Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Discussion Guide


Jews: The Essence and Character of A People, is the latest work by prolific scholar Arthur Hertzberg. Along with collaborator Aron Hirt Manheimer, Jews is an attempt to define and analyze what it means to be Jewish in the context of Jewish history from Abraham to the present day.

This is an interpretive, even polemical work. Hertzberg makes no attempt to paper over his personal views or to proclaim objectivity. As a scholar, pulpit rabbi, and communal leader, he has participated in a host of significant events in Jewish life for over half of a century and has been witness to the changing fortunes of American Jewry, the Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel, and the "spiritual renaissance" of the late 20th century. Coupling his own experiences with that of past generations of the Jewish people, and highlighting significant Jewish personalities, Hertzberg insists that there is such a thing as a definable "Jewish character" and that it has remained constant since the time of Abraham and Sarah.

This study guide is designed to focus the reader on Hertzberg's key arguments as well to inspire critical thinking through "observations and questions."

Observations and Questions 


  1. Academics and laypeople, Gentiles and Jews have struggled since antiquity to understand and define the very nature of Jewishness. Indeed, the experience of the Jews in history is in and of itself a paradox. On the one hand, Jews make up a tiny fraction of the human population and have suffered through numerous tragedies, yet they have outlasted the great empires and have had a disproportionate and profound impact on the world as a whole. To what factors do the co-authors attribute the ability and persistence of the Jews to endure?
  2. Why might the authors' focus on Jewish "traits" be controversial for some in the Jewish community?
  3. According to the authors, which Jewish traits or characteristics have helped Jews to survive and to flourish? How has Jewish "otherness" hurt and helped the Jewish people?

Chapter I: The Chosen 

  1. Rabbi Hertzberg's early experience with anti-Semitism inspired him to contemplate what makes Jews different from others. How does his mother's explanation of Jewish difference coincide with both traditional and modern definitions of Jewishness?
  2. The concept of Jewish "Chosenness" has vexed Jew and non-Jew alike. How have non-Jews interpreted chosenness? How have secular and religious Jewish interpretations of chosenness coincided, as with the case of David Ben Gurion's formulation? How, according to Hertzberg, has chosenness been played out among American Jews?
  3. Hertzberg describes how traditional conceptions of chosenness portray Jews as partners with God in the struggle to morally perfect the world. How does Rabbi Hertzberg justify or explain this relationship in light of the Holocaust?

Chapter II: A House Divided 

  1. Even while jokes abound about Jewish factionalism, Jews have likewise garnered a global reputation for being a unified people. How does Hertzberg explain the coincidence of these two diverging characteristics? Stated differently, how has it been historically possible for the Jewish people to be essentially unified and fractious?
  2. According to Hertzberg, how authoritative has religious "authority" been in the course of Jewish history? What impact have the events of 20th century, particularly the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, had upon intra-Jewish relations?
  3. How might one view the Jews' critical nature as a positive trait?

Chapter III: The Outsider 

  1. How in Rabbi Hertzberg's view is Abraham the archetypal Jew?
  2. Although a quintessential outsider, Abraham was also known for his service and deeds of kindness on behalf of others. Why does Judaism demand that its adherents remain a separate people and yet serve humanity as a whole?
  3. How have ancient and contemporary anti-Semitic views of Jewish otherness coincided? How does the Jews' commitment to maintaining their own laws and customs play into anti-Semitic conceptions? How does Hertzberg explain the Jews' ongoing commitment of affirming their otherness? Do you agree?

Chapter IV: The Wild Streak 

  1. How have Jewish-Christian relations changed in recent times? How and why have Jewish attitudes toward Jesus become more nuanced?
  2. Why, according to Hertzberg, are Masada and the Warsaw ghetto uprising morally ambiguous events?
  3. How does Hertzberg attempt to explain the Jewish people's determination not to submit to foreign culture or rule?

Chapter V: The Synagogue of Satan 

  1. In a further discussion about relations between Jews and Christians, Hertzberg explains the Jewish people's supposed sin was in their rejection of Christ and not "Christ killing." Given that Jews also rejected paganism, why does Hertzberg argue that Christianity was more threatening and difficult to contend with than idolatry?
  2. How "Golden," in Hertzberg's view, was the Jewish experience in medieval, Muslim Spain? How did Jewish relations with Muslims differ from those with Christians?
  3. What methods did Jews employ to resist Christian assaults on Judaism? How does Hertzberg explain Jews' "inner resistance"? In what general areas were Jews more willing to compromise their own way of life to accommodate the surrounding, majority cultures of Christianity and Islam?

