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Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg

Lawrence Bush
April 16, 2017

Arthur Hertzberg, a champion of Jewish liberalism and independent thought who led the American Jewish Congress, stoked Jewish support for the civil rights movement, called for Palestinian statehood immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, helped to found Peace Now, and wrote, edited, or collaborated on thirteen books, many of them about American Jewish history and identity, died at 84 on this date in 2006. Hertzberg was born in Poland and came to the U.S. at age 5. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943 and earned a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1966. Hertzberg served as pulpit rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Engelwood, NJ from 1956 to 1985, and was Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University from 1991 until his death. He was also a leader of Jewish-Catholic dialogue after World War II and served as vice-president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991. Rabbi Hertzberg “exposed Israel to the same exacting moral standards he expected of his American co-religionists,” writes Lawrence Joffe in The Guardian. “He upbraided Golda Meir for neglecting Israel’s Oriental Jews. After the 1982 Lebanon invasion he criticized Menachem Begin for squandering Israel’s respect for itself and the world. He condemned Israeli beatings of Palestinians in 1988, and was among 325 rabbis who protested at the demolition of Arab homes in 2004.” Hertzberg could also be “frank” to the point of intolerance, and condescending towards Jewish feminists and younger Jewish activists. Still, his consistent outspoken defiance of mainstream opinion made him an exemplar of prophetic Jewish ethics.

“I regard Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, and all other forms of fundamentalism, as the enemies of God -- and I hope you’ll quote me on that.” --Arthur Hertzberg

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.