Irving Kristol, Born Jewish

My late husband’s political views are well-known. His Jewish ones, less so. But they are at the root of everything.

September 29, 2014 | Gertrude Himmelfarb
About the author: Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019) wrote extensively on intellectual and cultural history, with a focus on Victorian England. Her recent books include The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot and The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

This week in Mosaic we are celebrating the release of our new ebook On Jews and Judaism, a collection of Irving Kristol’s essential writings on the Jews. Here, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb introduces the book and reflects on her husband’s Jewish legacy.


On Jews and Judaism is available in your web browser and on your Kindle, phone, and Nook. Click here for more.

“Is there such a thing as a ‘neo’ gene?” With this query Irving Kristol opens his 1995 essay, “An Autobiographical Memoir.” His life, he recalls, has been a series of such “neo’s”: neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyite, neo-socialist, neo-liberal, and, finally, neo-conservative. “No ideology or philosophy,” he explains, “has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.”

But there is an exception. One “neo” has been “permanent” throughout his life, Kristol writes, and was “probably at the root of all the others.” In his religious views (although not, he notes parenthetically, in his religious observance), he has always been “neo-orthodox.”

This is a remarkable testament by the “godfather of neoconservatism.” The political lineage of neoconservatism is well known, from its beginnings in a dissident Trotskyism and on to its various mutations in the 1970s and 80s and its emergence as a distinctive political and cultural orientation. In Kristol’s case, less well known is the existence of the religious gene, the neo-orthodox gene—which is to say, Judaism—not as an appendage or by-product of the other neo’s but as a permanent feature of his life, indeed at the root of all the others.

Kristol’s memoir is an invitation to inquire into that missing gene, and his own writings provide the best avenue into such an inquiry. His many reflections on Jewish religion and theology, the relation of Jews to secular society and culture, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and the contemporary situation of Israel are memorable in themselves. They are also memorable for the light they shed on neoconservatism, giving a spiritual and moral dimension to the mundane issues of politics, economics, or foreign affairs. Finally, they remind us of a Kristol who is more than the godfather of neoconservatism in its familiar guise, more far-ranging and spirited, more perceptive and more provocative.

Kristol confesses that his neo-orthodoxy is “something of a puzzle” even to him. His Jewish family, he recalls, was Orthodox in the sense common in his Brooklyn neighborhood. His father attended services on the High Holy Days and his mother kept a kosher kitchen but (like many if not most women in that milieu) was rarely seen in the synagogue. As a child, he went to the local Hebrew school two afternoons a week and Sunday mornings, learning to read the prayer book and Bible by translating the Hebrew into Yiddish, although he knew neither language. (At home, his parents spoke Yiddish to each other and English to the children, so his bar-mitzvah speech, delivered in Yiddish, had to be memorized.) In school, the rabbi enforced classroom discipline by a strong slap in the face and taught the children to fear Gentiles and to spit when passing a church. “If ever there was a regimen that might have provoked rebelliousness,” he reflects, “this was it.”

Yet he had not the faintest impulse to rebel. On the contrary, he continued with Hebrew school for a few months after his bar mitzvah, although his parents neither required nor encouraged him to do so. After his mother’s death, when he was sixteen, he rose at dawn every day for six months to go to the synagogue, unaccompanied by his father, to recite the memorial prayer for the dead. “There was something in me,” he later observed, “that made it impossible to become antireligious, or even nonreligious.” This was so even in his later years, in spite of the other, political “neo’s” that might be expected to have moved him in a different direction. “I was born theotropic,” he concludes.


“Theotropic.” It was not Judaism itself but a “basic predisposition” toward faith that first stimulated Kristol’s intellectual interest in religion, for which he had always had a “vague, positive feeling.” Having read the Bible as a child in Hebrew school and the King James Version in college, he had always assumed that “the Book of Genesis was, in some nonliteral sense, true.” In the heady intellectual atmosphere of college, his theotropic instinct, expressed in his fondness for such poets as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot, was further whetted by his reading of the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Jacques Maritain—at the same time, he ironically notes, that he was reading Trotsky, Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg. Why Christian and not Jewish theologians? Because, he explains, there were no serious Jewish theologians available in English at the time; it was only after World War II that the German-Jewish theologians Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, began to be translated.

