This Sunday will mark the 100th birthday of the Jewish analyst and intellectual Milton Himmelfarb, who died in 2006. Perhaps best known for his famous quip, following the 1968 presidential election, that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” and for his dire and prescient warnings about declining American Jewish birthrates, Himmelfarb also devoted much energy to Bible scholarship—ancient, medieval, and modern. His daughter, the classicist Martha Himmelfarb, examines his relationship with Jewish tradition in her reflection on his life and legacy:
For my father, taking Jewish interests seriously meant taking Jewish tradition seriously, but his relationship to the tradition was idiosyncratically modern. His funeral took place in the Orthodox synagogue in White Plains that had been an important part of his life for more than 30 years. But, as my brother Edward pointed out in his eulogy, he had become a regular there only after resigning membership in a nearby Conservative synagogue that refused to count women in a minyan. In my father’s view, the Orthodox had a right to remain traditional on this point; Conservative Jews did not.
Edward also described what was for a number of years my father’s favorite Shabbat-afternoon activity: ever interested in metrics, he would sit in a comfortable chair with the Mikra’ot g’dolot—a Bible with traditional [rabbinic] commentaries—opened to the next week’s Torah portion and an electronic calculator so that he could check the gematria (the numerical values of words based on preassigned values for each Hebrew letter) in the commentary of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (ca. 1269-1343). He was interested to discover the large number of instances in which the numerical value of the letters didn’t precisely add up to the theologically significant number that the commentator claimed they did. He concluded that there must have been an implicit understanding that a small deviation from the desired sum was acceptable. . . .
[When it came to broader religious issues], my father argued that rabbis and Jewish communal officials were focusing on the wrong [problems]. Instead of fighting a losing battle against intermarriage (which was still under 33 percent by 1970, very low by today’s standards), they should have encouraged American Jews to have larger families; he calculated that an average family size of 2.5 or 3 would have meant a growth in Jewish population despite the losses incurred through intermarriage. He never mentioned his seven children in making his argument. . .
One obvious way to address intermarriage, my father wrote—as was often the case, taking issue with the “general wisdom” of the day—would be to encourage conversion, to “get over” an aversion to proselytizing that reflects not ancient Jewish tradition but the medieval Christian prohibition of conversion to Judaism. The most likely candidates for conversion, he continued, would be the future spouses of Jews; it would hardly count as proselytizing to encourage them to become Jewish. But surely people who find the Jewish tradition rich and meaningful should not begrudge it to others. So why restrict Jewish outreach to those future spouses?