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Harvey Meirovich





The Hertz Chumash: A Polemical Defense of Judaism



APA e-journal

Harvey Meirovich





The Hertz Chumash: A Polemical Defense of Judaism






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The Hertz Chumash: A Polemical Defense of Judaism

To instill Jewish readers with a sense of pride in their religion, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in the early 20th century, challenged Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis, especially the claim that rabbinic Judaism was a degraded form of Israelite religion. Instead, Hertz went on the offensive, comparing Christian values unfavorably to Jewish values.


The Hertz Chumash: A Polemical Defense of Judaism

Rabbi Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz. Wikimedia (adapted)

The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, popularly known as the “The Hertz Chumash” (hereafter, Chumash), carries the distinction of being the first English-language Torah commentary written exclusively by Jews. Originally published in 5 volumes (1929–1936), its one volume printing (1938)[1] made practical its eventual adoption by synagogues, world-wide, and it was used by all religious streams in synagogues for more than six decades.[2]

The Hertz Chumash

The Chumash was edited by Rabbi Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz (1872–1946). Born in Rubrin (Slovakia), Hertz’s family moved to NY when he was around 12. In 1894, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and, that same year, became the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s rabbinical school. After short stints as a pulpit rabbi in the Transvaal (South Africa) and the US, he went on to become the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire (1913–1946).

As a rabbinical student, Hertz’s worldview was shaped by two mentors: Sabato Morais (1823–1897), an Italian-American rabbi of Portuguese descent, and Alexander Kohut (1842–1894), a Hungarian who did his rabbinical studies in Breslau and his academic studies in Leipzig. Hertz related to the former as “the most potent religious influence in my life” and the latter as the “giant intellect” who opened up to him the “vast ocean of Talmudic lore.”

Both men fed him principles that he would later incorporate into the commentary: defending the Mosaic authorship of the Torah; decoding the Jewish past through the prism of history; recognizing the theme of organic growth as an essential component of rabbinic thinking; and using the tools of rationalism to analyze Judaism.

The Making of the Chumash

Hertz labored for more than fifteen years (1920–1936) to bring the project to completion. Instead of turning to ivory-tower academics—Jewish ones being unavailable in the UK—he enlisted scholars who were also Anglo-trained congregational rabbis (called congregational ministers).[3] In October 1920, Hertz engaged, on a gratis basis, nineteen such rabbis, to submit commentaries to the weekly Torah portions, the Haftorahs, and the five Megillot; by 1922, the idea of a Megillot commentary was dropped.

Hertz expected his colleagues to pursue their research gratis, but several complained that either their congregational workloads, or the need to earn supplementary income, prevented them from devoting the requisite time to the project. Hertz finally saw results when he began paying them modest honoraria based on an estimated three working hours per day. By this point, the number of participants dwindled down to four colleagues, who provided most of the work:

Samuel (Friedeberg) Frampton (1862–1943) of Liverpool, who contributed the bulk of the material on the haftarot.[4]

Gerald Friedlander (1871–1923) of London, whose scholarship related to the penetration of Greco-Roman cults and creeds in the New Testament.[5]

Abraham Cohen (1887–1957) of Birmingham, a Maimonidean scholar,[6] who wrote about the importance of preaching.[7]

Joshua Abelson (1873–1940) of Leeds, also a Maimonidean scholar.[8]

Given Cohen and Abelson’s expertise, the Hertz commentary includes more than sixty direct references to Maimonides, as well as several other comments that clearly derive from Maimonides’ writings.[9] The raw drafts these four scholars submitted to Hertz in piece-meal fashion over several years accented the moral and spiritual teachings of the Torah and Haftorahs, which Hertz then enlarged, reworked and recast their submissions.[10]

Response to Wellhausen

The goal of the project was to impart the Torah’s religious and ethical insights to laymen, and to defend Judaism from the findings of Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), whose reconstruction of the origins of the Five Books of Moses, known as the Documentary Hypothesis, Hertz scorned,[11] a point he stressed at the outset of the commentary:

My conviction that the criticism of the Pentateuch associated with the name of Wellhausen is a perversion of history and a desecration of religion is unshaken.[12]

Presumably, Hertz was agitated that Wellhausen's interpretation of the Documentary Hypothesis would compromise the religious integrity of the Torah text as a divinely inspired document. As the commentary was intended for synagogue use, by first-second generation immigrants who got their dose of Torah on a Shabbat morning, the overwhelming number had no inkling of the Documentary Hypothesis. (As an aside, the late Moshe Greenberg told me that he was first exposed to higher criticism through the pages of the Hertz Chumash.)[13]

Hertz’s primary aim was to instill a sense of pride in that generation with an underlying premise of having them appreciate and observe the mitzvot as interpreted by the Rabbis. Thus, he had no interest in discussing the “finer” points of biblical criticism; his intent, to leave them with an overall impression.

