Did you ever wonder why Jewish neoconservative thinkers never argue “from” Judaism, in the way in which Michael Novak argues from Roman Catholicism, and Richard Neuhaus argues from Lutheran Christianity? That is to say, Judaism never forms a point of departure and never defines a court of appeal. For the Jewish neoconservatives Judaism simply does not exist. They do not despise the Judaic religious tradition and its intellectual heritage. They simply ignore it. For them, religion may serve valid purposes; it may even be beautiful; but it forms no intellectual reality from which, or even.against which, to mount sustained thought.
I cannot explain why, because I am not a neoconservative, although I am Jewish. On the contrary, I was a conservative before I knew it, stayed a Democrat long after voting for Republicans (but made the move in 1968 anyhow). When I was a Henry Fellow at Oxford University, 35 years ago, I discovered that I was a conservative, not a liberal, certainly not a socialist. As a Jew, the discovery surprised me. What I found was that the British left in the early 50’s was anti-American, the right was pro- American, and I was an American. We were just emerging from the Korean War, which, I firmly believed, had saved South Korea from Communist aggression. But the left in Oxford told me that we were the aggressors and should pay retributions to North Korea. These same folk had just come back from an international Youth Festival in Bucharest and brought with them other wonders and marvels to behold.
Shortly after arrival in September 1953, I located the Oxford University Blue Ribbon Society, the elite (so they told me) of the conservatives, and for their magazine wrote up “Youth Festival in Bucharest: A Study in Fatuity.” For my efforts I was roundly abused by the Socialists, and happily joined the fray. I defended not what was then called McCarthyism but the view that Communist espionage presented a serious problem to Western security. I pointed to the Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the threat to Germany. In these and other ways I found a comfortable position in the conservative side of Oxford politics in that interesting year. When I came home, it was, of course, as a Democrat, but a conservative one. I began voting for Republicans, and by the mid-1960’s, the identification with the Republican Party was complete. I began reading, then writing for National Review long before Vietnam got rough, and identified with the politics outlined by William F. Buckley Jr., long, long before Norman Podhoretz had broken ranks.
I tell this brief story to indicate that although I am a Jew and a conservative, I am not a neoconservative. Since people generally think that neoconservatives are Jewish intellectuals who have given up on the left, it is important to set forth one’s own credentials, especially since one trait of the Jewish neocons strikes me as profoundly hostile to conservatism in culture. That is their utterly tone-deaf audience to the religion, Judaism. While paying respect to religion as instrumentally useful, the Jewish neocons maintain a vigorous apathy toward Judaism. We see this, every month, in Commentary, which while describing itself as somehow connected to the Jewish world represents the Judaic life of intellect by disdain and silence. That is not a new policy to be sure. Even in the late 1940’s, the great rabbi-intellectual Milton Steinberg dismissed Commentary as utterly hostile to the rich intellectual life of Judaism. It was true, then, when Commentary belonged to the left, and it is equally true now, with Commentary a bulwark of conservatism in international and social policy.
Just now I asked myself why it should be the case that while the Jewish conservatives (not neoconservatives) of an earlier generation, represented by Will Herberg and Seymour Siegel, should have lived out a rich affirmation of the Judaic religious tradition and themselves helped enrich the Judaic intellectual tradition, the Jewish neoconservatives want nothing to do with either religion or religious intellectual life, when these are framed by Judaism. The occasion of this question was a letter from Sidney Hook, whom I have admired my whole life.
He had sent me a brilliant article on the conflict between Communist Party membership and the possibility of participating in universities as they flourish in the West. I read it, sent it on to the Providence Journal in the hope that they would understand from it why Brown University should not cooperate with the KGB’s Institute of the USA and Canada, with Rostock University in East Germany, and with various other Communist centers of higher learning and research—and then say so. Then I thanked Professor Hook and, by way of reply, sent him a small monograph of mine, The Making of the Mind of Judaism.
