Last year we noted the passing of the prominent Jewish intellectual Milton Himmelfarb and subsequently published the conclusion of the loving eulogy given by his son Edward Himmelbarb. I had the great good fortune of meeting Milton Himmelfarb when he spoke at our temple in St. Paul in 1975. After his talk he agreed to chat with me for the better part of a beautiful fall afternoon at our rabbi’s home. He generously shared his thoughts about politics and policy. He made a special effort to help me sort out the relationships in his illustrious family. It was a memorable experience for me.
Now Himmelfarb’s essays have been collected in Jews and Gentiles, published earlier this year by Encounter Books. In the new issue of the Weekly Standard, Professor David Gelernter reviews the book and observes that it will appeal to a niche market: “Should you happen to be a Jew or a Gentile, you will find it indispensable.” More seriously, Professor Gelernter captures the unifying theme of the essays:
Although Jews and Gentiles is a book of essays, compiled posthumously, it has a theme: the rise of paganism in our times, and the fundamental, irreconcilable antagonism between paganism and Judaism. We must carefully distinguish (the author writes) between paganism and mere atheism. Paganism is a positive system of beliefs. Atheism dominated the “modern” age, but modernism collapsed in the turmoil of the late 1960s.
For Himmelfarb, paganism is the characteristic religion of today’s elite–and it stands for promiscuity, misery, and death. He traces the taste for paganism to Enlightenment philosophes such as Diderot, to their 20th-century academic admirers, and to the psychotic sixties, when nature-worship and sexual promiscuity began to seem positively good and Christianity (and Judaism even more, to the extent anyone ever thought about it) began to seem evil.
Himmelfarb casually but thoroughly annihilates to the last splinter the idea that paganism is admirable…
The unifying theme of Professor Gelernter’s review is a comparison of Himmelfarb to Samuel Johnson. At first the comparison struck me as comic. Indeed, it caused me to recall Johnson’s own critique of Metaphysical poetry, in which Johnson asserts that the “the most heterogeneous ideas” are “yoked by violence together.” Yet in Professor Gelernter’s hands, the comparison evokes and illuminates important qualities of Himmelfarb’s work.