Genesis High Sublime English Bourgeois Dudgeon (Hertz Commentary)


At Ansche Chesed the old Hertz edition of Pentateuch & Haftorah sits off neglected in the row of pews to the right and to the left of the two large rows of pews occupying the center column of the sanctuary. There, the old Hertz, which dominated liberal synagogues for decades has long since been replaced by the bound in red, more up to date, and but never quite as gripping Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. 

The Hertz was edited by Dr. J H. Hertz, C.H., referred to in the cover page as “the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire.” A first edition was published in 1936, and it is everything you would expect, or maybe not from that time and place. Hide-bound, it stands out as a masterpiece of modern right-leaning conservative Jewish apologetics. With a critical eye on modern science, its main object of ire is biblical criticism

As is my habit, I tend to occupy a place in the pews way back on the far side of the pews, stage right/audience left and to stage, which I share with the old Hertz Pentateuch. In my capacity as an intellectual historian of modern Judaism, I go take a peek every now and then to see what my nieghbor had to say about this or that passage in the weekly Torah reading.

The commentary-notes in the Hertz to the opening lines of Genesis convey in a nutshell the animating aesthetic of the biblical text, or to be more precise and sceptical, of the Hertz commentary.

In the beginning: A “majestic summary.” “God is the beginning, nay the Cause of all things.” The “Calling of matter into being and the reduction of chaos to ordered arrangement.” God. Heb. Eloheim: The existence of the Deity “assumed,” “fountain and source of all things” and “plentitude of might.” Created: The Hebrew word is “singular,” exclusive to Divine activity.” Earth: material. The Deep. Heb tehom: abyss. Spirit of God: mysterious, unseen, irresistible presence. And finally, Hovered: The Hebrew word appears in only one other place. God’s quickening spirit transforming material into a living world. And then the Hertz offers to the English speaking reader this “translation” from the Jerusalem Targum, “And the earth was vacancy and desolation, solitary of the sons of men and void of every animal, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss; and the Spirit of Mercies from before the Lord, breathed upon the face of the waters.

Yes, stuffy, old-fashioned and in high English bourgeois dudgeon, and because of that so utterly superior in style to its new English language successors in the American synagogue. Where the Etz Hayyim tries to teach and to explain, the Hertz performs. When turned to with a sympathetic eye, its place and time from so long ago now actually contribute their own liturgical aura to the reading of Torah in the synagogue. I’ll return to the Hertz here at the blog when the occasion demands, adding my own apologetic to all things old and archaic, made queer by the passage of time.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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