American culture, and the left replaced the right as America's "Establishment" (a word that was far more popular in olden times when the Establishment was right-leaning and fun for professors to attack). Most of these essays were published originally in Commentary--and, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in her introduction, are a tribute to Commentary's importance and to the brilliant editorship of Norman Podhoretz, and then Neal Kozodoy, as well as to Milton Himmelfarb's remarkable achievements as thinker and author.
Although Jews and Gentiles is a book of essays, compiled posthumously, it has a theme: the rise of paganism in our times, and the fundamental, irreconcilable antagonism between paganism and Judaism. We must carefully distinguish (the author writes) between paganism and mere atheism. Paganism is a positive system of beliefs. Atheism dominated the "modern" age, but modernism collapsed in the turmoil of the late 1960s.
For Himmelfarb, paganism is the characteristic religion of today's elite--and it stands for promiscuity, misery, and death. He traces the taste for paganism to Enlightenment philo sophes such as Diderot, to their 20th-century academic admirers, and to the psychotic sixties, when nature-worship and sexual promiscuity began to seem positively good and Christianity (and Judaism even more, to the extent anyone ever thought about it) began to seem evil.
Himmelfarb casually but thoroughly annihilates to the last splinter the idea that paganism is admirable. Diderot admired pagan Tahiti, for example, which still (in the 21st century) strikes many people as romantic, exotic, and generally lovable. But a little research discloses that, in pagan Tahiti, an organized priesthood handled the worship of the "greater gods," who sometimes required human sacrifice; cannibalism was also on the menu, occasionally. Himmelfarb notes the bloodthirsty, "sick-making" entertainments staged in the amphitheaters of pagan Rome, a civilization much praised by Diderot and his Enlightenment colleagues. As for the Eastern spirituality sometimes admired by "soft-boiled modern pagans," as recently as 1968, India's prime minister saw fit to denounce the ritual murder of a 12-year-old boy to appease the gods at the outset of a large construction project. Bloodshed, says Himmelfarb, is "the piety of paganism."
Judaism is the other part of his main topic. Judaism is dedicated to paganism's utter destruction. (Even though--Himmelfarb never neglects a nuance--the prophet Micah said, "For let the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." "Sometimes I like to think," Himmelfarb writes, "that maybe [the rabbis] had a quiet weakness for pluralism.")
On the other hand, many biblical and rabbinic statements, and many prayers, denounce and execrate paganism. Take the Alenu prayer, for example--the "Jewish Marseillaise" according to the rabbinic scholar Solomon Schechter. (Himmelfarb quotes Schechter or Chesterton, Aristotle or Gershom Scholem, an ABC/Washington Post poll or the Psalms, as needed.) The Alenu seethes at paganism: "In hope we wait, O Lord our God . . . for Thee to remove the idols from the earth, the no-gods being utterly cut down." Judaism, after all, is the religion of "Choose life!" Paganism is the religion of death. (Himmelfarb's Hebrew is fluent; his translations are consistently inspired. If only he had published his own translation of the prayer book that he discusses so movingly and with such depth.)
He writes about Judaism in relation to Christianity, too. He quotes the eminent historian C.G. Coulton, suggesting (in passing) that Judaism is a vengeful religion, Christianity a loving and forgiving one. Yet Coulton (he notes) was a serious scholar and no anti-Semite: "[T]he theme of vindictive Judaism and merciful Christianity must have run very deep indeed in his culture for him not to question in it." (A typical Himmelfarb observation: obvious, but only in retrospect.)
Then, Himmelfarb demonstrates that this "theme" is backwards and upside down. Nobody can annihilate a wrong argument so thoroughly and convincingly--yet with so little Sturm und Drang, and so much learning, wit, grace, kindliness. Traditional Christianity, he writes, developed the idea that a large majority of human beings (including most of the faithful) would be damned to burn in hell forever. He quotes Coulton on this very point: "The difference here between St. Thomas Aquinas and Calvin is far smaller than men commonly imagine." For non-Christians, perpetual hellfire was virtually guaranteed. Coulton again: "St. Augustine even taught that unbaptized infants suffered in hell not only the penalty of losing the Beatific Vision but bodily torture as well." Nor were the fires of hell exclusively an ancient obsession: "During the Lenten season of 1949," Himmelfarb notes, "Pope Pius called for a greater homiletic emphasis on hell."
