The Progress And Poverty Of Richard Yisroel Pensack

I've exchanged emails with Yisroel Pensack for years. We share interests in, among other things, Orthodox Judaism and journalism.

Feb. 4, I sent him some questions and he replied:

I read Progress and Poverty by Henry George in SF 1972, whereupon I clearly saw there is an intelligent and beneficent Creator. Then I met Charles Cameron MacSwan, a Scottish Presbyterian Georgist, who encouraged me to read the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures (in English).

In 1975 I briefly went to Israel, where I read some Chumash (Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s commentary) and some of the Mishnah in English (translated by a Christian scholar) and a great, well-known secular book on the history of the Jewish people (The Source by James Michener), and I sometimes helped out to make a minyan even though I knew nothing about prayer or prayer services, then I wound up back in New Jersey where I’m from, became a newspaper reporter at The Star-Ledger in Newark, and started to very gradually become more Jewishly knowledgeable and observant. I don’t know exactly when I “became Orthodox” — if I did.

Hertz was the chief rabbi of the British Empire and a follower of the American economist and social philosopher Henry George.

An admirer of Moses, George was raised in a devout Christian home in Philadelphia. Hertz cites George at least six times in his Chumash, only three of which are listed in the index to that volume, however.

I lived in SF from ‘72-’75 and have been back in the SF Bay Area since ‘81, first in Marin, then briefly in ‘86 in SF and San Jose (Rav A. H. Lapin’s community), and here in the Richmond district of SF since around November of ‘86. The short answer is “long enough.”

I am not practicing journalism anymore. When I was a journalist, at The Star-Ledger long ago, for example, I worked Sundays through Thursdays, so I could observe Shabbat. Although the paper had a full-time religion writer/editor, I was the unofficial in-house “expert” on Judaism and often wrote articles on Jewish holidays and Jewish subjects.

San Francisco is indeed, to a large degree, a Torah desert, but there are some knowledgeable and observant Jews here. Overall, however, the Orthodox community here is very weak and extremely dysfunctional. The whole Jewish community here is highly dysfunctional, for that matter.

I fortunately had numerous opportunities both at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey and at the old San Francisco Examiner to write articles on topics germane to the teachings of Henry George. On my wall at home I proudly display a framed page from the August 23, 1979, issue of The Star-Ledger on which my one-and-only op-ed piece appears: “A Centennial of Importance to Economics,” which summarizes the ideas and worldwide historical impact of George’s masterpiece Progress and Poverty, which was first published in San Francisco in 1879. That piece included a brief overview of Georgism’s effect on New Jersey politics and history.

To grasp the importance of Henry George’s teachings, one must bear in mind that when the world’s privileged classes and their minions in academia and the churches rejected Georgism they opened the way to a century wracked by communism, fascism, socialism and monopoly capitalism. It didn’t have to be that way. And the Jewish people of the world bore the brunt of the fury unleashed by that major historical wrong turn.

My brother and I both inherited a serious, potentially fatal heart condition from our mother, a”h, who died at age 31 in 1955, when I was seven-and-a-half and my brother was not quite five years old. We were both powerfully affected by our mother’s death and by our development, in adolescence into young adulthood, of increasingly severe symptoms of our heart disease, which is now called HCM or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. HCM is a common cause of sudden death in young athletes.

My brother and I both had heart transplants in the early 1990s. Otherwise we both would have died. Years before that, in the 1970s, we both underwent partially corrective but non-curative open-heart surgery.

We both have a very keen sense of our own mortality and have both had numerous near-death experiences, some of them almost along the lines of the sick joke: the patient was at the doorway of death and the doctor pulled him through, a warped double entendre. On the other hand, it’s doctors and the incredible advances in medical science, with G-d’s help, that have kept us alive.

I had a combined liver and kidney transplant in 2004. My kidneys failed in 2002 after 12 years on cyclosporine, a kidney-toxic immunosuppressive medication, and my liver was failing due to Hepatitis C that I received in a blood transfusion in 1977 during open-heart surgery. I was on kidney dialysis from 2002 to 2004. Ten days after my liver and kidney transplant I had a large cerebral hemorrhage, later followed by a series of seizures. My left hand is still partially paralyzed from my stroke. Fortunately I am right-handed, but I used to be a fast touch typist and now I just peck at the keyboard with my right hand.

My brother became a medical doctor and has venerated medical science as the source of his salvation. As a child I was the one who always wanted to be a doctor to help the sick, but he’s the one who ultimately followed that path. He has told his life story in a book called Raising Lazarus (link and link).

I was always a truth seeker, and Hashem eventually rewarded me by introducing me to the Torah and Henry George, but not in that order. Henry George was the key that unlocked the pathway to Torah for me, and I have tried to be faithful to the truths I have learned from both Moses and Henry George, who was known as the prophet of San Francisco. After Progress and Poverty was published, George moved to New York City where he became a world-famous writer and speaker and twice ran for mayor.

Progress and Poverty is probably still the largest-selling book on economics ever written, and it’s still in print. Henry George was a lifelong writer, journalist and editor, and one could say Moses was too for the last 40 years of his life. One of Henry George’s greatest and most popular lectures, which he first gave as the main speaker at the dedication of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of San Francisco (now the SF Jewish Community Center), was simply called “Moses,” and in it he praised the wisdom and high character of the Jewish Lawgiver.

I learned from both Moses and Henry George that this life is very important while we’re alive, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to make the world a better place and to improve ourselves both as individuals and as a community and as a society, but ultimately there’s another world and another life for us where we can truly bask in the presence of our Creator. In that purer life, the soul’s longing to return to its source will be fulfilled, if we merit it by our conduct and our actions here on earth.