Will Herberg (1906-1977), Jewish theologian, social thinker, and biblical exegete, represented an independent strand in American Jewish leadership. While working from the standpoint of a Conservative Jew, he interacted with other Americans of many faiths, reflecting on the cultural and social conditions which challenged all those who took religion seriously.
Herberg was born August 4, 1906 (some sources say 1909), to Russian immigrant parents in New York City where he grew up and was educated. His father died when he was ten years old, leaving him to be educated by a mother who believed strongly in self-taught learning. He excelled in high school, graduating at 16, and from there entered Columbia University where in 1928 he earned both an A.B. and an M.A. degree, receiving the Ph.D. in 1932.
From the age of 17 he had been a leading organizer of the Young Workers League, being attracted to Marxism by its utopian ideals. When, however, the controversial Jay Lovestone was ousted from the Communist Party in 1929, Herberg followed him and then grew more and more distant from Marxism. His essays revealed his concerns with racism and his praise of the politics of the New Deal. By the early 1940s he had made a complete break with Marxism, declaring it a false faith, an idolatrous parody of Jewish and Christian values. His growing conservatism could be seen in his later ambivalence towards McCarthyism and his selection as contributing editor of the National Review, a post he held from 1961 onwards. He felt he had advanced from following the false God of Marxism to worship of the true God, a God that could not be confused with any secular or political reality.
He described this transformation well in an autobiographical essay first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1970, "From Marxism to Judaism: Jewish Belief as a Dynamic of Social Action." That rejection of Marxism became the touchstone of Herberg's later writing and thinking. An early essay, "The Christian Mythology of Socialism" (1943), claimed that socialism is a secular distortion of the Jewish and Christian messianic vision. In his study of Judaism and Modern Man (1951) he rejected the false idols of political or social utopias, recognizing that ideology can become a substitute for true religion. In a later article, "The Great Society and the American Constitutional Tradition" (1967), he warned that even the most humanistic projects can lead to a destructive idolatry. His contention that politics can be dissolved into ideology led to disagreement with other thinkers, as was evident in a 1952 public conference on "The Ethics of Controversy" held at New York's Tamiment Institute.
Jewish Theology and Sociology
After leaving Marxism Herberg devoted himself to education. From 1935 to 1948 he worked as a research analyst and education director of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Association. During 1948 to 1955 he developed a distinctive theological and social perspective expressed in his writings and lecturing. These works showed the influence of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who convinced him not to convert to Christianity but rather to develop a modern Jewish theology. Herberg united this theology with sociological insight in his classic work Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955). The book combined careful review of research on the ways Americans of the 1950s were religious with reflection on the perils of the diluted religiousness prevalent during the "religious revival" of the Eisenhower years.
In this book Herberg claimed that the traditional religious communities in America were tending to blur their distinctive views and affirm instead "the American Way of Life." He suggested that the sociological data pointed to a growing belief that the various traditions could be reduced to a common system of ideas which were identical with Americanism. His theological argument demonstrated the danger such dilution of biblical religion had for the prophetic task of opposing any actual human system with the divine ideal. He later claimed that the "American Way of Life" need not be a competitor to traditional religions but could exist beside them ("Society, Democracy and the State: A Biblical Realist View," 1959, and "America's Civil Religion: What It Is and Whence It Comes," 1974). Herberg believed that American democracy when correctly understood could be held up as an example of biblical pessimism, a self-critical system that recognized its own limitations. The influence of Reinhold Niebuhr became refined in a conservatism that was still prophetic in its view of American religious life.
Education and Ecumenical Thinking
Herberg's leadership became evident through his influence on students and in ecumenical dialogue while he was on the faculty of Drew University (1955-1976). Through his teaching and lecturing Herberg communicated the biblical heritage that Jews and Christians shared as well as the conceptual differences that separated them. He saw both traditions as affirming "salvation history" in the sense of a lived re-experiencing again and again of the events of salvation. Thus his exposition of the redemptive holidays of Easter and Passover emphasized a common view of ritual combined with a divergence of symbols.
Herberg's freedom from institutional ties enabled him to build bridges with other religious groups. He taught Jewish students to appreciate Christian thinkers like Kierkegaard and Maritain. His helpful anthology Four Existentialist Theologians (1957) is an ecumenical collection including Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish thinkers. He affirmed the distinctiveness of the Jewish way of life to Christian audiences. He was frequently a participant in ecumenical events, even preaching in the context of Christian worship. This interaction made him a significant figure not only in Jewish life but among Christians as well. Bernhard W. Anderson, a well known Christian biblical scholar, commented on Herberg's influence on the Christian community: "As a philosopher and theologian he has helped Christians to reach a deeper understanding of their own faith." When he died on March 27, 1977, both Jews and Christians mourned his passing.
Further Reading on Will Herberg
There is no full scale study of Will Herberg currently available. John P. Diggins in Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Literary History (1975) devotes two chapters to Herberg—one to his Marxist quest and one to his Jewish response. An interesting article is that by S. Daniel Breslauer, "Will Herberg: Intuitive Spokesman for American Judaism," in Judaism (1978). His autobiographical essay "From Marxism to Judaism: Jewish Belief as a Dynamic of Social Action," now found in Arguments and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust, edited by Arthur A. Cohen (1970), can also be consulted with profit.
Additional Biography Sources
Ausmus, Harry J., Will Herberg, a bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Ausmus, Harry J., Will Herberg, from right to right, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.