(Sexual Ethics & The Holiness of Home) More Domestic Judaism (The Hertz Pentateuch)


Leviticus has been a pretty dry run in the Hertz Pentateuch. You can tell Hertz is just not into sacrifice and ritual by the more or less cursory exposition of what he takes to be the plain meaning (peshat) and historical contexts of the text. Ala the great Hermann Cohen, one would have expected more from Hertz on Yom Kippur in chapter 16, but no, not even here. And then, after the exposition of the laws of kashrut, Hertz hits his groove on family purity. You can tell that he’s very excited. The excitement is shown by the big bold banner-like heading PROHIBITION OF UNLAWFUL MARRIAGES, UNCHASTITY AND MOLECH WORSHIP, by the lengthy introductions to the chapter and to section headings inside the chapter, and by the enthusiastic moral dudgeon. In addition to incest, the discussion includes the now-among-liberal-Jews infamous verse abominating homosexuality, as well as the laws of so-called family purity (niddah) prohibiting sexual intercourse at and after a woman’s menses.

As if we didn’t already know, what the Hertz commentary tells us is how important the domestic sphere is for this early 20th model of modern liberal-traditional Judaism. Marriage, we are told in the long and involved opening introduction to chapter 18, is the “cornerstone of all human society.” The keywords are “graphic brevity,” “ethical” and “delicately.” All of this to uphold the “primacy” of Israel in “moral culture among the peoples.” Marriage, according to Hertz, is a “primary religious duty,” and the Jewish husband and “the glory of Jewish womanhood” represent that moral ideal, which is the “fruit” of the laws and warnings in this and the following chapters (introduction to chp18). These laws convey to Hertz nothing less than “the Holiness of Home,” backed up by the power of God and the promise of new life (comments to 18:2, 6). They are also rooted in nature (“instinctive abhorrence” and “natural decorum”), which we see in the discussion of forbidden (incestuous) marriages (introduction to 18:6-18). The laws of niddah prescribe “continence,” “reserve,” self-control,” and “moral freedom” even in marriage, again underscoring for Hertz the “sacred nature of wedlock” (comment to 18:19). Jewish men learn respect for womanhood and Jewish women secure protection. In addition to their religious value of holiness, these laws maintain “racial sanity and well-being.” Hertz reports that in his day, the “overwhelming majority” of Jewish women still follow this practice, to their own physical health and to “the biologic good of the Jewish people. Hertz goes on to inform the reader that this opinion is backed up by modern medical science. For any interested readers, he recommends Dayan Larzarus, The Ways of Her Household and David Miller, The Secret of the Jew; his Life –his Family. Interestingly enough, homosexuality is dispatched with in a comment of some five lines, although he may have conflated the idea of it with bestiality in the next verse where he talks about how widespread today the practice is (18:22, 23). Here one can reasonably assume that the widespread practice is homosexuality, not bestiality. One can only speculate about the short shrift given to gay sex, and it’s very clear that he’s talking about sex as a matter of “sexual ethics.” What did the good rabbi know about such things in 1930s? Or maybe the very topic represented too much of an “abyss” and “depravity” to give much more than a brief mention.

This might remind a critical reader of Foucault’s exposition of sex. The attempt in discourse to suppress sexual things and to hide them from view under the cover of morality and religion lends itself to a lush proliferation of discourse about sex, to more sex, not less. Hertz seems to fit the bill. There is the interest in both the sexual life of married couples and also “the world of [pagan] perversion.” To be sure, none of the Hertz is in any way anything but typical of the European bourgeois milieu. What I think I would add here relates to the aesthetic character of this antiquarian sexual ethics, in particular the combination of figures. It’s worth noting how set in stone in the Domestic Judaism of the Hertz Pentateuch are the delicate filigree of God, Home, Nature, Sex, Race, Marriage, Family, Holiness. While Hertz insists that this subject matter is “foundational” to religion and nature, it might be better to regard these culturally and historical mores as more “ornamental” in time and place.

Not simply ornamental, the Hertz Pentateuch was also structural, at least once upon a time and not very long ago. We’re noting here the institutional location in the modern American liberal synagogue of the Hertz Pentateuch and the Domestic Judaism and sexual ethic it helped institute. Since worn out and replaced, for the better part of the 20th century it was the congregational Bible sitting there in the pews for the Torah service on Sabbaths and holidays. From that position,  it and its ethos once enjoyed a position of cultural dominance in the Jewish community. While it’s definitely the case that ethical expression is relative to time and place, there is a larger question that one might want to put into play. Is Ethical Judaism itself some thing, which like any thing, has a definite shelf-life. Where once it was meant to speak to the lived life of the community, today it operates more like an intellectual curio or historical relic for anyone who still deigns to pick it up.


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. http://religion.syr.edu
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