In a study of the American political thinker Irving Kristol, the founding father of neoconservatism, Ruth R. Wisse points to the “rabbinic tradition whose mode of thought he had imbibed from the culture of his youth” as “fundamental to understanding Kristol and his legacy.” The influence of this tradition can be found in Kristol’s writings on Jews and Judaism, but not only in those writings. It contributed to his rare independence of mind, and made him receptive to the ideas of such religious thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr:
[The rabbinic] mode of thinking, [which] grapples with the reality of human nature, . . . set him apart from his fellow intellectuals who disdained religion, and gave him the wisdom to see more clearly the foibles of his fellow man and the dangers they posed to a healthy society and self-governance. . . .
Kristol credited [the Protestant theologian Reinhold] Niebuhr with having introduced him 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.” He said it also enabled him to read the book of Genesis with appreciation bordering on awe. By the late 1940s, his developing passion for religious thought affected his political priorities; as he reflected later, “It requires strength of character to act upon one’s ideas; it requires no less strength of character to resist being seduced by them.” The first priority of Judaism was to oppose idolatry: Kristol’s intellectual task had shifted from coming up with good ideas to exposing the disastrous consequences of bad ones.
[Kristol’s] conservatism . . . incorporates the pervasive “liberal” component in talmudic thought. . . . It was [a] steady search for wisdom and truth that brought Kristol, pace Spinoza, to the intellectual love of Judaism. He experienced Judaism as an American.