Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbinical scholar who was a major and spirited voice of modern Judaism in America, has died. He was 84.
Hertzberg died Monday of complications of a heart attack while en route to Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J.
As president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978 and vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 1975 to 1991, Hertzberg was at the center of efforts to protect the civil rights of Jews.
He wrote a dozen books on Jewish thought and history, several of which became touchstones of Zionism.
Known for his provocative, often contrarian, views, Hertzberg spoke them with the conviction of a man descended from several centuries of rabbis. With Falstaffian bluster, he relished the debate and could impishly switch sides.
His reasoning could be so brilliant that “you had no choice but to reassess your views,” Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council, told JTA, a Jewish news service.
Although Hertzberg traveled to what was then called Palestine in 1947 to work for the creation of Israel, he also supported the dovish Peace Now movement. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, he angered many Jews by calling for the creation of a Palestinian state.
When Hertzberg confronted the problems of race relations in his first rabbinical post in Nashville in 1947, he became an early advocate of civil rights for blacks. His commitment is credited with paving the way for Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.
“A rabbi should be where the real issues of society are, not where safe platitudes are to be preached,” he said more than 30 years ago. “You save your soul by saving someone else’s body.”
The eldest of five children of an Orthodox rabbinic scholar, Hertzberg was born June 9, 1921, in Lubaczow, Poland. When he was 5, the family immigrated to the United States and ended up in Baltimore. He and his two brothers studied to become rabbis.
At Johns Hopkins University, Hertzberg earned a bachelor’s degree in history and Oriental languages in 1940. He followed that with a master’s degree in 1943 from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was also ordained a Conservative rabbi that year.
After serving as an Air Force chaplain in Britain in the early 1950s, he became a rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in Closter, N.J., where he remained until he became rabbi emeritus in 1985.
A respected scholar, Hertzberg taught history at several universities, including Columbia, where he received his doctorate in 1966.
His doctoral dissertation, “The French Enlightenment and the Jews,” became a well-received book in 1968. In it he argued that modern anti-Semitism could be traced to the “liberal” ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire.
Another book, “The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader” (1959), pioneered the study of Zionism.
In 1972, Hertzberg headed the first Jewish delegation to meet formally with the Vatican about the Roman Catholic Church’s silence during the Holocaust.
The passage of time did not dampen his customary candor.
Addressing a 1999 convention of Conservative rabbis, Hertzberg told them they needed to get back to nurturing souls. If they wanted to be CEOs, he scolded, they should have gone into business.
Hertzberg is survived by Phyllis, his wife of 56 years; two daughters; two brothers; and a sister.