The cultural historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has arguably done more than anyone to shape our understanding of Victorian Britain. She has also written books on the 18th-century Enlightenment as well as numerous essays on the formation of 20th-century American culture and on contemporary politics and society. Her work, based on the careful and extensive accumulation of textual evidence, is a paragon of history-writing in the old style. Reviewing in Mosaic her latest collection, Past and Present, Peter Berkowitz has acutely pointed out the degree to which the body of her work stands as a powerful reproach to the writings of today’s postmodernist historians, whose accumulating misconstruals and distortions she has steadily and trenchantly criticized.
More recently, Gertrude Himmelfarb has also authored or edited several books on Jewish history and culture, especially in the English-speaking world. In what follows, I mean to direct myself to this area of her work and to her specific ideas about Jews and Judaism. But since those ideas cannot be properly appreciated without noting their place in her work as a whole, let’s begin by sketching the broader context.
In her book The Roads to Modernity (2004), Himmelfarb faulted historians of the 18th-century European Enlightenment for focusing primarily on the French experience and thereby slighting the markedly different course taken by the thinkers of the British or Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and its American legatee. In her view, the main difference between the two Enlightenments concerned the status of reason. Whereas the French philosophes imbued reason with a quasi-religious sanctity and sought to reform, or remake, society on its basis, figures like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and David Hume saw reason not as an end in itself but as a tool for social reform and the safeguarding of liberty. In order to accomplish that purpose, it was necessary to temper reason with the social virtues of compassion, sympathy, and mutual responsibility.
How to sustain and encourage those virtues? Here, too, leading figures of the British and Scottish Enlightenment deviated greatly from their Continental counterparts. Whereas the latter were characterized by a fierce anti-clericalism and even hostility toward religion, the former assigned to religion a central role. Isaac Newton—a hero to the French and British Enlightenments alike—was a deeply religious man and a believing Christian, even if not of the orthodox, Trinitarian kind. Even the notorious skeptic David Hume had a fondness for religious enthusiasm, viewing it as a means of expressing a love of liberty. Much like his fellow Scot Adam Smith, Hume believed in the necessity of a religious establishment for the advancement of society.
In turn, these two fundamental differences, the approach to social reform and the attitude toward religion, help explain the divergent historical paths taken by France and Britain from the 18th century onward. The rigid, radical, and utopian rationality of the French led to a decisive, violent, and failed revolution and would later fertilize Communism and many of its latter-day “progressive” avatars. Meanwhile, the British devotion to common-sense virtue and appreciation for religion curbed the revolutionary impulse and led to the slow, controlled, and successful growth of the British Empire and the gradual expansion of democratic governance and individual rights during the 19th century.
In this connection, it is not surprising that Himmelfarb, going beyond John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, would point instead to an alternative tradition of liberalism whose adherents included Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the American founders: a tradition that placed virtue, social morality, education, and—conspicuously—religion alongside liberty itself as essential elements in the formation of a free society. Nor is it surprising that Himmelfarb developed her interpretation of liberty most fully in her study of Edmund Burke, generally regarded as the father of modern conservatism.
At the heart of Burke’s outlook was the belief that politics should be tailored not to the abstract logical deductions of philosophers but to human nature, in which reason plays only a part—and not the largest part. In his powerful Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that man is a “religious animal” for whom faith is the most basic impulse, and assailed the determination of French revolutionaries to replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason, Temples of Reason, a Festival of Reason, and a new calendar. Atheism, championed by the French revolutionaries in the name of reason, was in fact, Burke wrote, contrary to both human instinct and reason, and could not long survive.
Finally, alertness to Anglo-French differences similarly informs Himmelfarb’s studies of Victorian Britain, the area where she has made her greatest mark as a historian. The accepted later view of the Victorians, most famously embodied in the writings of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and their Bloomsbury colleagues, is derogatory in almost every respect, almost grotesquely so. Victorian men, in this portrait, were self-satisfied, duplicitous liars, leading an outward life of rigid propriety while conducting another, dissolute life in secret. Victorian women, cinched into their corsets, suffered nervous breakdowns, hysteria, and a surfeit of emotional and erotic dissatisfaction. The children, victims of their parents’ repression and hypocrisy, were the deformed products of an iron discipline and, often, sexual abuse. To this bill of indictment, other, later writers would add the baleful influences of British chauvinism and imperialism.
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Among historians, Himmelfarb was one of the first to defend the Victorians from these slanders; more, she made quite clear her admiration for Victorian Englishmen and their values—or, as she would prefer to say, their virtues. Through careful study, she showed the era to be one marked by stability, industriousness, thrift, temperance, restraint, loyalty, personal responsibility, self-discipline, cleanliness, and religious piety. She further demonstrated that many people in Victorian England achieved happiness, harmony, and success as well as domestic intimacy and felicitous family relationships.
With all of this in mind, we can turn to Himmelfarb’s books and essays dealing with the emancipation of European Jews and with, specifically, the cultural connections between Jews and Englishmen in the modern era. Indeed, as she showed in her 2016 essay “The Jewish Question,” the attitude toward Jews adopted by several of the most prominent spokesmen of the French and German Enlightenments—the intellectual forebears of, respectively, the French Revolution and Marxism—differed markedly from the attitude adopted by the leading figures in British politics and literature, and embraced even more strongly by their American offshoots. Himmelfarb concludes that it is the latter path, with its belief that “religion [is] an ally of both freedom and enlightenment,” that is fundamentally friendlier to Jews—and to their existence as a distinct religious minority.