Jews see things differently. "Rabbinic literature knows of hell too, but it is a very rudimentary kind of hell." He quotes a Hasidic story in which, on the evening before the Day of Atonement, a tailor and his sons drink a toast to the Lord: "We therefore forgive Thee for all the transgressions that Thou hast committed against us, and do Thou likewise forgive us all the transgressions wherewith we have transgressed against Thee." Not a terribly vengeful-seeming view of the Lord. Himmelfarb reflects that his learned, pious grand father made a point of mentioning hell only once that he could remember: He told his grandson that, on the Sabbath, even the damned get a respite from their suffering. So which is the vindictive religion and which is merciful?
Yet Himmelfarb is careful to note that only paganism, and never Christianity, could have sponsored the Holocaust: "If one sentence could summarize Church law and practice over many centuries, it is this: the Jews are allowed to live, but not too well." This sentence is worth a couple of academic monographs and a journal paper all by itself.
Religion is Himmelfarb's main topic, but he has others. In a 1985 essay he remarks that "after the 1968 election I wrote what was eventually to become an anonymous aphorism, that Jews had the incomes of Episcopalians but voted like Hispanics." In her introduction, Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that "he himself generally used the term Puerto Ricans, and it is in that form that the aphorism is now familiar." I knew the aphorism (nearly everyone does); I never realized it was authored by Himmelfarb, and too many people don't.
Yet the author found it necessary to adjust his own famous saying because, as of 1985, "Episcopalians are not what they used to be"--and according to one postelection poll, "the Jewish vote for [Walter] Mondale was 13 points higher than the Hispanic." In one of the most biting, telling, chilling paragraphs in the book--which is just as true today as in 1985--he adds, "With all their Judaic sympathy for the needy, American Jews contrive to forget that Israel is very needy indeed--almost friendless. . . . Will the American Friends Service Committee, will the bureaucracies of the liberal churches rush in to befriend Israel if the Christian Right stops being friendly?" But American Jews are determined to despise and fear the religious right: "An opening to the Christian Right would subject Jews to the discomfort of thinking new thoughts and doing new things. Apparently Israel is not thought to be worth such a grievous sacrifice."
Even more famous than the "earn-like-Episcopalians" bon mot is his epoch-making observation, "No Hitler, no Holocaust." Modern historians hate the "great man" (or "greatly evil man") view of history; "for them what counts is geography, demography, technology, mentalités." Of course, there were and are exceptions--such as Gertrude Himmelfarb herself. But again, the trend that is described in this 1984 essay is still going strong. The author compresses a shattering load of truth into three sentences: "The obedience of Himmler and the SS was to Hitler, not to anti-Semitism. . . . Hitler made the Holocaust because he wanted to make it. . . . Hitler was ex-Christian and anti-Christian."
Notwithstanding, "we would rather talk about socioeconomic stresses and strains, political backwardness, group psychopathology, religious hatred, racism"--than the paganism of the Third Reich or the unspeakable evil of one man.
This particular essay is brilliant but incomplete. Others have the same characteristics; but incompleteness is especially disturbing here, where the author has such an enormous truth to deliver. The essay reads like a transcript of thoughts thrown out in a small seminar by a brilliant professor, to be completed by eager graduate students (whose comments go unrecorded). "Let me summarize, fill in some lacunae, and draw some conclusions," he writes at the end, before closing with a list of seven bullet points. Which is just what a professor might say in closing, but not what a scholar should write in closing. We don't hear enough about General Erich Ludendorff's anti- Christian views and Teutonic paganism. We do learn that Hitler "scorned Judaism and Christianity not like Ludendorff the Teutonizer but like Voltaire the Enlightener." But no explanation follows. There are Hitler pronouncements that support this claim (although Himmelfarb doesn't cite them); there are also pronouncements that suggest other wise--and there is the Wagner cult Hitler belonged to, the pseudo-Teutonic rites and ceremonies he loved. Himmelfarb emphasizes that the Holocaust was a pagan and not Christian phenomenon, but doesn't tell us nearly enough about Germany's paganism or Hitler's.
Despite the occasional essay that stops short or leaves us not quite satis fied, Jews and Gentiles is a brilliant book. The author is an essayist and informal historian, an expert on Judaism and a master of style. Samuel Johnson was hard to describe, too (essayist-bio grapher, lexicographer-conversationalist). But you will find, beneath the enormous dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, the marble statues of four great "benefactors of the English people"--and Samuel Johnson is one of them. Himmelfarb deserves an equally conspicuous monument, and will never get it. Which might be just as well. No statue could be a better monument than this book: witty and moving, inspiring and eye-opening and wise--and above all, memorable, because Himmelfarb had the clarity, wisdom, and nerve to see the big picture.
David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the forthcoming Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.