Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke, and the Rabbis
The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009
by Irving Kristol
Basic Books, 416 pp., $29.95
Renowned as a founder of neoconservativism, Irving Kristol was "neo" in other respects as well. "Is there such a thing as a ‘neo' gene?" he once asked, because, if there was, he certainly had it. By his own account, before he became a neoconservative, he was a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyite, a neo-socialist, and a neoliberal. But "one ‘neo'," he acknowledged, "has been permanent throughout my life, and it is probably at the root of all the others. I have been ‘neo-Orthodox' in my religious views (though not in my religious observance)."
Kristol passed away in 2009 and this posthumous collection of essays, spanning his career, has been widely reviewed by political allies and foes seeking to assess his achievement. Like Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, his influential collection of essays published in 1999, The Neoconservative Persuasion demonstrates Kristol's concern with a wide range of historical, cultural, sociological, and other matters. This new volume differs from its predecessor, however, in that it includes a significant representation of his writings on Jews and Judaism. Gertrude Himmelfarb, the editor of this collection and Kristol's wife, clearly wished to give adequate attention to the "abiding interest in and respect for religion" that led him to identify himself as a "neo-Orthodox Jew." Nonetheless, most reviewers have spent little time thinking through what this meant to Kristol.
A good clue to the answer can be found in one of his later essays, "On the Political Stupidity of the Jews."Kristol there recounts an experience that his wife once had while teaching a graduate course on British political thought in which she had spent several sessions on the writings of Edmund Burke. At the end of one class, she was approached by a "quiet and industrious" young woman. "Now," this student said, "I know why I am Orthodox." Needless to say, this wasn't because Burke had supplied an incontrovertible proof that the Oral Torah had been revealed at Mt. Sinai. "What she meant was that she could now defend Orthodoxy in terms that made sense to the non-Orthodox, because she could now defend a strong deference to tradition, which is the keystone of any orthodoxy, in the language of rational secular discourse, which was the language in which Burke wrote."