His response to Wellhausen hits several critical themes.[14]

Single Authorship

The Documentary Hypothesis argues that the Torah is a composite document, written over centuries, and not the product of just one author, whether Moses or anyone else. Hertz, therefore, felt compelled to authenticate the possibility of Mosaic authorship of the Torah by explaining away the many internal contradictions in the Torah that drive the source critical approach. For example:

Who Sold Joseph?—The opening of the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37) contains a contradiction: did the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites or did they throw him in a pit where he was found by Midianites? The Documentary Hypothesis explains the contradiction by disentangling two narrative strands, J, in which the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites and E, in which the brothers throw him in a pit where he is found by the Midianites, who sell him to Egypt.[15]

Hertz defended the unity of the story by following Rashbam’s reading: Originally, Joseph’s brothers had intended to sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites heading down to Egypt. However, while the brothers were at their meal, Midianite merchants, casually passing by and hearing human cries from the pit near the roadside, carried off Joseph and sold him to the caravan of Ishmaelite going to Egypt (Genesis 37:36).[16]

Firstlings—Deuteronomy 15:19–23 requires Israelites to bring their firstborn animals to the temple, offer them as a sacrifice, and consume the remaining parts of the animal in the sacred precinct. Numbers 18:17–19, in contrast, grants this meat to the priesthood, like terumah (the priestly portion of grain) or special cuts of sacrificial meat. The Documentary Hypothesis explains this by positing two different law collections, the Deuteronomic and the Priestly, that differed in many details.

To resolve the contradiction, Hertz relied on the interpretation of David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921), the neo-Orthodox German scholar, who polemicized strongly against Wellhausen. Hoffmann argued that Deuteronomy takes for granted that it will be the priests, not the average Israelites, who eat the firstlings in the sacred precinct. As Deuteronomy follows Numbers in the Pentateuch, this didn’t need to be stated explicitly; it would have been obvious to Moses’ hearers who already knew the earlier law.[17]

Boiling and Roasting—Exodus 12:8–9 says that the paschal lamb must be roasted (צלי) and may not be boiled (בשל), whereas Deuteronomy 16:7 specifically says ובשלת, “and you shall boil it.” Again, the Documentary Hypothesis suggests that this difference reflects different norms of different communities.

In his first (1930) edition, Hertz harmonized the discrepancy by incorporating the clever interpretation of Bible scholar Marcus Kalisch (1828–1885)[18] that ב.ש.ל only means boiling when accompanied by the word מים “water”; otherwise, it has a generic meaning that can also refer to roasting. Hertz quoted 2 Chronicles 35:13, וַיְבַשְּׁלוּ הַפֶּסַח בָּאֵשׁ “and they cooked the paschal lamb in fire” as a proof.[19] Notably, in the later (1938) edition, Hertz translated both passages to mean “roasting,” with no attempt to explain the discrepancy between the verses.[20]

The Torah’s Historical Veracity

Wellhausen’s revisionist historiography transplanted the Pentateuch from the age of Moses and Wilderness wandering, to the monarchic period (for the non-Priestly texts) and the post-exilic period of the Second Temple (for the Priestly text). Part of this was the implicit and sometimes explicit assumption that the historiography of the Torah was fanciful.

One avenue for Hertz to combat this view was to marshal internal literary evidence from the Bible itself. Thus, Hertz argued that the Torah’s consistent admission of Israel’s shortcomings and frailties as a nation demonstrates its historical integrity. For instance, the Torah’s recording the crushing defeat sustained by the Israelites at Hormah (Num 14:45), bore “the hallmark of truth,” as the tendency of nations was to minimize, not maximize defeats.