In an earlier memoir Kristol had credited Niebuhr and the literary and cultural critic Lionel Trilling as “the two intellectual godfathers of my neo-ism.” He had read Trilling’s reflections on Eliot’s “Idea of a Christian Society” in Partisan Review in 1940, and the first volume of Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man the following year. It was Niebuhr’s book that provided him with the “intellectual vocabulary” and “intellectual grammar” that elevated what had been a “vague, positive feeling” to a level of belief capable of competing with the reigning creed of secular liberalism:

It was Niebuhr who introduced me to the idea of “the human condition” as something permanent, inevitable, transcultural, transhistorical, a transcendent finitude. To entertain seriously such a vision is already to have disengaged oneself from a crucial progressive-liberal piety. It also enables one to read the Book of Genesis with an appreciation that approaches awe. After Niebuhr, I plunged into theological literature with an ecumenical interest.


Religion and theology figure prominently in Kristol’s articles in Enquiry, a modest, pamphlet-sized journal that he and his ex-Trotskyite comrades founded in 1942. These were not obvious subjects for “A Journal of Independent Radical Thought,” as Enquiry’s subtitle had it. Of his five contributions to that short-lived magazine (it did not long survive his induction into the army), three are on literary subjects, and, in all three, religion figures as well.

His contribution to the inaugural issue, “Auden: The Quality of Doubt,” opens by commenting on the “religiosity of tone” in the poet’s account of the 1930s, that “low dishonest decade” when men’s ideals went so fatally awry. But Kristol goes farther. Putting the point “more bluntly than the poetry permits,” he finds in Auden’s recent poems a concept of sin—the “permeating fact of evil”—that belies all social attempts at the regeneration of mankind.

“A Christian Experiment” in the next issue is a review of Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone’s novel about a Marxist revolutionary who becomes a Christian revolutionary. Rebutting Thomas Mann’s dictum that “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms,” Kristol proposes quite the opposite: “Our political destiny is on the way to being formulated in religious terms.” If Silone’s novel is a failure, he concludes, the fault lies in its lack of the “acute awareness of subsistent evil,” so that the religious theme is reduced to a mere “romantic sentiment,” a fatal “revolutionary innocence.”

Kristol’s final article in Enquiry, “The Moral Critic”(1944), is a review of Trilling’s book on the English novelist E. M. Forster. It opens with a discussion of Trilling’s earlier essay on Eliot’s “Idea of a Christian Society,” where Trilling had quoted Matthew Arnold’s maxim about the function of criticism: “to praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted.” By that criterion, Trilling judged the prevailing “liberal-socialist ideology” to be sadly wanting – which prompts Kristol to observe that Trilling’s own work, by contrast, “partakes of the normal religio-ethical tone so consistently set forth by men like Maritain, Niebuhr, [Christopher] Dawson.” But it is Kristol, not Trilling, who cites these theologians, pleased to find this religio-ethical tone in the writings of a man he so much admires.


There was nothing in the young Kristol’s background—he was all of twenty-two when he wrote the first of these articles—to account for his interest in religion, let alone theology. Indeed, there was much to tell against it: family, friends, schooling, radical politics, and, above all, a secular culture where religion represented something retrograde, even dangerous. It was quite on his own that Kristol read those theologians, took seriously such unfashionable ideas as sin, and gave expression to them in the unlikely medium of a journal of radical thought.

It was in an even unlikelier setting, the army in World War II, that he continued his self-education, plunging, as he said, into “theological literature with an ecumenical interest.” After serving in the infantry in Germany, he was transported, after V-E Day, to Marseille to await shipment to the Far East. When that was forestalled by the dropping of the atom bomb over Japan, he filled out the remaining year of his military service in Marseille as chief company clerk, with two German prisoners of war attending to the routine duties of the office. Brushing up on his French, he enthusiastically read a score of magazines and books featuring not only the popular French existentialists but also the prolific Catholic theologians. It was, he would fondly recall, “a kind of postgraduate sabbatical.”

Returning home after the war, Kristol discovered a new outlet for his literary as well as his theotropic impulses in the recently founded Jewish monthly Commentary. He hastily wrote a short story which, to his surprise, the magazine accepted and even paid for. Based upon his encounter with a young Jewish survivor in a displaced-persons camp near Marseille—in the story, the meeting takes place in the Zionist headquarters in Marseille—“Adam and I” recounts the confrontation between the troubled, guilt-ridden narrator (clearly, Kristol himself) and the rather aggressive young man seeking his help. This is Kristol’s only published story. (He later wrote, and scrapped, a novel, deciding that fiction was not his forte.) It is also his first literary venture with an explicitly Jewish theme. He followed it up with a review of a book on the Holocaust and a short essay on Communist anti-Semitism.


