Arthur Hertzberg; Rabbi Was a Scholar and Social Activist

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Arthur Hertzberg, 84, a Judaic scholar, writer and activist who passionately believed that his rabbinic heritage required his engagement with the social and political issues of his time, died April 17 of congestive heart failure.

The Englewood, N.J., resident died en route to Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J.

For many years a leader of the Conservative congregation Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, he also served as president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978 and as vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991.

The author of a dozen books and numerous articles over the years, he was often the gadfly. Issues of passionate concern to him included civil rights, Zionism, Israeli politics, religious fundamentalism and the war with Iraq. He seemed to delight in taking the contrarian view.

"Religion is as much the problem as it is the solution," he told the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in 2000. "Throughout human history, to this very day, the major religious traditions of both East and West have encouraged violence against the supposed 'enemies of God' or have countenanced it by looking away."

An early Zionist who traveled to Palestine in 1947 to work for the creation of Israel, he also was a supporter of the Peace Now movement. After Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, he urged the creation of a Palestinian state. It was a position that set him at odds with many Jews, although he relished the debate.

More recently, he questioned the wisdom of relying on remembrance of the Holocaust as a way to sustain the Jewish community. He labeled the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington "the national cathedral of American Jewry's Jewishness" and urged his fellow Jewish leaders to provide opportunities for Jews not only to venerate the Holocaust, but also to engage in meaningful public service and to address questions of ultimate concern.

"A rabbi should be where the real issues of society are, not where safe platitudes are to be preached," he said many years ago. "You save your soul by saving someone else's body."

Rabbi Hertzberg, the eldest of five children, was born June 9, 1921, in Lubaczow, Poland. For several centuries, male members of the Hertzberg family had been rabbis, and he knew at an early age that he would follow in the tradition. He once called himself "a real studying engine" and was devoted to mastering the Talmud and other sacred Judaic texts.

In the late 1920s, he immigrated with his family to the United States, living briefly in New York and Youngstown, Pa., before his father became rabbi of a congregation in Baltimore.

He graduated from high school in 1937 and enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in history and Oriental languages and played on the chess team. A brilliant student, he received his undergraduate degree in 1940 and his master's degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1943. He was ordained a Conservative rabbi that year.

He began his career as the director of the Hillel Foundation chapter serving Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, both in Amherst, Mass. He also served as rabbi for congregations in Philadelphia and in Nashville and was an Air Force chaplain, based in England, from 1951 to 1953.

In 1956, he was appointed rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, where he remained until becoming rabbi emeritus in 1985.

Deeply involved in the civil rights movement, he participated in the 1950s in the Highlander Folk School, an adult camp and education center in Tennessee that taught civil disobedience and nonviolent protest techniques. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963.

In the early 1960s, he helped initiate the Jewish-Catholic dialogue during the papacy of Pope John XXIII and urged the Roman Catholic Church to acknowledge its responsibility for remaining silent while Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis.

A respected scholar, he taught history at Columbia University, where he received his PhD in 1966. He also taught at Rutgers, Princeton, Dartmouth, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University.

Rabbi Hertzberg's doctoral dissertation, "The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism" (1968), became a well-received book. Among his other books were "The Zionist Idea" (1959), "Being Jewish in America" (1979) and "A Jew in America: My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity" (2003).

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Phyllis Cannon Hertzberg of Englewood; two daughters, Susan Hertzberg of Haworth, N.J., and Dr. Linda Hertzberg of Fresno, Calif.; two brothers; a sister; and four grandchildren.

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