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In Memoriam Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM, CBE, MA, FBA (1909-1997)

<plain_text><page sequence="1">In Memoriam Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM, CBE, MA, FBA (1909-1997) Our Society has from time to time seen fit to honour with its presidency men whose eminence in their respective professions has been complemented by the leadership which they have afforded to the Anglo-Jewish community. When Sir Isaiah Berlin accepted our offer of the chair, it was the Society that was hon? oured. This is not the occasion for any detailed obituary chronicle: his fellowship of All Souls', his distinguished contribution to the war effort as a temporary First Secretary in the British embassy at Washington, the Chichele chair at Oxford, his presidency of Wolfson College - of which he had been effectively the founder - and of the British Academy, and the Queen's bestowal upon him of the Order of Merit - these say it all. We should rather devote a few moments to considering his significance, his legacy and indeed his challenge. His two outstanding characteristics - and they were surely interconnected - were his perceptiveness and his capacity for friendship. The academic world in which he spent his life is peopled by scholars and scientists who, despite their informed command of their own specialisms, are far from homogeneous either in depth of mind or broadness of outlook; and, regrettably, the republic of letters has not yet discovered how to immunize its citizens against prejudice. From his undergraduate days onwards, Isaiah's company was sought out, for its stimulus: and, without condescension, he could appreciate both the sincerity, and the positive contribution, of those possessed of a liberal tolerance and breadth of mind even though they were not in his intellectual league; and their particular ideals or scale of values were ones to which he himself subscribed either with a lesser intensity, or not at all. As a student of philosophy Isaiah Berlin was particularly devoted to the understanding of government, and of the endeavour to accommodate the con? flicting needs, aspirations, convictions and obsessions that are inherent in the human condition; as a political philosopher, he dwarfed politicians. But he was much more than that. Several obituarists have remarked on the extent to which he opened windows, enabling those concerned with other disciplines (psychologists among them) to view their own subject in a new and fructifying light. In this respect, he invites comparison with Socrates - to whom, in a way, he bore some physical likeness; for Socrates laid claim to no skill beyond that of intellectual midwifery to other men's thinking (Plato, Theaetetus, i6ie). Socrates' medium was the arresting dialogue, Berlin's the fascinating monologue, and I xvi</page><page sequence="2">In Memoriam doubt that he considered Socrates his master: yet, in another way, too, he resembled him. I refer to the celebrated capacity for concentration that was a feature of each. The story is fairly well known of Isaiah's discussion, in Russia, with the poetess Anna Akhmatova, which continued unbroken for some twelve hours. It calls to mind an incident when Socrates, serving in the Athenian army besieging Potidaea, was noticed standing, deep in contemplation of a problem, from one dawn until the next, when, after a prayer to the rising sun, he went about his military duties (Symp. 220 c-d). Berlin's knowledge of history had taught him the benignancy, indeed the cultural indispensability, of a cosmopolitan pluralism, and made him realize the essential fallacy in all political blueprints, from Plato's Republic to, and beyond, Marx. Including, it has to be said, the Jewish blue-print: for he understood the pragmatic clash (one which some of us like to think could be overcome) between the political implications of the comprehensive stretch of the halakhic law, when it is handled, or flaunted, in absolutist terms, and that freedom of conscience which is one integral element in liberalism and the equilibrium of social exist? ence. This probably accounts for the measure of reserve that he maintained, despite his unquestioned identity and solidarity with Jewish peoplehood and with Israel, in regard to public religious activities: as also for his unhappiness with the political atmosphere in Eretz Yisrael today. He appreciated, too, that liberalism has its martyrs - Socrates himself was one - and this most terrible of centuries has given Antigone many a spiritual sibling. But I think that he would have allowed that the psalmist had already written a motto for those who sacrifice all for truth: '/ walk unconstrained, for it is thy precepts that I seek' (Psalm 119:45). Others - it lies beyond my competence - will speak of his impact on philo? sophy and will assess its long-term significance. For us it is appropriate to con? sider his contribution to the Jewish world, and to Anglo-Jewry in particular. He was well informed about Jewish history, and familiar with at least some of the highlights of the post-biblical Jewish classics, but he was not drawn to close study of them; I shall ask, in a moment, why this might have been. In the history of speculative thought and intellectual endeavour he was, I suppose, the most significant Jewish figure since Moses Mendelssohn: for, unlike Einstein who was not interested in Jews and Judaism but was content that Zionism should make capital of his genius, Berlin, who had always been emotionally and intellectually committed to Zionism, understood well enough those aspects of Judaism which he felt unable to accept or endorse: and it was this that made his counsel and support so much valued in, and beyond the intellectual establishment of, Israel. Within Anglo-Jewry, it is not surprising that the esteem in which he was held spread far beyond the groves of academe: no English Jew has, I think, been so widely acclaimed since Herbert Samuel. The causes to which he gave his interest and his time, or lent his name, speak for themselves, and it would be pointless xvn</page><page sequence="3">In Memoriam here to single any of them out. Yet alongside this, his aloofness from the spiritual and the speculative dimensions of Judaism challenges us, and it would dishonour his memory not to consider it briefly. I suggest that the reason was his rejection of all facile simplifications and, still worse, the fashioning of them into slogans for use as shibboleths. This, combined with his open-minded cosmopolitanism, explains his rejection of Weizmann's peremptory call in 1948 that he should make up his mind where he belonged. Similarly in regard to Judaism. It is understandable that scepticism prevented his accepting a system of ideology and ethics of which the linch-pin is the notion of revelation - but my own formulation here is itself an over-simplification, if not quite so simplistic as the battle-cry tor ah min ha-shamayim. The interrelation of revelation, Torah and praxis is, as the kabbalists appreciated, rather more subtle. And I find it difficult to believe that Isaiah, to whom music was so meaningful, would not, had he been drawn to address himself to religious thought, have sensed that some of the cardinal affirmations of the Jewish liturgy find their counterpart in the harmony of the spheres; and perhaps, like the mystics, he might have slipped into the state where agnosticism is mingled with wonder, and both are transmuted into awe. That he, and many a young intellec? tual whom the community cannot afford to alienate, was not guided towards discovering this, is the indictment of our Jewish secondary education: and his memory challenges us to do better. Isaiah Berlin was buried, appropriately, in Oxford; but, as Thucydides wrote, the whole earth is the tomb of distinguished men (11,43,3). He prepared himself in the ante-chamber: and we may be confident that there is a place for him at the celestial high table (Mishnah, Aboth, 4: 16). Raphael Loewe xvin</page><page sequence="4">^^^^B^ &lt; ?:- ^'iJ^ ^^^^^^ Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM, CBE, MA, FBA (1909-1997)</page></plain_text>