Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism

Why I will miss Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer, the psychiatrist-turned-neoconservative pundit, has announced that he is dying at the age of 68, and that he only has weeks to live.

I sometimes/often disagreed with him, but I have had the most profound respect for his mind, his analysis – and for his stubborn refusal to allow a spinal injury to deter him from living a full and generous life.

In the midst of all of the premature obituaries that are making their way across the cyberworld, I want to pay tribute to him – by quoting a talk that he gave some years ago, upon accepting an award from Bar Ilan University in 2002 – a talk that had a profound impact on me, and upon my world view.

The talk was called “He Tarries.”

Who is “he?”

The Messiah, of course.

Krauthammer said:

It is true that according to Maimonides, one of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is belief in the coming of the Messiah, but that does not mean that we have to believe in the imminent coming of the Messiah. In fact, the rabbis long discouraged the belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah as almost a form of impiety. Messianic speculation has not been good for the Jews.

Krauthammer goes on to enumerate several messianic delusions that have haunted Jewish history:

  • Bar Kochba – who led a rebellion against Rome; whose followers hailed him as the messiah, and whose defeat was one of the bloodiest and most costly in Jewish history.
  • Sabbatai Zevi –  who was the focus of a popular messianic movement in the 1600s. He acquired hundreds of thousands of followers in the Jewish world, promising a return to Zion, redemption, and the imminent end of days. The movement crashed when Zvi converted to Islam, leading to profound disappointment and even communal depression.

Those were big failures.

Krauthammer then continues by naming some modern false messianisms.

  • The settler movement in Israel – including radical elements such as those who would restore the ancient Temple on the Temple Mount.
  • Habad/Lubovitch – many of whose adherents still flirt with the idea that the late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, was the Messiah.

And then, Krauthammer offers us a zinger.

You don’t have to be religious to be a messianist. I would argue that the secularist temptation is the strongest of all; and is surely exerting an influence far more important and powerful than its religious counterparts in shaping contemporary Jewish history and bringing us to the terrible crossroads at which Israel finds itself today.

Consider the following quotations: “The hunting season has ended in history”, “War, as a method of conducting human affairs, is in its death throes”, “The conflicts shaping up as our century nears its close will be over the content of civilization, not of territory”, and finally, “The Trojan Horse of war is obsolete.”

These words were not uttered by a religious fanatic under the spell of prophetic visions…they were written by the current Foreign Minister of Israel [sic] Shimon Peres.

Krauthammer was saying that the secular, liberal version of messianism – that the Middle East was headed into an era of untrammeled peace – was also a false messiah.

If anything, the sixteen years since he delivered this talk have only proven him correct. Kumbaya is still (still?) a song that kids might sing in summer camp; but it is not yet a historical fact.

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories, which Krauthammer also loved – the one about how Henry Kissinger spent part of his retirement years as the director of the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. A team of reporters visit the zoo, and they come to a cage in which a lion and a lamb are lying down together, thus fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of a perfect world.

The reporters ask him: “Dr. Kissinger, this is the messianic dream. How did you do it?”

Kissinger said, “It is very easy. Every day, we get a new lamb.”

Charles Krauthammer taught me – taught all of us – to be both cautious and cynical about any proclamations that the world is, in fact, whole.

But, there is something else that Krauthammer can teach us as well.

Consider his final column:

In August of last year, I underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my abdomen. That operation was thought to have been a success, but it caused a cascade of secondary complications — which I have been fighting in hospital ever since. It was a long and hard fight with many setbacks, but I was steadily, if slowly, overcoming each obstacle along the way and gradually making my way back to health.

However, recent tests have revealed that the cancer has returned. There was no sign of it as recently as a month ago, which means it is aggressive and spreading rapidly. My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.

I wish to thank my doctors and caregivers, whose efforts have been magnificent. My dear friends, who have given me a lifetime of memories and whose support has sustained me through these difficult months. And all of my partners at The Washington Post, Fox News, and Crown Publishing.

Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

To which I would add: may we all confront our own mortality and finitude with as much grace, dignity, and faith as Charles Krauthammer has mustered.

For as long as God gives him, may Charles Krauthammer absorb the love and esteem that he so richly deserves.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.