(10 Commandments) Sabbath & The Jealous Mother God of Modern Bourgeois Judaism (Hertz Pentateuch)

malka mollie fedder leona's mother

[photograph of Malka Mollie Fedder, my father’s maternal grandmother] What are the so-called 10 commandments? Are they a foundation of law, the political law of a polis? Or something else? Are they the law of God the Father? Or someone else? Following along and reading closely from the Hertz Pentateuch & Haftorahs, that institution of early twentieth century tradition leaning liberal Judaism, the 10 commandments are a decorative device.. Quoting Morris Joseph, Hertz observes how they are “written on the walls of Synagogue and Church” (ad loc. Ex. 20:1-14). The Judaism they support and the God they represent are bourgeois to the core.

The God of Modern Bourgeois Judaism is a jealous God. We know that from the Exodus text. He wants to be “all in all to His children” and hates cruelty, unrighteousness, impurity and vice. Reflecting upon the strain on Jewish traditions in the family home, the blame here is assessed according to gender. Bracketing the pronoun, this jealous God is a woman, according to Hertz, not like a father. This God, the God of Bourgeois Judaism, is like a mother who is “jealous of all evil influences on her children, so too is He jealous. In an interesting aside, Hertz observes, “It is, of course, evident that terms like ‘jealousy’ or ‘zeal” are applied to God in an anthropomorphic sense.” But even still, this jealousy of God, the jealousy of a mother, not the jealousy of a father, is “of the very essence of His holiness.” And with whom is the Jewish mother and the Jewish Mother God furious if not with her husband? She is the Jewish mother and the God of Israel angry with “the bad example set by a father” and with his corrupting influence on his and on her and on His children (ad loc. Ex. 20:5). In the end, however, “Love of God is the essence of Judaism,” or as I would like to interpolate by way of super-commentary, a mother’s love (ad loc. Ex. 20:6).

In Bourgeois Judaism, the Jewish home and therefore the Jewish Sabbath reign supreme. The Sabbath is the place of “free Personality,” a little universe that pushes back the press of matter and material forces, a “delight,” “voluntary and congenial, happy and cheerful” (quoting Benno Jacob?), and in the “olden Jewish home” accompanied by zemiros, translated as “table songs.” Hertz pulls out all stops, citing a “German Protestant theologian of anti-Semitic tendencies” because he, of all people, extolled the influence of the Sabbath on the “inner life of Jewish families” who observe the law with “sincere piety and in all strictness.” This is a “wealth of joyfulness, gratitude and sunshine…which the Law animates in the Jewish home.” (Quoted here by Hertz is one Kittel, presumably the father Rudolf Kittlel, not his son, the Nazi party member Gerhard Kittel) (ad loc. Ex. 20: 11).

Without the Sabbath, the “olden Sabbath,” “the Sabbath as perfected by the Rabbis,” i.e. this sanctified institution of the Jewish domestic sphere, the “whole of Jewish life would in time disappear.” By this, Hertz means the Sabbath hedged in by “restrictions” and strict obedience. “Only such a Jew,” according to Hertz, has a Sabbath (ibid.). Returning back to our own interest in the motif of decorative patterns, the commandment to honor parents follows the Sabbath, which is “the source and the guarantor of family life.” And it is “among the Commandments engraved on the First Table, which are “laws of piety towards God,” and they are there because “parents stand in the palace of God,” maybe mothers especially, “so far as their children are concerned” (ibid.).

Nothing less at stake in the Sabbath is the Jewish future over which hangs the threat of oblivion. About the “length of days” promised in Scripture, Hertz can only point beyond the individual to consider society. Here it is the home, according to Hertz, which is “infinitely more important to a people than the schools, the professions or its political life; and filial respect is the ground of national permanence and prosperity, If a nation thinks of its past with contempt, it may well contemplate its future with despair; it perishes through moral suicide” (ad loc. Ex. 20: 12).

Undoubtedly, the Hertz commentary, placed in synagogue pews across the English speaking world, reflects a moment in modern Jewish life when fathers went off to work, setting a “bad example” to their children, and when mothers and home became the primary mainstays of tradition and religion at a moment of transition. The virtues of this religion and the very God of this Judaism belong not to polis and kingdom, not to the public sphere of contested political action, but to the “little world” of the family oikos ruled by a jealous deity and biological necessities.

I suppose it needs to be reiterated that the values expressed by Hertz belong to their own time and place,  late 19th C. liberalism as it extends into the first third or so of the 20th C. No longer contemporary by any stretch of the imagination, what makes this otherwise standard bit of patriarchal idealization of the mother interesting is the quite unexpected ascription to God of an essential female feature. It’s a weird textual moment. Most likely it’s a one-off, this ascription to God of a characteristic identified as female except that it shows up in an archetypically central moment in the biblical text. Revelation at Sinai and the 10 commandments are presided over by the fierce and jealous look and gaze of a great grandmother, as it were. She is the God of Israel.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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