Keeping Faith: Martha Himmelfarb & The Rhodes Scholar

The Princetonian had two interesting articles this week. One an interview with Prof. Martha Himmelfarb and tha nnouncement of the Rhodes scholarchip to Miriam Rosenbaum

The following is the third installment of “Keeping Faith,” a six-part series of conversations between politics professor Robert George and University professors of various faiths.

Published: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Martha Himmelfarb is a religion professor and practicing Jew. Her work focuses on religion in late antiquity, in particular the Jewish and Christian traditions.

RG: The Holocaust certainly caused some Christians as well as some Jews to lose faith in God. People asked, “How could a loving God permit such a thing to occur?” For others, it deepened their faith, especially the witness of those who risked their own lives to help. What’s your sense of what it means to Jews today?

MH: That’s a really interesting question. Let me just give you an example of something that I think has changed. The High Holiday Prayer Book that we’ve used on campus at the Conservative services for many years includes a section on the Day of Atonement, the martyrology section, that traditionally involved reading an account of the Roman Rabbi Akiva and the other Jewish martyrs killed by the Romans under Hadrian.

RG: Yes, I know it well from attending the services.

MH: So you could imagine that that wasn’t necessarily the most meaningful thing to 20th-century Jews.

RG: Because it’s so distant?

MH: Yes, in part. I think after the Holocaust, people felt, we’ve really experienced something so recently that shouldn’t we somehow incorporate it into the synagogue service? And the attempts to do that, while completely understandable, were often so heavy-handed. To me, Judaism is a living tradition that has beautiful things to offer, and we shouldn’t be invoking persecution and death to explain why it’s meaningful. Having said that, I also have to say, it’s this great, irreducible tragedy that, as you say, raises the most profound questions. I was talking a couple of minutes ago about the emergence of the state of Israel so soon after the Holocaust. And this has been interpreted as kind of a narrative of death and resurrection. There is certainly something to that. On the other hand, I must also say that it’s dangerous to view any kind of political state in messianic terms. Part of the problem with viewing the state of Israel as the first flowering of redemption is that it suggests also that the Holocaust was somehow part of the plan of redemption.

RG: In your own Jewish life, how do you understand and experience the idea of the Jews as God’s chosen people? Some people see this as chauvinistic, but it certainly isn’t meant to be.

MH: According to the prophets, being chosen means being held to a higher standard. Ideally, you set some kind of example. So the prophets give you resources for thinking about it in a way that emphasizes responsibility rather than privilege. I certainly feel privileged, lucky and sometimes I would say blessed to have been born into a tradition that I think is so rich and nourishing. I suspect, had I been born into some other tradition, I would have found resources in that one that were very beautiful also. I guess, let me just say, the flip side of Jewish particularism is that it actually makes a lot of room for everybody else, which is to say God picked Jews to be this way, but it doesn’t mean that other people shouldn’t be the way that they are. So I guess that’s one view.

RG: But Judaism is not a relativistic religion either, is it? There is, for example, the prayer that looks forward to the day when all nations will recognize the God of Israel and worship Him alone.

MH: Actually, that’s the concluding prayer of every service daily. Yes, the teaching is that on that day he will be one and his name will be one. So he will be the God of everybody on that day. It is an eschatological teaching.

RG: And somehow the chosenness of the Jewish people as it’s presented, at least in the prayer book, seems to have something to do with that day’s coming, that the Jewish example — being “a light unto the Gentiles,” as Isaiah says — is crucial to the rest of the world.

MH: I think that’s right. And perhaps it’s a bit imperialistic that, in the end, everybody will sort of get it and join up. But it’s a very strong strand in the Bible’s thought.

RG: Martha, could we shift to the question of messianism, the Jewish messianic hope? What does it mean to look forward to the coming of the Messiah?

MH: I have to say, I find that a very hard one. I suppose that’s because I’m a bit of a pessimist. I feel it as a very distant hope.

RG: Something too good to be true?