Chapter VI: The Terrible Choice 

  1. In the late 20th century, Kabbalah has become a common, if misrepresented, subject of religious discourse among Jews and others. Why have rabbis and traditional Jewish teachers been suspicious of the Kabbalah? How was Kabbalah employed as a Jewish response to suffering and persecution?
  2. Hertzberg argues that even in time of persecution, traditional Jewish study, rather than activism or prayer, has been the supreme Jewish value. Do you agree?
  3. In the face of persecutions such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain, what options were left to Jews besides apocalyptic Kabbalah? How do individuals as varied as Isaac Luria and Uriel Da Costa typify these responses?

Chapter VII: The Lady vs. the Pope 

  1. Given the variety of Jewish responses to oppression, how did Dona Gracia's ideas differ radically from previous Jewish reactions to persecution? How did she presage modern Jewish leaders?
  2. Why did some Jews oppose Gracia's methods?
  3. Why did Dona Gracia's boycott campaign ultimately fail? How analogous do you think her historical circumstances were to those faced by Rabbi Stephen Wise in the 1930s?

Chapter VIII: Messianic Mania 

  1. We have seen that mystics and traditional rabbis have often been at odds in responding persecution. How did the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew, mediate between traditionalism and worldliness?
  2. What historical circumstances led to the rise of Shabbetai Zvi? Why was the Jewish world in the 17th century especially ripe for the arrival of such a figure?
  3. Do you believe that contemporary Jews are vulnerable to the same sort of "messianic mania" as were the Jews of the 17th century?

Chapter IX: The Age of Dissent 

  1. While Christianity was never monolithic, the Protestant revolution--the Reformation--had a profound and abiding impact on the Christian world. How did Martin Luther's revolutionary reformation affect Jews? How did later struggles between various denominations of Christianity impact upon Jewish status in the non-Jewish world?
  2. What were the Jewish reactions to the Reformation and how did Jewish perceptions of Christianity change as a result of Protestantism? How did the new Western economic system of mercantilism transform Jewish-Christian relations?
  3. What type of alternative Jewish identity did philosopher Baruch Spinoza espouse? Why are his views considered the precursor to other modern Jewish ideologies? How, according to Rabbi Hertzberg, did Spinoza remain an essentially Jewish philosopher despite his heretical ideas?

Chapter X: The Hasidic Revolution 

  1. How have popular portraits of Hasidic Judaism differed from those of early Hasidisim?
  2. How did scholars such as Martin Buber, Benzion Dinur, and Gershom Scholem attempt to explain Hasidism? What ideological motivations shaped their differing views?
  3. Why were 18th-century Jewish traditionalists, most notably the Gaon of Vilna, so alarmed by the Hasidic revolution? In what sense was Hasidic Judaism similar to previous Jewish responses to suffering? Given the comfort, freedom, and safety in which most contemporary North American Jews live, why has Hasidism continued to resonate among some Jews into our own era?

Chapter XI: Unrequited Love 

  1. Rabbi Hertzberg explains how the "modernization" of Jews was as much a process of Westernization as it was a process of "civilizing" the Jewish people. What choices faced Jews who wished to participate in the Enlightenment culture of 18th-century Europe?
  2. How did Jews attempt to reconcile their desire to join the modern world while preserving their traditions? How did some attempts at modernization lead to Jewish "self-contempt"? How did Jewish intellectual Moses Mendelssohn mediate between the demands of the Jewish tradition and the modernization process? In your view, was his attempt successful?
  3. How was Karl Marx a "Luther in Red" and an ideologue for modernizing Jews? According to Rabbi Hertzberg, why were the rapidly forming anti-Semitic ideas of the 19th-century "civilized" world even more dangerous than pre-modern anti-Semitism?

