MILTON HIMMELFARB, a leading American Jewish thinker, died last week at the age of 87. I think he may well have been the leading Jewish thinker in America.
Of course, I'm biased. I was his nephew, and I was very fond of my uncle Mendy. (Milton's parents spoke Yiddish, and his Yiddish name was Mendel. So to our family, he was Mendy.) I was also in awe of Milton (I'll now join the rest of the world in calling him that). He was a rare man, and a rare thinker.
I'm not capable of bringing to life his human virtues, or capturing the elusive personal qualities that made him so interesting and impressive. What I can do is urge anyone interested to read Milton's writings. The best place to begin is at the website of Commentary (commentarymagazine.com), the magazine where he served as a contributing editor and for which he wrote something like 90 articles over almost a half century. Commentary has helpfully made available several of Milton's contributions for free. The others are worth paying for.
Milton Himmelfarb was an American patriot. As a man of great learning and broad interests, he was an unusually reflective patriot. But precisely because he was so well versed in history and political thought, he appreciated the achievement of America. And he never ceased to be grateful for it.
Three years ago, he attended a ceremony at the White House at which my father received the presidential medal of freedom. I remember standing with him in an anteroom waiting for the family photo with the president. Milton turned to me and said--with irony, of course, but with a sentiment that went deeper than irony--"Only in America." My uncle knew how rare were the liberty and decency secured by the American regime, and upheld by the American people. His important writings on church-state relations in the United States, and on Jews and American politics, were partly, no doubt, motivated by intellectual curiosity. But he must also have wanted to do his part to support and strengthen this nation to which he and his family owed so much.
In his distinguished 44-year career at the American Jewish Committee, Milton was a stalwart and loving critic of the American Jewish community. But he was much more. He was a real scholar of Judaism, with a remarkable depth and breadth of knowledge of Judaism's history, its thinkers, and its law and traditions. His depth of understanding prevented him from being any sort of easy apologist for things Jewish. But he was proud to be an unillusioned, clear-eyed champion of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Milton's scholarship, though, was in no way limited to things Jewish. He of course knew Hebrew and Yiddish. But he also knew Latin, French, German, and Italian, and as an adult taught himself Greek while waiting for jury duty. Milton's discussions of Jewish history and thought were, to be sure, contributions to understanding the Jewish tradition. Yet his writings also shed light on fundamental human questions. This is particularly clear in two of his greatest essays, "On Leo Strauss" (1974) and "No Hitler, No Holocaust" (1984).
My cousin Edward began his eulogy at Milton's funeral by saying that his father's "entire life was the 'life of the mind.'" The "entire life" was an overstatement, as Edward's lovely account of Milton as a husband and father of seven made clear. But there is no question that Milton Himmelfarb had an extraordinary mind. And he did dedicate himself to learning, and thinking. In an age of boasting, he was reticent about his knowledge and scholarship.
It often takes a second--or third--reading of one of Milton's essays to see how much learning and thought are packed into any one of his terse sentences or elegant paragraphs. And how much wit. It is, to be sure, often a mordant wit: "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." "I hope that is not what we [Jews] think, because I would rather believe us disingenuous than foolish." And here is his complete response in Commentary to a published letter from Murray Kempton complaining about "vulgar" and "mean-spirited" remarks concerning Anglo-Saxon Protestants: "I am not vulgar; I am very refined. Neither am I mean-spirited; I am known far and wide for magnanimity."
Milton jokingly appropriated to himself the Greek virtue of magnanimity. But he was more Jew than Greek, more American than ancient. In August 1996, his final contribution to Commentary concluded with this reminder:
"Hatikvah, the Zionist and Israeli anthem, proclaims, 'Our hope is not lost.' That is in answer to the contemporaries of Ezekiel (37:11), who, more than 2,500 years ago, had despaired, crying, ' . . . our hope is lost. . . . '
"Hope is a Jewish virtue."