Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, scholar, author, activist, widely mourned

Arthur Hertzberg of Englewood, who died Monday at 84, was not only a fiercely brilliant rabbi, scholar, and intellectual, but the physical embodiment of the tensions, challenges, contradictions, and glories of ‘0th-century American Jews.

As American as possible in his understanding of the role of democracy in governance, the Polish-born Rabbi Hertzberg was as Old World as possible in his understanding of the rabbi not only as his congregation’s mara d’atra, or decisor, but as the sole arbiter of absolutely everything related to the shul. Born to an Orthodox family with deep connections to two chasidic dynasties, the son of a rabbi, Arthur Hertzberg got Orthodox smicha when he was 18 — and then received a bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins, was ordained a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and earned a doctorate at Columbia University.

At the Kotel

As a Conservative rabbi, Hertzberg often made clear his love of the chasidic world and his deep respect for his Reform colleagues, while not sparing fellow Conservatives the harsh side of his tongue. Although he had given up Orthodoxy because he believed it to have narrowed incorrectly, he loved much of its austere purity. A strict rationalist, he also always and increasingly believed in the power of the inexplicable. Although he fought with God constantly, bitterly, irreverently, and at times profanely, still his faith was strong. And although the rest of the world knew him best as an impassioned but somehow still dispassionate orator, many of his congregants at Temple Emanu-El, then in Englewood, knew him as a pastor, an unstinting giver of time, attention, concern, and sometimes even his own money.

A longtime Zionist whose first trip to Israel was in 1949, Rabbi Hertzberg long had been a proponent of a two-state solution. His fear, he said, long before such a fear was fashionable, was that demographics would force Israel into being either two states, one of them Jewish, or just one state, not Jewish at all. Always a pragmatist, he believed that there was some truth on both sides of the Israel-Arab conflict, although as a Jew he always made his own allegiance clear.

Rabbi Hertzberg was a loving husband, a devoted father, and a positively doting grandfather, but the people against whom he most often measured himself, whose approval, even posthumously, he most craved, the figures he mentioned the most, were his parents. His father, Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg, was named after two of chasidism’s founders, Elimelech of Lizhansk and his nephew Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, and descended from both of them; his grandfather had been the court librarian to the chasidic dynasty of Belz. Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg, whose Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore is even today known as Hertzberg’s shul, his son would report with pride, was an old-school rabbi, intellectual, piercingly smart, and highly principled; he was also authoritarian and only occasionally yielding. Arthur Hertzberg always tried to live up to his father, and often felt that he failed.

Arthur Hertzberg was born in Lubaczov in eastern Poland in 19’1 and came to the United States in 19’6; eventually the family settled in Baltimore, where he grew up. The family didn’t have much money — his father’s approach to the rabbinate meant that his shul had neither dues nor large donors, and much of what he earned was spent on books. Torn between being a Jew and an American, as he then understood it, Hertzberg dutifully — and thoroughly — studied classic Jewish texts with his father, but he also accepted a scholarship to his hometown university, Johns Hopkins. From there, he went on to JTS; he said years later that although he still — and always — felt fully at home in the Orthodox world, he no longer could accept its beliefs.

There were giants at the seminary then. Hertzberg knew them; he knew most of the major Jewish thinkers of the second part of the last century. Many of them he revered; others he felt to be frauds. He did not hold back about sharing any of those opinions with his friends. Among the scholars he knew and admired were Louis Ginzberg, Isaiah Berlin, Gershom Scholem, and Salo Baron; his store of stories about them was vast.

In fact, Rabbi Hertzberg’s store of stories in general was fathomless. Like the chasidim whose world he left partly behind him, he had a story to fit any situation; they could be sad, funny, touching, ribald, unlikely, or tragically inevitable, but he would always tell them with the pacing and skill of a gifted raconteur.