The choice of the book was not without consideration. It is a work addressed to a problem of philosophy, signaled, to be sure, by my theft of the title of the great work by Randall. I wanted to know the relationship between the logic of intelligible discourse in the rabbinic texts of late antiquity and the conceptual limitations imposed by the dominant logic upon the minds shaped by that logic. Now the book may not accomplish its goals, and it certainly will not teach logic to any second year philosophy student. But it does address a question a great philosophical mind like Hook should appreciate. Not only so, but the book purports to answer the question of why science did not develop in Judaism, that is, a typical question in the great tradition of Max Weber: why no capitalism in China or India or Judaism?
Explaining why he could not be bothered to read the book, Hook replied to me, “With respect to Jewish or Judaic learning and lore, because of the primitive Jewish education to which I was exposed in the Brooklyn slum in which I grew up, I am an haaretz [ignoramus]. There was never time to make it up, although I read avidly in the history of the Jews and one time the English and German translations of the books of Josephus, who fascinated me.”
The Jewish study Hook found worth pursuing was then the historical and the secular, not the holy books but the one extant secular writing of ancient Jewish life, Josephus’ histories. Given the majestic voyage Hook undertook, from the left to the right, given the man’s remarkable capacity to learn and grow through life, his dismissal of Judaic intellectual life (“there was never time to make it up”) is remarkable. It makes us wonder how someone who could rethink everything else would not ask himself whether, in his original exposure to the Judaic tradition, he might have missed something important.
I point to Hook not because he is exceptional but because he is quite exemplary of the attitude toward Judaism characteristic of the Jewish neoconservatives, their writings, and the magazines and platforms and foundations they control. The contrast between National Review, with its regular page devoted to religion (now edited by Richard John Neuhaus) and Commentary, with never a word on Judaism, stands for much else. Why has the encounter with conservatism, with its profound appreciation for Christianity (particularly Roman Catholic Christianity) not as useful but as true, left an entire cohort of Jewish intellectuals indifferent to Judaism? I think the answers will vary, from case to case. In the instance of Hook, he went from his Jewish roots to philosophy. He did not despise, he merely dismissed his encounter with the relics of the mind of Judaism, and he never went back to look again. He concluded that Judaic thought was intellectually inconsequential, perhaps an embarrassment. As he moved from left to right, he reconsidered every judgment but that one.
Norman Podhoretz had a far superior Jewish education, studying in his college years at Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I remember that when he was chosen editor of Commentary, the fact that he had a Jewish education and was supposed to be able even to read Hebrew was cited as reason for celebration; it was an element in his portfolio. Podhoretz quickly disappointed those who thought exposure to learning at JTSA would make much difference. He removed the regular stigmata of Judaic writing that the magazine had long featured, e.g., a monthly column, Cedars of Lebanon, of Judaic classical prose. He dismissed all of the contributors of Judaic articles; in the 1950’s, despite the generally sound critique of Steinberg, the magazine published articles of classic and enduring value, for example, important papers by Heschel and Buber. He printed occasional papers of great value by Gershom G. Scholem and Jacob Katz, a regular column of exceptional acuity by Robert Alter on Jewish literature (for literature, like history, is kosher because it is secular), and that was that. Not a single Judaic religious thinker has been published in Commentary in a quarter of a century. Commentary is Jewish but never Judaic. Indeed, apart from intense interest in Israeli matters, even the episodes of serious Jewish, if not Judaic, writing decline in frequency.
Anything Jewish may find its place in the world view of the neocons of Jewish origin, history, sociology, literature, politics—anything except religion. That seems to me anomalous, and I point to the anomaly. All I know is that, when it comes to the rich and sanctifying Judaic religious life, with its sophisticated intellectual heritage of reflection and rigorous thought, these people stand at one with the left, in unity with the learned despisers of religion. Their conservatism has not yet fulfilled itself.
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