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

Sept. 25 2019
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. 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.

Read more at National Affairs

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

Israel’s Retaliation against the Houthis Sends a Message to the U.S., and to Its Arab Allies

The drone that struck a Tel Aviv high-rise on Thursday night is believed to have traveled over 2,000 kilometers, flying from Yemen over Egypt and then above the Mediterranean before veering eastward toward the Israeli coast. Since October, the Houthis have launched over 200 drones at Israel. Nor is this the first attempt to strike Tel Aviv, only the first successful one. Noah Rothman observes that the Houthis’ persistent attacks on Israel and on international shipping are largely the result of the U.S.-led coalition’s anemic response:

Had the Biden administration taken a more proactive and vigorous approach to neutralizing the Houthis’ capabilities, Israel would not be obliged to expand to Yemen the theater of operations in the war Hamas inaugurated on October 7. The prospects of a regional war grow larger by the day, not because Israel cannot “take the win,” as President Biden reportedly told Benjamin Netanyahu following a full-scale direct Iranian attack on the Jewish state, but because hostile foreign actors are killing its citizens. Jerusalem is obliged to defend them and the sovereignty of Israel’s borders.

Biden’s hesitancy was fueled by his apprehension over the prospect of a “wider war” in the Middle East. But his hesitancy is what is going to give him the war he so cravenly sought to avoid.

In this context, the nature of the Israeli response is significant: rather than follow the American strategy of striking isolated weapons depots and the like, IDF jets struck the port city of Hodeida—the sort of major target the U.S. has shied away from. The mission was likely the furthest-ever carried out by the Israel Air Force, hitting a site 200 kilometers further from Israel than Tehran. Yoel Guzansky and Ilan Zalayat comment:

The message that Israel sent was intended to reach the moderate Arab countries, the West, and especially the United States. . . . The message to the coalition countries is that “the containment” had failed and the Houthis must be hit harder. The Hodeida port is the lifeline of the Houthi economy and continued damage to it will make it extremely difficult for this economy, which is also facing significant American sanctions.

Read more at National Review

More about: Houthis, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy