A chorus of praise and an awareness of loss

A chorus of praise and an awareness of loss

Rabbi Andr? Ungar "first heard Rabbi Hertzberg when he was an American Air Force chaplain in London," he recalled just before Hertzberg’s funeral on Tuesday. "He gave a wonderful Passover sermon about the yeast in the dough — the yetzer hara," the evil impulse. "I never forgot it. He was crewcut and young and brilliant and arrogant and utterly unique."

Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, said that under Hertzberg’s "prickly exterior was a great mind and a great soul. He wrote important books that changed many people’s thinking," and, Ungar added, enriched his own thinking.

"I was in awe of him," he said. "He had an intellectual elegance and a moral passion. I didn’t always agree with his position but I always respected it."

With Ungar was Rabbi Jules Harlow, the editor of the Conservative movement’s prayer books and a collaborator with Hertzberg on a book called "Judaism" (George Braziller, 1961). "With all of [Hertzberg’s] ego," said Harlow, "he did many wonderful things for people, quietly." And, Harlow added, "he was an exemplar of kivud av v’eema," honoring father and mother.

A damp-eyed Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and Hertzberg’s longtime close friend and advocate, said that "Arthur was a critic of many but a lover of the Jewish people. His scholarship taught many. His teaching makes the world a better place. He was a great teacher, a great historian, a wonderful person, and we’re all better off for having known him."

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, called Hertzberg, who taught him at Columbia, his "intellectual mentor and spiritual guide. The whole trajectory of my academic work," said Ellenson, and the way that I conceive of Judaism in the modern world was influenced by his thinking. He was a gadol," a great man.

George Hantgan, who was the executive director of the United Jewish Fund, a precursor of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and of the JCC on the Palisades in the ’50s, told of his first meeting with Hertzberg, in 1956.

Hertzberg, then 35, had been offered the pulpit at Emanu-El, but, said Hantgan, "before he met with the board, he wanted to spend at least an hour with me and talk to me about whether he should take the job."

Hantgan told him, "that he should insist on certain conditions — I told him that the temple at that time was neither fish nor fowl. He had to insist that the temple observe Shabbat, observe kashrut, and affiliate with JTS.

"I said if they won’t give you that, don’t take the job…. He got what I told him to get — they didn’t like it at first, but they agreed to it. That changed the whole atmosphere at Temple Emanu-El."

And it brought its congregants "a brilliant scholar whose sermons were outstanding. When he gave a sermon," Hantgan recalled, "you sat on the edge of your seat to listen — because it was so brilliant, and because he was not afraid to take a position contrary to public opinion."

Not at the funeral but interviewed by telephone from California was Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. "There’s no doubt that American Jewry, and the Conservative movement in particular, have lost one of their giants," he said.

Hertzberg was "a fountain of ideas" with whom Eisen had both a personal and intellectual relationship.

Years ago, he said, while he was teaching at Columbia, Hertzberg "kind of took me under his wing," offering advice and opinions. Conversations with Hertzberg at the faculty club were "electrifying," he said. A person could spend weeks following up thoughts that came from Hertzberg in a matter of minutes.

Eisen, who is writing a book on Israel, said Hertzberg’s introduction to the decades-old reader "The Zionist Idea," remains "absolutely brilliant and relevant," often leaving him wondering, "Do I have something to say that Hertzberg didn’t say 50 years ago? Fifty years ago and ever since." Eisen cited Hertzberg’s more recent work, "The Fate of Zionism," as continuing to show clear thinking and dealing with provocative issues.

Eisen said that, soon after his appointment to the seminary, he planned to call Hertzberg to thank him for all he’d done for him, but learned he was too ill by then for such a call to take place.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind professor of Jewish philosophy at JTS, told The Jewish Standard in a telephone interview that "I invariably agreed with everything [Hertzberg] published," though not with everything he said in casual conversation.

Hertzberg’s ideas were not always "popular" or "the conventional opinion," said Gillman, but he could always support his own argument, whether discussing the state of American Jewry or the State of Israel. Hertzberg showed one could be "very Zionist and yet be very critical of the policies of the political leadership, which he frequently was."

Gillman called Hertzberg "one of the last of the great generation of scholar-rabbis" who could have a career in the pulpit and also pursue creative original scholarship in their fields. "There are few of those remaining."

"He was also crochety, outspoken, independent," Gillman added.

Many years ago, Gillman needed to prepare the eulogy for the shloshim of a classmate who had committed suicide, and he turned to Hertzberg for advice. Hertzberg told him to mention the suicide at the very beginning of the eulogy or everyone would be waiting for the moment when he would or might speak of it and would not pay attention to anything he said in the interim. He told Gillman to mention the suicide, to briefly try to help his listeners understand it, and to remember the deceased’s life and career in other less painful ways, and then to move on to give the kind of eulogy he would have given no matter what the cause of death.

Only someone with solid pulpit experience could give such counsel, said Gillman. "I thought it was a brilliant piece of advice."

Dr. Ernestine Schlant Bradley, a German-born scholar who has spent "much of my academic career pondering the Holocaust and trying to understand how it could have happened," said in a telephone interview that Hertzberg was "a very dear and longstanding friend. Arthur always said, ‘Ernestine, you and I see eye-to-eye.’ This was a great great compliment to me. I absolutely admired him as a towering intellect, but I also loved it that we were personal friends."

Bradley, who lives in Verona, first met Hertzberg when her husband, former Sen. Bill Bradley, first ran for the Senate in the late ’70s.

The author of "The Language of Silence" (Routledge), in which she analyzed German post-war literature to see how authors and historians came to terms with the Holocaust, Bradley "respected his insights and his forthrightness — that he had the courage to speak clearly about his convictions.

"It’s very sad that he has left us, but as a farewell gift he has been tremendously prolific in the last few years. His last book was a testament. We may be deprived of whatever else he might have done, but he has left a legacy that we all have to heed." That legacy, she said, was for the rest of us to have "the absolute courage to say clearly what you think, that you are a fighter for your ideas, and that you hope to make a contribution to the world by showing how ideas can make a difference."

Meri Pollock, who had known Hertzberg from her childhood at his shul, offered a very personal reminiscence. "In recent years, she said, "we became very, very close — and very recently, even closer. Our mutual friend, David Taubenfeld, encouraged us to rekindle our friendship. And when David died a few months ago, we mourned for him together."

"What I found," she said, "was that this man who, all my life people had strong feelings about, had one of the softest and most compassionate hearts of anyone I’ve ever known. He said that volunteering at nursing homes and other places where help was needed was God’s work.

"He did a lot of good that no one knew about," Pollock continued. "He would help people all the time; if there was someone who was down and low and people would look at him askance, he would take him up and put him under his wing. He said he ‘adopted’ me."

Pollock visited Hertzberg in Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh many times in the last few months. One time, she recounted, when he was hospitalized on Yom Kippur, Pollock and another "adopted" child, were there. "We were davening together," she recalled, "and it was time to blow the shofar and he said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Would you like to do it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how, but I’d like to.’" She did not succeed at first, but eventually, Englewood Hospital was treated to a good loud blast on the shofar. "This was a magical moment in my life."

Last month, when Hertzberg was in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and "in a deteriorated state," Pollock said, "it was unclear whether he would come out of it. I left that night and came back the next morning and he was lying there perfectly still. He opened his eyes and said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ He said that they," by which he seemed to mean some sort of ushers into the afterlife, "had come to take him, and he dug in his heels and said, ‘I’m not going with you; I have too much to do."

Elaine Kahn contributed to this report.

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