Will Herberg and the agony of liberal religion

The collapse of the Christian right, and the delayed backlash that has aroused the classic paranoid style of American politics in contemporary liberalism, has barely even begun to suggest the full ramifications of the United States catching up to the rest of the developed world in the steep decline of religion. It would seem a good time to reconsider the self-understanding of religion in American life that emerged in the 1950s, that to one degree or another would be definitive for the postwar era. And as it happens, the leading academic chronicler and interpreter of that moment (in however problematically dated terms) also offered the most compelling philosophical understanding of the promise, pitfalls, and paradox of liberal religion that defined his moment and remains no less relevant today.

Will Herberg, a Jewish-socialist-atheist who in middle age embraced and championed an interpretation of Judaism arguably owing more to Christian existentialism than rabbinic tradition, was the most celebrated philosopher of Judaism in America in the 1950s, yet is profoundly unfashionable to the extent he is even remembered at all by American Jews today. Born in 1901 to avowedly socialist and atheist Jewish immigrant parents, Herberg joined the newly formed Communist Party as a teenager but was one of many premature anti-Communists to leave the party with Bukharin follower Jay Lovestone; a connection that led to years of gainful employment with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, led by the irrepressible anti-Communist David Dubinsky.

Ever the garrulous intellectual, the madness of a world rushing toward war and totalitarianism thoroughly dissembled Herberg’s frankly religious faith in Marxism and led him on a search for the genuine article. He befriended Reinhold Niebuhr, who urged him to first consider returning to Judaism before he could in good conscience bless a conversion to Christianity, pointing him directly across the street, literally, from Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1947 Herberg published in the young, relatively ecumenical Commentary his personal confession, “From Marxism to Judaism,” lacking noticeable anti-communist fervor and describing the journey in a curiously value-neutral tone from one faith to another. He declared in what was essentially his mission statement that “The worship of a holy and transcendent God who yet manifests himself in history saves us alike from the shallow positivism that leaves nature and history and life all without ultimate meaning, from a pantheism that in the end amounts to an idolatrous worship of the world, and from a sterile other-worldliness that breaks all connection between religion and life.” He went on to warn that “we are witnessing the gradual corrosion of faith by the naturalistic and secularist temper of the time. It is a corrosion that can and must be arrested and undone by a vital theology, cast in contemporary terms.”

The definitive statement of Herberg’s philosophy of Judaism was in his widely acclaimed 1951 book Judaism and Modern Man, borrowing heavily from the thought of such Christian friends as Niebuhr and Paul Tillich yet animated by his deep commitment to Judaism. Herberg offered a radical affirmation of Judaism’s first principles for the modern world:

Idolatry, in Jewish thinking, is the root source of all wrongdoing and moral evil. But to grasp the full scope and significance of this principle it is necessary to understand the essential meaning of idolatry. Idolatry is not simply the worship of sticks and stones, or it would obviously have no relevance to our times. Idolatry is the absolutization of the relative, it is absolute devotion paid to anything short of the absolute. What idolatry does is to convert its object into an absolute, thereby destroying the partial good within it and transforming it into a total evil. Contemporary life is idolatry-ridden to an appalling degree. Man, it cannot be too often repeated, must fix his devotion and anchor his being in something ultimate, and if it is not the Living God, it will be some spurious substitute.

This, in short, is the paradox of liberal religion, if not a historic paradox at the heart of Judaism itself, whose profound relevance to modernity Herberg was unique in recognizing. If only the absolute, the Living God, is sacred, how, ultimately, can any institution effectively affirm and uphold the sacred without in one way or another succumbing to idolatry?

Herberg was of course very far from alone in walking such a path of contemplation following the horror of the Second World War. Yet few so plainly drew the right lessons from the carnage of the 20th century. To the idols of nationalism, racism, secular ideology, and often enough merely to Mammon himself, had man been committing his service and all of his virtues. Herberg recognized clearly that within his lifetime, it was ideology, not religion, that twice plunged the world into war, and that these wars made the medieval wars of religion pale in comparison. Thus in Judaism did Herberg find a humanistic and rational philosophy of the transcendent to oppose the scourge of ideology, while celebrating the three Abrahamic faiths as “distinct but equally valid covenants with the Living God.”

What made Herberg stand out, however, was his consistent application of the principle. Whereas Niebuhr’s Christian realism too often became an apologia for American militarism, Herberg would have no qualms about identifying the idolatry in American exceptionalism. In Judaism and Modern Man, Herberg explicitly embraced Martin Luther’s maxim of being “in but not of the world,” making for an intriguing contrast with Daniel Bell, who made this maxim the polemical template of his first major work appearing around the same time, Marxian Socialism in the United States. Indeed, Herberg was curiously unabashed in extending this to the social gospel-like concept of the “mission of Israel” associated with the Classical Reform movement.

In an extraordinary display of intellectual integrity, Herberg would hold Zionism to the same standard, at a time when the new State of Israel was heralded with a not infrequently explicit messianic fervor by most leaders of non-Orthodox American Jewry. Herberg never expressed any quarrel with the existence of the State of Israel, but he declared unambiguously in Judaism and Modern Man that “the State of Israel, however highly we may regard it, is, after all, but another community of this world, whereas the people Israel transcends all historical communities of whatever sort.” No doubt Herberg’s feelings about Zionism were largely due to the example of his most notable influence, Martin Buber.

The most famous Jewish theologian of the 20th century, Buber’s adaptations of existentialist philosophy, the theistic orthodoxy of Kierkegaard and Chesterton, and the folk mysticism of Hasidism made for a powerful reconciliation of Judaism’s mystical and theistic traditions with the rationalism of Reform Judaism. A supporter of the “cultural Zionism” of Theodor Herzl’s rival Ahad Ha’am, Buber became a prominent leader of the binationalist cause in the decade before the founding of the State of Israel and continued to be its spiritual leader after the movement’s founder, Judah Magnes, died a broken man in New York after fleeing for his life during the 1948 war.

At least once Herberg addressed an annual conference of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism; though their most vocal spokesman Elmer Berger preached an austere and temporally provincial rationalism from Reform Judaism’s German enlightenment roots that would seem anathema to Herberg, the Council’s more moderate rabbis would echo him in their theology, taking after Buber and his student Franz Rosenzweig. On the theologically bereft superficial traditionalism holding Zionism as its absolute, eventually becoming normative of all non-Orthodox American Judaism, Herberg was brutally direct in Judaism and Modern Man: “It bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the position once adopted by Charles Maurras, leader of the ultranationalist L’Action Francaise, in relation to the Catholic Church. Himself an unbelieving positivist of the Comtean school, Maurras strongly urged support of the Church and its ceremonies.”

Will Herberg remained a devout social democrat when he published Judaism and Modern Man, and even as late as 1955 when he published the sociological tome Catholic, Protestant, Jew that would forever associate him with the Eisenhower-era narrative of religion in American life. His later association with National Review and movement conservatism would be an awkward one. William F. Buckley’s invitation to Herberg to be the “religion editor” for National Review in 1962 was no doubt, as much or more than anything, intended as a message to any still-unconvinced arbiters of respectability that he held no quarter for anti-Semitism. Yet Herberg’s high-minded meditations on religion in public life would also be a convenient Trojan Horse for Buckley to begin preparing the ground for the arrival of the evangelicals in a movement still dominated by the high church and the skeptical, and would be the source of his misleading reputation during neoconservatism’s awkward 1980s adolescence.

Largely gone from National Review by the time Buckley began actively courting the neoconservatives in the 1970s, Herberg was chiefly associated in his final years with such kindred spirits as Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet at ISI. Like Nisbet he was increasingly alarmed by the growing imperial pretensions of American society; in his last published essay in 1974, Herberg attacked the concept of “civil religion” in a clear indication of his profound opposition to the neoconservative project: “To see America’s civil religion as somehow standing above or beyond the biblical religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as somehow including them and finding a place for them in its overarching unity, is idolatry, however innocently held and whatever may be the subjective intentions of the believers.” When he died in 1977, Modern Age wrote in its appreciation that “as he spoke one could only think ‘a holy man’ in the finest oriental tradition of one.”

A passionate opponent of McCarthyism, to the very end a champion of trade unionism, and (in sharp contrast to his first mentor Jay Lovestone) an enthusiastic supporter of Richard Nixon’s foreign policies, Will Herberg was clearly in the camp of the other-worldly if not left-leaning Burkeans such as Whittaker Chambers and Peter Viereck. In the 1980s Commentary would claim him for the era in which the agenda of the Moral Majority was still a going concern, writing off as a mere idiosyncracy that “whatever the reason, the State of Israel never played the central role in Herberg’s thought that it did for other 20th century theologians.” But they could hardly do so today, with outright panic about the survival of Jewish distinctiveness in the United States, symbolized by the much-discussed Pew Center survey of the American Jewish population published in 2013 – an idea of distinctiveness that has in such great measure been defined by the conviction that “Jewish life is impossible without Israel at its core.”

As recently as the 1990s, Martin Buber was still revered as perhaps the greatest Jewish religious thinker of modern history, and his views on Zionism and the actually existing State of Israel generally considered taboo. But today, on the contrary he is mostly remembered for being a champion of binationalism, not least by the Zionist right, where rigid rabbinic orthodoxy is the order of the day. Meir Soloveichik, the Orthodox Jewish leader most openly partisan for neoconservatism, has gone as far as to posthumously upbraid no less an eminence than Irving Kristol for his self-professed “neo-Orthodoxy” rooted in Buber and Rosenzweig, still labeled as such as late as the above-quoted Herberg retrospective in Commentary.

Herberg plainly rejected Orthodox Judaism on the merits in Judaism and Modern Man and never seems to have taken it seriously. This would be problematic enough in the present day with the growth of Orthodoxy and the sharp decline of its alternatives, but Herberg could hardly be more unfashionable to contemporary liberal Judaism. Never mind any political conservatism – religious existentialism, even from as popular a source as Buber, is deeply at odds with the spirit of liberal religion in an era when even the so-called “new atheists” are exuberantly positivist. A rare prominent Reform rabbi to call for reflections toward a new theology declares “neuroscience” to be the most important new consideration.

It is not that Herberg’s thought is implacably opposed to the zeitgeist that arose in liberal religion, and especially liberal Judaism, beginning in the 1970s. True, he affirmed the immorality of homosexuality while opposing its criminalization, but there is little reason not to think that in a different era he would have been predisposed to the conservative case for gay marriage. Absolutely nothing in his writing suggests any quarrel with full gender equality in Judaism including the ordination of women as rabbis, far more important to the sociology and outlook of contemporary liberal Judaism.

But even just in the last decade, liberal Judaism has only trailed somewhat behind liberal Protestantism in being completely devoured by the severe cultural radicalism that was formerly the preserve of university departments of sociology and its various newer subfields. It happens that Will Herberg can be highly instructive in understanding this phenomenon that, alarmingly, is even becoming characteristic of mainstream liberalism: the disruption of historical gender norms, and tolerance and humaneness toward homosexuality and other alternative lifestyles, are perfect examples in Herberg’s concept of idolatry of a partial good elevated into an absolute and thus becoming potentially evil. Though appearing at a perilous moment in the history of liberal religion, it must not be forgotten that this idolatry still as yet only pales in comparison to the historic prevalence of (both Jewish and American) nationalist idolatry in liberal religion.

Not long ago, the lonely keepers of the flame at ISI would frankly describe Herberg as a “Christianizing Jew.” If he was, then so was Martin Buber, and so indeed has been the entire liberal Jewish project. If that project has all but vanished between an increasingly severe and insular Orthodoxy and a non-Orthodoxy in its pagan senescence, it is an especially vivid illustration of the crisis of liberal religion, and why Herberg may be more relevant than ever. Though incomplete to be sure, Will Herberg made the most important and thoroughgoing application of western religious humanism, certainly of any Jewish thinker and possibly of any non-fundamentalist, to the problems of the age of ideology. Firmly grounded in recognition of the paradox of liberal religion – as the worst form except for all the others – it is only all the more relevant to a post-Cold War era lurching ever closer to the brave new world.

(Image source)

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