Appreciation: American patriot, proud Jew

Milton Himmelfarb, a leading American Jewish thinker, died last week at age 87.

By WILLIAM KRISTOL
January 16, 2006 22:11
3 minute read.

 
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Milton Himmelfarb, a leading American Jewish thinker, died last week at age 87. I think he may well have been the leading Jewish thinker in America. Of course, I'm biased. I was his nephew, and I was very fond of my uncle Mendy. I was also in awe of Milton (I'll now join the rest of the world in calling him that). He was a rare man, and a rare thinker. I'm not capable of bringing to life his human virtues, but I can urge anyone interested to read Milton's writings. The best place to begin is at the Web site of Commentary (commentarymagazine.com), where he served as a contributing editor and for which he wrote something like 90 articles. Milton was an American patriot. As a man of great learning and broad interests he was an unusually reflective patriot. But precisely because he was so well-versed in history and political thought, he appreciated the achievement of America. And he never ceased to be grateful for it. MY UNCLE knew how rare were the liberty and decency secured by the American regime, and upheld by the American people. His important writings on church-state relations in the United States, and on Jews and American politics, were partly, no doubt, motivated by intellectual curiosity. But he must also have wanted to do his part to support and strengthen this nation to which he and his family owed so much. Milton was both a stalwart and a loving critic of the American Jewish community. He was a real scholar of Judaism, with a remarkable depth and breath of knowledge of Judaism's history, its thinkers and its law and traditions. Yet his writings also shed light on fundamental human questions. This is particularly clear in two of his greatest essays, "On Leo Strauss" (1974), and "No Hitler, No Holocaust" (1984). It often takes a second - or third - reading of one of Milton's essays to see how much learning and thought are packed into any one of his terse sentences or elegant paragraphs. And how much wit. "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." "I hope that is not what we [Jews] think, because I would rather believe us disingenuous than foolish." And here is his complete response in Commentary to a published letter from Murray Kempton complaining about "vulgar" and "mean-spirited" remarks concerning Anglo-Saxon Protestants: "I am not vulgar; I am very refined. Neither am I mean-spirited; I am known far and wide for magnanimity." In August 1996, his final contribution to Commentary concluded with this admonition: "'Hatikva,' the Zionist and Israeli anthem, proclaims, 'Our hope is not lost.' That is in answer to the contemporaries of Ezekiel (37:11), who, more than 2,500 years ago, had despaired, crying, 'Our hope is lost.' "Hope is a Jewish virtue." The writer is editor of the Weekly Standard. A longer version of this article is available in the magazine's Jan. 23 issue.

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