This pattern of reporting contrasted with false transmissions of information found in Ancient Near Eastern archives specializing in glossing over mention of national catastrophes. This was why “only the Biblical annals… deserve the name of history.”[21]

Philological Support for an Ancient Date

The most novel tool in Hertz’s bag to support Mosaic authorship was evidence from the nascent field of ancient Near Eastern philology, which, he maintained, fortified the tenability of Mosaic authorship.[22] For example:

Pre-Exilic Leviticus—Supposedly a Second Temple Period creation, Leviticus was devoid of “neo-Babylonian or Persian loan words that would reflect the age of the Exile.”

ANE Admonitions—The existence of a parallel to the admonition of Leviticus 26 in the Laws of Hammurabi pointed to that chapter's preexilic origin, which pushed back against Wellhausen’s argument that the chapter must have been written during the Babylonian captivity when the punishments “foreshadowed” in it came to pass.[23]

Loan words—Hertz noted that loan words from surrounding civilizations had seeped into the biblical text through cultural cross-fertilization. Thus, the word כלב (Deuteronomy 23:19) was a Semitic term designating a cultic male prostitute.[24] The word חי “living things, people” (Genesis 3:20) was “the primitive Semitic [i.e., Arabic word] for ‘clan’; [Thus,] Eve was the mother of every human clan, the mother of mankind.”[25]

Egyptian Words—In support of the historicity of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, Hertz looked for linguistic affinities between the Hebrew and Egyptian languages. For example, the etymology of the word שעטנז (Deuteronomy 22:11) was possibly of Egyptian origin, as was the name of Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas.[26] The Hebrew word, חמשים, meaning “armed” was probably derived from the Egyptian word for “lance.”[27]

Hertz also used ancient Near Eastern comparisons to show that fixed laws were an intrinsic aspect of early Israelite religion from early on:

Sacrificial terms—The terms of the sacrificial cult were “derived from ancient Arabic and Minaean.”[28]

Hittite Law—Deuteronomy’s antiquity was similarly confirmed by evidence of Hittite law that paralleled the Mosaic stipulation (Deuteronomy 24:16) that a child was not be punished for the crimes of his parents.

ANE Rape Laws—Similarly, Deuteronomy’s regulations relating to the rape of a betrothed or married woman were strikingly akin to regulations of the Babylonians, Hittite, and Assyrian codes.[29]

Written on stone—Calling attention to the actuality of the eight thousand words of the Code of Hammurabi being etched on one block of diorite, Hertz tentatively suggested it was reasonable to believe “that the laws of Deuteronomy, or even the whole Torah could have been written on twelve stones….” as per Deuteronomy 27:2.[30]

Archaeology Supports the Torah’s Claims

Hertz went to great lengths to familiarize his readers with the cumulative weight of archaeological data available to him. The discovery of a painting in the tomb of Prince Khnumhotep III at Bene Hassein (-Beni Hasan), in middle Egypt, dating from c. 1890 B.C.E., which coincided with the Patriarchal Age (c. 2200–1550 B.C.E.), cast light on the nature of jealousy that Joseph aroused among his brothers when he wore the coat of many colors:

[Semitic chiefs of that era] wore coats of many colours as insignia of rulership… Jacob [had]…marked [Joseph] for the chieftainship of the tribes at his …death…This sign of rulership and royalty was still in use in the household of King David, as is seen from II Sam. XIII, 18, though the chronicler must explain this strange fashion in dress. The fact that in the Joseph story no such explanatory gloss is given is proof of the antiquity of the narrative. When it was first written, its implications were perfectly intelligible.[31]

Hertz also noted the Tel El Amarna correspondence. Discovered in 1887, it authenticated, he claimed, the social and cultural backdrop of the patriarchal and Mosaic periods. With these archives in focus, he found it probable that the Hebrews who exited Egypt and who subsequently invaded “Palestine in the 14th pre-Christian century” could be identified with the nomadic Habiri (nowadays spelled Habiru or Hapiru) mentioned frequently in the El Amarna letters.[32]

He also suggested identifying the swarms of the fourth plague with scarab beetles, which archaeology shows to have been the Egyptian “emblem of the sun-god.” How appropriate then, Hertz implied, that God chose to demonstrate awesome power by commanding the beetle to do His bidding. Archaeology also brought into focus the intent of the ninth plague, darkness. By forcing blackness to descend on Egypt by fiat, God dramatically undermined the religion of “the Egyptians, whose chief object of worship was Ra, the sun-god.”[33]

Despite the harmony of biblical traditions and ancient Near Eastern practices and ideas, Hertz refrained from asserting categorically that outside biblical data proved the absolute veracity of the Torah. As a student, respectful of Wissenschaft methodology, he realized that linguistic testimony and archaeology established only the plausibility and not the actual occurrence of biblical traditions.

