How the Rabbinic Mode of Thinking Gave Irving Kristol His Rare Independence of Mind

Ruth R. Wisse
pick
Sept. 25 2019
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

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.

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Read more at National Affairs

More about: Irving Kristol, Judaism, Neoconservatism, Reinhold Niebuhr

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy