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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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."