The Deterioration of Religion in Priestly Law

Perhaps the most crucial problem for Hertz was Wellhausen’s claim that the late Priestly Torah represents a degrading of Israelite religion, which was degraded further in Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism. Wellhausen saw the legalism in this strand of tradition as a deviant expression of a healthy religion founded on spontaneity and joy of worship and prophetic ethics.

Wellhausen’s three preexilic sources – J, E, and D – reflected the life of ordinary people, whereas P, a postexilic priestly creation, reflected the age in which it was composed, not that of the earlier biblical era it purported to describe. The formation of the desert theocracy attributed to Moses was a clever creation of the scribes of the Second Temple period who projected backward in time the thoughts and institutions of their own day.[34]

P’s religious framework was an irregular product of history that took the soul out of religion and spoiled morality. Its outlook of guilt and gloom constituted the building blocks of Pharisaism. Wellhausen’s conclusion was that Judaism’s halakhic system delivered a final blow to religious authenticity by degrading the ethical lessons of Israel’s prophets and by compromising the common-sense morality of the Hebrew “Volk.”

The work of William Robertson Smith (1846–1894)—who lost his position at Aberdeen Free Church College in 1881 on a heresy charge—supported Wellhausen’s view of Judaism’s deterioration. He claimed that religions evolved naturally from simple and spontaneous to complex, intricate frameworks that essentially lose their soul.[35]

Wellhausen’s reconstruction of biblical religion confirmed Spinoza's proposition: Christianity was the valid spiritual heir to the religion of biblical Israel.[36] In Wellhausen’s view, the Priestly Torah followed by the Pharisees sidetracked the natural evolution of Israelite religion, and Christianity essentially recaptured its essence. The Hertz Chumash was a bald-faced rejoinder to this claim.

Moore and Herford: Two Gentile Responses to Wellhausen

Hertz was preceded in his effort to validate rabbinic Judaism by several Gentile academicians who rejected the tones of Christian triumphalism. Notable among them: the Harvard scholar, George Foot Moore (1851–1931) and the British Unitarian minister, Robert Travers Herford (1860–1950), who was genuinely upset by Christians who maligned Judaism:

There is scarcely any attempt [by them] to learn what it meant to those who held [Judaism] as their religion, who lived by it, and who died by it, and have done so for two thousand years.[37]

Both Moore and Herford affirmed rabbinic Judaism as a normal development of the old religion of Israel in new circumstances and adapted to new conditions.

In the Footsteps of Schechter

Hertz aligned himself with Solomon Schechter who, in an address delivered in 1903, famously quipped “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism,” with regard to Wellhausen’s approach.[38] Not only was Hertz intellectually indebted to Schechter, but the latter may have been the immediate catalyst driving Hertz to undertake the gargantuan mission to interpret the Torah text as a tool to sustain Jewish faith and fortitude.[39] Schechter laid down the gauntlet:

It must be clear to everybody…that the new century does not open under very favourable auspices for Judaism… [O]ur Scriptures are the constant object of attack, our history is questioned, and its morality is declared to be an inferior sort.

Worst of all is that attitude of the younger generation, who if not directly hostile, are by dint of mere ignorance sadly indifferent to everything Jewish, and incapable of taking the place of their parents in the Synagogue…[T]hey are bound to end that cold critical attitude toward Judaism terminating in drifting away from it altogether.[40]

Schechter thus laid down his program for responding to this threat:

The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of [those] beautiful souls working away at diminishing the 'nimbus of the Chosen People,' the world will disown us...

This intellectual persecution can only be fought by intellectual weapons and unless we make an effort to recover our Bible and to think out our theology for ourselves, we are irrevocably lost from both worlds. A mere protest in the pulpit or a vigorous editorial in a paper, or an amateur essay in a monthly, even a special monograph will not help us. We have to create a really living great literature...We must gather our forces and fight the enemy.[41]

The Hertz Chumash was the Chief Rabbi’s contribution to this endeavor.