The underlying historical context here is the improved situation of Jews in the British Isles in contrast to the situation of their coreligionists on the European continent. While many Europeans in the 19th century persisted in regarding the Jews, long after their formal emancipation, as a nation-within-a-nation, demanding that they forsake aspects of their identity in exchange for full acceptance, in England the “Jewish question” was far more prosaic, political, and above all less fraught. It was a question of citizenship—and no more.
When, in the mid-19th century, English Jews received full legal and political equality with the removal of the final restrictions on their right to hold office, they did so not as individuals required to deny their Jewish identity but as English citizens who happened also to be Jews—and often religiously observant Jews. Furthermore, they received the full rights of citizenship from a people that itself had neither undergone French-style secularization nor rejected its own Christian identity, but that continued to maintain an established church even as it respected religious diversity.
One particular aspect of the historical affinity of English-speaking peoples with the Jews is articulated by Himmelfarb in The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill (2011). This history of not just tolerance but positive feeling, itself one of the most important and most unusual links connecting Jews and Jewish tradition with some of the greatest minds of Western culture, begins in England with the Puritans’ attraction to the “Hebrew spirit” and the mid-17th-century return of Jews to the British Isles centuries after their expulsion, continues in the (often frankly romanticized) philo-Semitic writings and public statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of twelve, and culminates in the 20th century in the Zionism of Lord Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.
What was it that the Victorians shared with the Jews? In her 1989 essay “Victorian Values/Jewish Values” (or “The Jew as Victorian,” as it was revised and retitled in her 1995 collection The De-moralization of Society), Himmelfarb examines the late-19th-century report prepared by the English socialist Beatrice Webb on the mostly poor Jewish community in London’s East End. Webb expresses a great deal of admiration for these working-class immigrants and children of immigrants. To Himmelfarb, Webb’s positive evaluation of her subjects suggests that Jewish and Victorian culture cherished the same virtues: intellectual aptitude, industry, communal engagement, moral rectitude, and religious devotion.
In this essay of Himmelfarb’s we thus witness a meeting of two seemingly disparate worlds that represent a conjoined moral approach and way of life that are second to none: two worlds close to her own heart. In this light, and much closer to our own time, it’s no coincidence that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—another great admirer of the Victorians—should also have continued the British tradition of demonstrating a special feeling for the Jews.
Of all of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s writings on the Jews, perhaps most relevant today for Jews anywhere who wish to sustain a vibrant commitment to Judaism are her reflections on the role of religion in a free society. As for those interested in Jewish history more generally, as well as in English history and the development of political ideas, pride of place in Himmelfarb’s work goes to The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009).
In this book, Himmelfarb focuses in particular on the great writer’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876. The eponymous hero of that magnificent novel, who was raised as a member of the British aristocracy, discovers that he is a Jew and marries an extraordinary Jewish woman.
Although the plot’s various twists and turns are not easily summarized—in order to write the book, Eliot became proficient in Hebrew and immersed herself in the study of Jewish history and culture—it’s worth emphasizing a point of special pertinence to Jews today, whether in Israel or the Diaspora. That is the mission to which the young Deronda commits himself after discovering his Jewishness. In brief, he resolves to dedicate his life to his people throughout the world by working toward the establishment of a national home in the land of Israel.
That Eliot created a fictional character committed to such an undertaking some two decades before Theodor Herzl appeared on the world stage with an identical proposal is both fascinating and astounding. But at the heart of the matter is the fact that Deronda is inspired to help the Jewish people not—in the manner of Herzl at the Dreyfus trial—by an encounter with extreme European anti-Semitism or in reaction to violent persecution. Indeed, those regular features of Diaspora existence are almost entirely absent from Eliot’s novel. Rather, her hero aims to bring about the national rejuvenation of the Jews because that is what is due to an ancient and venerable people destined to make a noble contribution to humanity.
Today, all around the world and even in Israel itself, the creation of the Jewish state is frequently portrayed as an answer to the persecution of Jews historically and to the Shoah in particular. The message is endlessly propagated by educational and religious institutions, memorialized in museums, depicted in literature, and harped upon in journalism. But it entirely fails to capture the true meaning of Zionism. Like the fictional Daniel Deronda, many of the early Zionist leaders, including the seminal figures of Herzl, Zeev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion, saw in their idea of the Jewish state the potential for the nurturance of an old-new Jewish contribution to the human future.
What these early Zionist leaders, and before them George Eliot, understood then is still not widely understood today. The state of Israel isn’t only a refuge from persecution, though it is certainly that, but the realization of the dream of generations of members of the people of the Book—a people with a unique history and bearing a transformative vision of social, cultural, and religious import.
In our day, when Western civilization is under attack from all sides, Israel is on the frontline of the struggle to defend everything this civilization has to offer against the forces that would undo it. The preservation of that unique and precious nexus of values and interests, I would maintain, is the summary message to be gleaned from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s deep, broad, and inspiriting investigations into the nature and meaning of Western culture, virtue, and freedom, and her horizon-expanding reflections on the Jews and their fate.