Monday, May 22, 2006

What is the legacy of R. Joseph Hertz?

A friend sent me an article about R. Joseph Hertz, whom I recently blogged about indirectly at What's Bothering Artscroll?. After all these years, there still seems to be a lot of interest in R. Hertz. Including a book about him.

You can read three forwards he wrote for the Soncino Talmud translation: Nezikin, Moed and Nashim. (The usual caveats about that site apply, nevertheless, this is the text) Here is the article:
A champion of tradition who was no Conservative

By Benjamin Elton

The Jewish Chronicle, May 5 2006

Like many great men, Hertz's legacy is the subject of dispute. Different
Jewish groups have claimed him as one of their own. In particular, the
Conservative/Masorti movement associates itself with his theology.

A quick review of what he said and did as Chief Rabbi will reveal a
different picture to the image often presented of him as progressively
minded and only moderately traditional, a man who would have been more at
home at the New North London than the North Hendon Adath.

If the mark of Orthodoxy is a belief that the Torah was given to Moses on
Sinai, then Hertz passes the test. "Judaism stands or falls with the
historical actuality of the revelation at Sinai," he said. A third of the
Additional Notes in the Chumash attack Biblical Criticism (which rejected
the divine authorship of the Torah).

Hertz deals with all the major problems: the two accounts of Creation, the
historicity of the Exodus from Egypt, the possibility that the Code of
Hammurabi was the source of biblical law, and the age of the books of
Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In each case Hertz argued for the traditional

As well as the Written Law, Judaism depends on the Oral Law, which Orthodoxy
also holds was given on Sinai. Hertz supported this view of the Oral
Tradition, writing that it was "handed down from the earliest days by word
of mouth, until it was codified in the Mishnah." When Hertz came across
individuals or institutions who disagreed with these principles, he attacked
them ferociously. In 1926 he delivered a blistering series of sermons
against Liberal Judaism, which would cause outrage today. In 1915 he forced
out of office the Rev Dr Joseph Hockman of the New West End for expressing
unorthodox views, very similar to those Louis Jacobs would later propound.

Hertz did hold some views that today would be rejected by many Orthodox
rabbis. He believed that halachah had developed over time, he thought that
some Psalms were written after the time of David and Solomon, and did not
think it necessary to believe that the book of Isaiah was by one author. But
these views were also held by such giants of modern Orthodoxy as Rabbis
Esriel Hildesheimer and David Hoffman.

Against all this evidence, the fact that Hertz used the term "progressive
conservatism," which meant something different then than it does now, or
that he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, then a modern Orthodox
institution, are trivial. Hertz had some modern views, but he was firmly
rooted in tradition. His own definition of his religious commitments should
settle all doubt: "The teachings and practices which have come down to the
House of Israel through the ages; the positive Jewish beliefs concerning
God, the Torah and Israel; the sacred festivals; the holy resolve to
maintain Israel's identity; and the life consecrated by Jewish observances."

Benjamin Elton is currently completing a PhD on the British Chief Rabbinate

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