The death last week of a brilliant Catholic priest and intellectual, a foremost conservative Christian leader in the United States, occasions dissatisfied reflections on the condition of Jewish religious leadership. Where is the rabbi like Richard John Neuhaus?
Father Neuhaus died at 72, full of accomplishments. In the days after his passing, writers of tributes compared him to the late William F. Buckley Jr., who had been America’s leading conservative journalist and the editor of National Review. Neuhaus was high priest of the theoconservatives, of whom I count myself one.
The idea that faith has a crucial part to play in public discussions of public issues did not seem at all obvious on the American scene when Neuhaus wrote his influential 1984 book The Naked Public Square. The political and cultural alliance of conservative Catholics and Protestants in the US is largely his doing, an ecumenical friendship that Jews were invited to join.
Admittedly, my feelings about him are tinged with ambivalence. Annoyance at Neuhaus helped to spur me at a critical time in my life to do some detailed rethinking of religious issues. This was toward the beginning of the long spiritual evolution that would result in my becoming an Orthodox Jew.
When I met him in New York, I was an editor at National Review, and he and I had a couple of intensely disputatious and personal conversations that had a long-range impact on me. He was the founder and editor of First Things, a journal of religious reflection that published Catholic, Protestant and Jewish thinkers. I was romantically involved with a young woman who worked with him. We’ll call her Angela.
At the time, which was 1990, Jewish law would have defined me as a non-Jew, since my birth mother was not Jewish, though my adoptive parents were. My relationship with Angela was complicated by our different religious sentiments – she being a serious Catholic, while I was a confused young man from a tangled and attenuated spiritual background who wanted to think of himself as Jewish.
In need of premarital counseling, we sought a meeting with Neuhaus. At his apartment by Gramercy Park, we told him of our arguments about religion in which I tried to talk her out of her faith and vice versa, both of us citing scriptural proofs. Neuhaus looked past Angela as if she weren’t in the room and gave me a dressing down. His words were to the effect that she couldn’t make a decision about her faith based on such scriptural exegeses – as if she weren’t bright enough, an implication that I hotly resented.
I too felt patronized by Neuhaus. Patronized as a Jew. When we ran into each other at social functions, he always gave me an indulgent smile and greeted me by what he thought must be my Hebrew name. “Shalom, Dah-veed,” he would say. There was something of the same in the “chai” lapel pin he wore with his Roman collar, the two Hebrew letters meaning “life” intended to signal his anti-abortion stance. Why in Hebrew? I assume he had in mind the irony that despite Judaism’s pro-life teaching, Jews are the American religious group most favorably inclined to liberal abortion laws.
I remember the 35th anniversary party for National Review, at the Waldorf-Astoria, where William Buckley unexpectedly announced his retirement. Everyone was drunk and crying and wondering how the magazine could go on. On a banquette back near the bar, I cornered Neuhaus with more arguments about the merits of Judaism versus Christianity.
When I wrote a book called Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, a polemical history, his review of it in First Things was characteristic: Only “some” Jews and Messianic Jews, he repeatedly assured readers, would care about the 2,000 years of scriptural disputations I chronicled. Judaism, he seemed to think, had an honored but subordinate role in its relationship to Christianity, one that should preclude uppity challenges.
He was, in short, an inspiration that sometimes inspired by irritating. Which isn’t so strange. A pearl grows in an oyster under the influence of an irritant that gets inside the shell, to which the mollusk reacts by coating it with calcium carbonate, thus forming the pearl.
So, returning to the question I began with, please tell me. A learned, witty writer, informed about everything, a sophisticated theologian and incisive cultural critic, a creator of institutions, alliances and acolytes, confident as a public representative of his faith, from which he thought the world could learn a lot – would you name the contemporary rabbi who can be compared to Neuhaus?
To write innovative seforim, to give illuminating shiurim, to lead a synagogue, to defend the interests of Jews and the Jewish state – these are wonderful things. But we are called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), ministering not only to ourselves but to the world. According to Jewish tradition, our forefather Abraham was the first evangelist. Why else did God make Jews?
I know rabbis who write interesting essays or give interesting sermons. That’s not the same as founding an intellectual trend and a magazine to articulate it, shaping assumptions among members of your own faith, of other faiths and of no faith. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) would surely be such a figure if he were alive, but in America and Israel today, we have no one similar. Rather than thoughtfully confronting secular culture, our leaders mostly either find ingenious rationales for surrendering to it, or they simply condemn it, or they ignore it. Lately, I’ve been calling attention to the failure to grapple with Darwinism and its corrosive moral effects, an issue that Neuhaus understood, but there are many other examples.
With its hint of condescension, Neuhaus’s attitude to Judaism is a generational artifact, fast slipping away. Among Christians there is an increasing openness to the influence of Judaism’s worldview, if only Jews would share it. Of all the divisions in the factionalized Jewish world, the obvious candidate to undertake such a mission is the modern Orthodox community. Yet we modern Orthodox Jews constantly lose track of the bigger picture of what Torah is about. No, it’s not just about having a prestigious professional career or a Harvard PhD while keeping strictly kosher and learning daf yomi.
I recently attended a screening here in Seattle of a new film on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s life. A beautifully made documentary, but striking in that it gave not even a hint of what worldview the Rav stood for. That is not to say he didn’t have one, but we don’t expect to hear about it. Notice that I say “we.” I’m not criticizing rabbis individually but our present Jewish culture that determines what we value in a leader.
In the modern Orthodox community, it’s always the Rav this, and the Rav that. Forget about the Rav for a moment. Where is our Richard John Neuhaus?