“By the late 1940s,” Kristol writes in one of his memoirs, “religious thought was my most passionate interest—though in the secular-liberal milieu in which I lived and worked, it was an interest to be revealed with prudence.” This may seem an odd comment to make, for Kristol’s “milieu” was then Commentary, where he had become an assistant editorThat Jewish journal, however, was itself of a decidedly “secular-liberal” temperament, not given to any serious interest in Jewish religion or for that matter religion in general. (Nathan Glazer, also on the staff at the time, has said that Kristol was the magazine’s de-facto religion editor.) But if Kristol’s interest was “to be revealed with prudence,” his September 1947 contribution, the first after his appointment as an editor, was anything but prudent. Indeed, one wonders what prompted Elliot Cohen, the founding editor of Commentary, to publish so dense and erudite an essay by his new, twenty-seven-year-old junior editor, and what his readers made of it.

“The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew: The Theological Stigma” is a passionate discourse on the Christian origins of anti-Semitism, and it is a challenge from the outset. The essay opens abruptly with a shocking quotation: “Anyone who is not instinctively disgusted by the Synagogue is unworthy of a dog’s respect.” That sentence, Kristol explains, appeared in a 1905 book by the French novelist and Catholic polemicist Léon Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs (‘Salvation through the Jews”); Bloy, in turn, had taken his title from the words of Jesus in the gospel of Saint John: Salus ex Judaeis est. “A strange sentiment,” Kristol comments on the quotation about the synagogue, “for a book so titled, and one suspects the presence of a spirit of irony.” But Bloy was not being ironic, Kristol insists; in expressing these two conflicting sentiments, anti- and philo-Semitic, he was entirely serious.

Nor was Kristol himself being ironic in opening his essay with that startling quotation from a book written early in the century by a theologian little known among American Catholics, let alone American Jews. Nor was he being deliberately pedantic in elaborating upon it with long excerpts and explications from Catholic thinkers like Raïssa and Jacques Maritain, Ernest Renan, Charles Péguy, even Pope Innocent III, as well as the Jewish theologian Joshua Trachtenberg, the German anti-Semite Hans Blüher, and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Where a magazine like Commentary might have been expected to focus on the social, economic, and political sources of anti-Semitism, Kristol subjected it to a profoundly, agonizingly theological examination.

Kristol’s first attempt to deal with Judaism itself, not in the negative context of anti-Semitism but as a religion in its own right, appeared in Commentary a few months later. His review of Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg, a prominent Conservative rabbi, was accompanied by a prefatory editorial note by Cohen identifying the reviewer as “one of the younger writers who has been concerning himself with religious thinking” and who, the editor assures the reader, would surely “disclaim any ‘representativeness’ for his religious views.” Kristol’s review required this apologetic preface because it was a severe critique of the mode of Judaism represented by Steinberg—a mode no doubt congenial to many of Commentary‘s readers, including, perhaps, Cohen himself.

“How Basic is Basic Judaism?” is the question posed in the title of the review. All too basic, Kristol regretfully replies, because this is a Judaism so watered down that it could accommodate almost any religious sentiment. Steinberg addressed his book to those “groping to establish rapport with the Jewish tradition, standing at the synagogue’s door ‘heart in, head out.'” Describing himself as just such an “unsynagogued” person, Kristol finds that this mode of Judaism gives him no entry to the synagogue by way either of heart or of head. Although he appreciates Steinberg’s existential, communal, and moral intentions, the “element that is wanting” in his creed is sin—not the doctrine of original sin, which, Kristol says, has no place in Judaism, but “the fact of sin.” Steinberg’s version of Judaism can see the evil in individual wicked men or nations, but it misses the “full and menacing stature” of this human propensity, preferring instead “to dress itself up in the clothes of 19th-century liberalism in order to attend a 20th-century execution.” Replacing religion and theology with social philosophy and political democracy, it creates a “sociopolitical liberalism, with divine sanction to boot.” “What are we to make of a rabbi,” Kristol asks, “who claims for the Mishnah and the Talmud that they guarantee the workers’ right to strike—thereby providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act!”

These and other articles in Commentary written by Kristol in his late twenties are strikingly expressive of the neo-orthodoxy he brought to religion in general and Judaism in particular—and strikingly prescient of the neoconservatism that would later reject political and social liberalism in favor of a more rigorous, realistic view of both politics and society. The articles also remind us that “neo,” in Kristol’s sense, is not the mediating, moderating, compromising principle it is sometimes made out to be—not a half-way house between religion and secularism or between conservatism and liberalism, but rather a bold and challenging view of religion and politics alike.

