Anglo-Jewish Attitudes by Asael Abelman

Abelman, Asael. "Anglo-Jewish Attitudes." Mosaic magazine. July 20, 2017.


The cultural historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has arguably done more than anyone to shape our understanding of Victorian Britain. She has also written books on the 18th-century Enlightenment as well as numerous essays on the formation of 20th-century American culture and on contemporary politics and society. Her work, based on the careful and extensive accumulation of textual evidence, is a paragon of history-writing in the old style. Reviewing in Mosaic her latest collection, Past and Present, Peter Berkowitz has acutely pointed out the degree to which the body of her work stands as a powerful reproach to the writings of today’s postmodernist historians, whose accumulating misconstruals and distortions she has steadily and trenchantly criticized.

More recently, Gertrude Himmelfarb has also authored or edited several books on Jewish history and culture, especially in the English-speaking world. In what follows, I mean to direct myself to this area of her work and to her specific ideas about Jews and Judaism. But since those ideas cannot be properly appreciated without noting their place in her work as a whole, let’s begin by sketching the broader context.

In her book The Roads to Modernity (2004), Himmelfarb faulted historians of the 18th-century European Enlightenment for focusing primarily on the French experience and thereby slighting the markedly different course taken by the thinkers of the British or Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and its American legatee. In her view, the main difference between the two Enlightenments concerned the status of reason. Whereas the French philosophes imbued reason with a quasi-religious sanctity and sought to reform, or remake, society on its basis, figures like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and David Hume saw reason not as an end in itself but as a tool for social reform and the safeguarding of liberty. In order to accomplish that purpose, it was necessary to temper reason with the social virtues of compassion, sympathy, and mutual responsibility.

How to sustain and encourage those virtues? Here, too, leading figures of the British and Scottish Enlightenment deviated greatly from their Continental counterparts. Whereas the latter were characterized by a fierce anti-clericalism and even hostility toward religion, the former assigned to religion a central role. Isaac Newton—a hero to the French and British Enlightenments alike—was a deeply religious man and a believing Christian, even if not of the orthodox, Trinitarian kind. Even the notorious skeptic David Hume had a fondness for religious enthusiasm, viewing it as a means of expressing a love of liberty. Much like his fellow Scot Adam Smith, Hume believed in the necessity of a religious establishment for the advancement of society.

In turn, these two fundamental differences, the approach to social reform and the attitude toward religion, help explain the divergent historical paths taken by France and Britain from the 18th century onward. The rigid, radical, and utopian rationality of the French led to a decisive, violent, and failed revolution and would later fertilize Communism and many of its latter-day “progressive” avatars. Meanwhile, the British devotion to common-sense virtue and appreciation for religion curbed the revolutionary impulse and led to the slow, controlled, and successful growth of the British Empire and the gradual expansion of democratic governance and individual rights during the 19th century.

In this connection, it is not surprising that Himmelfarb, going beyond John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, would point instead to an alternative tradition of liberalism whose adherents included Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the American founders: a tradition that placed virtue, social morality, education, and—conspicuously—religion alongside liberty itself as essential elements in the formation of a free society. Nor is it surprising that Himmelfarb developed her interpretation of liberty most fully in her study of Edmund Burke, generally regarded as the father of modern conservatism.

At the heart of Burke’s outlook was the belief that politics should be tailored not to the abstract logical deductions of philosophers but to human nature, in which reason plays only a part—and not the largest part. In his powerful Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that man is a “religious animal” for whom faith is the most basic impulse, and assailed the determination of French revolutionaries to replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason, Temples of Reason, a Festival of Reason, and a new calendar. Atheism, championed by the French revolutionaries in the name of reason, was in fact, Burke wrote, contrary to both human instinct and reason, and could not long survive.

Finally, alertness to Anglo-French differences similarly informs Himmelfarb’s studies of Victorian Britain, the area where she has made her greatest mark as a historian. The accepted later view of the Victorians, most famously embodied in the writings of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and their Bloomsbury colleagues, is derogatory in almost every respect, almost grotesquely so. Victorian men, in this portrait, were self-satisfied, duplicitous liars, leading an outward life of rigid propriety while conducting another, dissolute life in secret. Victorian women, cinched into their corsets, suffered nervous breakdowns, hysteria, and a surfeit of emotional and erotic dissatisfaction. The children, victims of their parents’ repression and hypocrisy, were the deformed products of an iron discipline and, often, sexual abuse. To this bill of indictment, other, later writers would add the baleful influences of British chauvinism and imperialism.

Among historians, Himmelfarb was one of the first to defend the Victorians from these slanders; more, she made quite clear her admiration for Victorian Englishmen and their values—or, as she would prefer to say, their virtues. Through careful study, she showed the era to be one marked by stability, industriousness, thrift, temperance, restraint, loyalty, personal responsibility, self-discipline, cleanliness, and religious piety. She further demonstrated that many people in Victorian England achieved happiness, harmony, and success as well as domestic intimacy and felicitous family relationships.