Remembering Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (June 9, 1921 – April 17, 2006)

Remembering Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (June 9, 1921 – April 17, 2006)

I never knew what it meant to be built like a fireplug until I met Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, and then I got it. His short, cylindrical body, set on short legs, topped by a neckless red face, made him look like a toddling hydrant.

Before I met him, I knew that the stark stock characters in medieval morality plays – Goodness, Patience, Humility, say, or Pride, Gluttony, and Sloth – were not representative of real people, who are infinitely more complicated, but I had never met someone who was made up of so very many conflicting, sharply defined characteristics, some unusual, some admirable, some extraordinary, some heartbreakingly normal, all at war within him.

Before I met him, I didn’t know that I possibly could fall in love with an irascible octogenarian. Certainly I didn’t know that there was an old brilliant conflicted supremely self-confident supremely self-doubting talmudist who would love me back.

I first met Rabbi Hertzberg, the author of the classic compilation “The Zionist Idea,” one of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of his generation, and the Jewish Theological Seminary-trained longtime rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Englewood, in a restaurant in northern New Jersey. He had called The Jewish Standard, where I worked, to ask us to write a profile of him for his 80th birthday, and my editor assigned the job to me, subject to Hertzberg’s approval. Hertzberg asked me the standard getting-to-know-you questions – where do you live, where did you go to college, how many children do you have. That last question’s a tough one; the answer always depends on who is asking, how, and why. This time I answered straightforwardly; one’s in high school, the other’s dead. He nodded. He wasn’t really listening. Often he didn’t listen. Then, a few minutes later, he asked me again what my older daughter was doing. “She’s dead,” I said matter-of-factly. This time it registered. He stared at me and this time he really saw me. It was then that he took me on as a project. Had it been inked out in a thought balloon over his head that truth couldn’t have been more clear.

Arthur Hertzberg was an old-school rabbi – autocratic, patriarchal, a devoted shepherd to those sheep he decided were part of his flock. He believed deeply in the traditional concept of yichus; he could trace his lineage back to two chasidic dynasties and gloried in it. He also was profoundly and romantically American, with a democrat’s idea of the importance of each member of the body politic. Those visions frequently clashed.

He was a storyteller. His sources were vast, and included the Talmud, classic rabbinic texts, chasidic tales, his father, his many teachers and friends, and his own wide-ranging experiences. He could pull a story from his head as a magician takes a rabbit from his hat, and if he loved you he’d offer it as a gift.

In private he was blazingly intemperate and dismissive of all views that were not his. But he also was astonishingly agile intellectually, and could put together ideas that didn’t seem to fit at all as if they had been born twinned and then separated at birth. It was by watching him at work – basically, by watching him think – that I came to understand how deeply creative analytic thought could be. He’d consider a situation, take some positions that each made sense but didn’t seem to go together, and weave them into a compelling, overriding vision.

He was also a master detangler, able to tease out threads of ideas from Gordian knots – he was far too subtle to resort to swords. I knew that soon after any kind of news would come out of the Middle East, my phone would ring. “This is Yasser Arafat,” Hertzberg would say, and then he would explain it to me, filling in each participant’s backstory, predicting the situation’s outcome. He was almost always right.

Going to a restaurant with Rabbi Hertzberg was an adventure. He was deaf, and although he wore a hearing aid in each ear often they didn’t work, so he roared. He would tell more stories, sometimes delicate, sometimes moving, but very often scurrilous, and he would tell them loudly. He’d often work himself into a rage, and end up flushed brick red, pounding on the table with his fists and shouting “F___ it!” The first few times were alarming – I thought those might be his last words before he passed out onto the table. The next stage for me was mortification – I’d look under the table and estimate how long it would take me to get there and whether it was big enough to hide me completely. But soon I came to enjoy that part of it too. It’s not often, at least not in my experience, that the part of my own unvarnished id could be played by an elderly, world-renowned rabbi.

Rabbi Hertzberg was thoroughly idiosyncratic in his mixture of reverence and irreverence, shifting unpredictably from mockery to awe. As he grew closer to death, he also drew increasingly close to his childhood. Once, when he was confined to bed, I went to see him to find his house almost visibly shaking. He was playing cantorial music, the music of his childhood, at ear-shattering volume. He was lying upstairs, wearing his hearing aids, which often deafened everyone else with their screeching but did nothing for him, and the sound system was downstairs. The din was tooth-rattling.

Rabbi Hertzberg, who most of the time was not at all musical, was transported by that music. I am not particularly musical either and never have understood the charms of chazzanut, so at first I was repelled by the din. But then Rabbi Hertzberg told me what he was hearing. He talked about the Polish village where he spent his early childhood and his parents and their families; he remembered his move to this country and his early years here, all to the backdrop of the music. The noise turned into music because he willed it so, and his magic was so potent that it worked for me too.

Since his death on chol hamoed Pesach 2006, five years ago in April, the world has been a quieter and poorer place.

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