As if Kristol’s review of Steinberg had not been provocative enough, his article in 1952, “Civil Liberties—A Study in Confusion,” about the liberal response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, was far more so. The article contains a much-quoted line about the American people: Tthey know, wrote Kristol, that Senator McCarthy, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist, but they know no such thing about the spokesmen for American liberalism. This created a storm of controversy, complicating Kristol’s position as managing editor (which he had since become). Combined with tensions with the editor, this prompted Kristol’s resignation from Commentary later that year.


Kristol’s departure from Commentary coincided with a shift in his interests from religion and theology to politics and culture. His brief tenure as executive director of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom was followed by five years in London as co-founder and co-editor of Encounter magazine; then, back in New York, he became editor of the Reporter and, in 1965, founder and co-editor of the Public Interest. These journals placed him at the heart of the controversies provoked first by the cold war, then by the culture wars and socio-political wars that by the late 1960s and early 1970s would provoke the emergence of neoconservatism. Kristol did not cease to think about Jews and Judaism in these years; he was an ardent supporter of Israel and followed its history with intense interest and anxiety. But he did cease to write about them, so that the bibliography of his Judaica shows a gap of two decades.

In 1972, Kristol resumed writing about Judaism, often in the context of politics and culture. It is interesting that in that year, his first article in the Wall Street Journal (inaugurating a three-decade stint as a monthly contributor) was “Why Jews Turn Conservative.” Datelined Jerusalem—this was one of several visits to Israel—it deals with the persistent predisposition of Jews, in Israel as in America, toward liberalism. Might this be changing, Kristol hopefully suggests? If so, it was not because Jews were turning rightward but because the Left was becoming more aggressively leftist. A dozen years later, in Commentary, Kristol was less sanguine, despite the fact that there were good reasons for a rightward turn in America —”Great Society” programs that had adverse effects on society and the economy, affirmative-action programs that imposed quotas antithetical to liberal ideals (and to Jews), anti-Semitism among blacks whom Jews had so staunchly supported. Nor were Jews moved by the emergence of a vigorous pro-Jewish and pro-Israel tendency among conservative evangelicals. “The Political Dilemma of American Jews,” as the title put it, was a dilemma of their own making, an inability to confront the new realities of American life.

Kristol’s final article on the subject, delivered in Jerusalem in 1999 under the audacious heading, “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews,” was even more unforgiving. At stake now were not only domestic issues affecting Jewish interests in the U.S. and Israel—the economy, society, and the role of religion in civic life—but pressing issues of international policy as well, bearing on the security and indeed the very existence of the state of Israel. It was a “daunting task,” Kristol concluded, but a necessary one, to overcome the utopianism that had so long afflicted Jewish political thinking:

American Jewry will not survive without Israel, and Israel cannot survive without the Jews of the United States. And neither community can survive without the development of a sound Jewish political tradition, which will teach us to think realistically about our politics, our economics, and our foreign relations.


Jews were not alone in falling prey to the fatal illusion of utopianism. In a dozen articles in a variety of journals, Kristol criticized the vain attempts of American and European diplomats to solve the problems of the Middle East. In the last of these articles, in the Wall Street Journal in 1997, he gave an academic gloss to the Middle East “peace process,” relating it to the theory known to social scientists as “conflict resolution.” That therapeutic approach to human affairs, Kristol observed, based on the assumption that trust and understanding could resolve all conflicts, was sometimes appropriate to domestic disputes but hardly to the intractable realities confronting Israel and Arabs. In practice, the so-called peace process had turned out to be a polite name for an “appeasement process,” with Israel making concessions and Arabs consistently responding by demanding more.

Religion played a smaller part in Kristol’s writings in these later years, but a no less provocative one. Commenting, one Christmas eve, on the familiar objections by some American Jews to the crèches in the public square and Christmas carols in public schools, Kristol observed that America, while not a Christian nation, was after all a Christian society. The “wall” separating church and state was not, as some Jews thought, a wall separating religion and society. To try to secularize society by eliminating all traces of religion from American public life was “contra naturam,” defying the lessons of history, sociology, and psychology. On another occasion, responding to Jewish fears of evangelicals and the Christian Right, Kristol warned that the real danger came not from Christianity but from a renascent paganism hostile to all biblical religion. Well before the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorism, he predicted “an upsurge of anti-biblical barbarism that will challenge Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization altogether.”

To live amicably in a Christian society did not mean, for Kristol, the diminution of Judaism itself. As he had criticized Milton Steinberg’s “basic Judaism” for denying Judaism’s essential and unique character, so he now criticized the brand of “tolerance” promoted in Christian-Jewish “dialogue”—an interfaith exercise that had the effect of secularizing and liberalizing both religions. In a Christian and tolerant society like America, he reasoned, it was all the more incumbent on Jews to cultivate “an authentically religious kind of tolerance—that is to say, a tolerance that has religious roots as against secular roots.”


“Religious roots”: this recalls the “neo gene” that in his 1995 memoir Kristol identified as “at the root of all the others.” His long and productive career, devoted in large part to the secular subjects of politics and economics, foreign affairs and culture—the preoccupations that warranted his title as neoconservatism’s godfather—also produced a considerable number of penetrating and challenging essays on Jews and Judaism. Notable in themselves, these essays also correct a common misconception of the nature of Kristol’s “basic predisposition” to religion—that it was merely utilitarian, valuable primarily, if not entirely, as a moral and stabilizing force in society.

For Kristol, religion is that as well—but as a by-product of what is essential about it, its metaphysical and spiritual character. Religion, he held, is not just for the good of society; it is good for the individual, and not just for the sake of leading an ethical life but for the sake of a meaningful and soulful life. Nor should Kristol’s neo-orthodoxy be mistaken for New Age religiosity, which is personal, eclectic, ephemeral. His neo-orthodoxy is firmly Jewish, rooted in history and community, in an ancient faith and an enduring people.

And so, too, his neoconservatism is firmly rooted in Judaism. In an essay on Michael Oakeshott written many years later, Kristol recalled the day in 1956 when, as an editor of Encounter in London, he found on his desk an unsolicited manuscript by Oakeshott entitled “On Being Conservative.” It was a great coup for the magazine to receive, over the transom, an essay by that eminent philosopher. Kristol read it “with great pleasure and appreciation”—and then politely rejected it. It was, he later explained (although not to Oakeshott at the time), “irredeemably secular, as I—being a Jewish conservative—am not.” Oakeshott’s “conservative disposition,” to enjoy and esteem the present rather than what was in the past or might be in the future, left little room for any religion, still less for Judaism:

Judaism especially, being a more this-worldly religion than Christianity, moves us to sanctify the present in our daily lives—but always reminding us that we are capable of doing so only through God’s grace to our distant forefathers. Similarly, it is incumbent upon us to link our children and grandchildren to this “great chain of being,” however suitable or unsuitable their present might be to our conservative disposition. And, of course, the whole purpose of sanctifying the present is to prepare humanity for a redemptive future.

Kristol was “born theotropic”—and born Jewish. In a recent essay on evangelicals and Jews, Wilfred McClay recalled a dinner when that subject came up and Kristol, “with casual assurance,” remarked: “Well, after all, religion is what you’re born with.” He was not moved by the reminder that evangelicals are not born with their religion—that, on the contrary, they have to be “born again.” Kristol’s neo-orthodoxy required no such rebirth. In “An Autobiographical Memoir,” he confessed that his “religious observance” was not always commensurate with his “religious views.” But one religious commandment he did faithfully observe: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” And thy forefathers and foremothers, and thy children and grandchildren: the Jewish heritage and the Jewish religion.


My husband, Irving Kristol, died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 2009. Four years earlier, he started a “Commonplace” notebook. The first entry, under the date 10/16/05, was inspired by the cycle of holy days that had just concluded with Yom Kippur:

The High Holidays are gone and I am impressed once again with the two spirits that dwell in the breast of Judaism (and X’ity). First, the rationalist (in the Aristotelian sense), which provides rational explanations for religious practice, and the second which takes religious practice as primary and, contemplating it, derives profound human meanings from it. I believe the second is more authentically religious, but also the most dangerous, since it can open doors one didn’t know existed. The first, however, is more “conservative” as well as more popular with rabbis and clerics, since it provides them with plausible explanations for the laity.

When I was at Commentary, we published only anthropological-rational explanations for the holidays. Even then I knew it was a sterile exercise. Judaism does not explain the holidays; the holidays explain Judaism.

The first explanation is reductive, the second expansive—reductive to the material, expansive to the spiritual.

“Spiritual”: has there ever been a human community that did not believe that, when a man died, his spirit left him? Modern science is trying hard to reduce the spiritual to the material. But the scientists themselves know damn well that when they die, something more than reduction has occurred.

To read more from On Jews and Judaism, visit


Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has written extensively on intellectual and cultural history, with a focus on Victorian England. Her recent books include The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot and The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill