Joseph Herman Hertz

Orthodox rabbi best known for his edition of the chumash.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Joseph Herman Hertz was an Orthodox rabbi, communal leader, and author (1872-1946). Hertz was born in Romania but immigrated when young to America where he studied, obtaining his PhD. degree from Columbia University. He was the first rabbinic graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Later he was greatly influenced by Solomon Schechter’s ideas on the desirability of allowing the Jewish tradition to be open to the findings of modern scholarship. 

Hertz served first as a rabbi in Syracuse, New York, and later as rabbi in South Africa, where he was a powerful advocate of human rights. In 1913 Hertz was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew congregations of the British Empire, a post he occupied for the rest of his life. Among his many political activities, Hertz, a deeply committed Zionist, was instrumental in frustrating the efforts of some leaders of the Anglo-Jewish community to prevent the Balfour Declaration being issued.Rabbi Hertz

In his written works, Hertz defended Orthodox Judaism (of the moderate Anglo-Jewish type) against its detractors from outside and from within the Jewish camp. Hertz was never one to pull his punches, whether in his role of Chief Rabbi or in his writings. It was said of him that he preferred the peaceful way if no other was available.

His Affirmations of Judaism (Oxford, 1927) contains three sermons, entitled “The New Paths: Whither Do They Lead?,” in which he attacked the thinking of the Liberal movement, an English version of radical Reform. His Book of Jewish Thoughts, of which many editions have been published, is an excellent anthology of writings on Jews and Judaism culled from both Jewish and non-Jewish works. His commentary to the prayer book is a superb devotional work in the modern spirit.

Hertz’s best-known and most influential work is his Pentateuch and Haftorahs, written in collaboration with other Anglo-Jewish scholars. In his introduction to this work, Hertz defends his particular stance:

“Jewish and non-Jewish commentators-ancient, medieval and modern–have been freely drawn upon.’Accept the truth from whatever source it come,’ is sound rabbinic doctrine-even if it be from the pages of a devout Christian expositor or of an iconoclastic Bible scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish. This does not affect the Jewish Traditional character of the work. 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; likewise, my refusal to eliminate the Divine either from history or from human life.”

In the book, Hertz is prepared to accept the theory of evolution; sees no dogma involved in the suggestion that the second part of Isaiah was composed by an unknown prophet during the exile; and quotes an opinion that the plague of darkness in Egypt was caused by a partial eclipse of the sun. Yet his attitude towards biblical criticism proper is very one-sided.

With great zest he sets up supposedly critical views in order to demolish them, so that his work has to be seen more as an exercise in apologetics than as one of objective scholarship. Reform rabbis saw the work as too Orthodox, Orthodox rabbis as too Reform. But Hertz was disturbed neither by critics of the Pentateuch nor by his own critics and went on his way undaunted.

© 2008 70 Faces Media

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