Religions Develop

Hertz challenged the working assumption of Wellhausen and Robertson Smith, namely that cultic-ceremonial legalism was a late feature in the life span of a given religion:

[T]he whole idea of evolution does not apply to a field of human history like the institution of sacrifices.[42] In the realm of language, for example, it is not true to say that, on the one hand, the more simple the language, the more primitive it is; nor, on the other hand, the more complex it is, the later is its appearance in the life of any ethnic group.…[43] The same holds true in the development of ritual laws… “It does not appear that very simple systems of law and observance do belong to very primitive societies, but rather the contrary” (Rawlinson).[44]

Instead of seeing Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism as a degradation of biblical religion, Hertz saw these as developing naturally from the biblical text, from nuances that were always there:

Every interpretation of the Law given by a universally recognized authority is regarded as given on Sinai; for every shade of meaning which Divinely inspired interpreters discover in the Law merely states explicitly what is implicitly and organically contained in it from the beginning.[45]

Hertz’s approach differed from that of Samson Raphael Hirsch, who argued that the Oral Law was given at Sinai together with the written Torah, i.e., the Torah is something like crib notes to the fuller oral revelation.[46] Hertz followed the alternative view of Zacharias Frankel, in his Darkhei ha-Mishnah (1859), which demonstrated the historical development of the Oral Law, an understanding of Jewish law’s development that became a foundational principle of JTS, Hertz's alma mater.[47]

Responding to Claude Montefiore’s Incorporation of Christian Notions

Hertz was vexed not only by the critique of Gentile detractors from the outside, like Smith and Wellhausen, but also by those within the Jewish community, specifically, Claude Montefiore (1858–1938), the foremost exponent of Liberal Judaism in England. Particularly infuriating to Hertz were two of Montefiore’s religious platforms:

First, Montefiore supported Old and New Testament thinkers correcting/challenging each other’s theology. He argued that, notwithstanding the Jewish people’s obvious visceral rejection of New Testament teachings, it behooved Judaism to wed itself to the most noble notions of its eldest offspring:

Let us not then persist in keeping to a poorer Judaism than we need. Why should we not make our religion as rich as we can? Jesus and Paul can help us as well as Hillel and Akiba. Let them do so. What is good in them came also from God.[48]

Secondly, Montefiore believed that Judaism would be enriched were it to incorporate some aspects of Greek thought into its religious corpus. Doing so, would fashion Judaism into a new and superior spiritual creation.[49]

In the mid-1920s, Hertz delivered a series of diatribes against the Liberal movement accusing them of an aggressive missionary posture: “the adoption of Christian conversionist devices to lure Orthodox children to their fold.” In response to what he saw as anti-Jewish notions coming from his own camp, Hertz crafted his commentary into an anti-Christian polemic to vindicate Judaism’s eternal relevance for the spiritual well-being of Western civilization. Hertz’s major goal was to underscore the humane vitality of Israelite religion’s legal structure and its continuation, expansion, and validation within rabbinic civilization.

The Moral Failure of Hellenism

On one hand, Hertz accepted the premise that ancient Israel did not arise within an historical vacuum; it drew some of its impulses from a common social-cultural environment.[50] On the other hand, Israel’s uniqueness lay in Mosaic law’s glaring dissimilarity in underlying moral principles from pagan legislative models, which, to Hertz, bore the impress of divine Providence.[51] Israel’s organizing principle was holiness; that of pagan civilization, social harmony,[52] an unbridgeable gap in worldviews.[53] Moreover, the Bible’s stress on the worth of human life set Israel apart from idol-worshiping nations.

To further validate Judaism, Hertz pit Hebraism against Hellenism. Among Gentiles, Hebraism was a code word for the positive spiritual impact of Christianity on Western society, while Hellenism referenced the intellectual, political, and aesthetic features of Western civilization traceable to Greco-Roman culture. In Christian thinking, these two trends merged in Christianity, leading to the advanced moral and cultural development of the western world.

In contrast, for Hertz, neither Christianity nor Hellenism can claim pride of place in humanity’s quest for ethical nobility, since Christianity – primarily through the institution of the Church – was the direct inheritor and bearer of the moral turpitude bequeathed by paganism and Greco-Roman civilization.

His argument can be presented as a syllogism:

  1. The barbarism practiced by paganism and Greek religion effectively prevented the evolution of a moral code mandating righteous behavior among all sectors of society.
  2. Christianity, though indebted outwardly to Judaism, evolved its primary ethical structure under the impact of a pagan and Hellenistic worldview.
  3. Therefore, Christianity, like Hellenism, was effectively hindered in its attempt to sustain a pragmatic scheme of ethical behavior in the Western world.

The claim was not original to Hertz.[54]

The Superiority of Torah

Fortunately, Hertz argued, these pagan-Christian shortcomings were offset historically by the moral genius of the Jewish people who were taught humanism from Hebrew Scriptures and the vast corpus of rabbinic literature. Thus, the Hertz Chumash highlights pagan and Greco-Roman barbarism by offsetting it against Israelite notions of morality. For example,

Fear of foreigners—Egyptian society’s disgust for strangers was exhibited in the refusal of Egyptians to eat with the Hebrews and in Pharaoh’s directive to the midwives to act kill off the Hebrew boys, since these “aliens” were becoming more numerous than the Egyptians. The Romans originally had only one word, hostis, which defined both stranger and enemy.[55] By contrast, the Torah promulgated “the precept to love” (Lev 19:34, Deut 10:19) or at the very least, “not to oppress” the alien (Exod 23:9), no fewer than thirty-six times.[56]

Runaway slaves—The Laws of Hammurabi decree death for harboring a runaway slave. In contrast, Torah law forbids someone from surrendering a runaway slave to his master (Deut 23:16–17). Indeed, in pagan society, a slave was defined as chattel, at the mercy of his master.[57] Hertz hinted subtly that paganism's cruelty to slaves eventually infiltrated America, a civilization deeply indebted to Christian values: “A Fugitive Slave Law, such as existed in America, with the tracking of runaway slaves by blood hounds, would have been unthinkable to the Israelite of old.”[58]

Body exposure—The ancient world expressed irreverence for human life by publicly exposing corpses of executed criminals, a notion that was an affront to human dignity, in both the Torah and the Talmud.[59]

Homosexuality—In keeping with the mores of his day, Hertz underscored homosexual intercourse, which the book of Leviticus (18:22, 20:13) forbids, as an act of “depravity,” as an “unnatural vice… prevalent in Greece and Rome.”[60] Unfortunately, Hertz did not take to heart the sentiments of a well-known British geneticist, Redcliffe Nathan Salaman (1874–1955) who advised him to avoid words like “hideous” and “execrable” in this context. Ahead of his time, Salaman added:

[H]omosexuals are born such…. It is true to say that with many of these people they are no more responsible than they would be for being born black.[61]

Death penalty for property—Hellenism’s subordination of human rights to property rights continued in most Christian European countries well into the nineteenth century, as can be seen in how the death penalty was meted out for property offenses, a procedure fundamentally at odds with biblical law.[62]

Neglect of poor—Justinian’s Code reinforced paganism’s legislative neglect of the poor; it was centuries, millennia even, before the world outside Israel learned [the] elementary duty to take care of the poor.[63]

Asylum for murderers—The Torah grants asylum only for manslaughter, while the Church followed the Greco-Roman practice to grant asylum to murderers.[64]

Wife-beating—Husbands beating their wives was viewed as a contemporary norm within Christian home life, but it is outlawed in the late medieval Jewish code of law, the Shulhan Arukh.[65]

Intolerance—Hertz was also troubled over the intolerance of Christian civilization towards those in its midst whom it branded as foes:

The adherents of no religion have hated their enemies more than Christians. The atrocities which they have committed in the name of religion, both inside and outside their own pale, are unexampled in the world's history. And even today it cannot be said that the various sects of Christianity love one another, while anti-Semitism is a proof that they do not love those who are not Christians.[66]

Chosen People

The commentary’s sharp critique of institutional Christianity flowed naturally from the biblical notion of Israel as the chosen people. Although the Chumash aligned strongly with Maimonidean rationalism, Hertz sided with Judah Halevi's genetic racial claim that God graced Israel with a “native endowment” and “predisposition” for ethical living:

Israel's pre-eminence is not derived from Moses, it is Moses whose pre-eminence is due to Israel. The Divine love went out towards the descendants of the Patriarchs.[67]

Western civilization was sorely in need of a spiritual transfusion. Especially in light of the rise of Hitler, Hertz truly believed that the world was in need of a spiritual transfusion from Judaism as a way of living.[68] Rescue was at hand through the living witness of the Jewish people.

Defending Weak Points in Biblical Morality

Hertz’s critique of Gentile morality opened up the way for him to classify the Hebraic-Jewish code of morality as unique. But he realized that this claim could be countered by noting the blatantly immoral behavior and lack of compassion of some biblical heroes. Hertz dealt with this problem, using several approaches:

Showcasing their fallible humanity—argued that the Bible was not defending their acts, but honestly portraying their character flaws as intrinsically human:

It is the glory of the Bible that it shows no partiality towards its heroes; they are not superhuman, sinless beings. And when they err – for “there is no man on earth who doeth good always and sinneth never” – Scripture does not gloss over their faults.[69]

Their greatness lay in growing spiritually through adversity and failure; thus, Jacob, while no saint, had his character forged “on the anvil of affliction.”[70]

Ameliorating the bad behavior—King David’s death charge to Solomon is to exact vengeance against Shimei, the son Gera, and Joab (1 Kgs 2). This problematic final speech is softened by David’s noble charge to Solomon to complete the building of the Temple.[71]

Historical context—The order to wage genocide against the seven nations was linked to explicit exhibitions of licentiousness, bestial behavior, and gruesome cults, in violation of Levitical norms (Leviticus, 18:26–28). That said, Hertz acknowledged that

[The rule of extermination in warfare] is as hideous to us today as war itself will – we hope and pray – be to the men and women of the future. And if it is the wholesale nature of the destruction that especially shocks our moral judgment, it is well for us to consider that in the next World War it is especially the defenceless population that will be exposed to annihilation.[72]

Even Hertz couldn’t imagine who would become the “defenceless.” As for the ruthless slaughter of the Midianites, in a rare instance, Hertz pleaded ignorance.[73]

Interest—The rationale for the irksome regulation allowing interest to be taken from a foreigner (נכרי), but not from an Israelite (Deuteronomy 15:3) lay in appreciating the economic dynamics of biblical society and the basis upon which loans were secured: The foreigner was usually a transient gentile merchant-trader who entered the country temporarily in order to conduct business. Hence, the clear-cut distinction between him and a Hebrew debtor, to whom money was lent for relief of poverty.[74]

A Product of Its Time

His harsh critique of Christianity was an example of taking the offensive in what was essentially a vindication of Judaism. His sharp condemnations of Hellenistic and Christian morality contrast uncomfortably with his defense of the first and second Jewish Commonwealths with midrash and rationalization. Moreover, since for two millennia, Jews wielded no political power, but were subject to the authority of Christian and Muslim governments, Diaspora Jewry never contended seriously with the uncertainties and moral ambiguities of national life.[75]

Even within medieval corporate life, the shaping of healthy Jewish character was affected primarily through the important, yet limited spheres of family, school, and synagogue. Hertz died in 1946, two years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. Thus, he never lived to see Jews wielding power and the challenges that would bring.

Hertz’s apologia for Judaism was a natural response from the Chief Rabbi of England, who felt that his people’s legacy was under attack, both from outside Judaism and within. While many of his specific points about the Torah’s antiquity were incisive and made use of scholarly sources, Hertz was clearly closed to the possibility of multiple sources from the get-to, which is why many of his defenses appear forced.

This was in keeping with his alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which remained closed to source criticism until after WWII. Only with the slow adoption of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s Documentary model, which effectively functioned as a Jewish corrective and filter for Wellhausen's anti-Judaic frame of reference, did the Seminary slowly integrate source-criticism into its curriculum.[76]


July 5, 2023


Last Updated

March 28, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Harvey Meirovich (retired) was Visiting Professor at the Zecharias Frankel (Rabbinical) College, University of Potsdam school of theology (2014-2021). Before that he taught at the Schechter Graduate School, and served a stint as the dean of the Rabbinical School (2000-2005). Before entering academia, he served as a pulpit rabbi in several cities (Toronto, London, Melbourne). Meirovich holds an M.A., D.H.L., and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author of The Battle for Tolerance and Pluralism (1997), A Vindication of Judaism: The Polemics of the Hertz Pentateuch (1998), and From Catastrophe to Home: Five Voices of the Bible (2019). A scholar of modern biblical interpretation, his current project is on Barukh Halevi Epstein’s Torah Temimah.