Chapter XII: Reinventing Jewishness 

  1. According to a more conventional view of Jewish history, the Enlightenment dispelled centuries of Jewish suffering. Why, according to Hertzberg, is this conception flawed? Likewise, why is the conventional view of Jewish "passiveness" a flawed historical position?
  2. How does Rabbi Hertzberg define voluntarism, and how does he explain it as a force in Jewish history? How did the Jewish Orthodoxy of Rabbi Moses Sofer differ from that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch? How, despite their traditional practices, were both rabbis innovators and even radicals?
  3. How did the major, non-Orthodox, Jewish religious ideologues of the 19th century, Abraham Geiger, Zacharias Frankel, and Israel Jacobson, differ from their Orthodox counterparts? Given that each of these thinkers broke from Orthodoxy, why did they disagree with one another?
  4. How did the 19-century American Jewish historical experience differ from that of Europe? How was Disraeli an archetype of modern Jewish identity?

Chapter XIII: Two Radical Solutions 

  1. As Rabbi Hertzberg argued in the previous chapter, religious observance is not the only determinative factor of Jewishness. How might Leon Trotsky, a harsh opponent of Judaism, also be understood in Jewish terms? In what sense do Trotsky and Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, hold similar outlooks on the Jewish people? How do their perspectives on the non-Jewish world coincide?
  2. How would Herzl have defined a "normal" nation? Likewise, why did he and later Zionist thinkers view Jews as an abnormal people? How did Herzl understand anti-Semitism? Why does Hertzberg argues that Herzl partially "failed" in his mission?
  3. Why did Socialist leaders of Jewish backgrounds such as Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg partially blame Jews for anti-Jewish persecution?

Chapter XIV: Hard To Be a Jew 

  1. As we have seen, even Jews who vigorously attempted to discard their Jewish identity remained doggedly Jewish. What does Rabbi Hertzberg mean by the phrase "marginal" Jews, and how might they differ from the socialist Jewish leaders? What are some of the shared assumptions and attitudes of figures as different as German poet Heinrich Heine and American entertainer Al Jolson?
  2. In what ways was Franz Kafka's life journey different from other marginal Jews? In what ways was Sigmund Freud's Jewish experience no different from that of his ancestors?
  3. What, according to Hertzberg, is the source of Woody Allen's self-hatred? Why might someone as troubled by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as Allen struggle to shed his Jewish background? Why do you think someone as conflicted about his own Jewishness as Woody Allen has become a Jewish icon for Jews and Gentiles?

Chapter XV: Judaism Without God? 

  1. While some Jews attempted entirely to shed their Jewish identities, others tried to remake their Jewishness through secular Jewish ideologies. Still others attempted to preserve basic elements of Judaism while downplaying God, or at least the God of Israel. How did thinkers such as Zecharias Frankel and Solomon Schechter attempt to reinterpret Judaism for the modern world?
  2. How did Ahad Ha'am's construction of Jewish identity differ from other Zionist thinkers? In what sense did Mordecai Kaplan's ideology of Reconstructionism represent the radical culmination of the many attempts to modernize Judaism?
  3. How did Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber's approaches to God and the individual differ? Why was traditionalist Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook accepting of modern Jews and ideologies such as Zionism?
  4. Given the many attempts to define Jewishness and to translate Judaism for the modern world, how does Rabbi Hertzberg define a "good Jew"?

Chapter XVI: Forsaken 

  1. How were traditional Jews' responses to the Holocaust different from modern and assimilated Jews? In the immediate aftermath of World War II, how did American Jews cope with the enormity of the Holocaust?
  2. How, in Hertzberg's view, have American Jews embraced the Holocaust in the second half of the 20th century? How might the Holocaust have become a tool for maintaining Jewish continuity?
  3. How did Martin Buber theologically attempt to deal with the Holocaust? How do the views of traditionalist Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum and David Ben Gurion coincide in regards to the Holocaust? What is Rabbi Hertzberg's theological response to the Holocaust?

Chapter XVII: The Future 

  1. How, according to the author, is Jewish factionalism both an ancient and modern phenomenon? What reasons are cited for the argument that factionalism "threatens the very future of the Jewish people"?
  2. Hertzberg cites the Kotzker Rebbe's teaching that evil deeds can stem from the performance of a "good deed at the wrong time and in the wrong place." How does Hertzberg apply this notion to contemporary Israel? Who, in his view, are the Jewish people's current false messiahs?
  3. Who does the author see as the true inheritors of Jewish religious tradition? How, in his view, have Orthodox triumphalists distorted Judaism as well as misrepresented the modern Jewish experience? Which ideas does Rabbi Hertzberg see as core Jewish values, already shared by a broad spectrum of Jews? In his opinion, what makes someone a Jew in today's world?