Matthew Arnold's Hebraism: An Antidote to Today's Anarchy

Nov. 25 2014

In Culture and Anarchy, the preeminent Victorian intellectual Matthew Arnold famously wrote of the contest between those human endeavors that are noble, ennobling, and beautiful and a liberal society where everyone is free to do or say whatever he wants. He also wrote of the contest between the Hebraist and Hellenist strains of Western culture—the former based on doing, the latter on thinking. According to Arnold, for culture to triumph it must strike the right balance between the two. Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

“Hebraism and Hellenism” . . . are not so much opposed, Arnold points out, as “divergent,” animated by “different principles” but having the “same goal” and “aiming at a like final result.” Both are “contributions to human development—august contributions, invaluable contributions.” Both “arise out of the wants of human nature, and address themselves to satisfying those wants.” The aim of both is the same: “man’s perfection or salvation.” Moreover, it is by alternating the two, “a man’s intellectual and moral impulses,” that “the human spirit proceeds; and each of these two forces has its appointed hours of culmination and seasons of rule.”

The last proviso, about the “appointed hours” and “seasons,” is at the heart of the matter, for this is what made the issue urgent for Arnold. “Now, and for us,” his preface asserts, “it is a time to Hellenize, and to praise knowing; for we have Hebraized too much, and have over-valued doing.” Yet this was followed immediately by the cautionary note: “But the habits and discipline received from Hebraism remain for our race an eternal possession; and as humanity is constituted, one must never assign to them the second rank today, without being prepared to restore them to the first rank tomorrow.”

The final chapter [of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy] even foresees a time when the two great principles would be in accord.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Weekly Standard

More about: Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hellenism, Matthew Arnold, Western civilization

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays