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?