(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Arthur Hertzberg is Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Dartmouth. He has also been president of the American Jewish Policy Foundation and the American Jewish Congress. He has written seven other books on Judaism, including The Zionist Idea (1959) and Being Jewish in America (1987). Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the editor of Reform Judaism magazine and the 1988 recipient of the Anne Frank Medal. In the preface to Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, Hirt- Manheimer explains that Hertzberg dictated the entire first draft of the manuscript to him, which Hirt-Manheimer then “rendered into a workable text.” Further revision and editing was accomplished together. Therefore, it is Hertzberg’s “viewpoint and scholarship” that defines the book.

Hertzberg has attempted a difficult task, even a provocative one, in his search for the defining characteristics of the Jewish people. His stated aim is to provide a means to embrace all types of Jews, rather than taking a position that narrowly defines Jewishness. Hertzberg himself is descended from Hasidic scholars and rabbis, yet he considers himself to have grown up in the mainstream of Jewish experience. His father, the rabbi of the Hasidic community in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted Jews from varied sects and viewpoints in his home, and the young Hertzberg experienced firsthand the endless discussion and debate of Jewish scholars. He believes that this experience has allowed him to be more accepting of all brands of Judaism.

Hertzberg poses the question: What is a Jew? The simplest answer would be a religious one: that a Jew is someone who believes in the one God of Abraham, the God of the Hebrews. Yet this is too simple. In the first chapter, “The Chosen,” Hertzberg proposes the psychological consequences of being a chosen people. He does not believe that Jews invented the concept of chosenness but that they have clung to it in their fierce determination to remain distinct from other peoples. They are different because they believe that God has required them to be different, to stand apart from other peoples and at the same time to serve as a moral beacon to the world. In chapter 3, “The Outsider,” Hertzberg examines a second characteristic, that of “otherness.” The insistence of Jews in maintaining their culture and beliefs throughout the history of the Diaspora, or Jewish exile from the Holy Land, has caused them to remain outside the dominant cultures of their geographic homes. In chapter 4, “The Wild Streak,” Hertzberg identifies a facet of the Jewish character, most often expressed as martyrdom, which causes them to rise up in the face of persecution. Jews fought back in Masada in 73 b.c.e. slaughtering themselves and their families rather than submit to the Romans, and fought back in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, when the Nazis were exterminating Jews. Hertzberg mentions many other examples of this “wild streak” in this chapter and throughout the book.

Having stated these three major points in his analysis of Jewish character, Hertzberg goes on to provide a detailed history of Judaism and the Jewish people. He uses the biographies of individual scholars and influential Jews to illustrate how these characteristics influenced the experience of all Jews as they left Israel and spread throughout the world.

In chapter 5, “The Synagogue of Satan,” Hertzberg examines the relationship of the Catholic Church and Protestantism to the Jews. He finds in the writings of Jules Isaac an answer to the anti-Semitism expressed so violently in the Holocaust, or Shoah. Isaac revealed that the Church had taught contempt for the Jews from its beginnings, and the Church’s subsequent influence in Europe rooted this hatred in all European Christian cultures. Hertzberg acknowledges the role that Isaac’s writings have played in moving the Catholic Church toward a reconciliation of this prejudice, beginning with the reforms of the mid-1960’s.

The history of the Jews in Spain is discussed in chapter 6, “The Terrible Choice.” A large and prosperous community of Jews had existed in Spain during the Middle Ages and had prospered under Muslim rule. They “had achieved prominence in every sphere of society, from the affairs of state and commerce to art and science.” It was a complete shock, then, when in 1492 the Jews were given an ultimatum. They had four months to convert to Christianity, or they were to leave the country forever, leaving all of their property and possessions behind. Certainly, Jews had been persecuted since the return of Spain to Christian rule between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. There had been other choices to make between conversion and death, but this complete exile proved that Jews were not safe anywhere. The population was evenly divided, with half choosing exile, half converting. Among the converts, however, were many who converted in name only and sought to continue their unique worship in secret; these were known as crypto-Jews. Hertzberg examines the nature of Jewish worship, study of the Torah and the Talmud,...

(The entire section is 2117 words.)