The Magazine

How Odd of God .  .  .

Milton Himmelfarb on the worlds of Judaism.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Jews and Gentiles

by Milton Himmelfarb

Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Encounter, 260 pp., $25.95

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.")