MH: Well, I guess we could ask: Which is more contrary to reason, that God will bring his Messiah at the end of days or that human beings will get there by themselves? It’s probably less contrary to reason than to say that God will bring a Messiah at the end of days. But that horizon, I must say, I find a difficult one. I guess the thing that I find myself worrying about is, will there be Jews 200, 300 years from now? And where is Judaism going? And this is maybe a particularly worrying topic for an American Jew like me, who doesn’t belong in the orthodox world but still embraces religious observance.

RG: Well, that takes us to the question of assimilation.

MH: Absolutely. My grandmother, who never belonged to a synagogue, once said all her friends were Jewish because those were just the people they knew. So here was a woman, the beginning part of the 20th century, who was kind of purposely secular. But everybody she knew was Jewish. Today, some very observant Jewish students at Princeton have a wide range of non-Jewish friends. It took a generation or two for Jews to become fully mainstream in America, but it is the beauty of America that it’s never had anything like the anti-Semitism there was in Europe. Has there been prejudice? Sure, but not on the same scale.

RG: As you know, I was a great admirer of your father, [Jewish sociographer] Milton Himmelfarb, who influenced my own thought, especially on issues of religion and society. He severely criticized the once-prevalent notion that the secularization of the larger society would be in the best interests of the Jews. He thought that, in America, Jews would do better when religion generally flourished.

MH: Yes, he did have a kind of optimism, which I keep reminding myself about, a love for America and really an optimism about the Jewish future in America, even with all the difficulties.

RG: He was also concerned that secularization would have the effect of secularizing Jews, not just everybody else. Now there does seem to be some of that happening. But there also seems to be a revival of interest in Judaism as a religion that offers a relationship with God. You see it here at Princeton and among Jewish young people generally.

MH: It’s part of a larger phenomenon. People thought there was no way to reverse secularization. It turned out they were profoundly wrong. The Jewish case is distinctive, but I think it does certainly need to be understood as part of that larger picture that includes Christians and Muslims and perhaps others as well.

RG: Final question, Martha. You, as a professional scholar, study Judaism. And it’s also your personal religious faith and practice. Does that ever create a tension?

MH: Well, when you study ancient Judaism, a lot of the other people studying it are Jews, and probably the rest of them are Christians, more or less. So everybody, if you want, is bringing some kind of personal baggage. I do hope that I’m able to engage in scholarly work in as objective a way as possible. Studying the Jews is just very fascinating and fulfilling to me. I hope that, nonetheless, I’m able to do it in a way that doesn’t reflect a particular agenda. Read the Rest Here.

The other story in the same issue was a presentation of this year’s award winners include Rosenbaum who comes from an Orthodox family.

Rosenbaum is a student in the Wilson School interested in health equity and healthcare policy. Coming from the Bronx, N.Y., Rosenbaum grew up in an orthodox Jewish community. Her religious background has informed her scholarly and extracurricular pursuits, which revolve around topics of ethics.

On campus, she is president of SHARE and was a co-chair of the Religious Life Council, Princeton’s interfaith dialogue group. After she graduates, she plans to study bioethics for two years at Oxford, then return to the University to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs.

Rosenbaum said that she hopes she will be able to use the ethics training and economic public affairs training she will receive at Oxford to “be an advocate for populations that are generally marginalized.”

Some of the questions she wants to explore include “what you fund, and what do you not fund, specifically what happens with marginalized populations that often are the most expensive — the elderly and the disabled,” she explained.

Wilson School visiting professor Hugh Price, who worked with Rosenbaum in his task force last year, praised Rosenbaum’s passion for learning and her devotion to topics that interest her.

“I think what’s really striking is her search for knowledge and how she goes above and beyond the call of duty to understand and research issues, read materials that aren’t required for the course, and attend symposia that are not part of the curriculum of the course,” he said in an email. “She even reads the New England Journal of Medicine in her spare time, which is quite remarkable.” Read the Rest Here

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