Our colleague Arthur Hertzberg died at the age of 84 on April 17, 2006. A scholar of modern Jewish history and thought, he was the premier Jewish public intellectual/activist in America in the second half of the twentieth century. A practicing Conservative rabbi, he also held teaching positions at several universities, especially Columbia University and New York University, where he influenced generations of students and future scholars.
Hertzberg took great pride in his rabbinic lineage and his family connection to the Belz Hasidim. Born in southeastern Poland on June 9, 1921, the oldest of five children, he immigrated with his family to the United States, living in Youngstown, Ohio and then Baltimore. Although he retained great respect for his Orthodox rabbi father, by his mid-teens, when he was a student at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied history and oriental languages, he had chosen to identify as a modern Jew. He turned to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1943. Like many of his generation, he was influenced there by his teacher Mordecai Kaplan. During a tour of duty as an Air Force chaplain in Great Britain, he met Phyllis Cannon, whom he married in 1950. They had two daughters, Linda and Susan.
As a congregational rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in New Jersey, Hertzberg played a major role on the national stage as a social and religious activist. He spoke his mind on the questions of the day and enjoyed taking unpopular stands. An early and prominent figure in interfaith dialogue with representatives of the Catholic Church, in 1971he chaired the first Jewish delegation to meet with the Vatican on the issue of the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Although he argued the case of the Church’s moral failure, he warned American Jews not to place the Holocaust as the cornerstone of Jewish identity. He took part in the civil rights movement of the 60s seeing the struggle for racial justice as a Jewish reponsibility. Within the Jewish community, he was a leader of both the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, serving respectively as president and as vice-president. In the heady period of triumph following the Six-Day War, he boldlycalled for the formation of a Palestinian state.
Hertzberg always combined scholarship and political commentary with his rabbinic duties. His articles appeared in major opinion journals and in the New York Times.In 1959 he published the now classic collection, The Zionist Idea, still used in many courses. Not only are the collected texts well-chosen but the long introductory essay remains relevant. Hertzberg pursued graduate studies at Columbia University, from which he received his Ph.D. His revised dissertation, published in 1968 as The French Enlightenment and the Jews, combined a study of the Enlightenment and its attitudes toward Jews and Judaism with a socio-economic and political survey of French Jewry. His critique of the Enlightenment for its failure to validate differentness was much dismissed at the time but has subsequently become widely accepted, although his identifying Voltaire as the connecting link between ancient and modern antisemitism has not. In his later years Hertzberg continued to be an active scholar, publishing several volumes on American Jewry, including Jews in America: Four centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. He also wrote an autobiographical book entitled A Jew in America: My Life and a People’s Struggle for Identity.
He is survived by his wife and two daughters.