Herberg, Will

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HERBERG, WILL (1909–1977), U.S. theologian and social critic. Herberg was born and reared in New York City. A child of assimilated Russian Jewish intellectuals, he joined the Communist Party in 1924 and broke with it in 1931. From 1934 to 1946 he served as educational director and labor analyst for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Returning to academic life in 1946, he held academic positions at major universities and from 1955 was on the faculty of Drew University, becoming professor of philosophy and culture. Herberg was reared as an atheist and became a Marxist at the age of 15. On breaking with the Communist Party, he began a serious study of theology and was deeply influenced by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr's political and theological thinking had a profound impact on Herberg. The Jewish thinkers who influenced Herberg were Buber, Rosenzweig and, to a lesser extent, Solomon Schechter.

His return to Judaism, if it can be called a "return," for there was no Judaism in his background, took place around 1944 and was documented in a major article, "From Marxism to Judaism," published in Commentary magazine in 1947. This was followed in 1951 by Judaism and Modern Man: An Interpretation of Jewish Religion. Herberg's contribution to contemporary Jewish thought has been the rediscovery of the central importance of the covenant for Jewish existence and the conception of idolatry for modern man. Denying emancipation views of Jewishness as synagogue affiliation (Western views) or as shtetl citizenship (East European views), Herberg saw Jewishness as covenantal existence, an existence that makes sense of Jewish specificity-particularity and Jewish universality. The rediscovery of idolatry, that the biblical conception of idolatry was not simply the rejection of the worship of sticks and stones but the denial of the claims of all human absolutes, led him to see that "idolatry" remains a permanently relevant category of Jewish thought. Like thinkers before him, such as Samuel David Luzzatto, Herberg distinguished between the Greco-Oriental and Hebraic religions, and includes Christianity, since it is rooted in Hebrew Scripture, as a Hebraic religion. Following F. Rosenzweig, he had a view of the double covenant in terms of Judaism and Christianity.

Stemming from his interest in social, political, and theological matters Herberg published Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (1955; revised 1960); and three monographs, "The Jewish Labor Movement in America" (1950), "The Political Theory of American Marxism" (1951), "Religion and Education in America" (1961). Herberg later wrote Judaism and Modern Man (1970) and Faith Enacted as History: Essays in Biblical Theology (1976). He edited The Writings of Martin Buber (1956), Four Existentialist Theologians (1958), and Community, State and Church: Three Essays by Karl Barth (1960). From Marxism to Judaism: The Collected Essays of Will Herberg was published in 1988.


Arthur A. Cohen, The Natural and the Supernatural Jew (1962), ch. 3, sect. 6. add. bibliography: M. Marty and H. Ausmus, Will Herberg: From Right to Right (1987); H. Ausmus, Will Herberg: A Bio-Bibliography (1985).

[Monford Harris]