After he graduated from the seminary, Rabbi Hertzberg lived in western Massachusetts as a Hillel rabbi and in London as a U.S. Army chaplain; after some time in pulpits in Philadelphia — where he earned his doctorate in history from Columbia University — and Nashville he moved to Englewood. During those years, he honed his understanding of anti-Semitism, of Zionism, of the relationship between political power and anti-Semitism, and of the position of Jews in the world, in places where they have power and places where they do not. He found any possibility of returning to an Orthodox understanding of how God works in the world shattered by the Holocaust; his rage at God for allowing the slaughter lasted his entire life and surfaced often. He also thought more and more about the responsibility of Jews toward the rest of the world, and found the anti-racism that his parents had instilled in him compounded by the situations he faced, particularly in Nashville.

From 1956 to 1983, Rabbi Hertzberg was the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El. There, Hertzberg — a short, barrel-shaped, broad-faced man, a charismatic, thunderous, articulate, theatrical, passionate man — led a congregation that at times had mixed feelings about him but reveled in his reflected glory. His Friday night sermons drew huge crowds. It was during that time that he began the public career for which he was best known outside Bergen County. In 1959 he edited "The Zionist Idea," a compilation of essays for which he wrote the introduction. That book, his brainchild, is still considered the primer on Zionism. A decade later he wrote "The French Enlightenment and the Jews," where he argued that the roots of modern European anti-Semitism can be traced back to the enlightened French philosophes. Blame it on Voltaire! He was greatly involved in dialogue with the Catholic Church. He didn’t shy away from blaming the church for its historic anti-Semitism and its betrayal of Jews during World War II.

He was active in the struggle for civil rights and was at the rally in Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. — whom Hertzberg knew personally — told the world that "I Have A Dream." From 197′ to 1978 he was president of the American Jewish Congress and from 1975 to 1991 he was vice president of the World Jewish Congress; he was involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jews.

All this, and a pulpit too.

When he left Emanu-El as rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Hertzberg continued to teach, first at Dartmouth College and then at New York University, where he was Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities. He also continued to write. A spate of new work bookended the work that had gone before. In ’00’, he wrote a memoir, "A Jew In America," a companion to his more sweeping but less personal "The Jews in America," published in 1989. "The Fate of Zionism," written in a few months in ‘003, with wisdom hard-earned since "The Zionist Idea," argued, as its subtitle made clear, that peace would only be possible with "A Secular Future for Israel and Palestine."

As he passed his 80th birthday, Rabbi Hertzberg found himself showered with honors, given either because of or despite the irrepressible vigor of his speech. Perhaps the most moving was last year’s honorary doctorate awarded to him by his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. When he graduated, he said last year, he had been invited, along with his parents, to a celebration for particularly accomplished students; he was afraid that his immigrant parents would embarrass him in that high WASP setting, so he never passed along the invitation. The guilt from that episode haunted him. After he was granted the honorary degree last year, with a photograph of his parents in his pocket, much older than they were at his graduation, he visited their gravesite and apologized yet again. They were always much in his mind.

Rabbi Hertzberg had two more books to write, he said. He was halfway through one of them, "This I Believe," an exploration of his personal theology. The last one was to be about the Talmud; he wanted to explicate, that quintessential Jewish text to smart, well-educated non-Orthodox Jews in a way that would preserve its brilliance and showcase its relevance but make it accessible.

His body started fading during his last years, but his mind did not. Even when he could not leave his chair, or later his bed, he could keep a visitor in her seat simply by saying, "Before I let you go, let me tell you a story…."

He is survived by his wife, the former Phyllis Cannon; two daughters, Dr. Linda Hertzberg of Fresno, Calif., and Susan Hertzberg of Haworth; two sons-in-law, Dr. David Merzel and Stephen Brody; four grandchildren, Rachel and Michael Merzel and Michelle and Derek Brody; two brothers, Rabbi Isaiah Hertzberg of Teaneck and Rabbi Joshua Hertzberg of Flushing, N.Y.; and a sister, Eve Rosenfeld of Baltimore.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Arthur Hertzberg Library Fund of Temple Emanu-El or to another charity.

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