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

To Save Gaza, the U.S. Needs a Strategy to Restrain Iran

Since the outbreak of war on October 7, America has given Israel much support, and also much advice. Seth Cropsey argues that some of that advice hasn’t been especially good:

American demands for “restraint” and a “lighter footprint” provide significant elements of Hamas’s command structure, including Yahya Sinwar, the architect of 10/7, a far greater chance of surviving and preserving the organization’s capabilities. Its threat will persist to some extent in any case, since it has significant assets in Lebanon and is poised to enter into a full-fledged partnership with Hizballah that would give it access to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps for recruitment and to Iranian-supported ratlines into Jordan and Syria.

Turning to the aftermath of the war, Cropsey observes that it will take a different kind of involvement for the U.S. to get the outcomes it desires, namely an alternative to Israeli and to Hamas rule in Gaza that comes with buy-in from its Arab allies:

The only way that Gaza can be governed in a sustainable and stable manner is through the participation of Arab states, and in particular the Gulf Arabs, and the only power that can deliver their participation is the United States. A grand bargain is impossible unless the U.S. exerts enough leverage to induce one.

Militarily speaking, the U.S. has shown no desire seriously to curb Iranian power. It has persistently signaled a desire to avoid escalation. . . . The Gulf Arabs understand this. They have no desire to engage in serious strategic dialogue with Washington and Jerusalem over Iran strategy, since Washington does not have an Iran strategy.

Gaza’s fate is a small part of a much broader strategic struggle. Unless this is recognized, any diplomatic master plan will degenerate into a diplomatic parlor game.

Read more at National Review

More about: Gaza War 2023, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy