Jewish Ethics & the Hertz Pentateuch


You know he was going to make a big deal of the so-called Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-22) and there he was. The Hertz Pentateuch tags chapter 19 as “A Manual of Moral Instruction.” These chapters are for Hertz more than a mere  “medley of the spiritual and the ceremonial –fundamental maxims and principles of justice and morality alongside of ritual laws and observances” (introduction to chapter 19). What Hertz wants is a “clear understanding” by which to see that the ethical signification of the term “holiness” is “distinct” from its ritual signification. By holiness he means the sublime overpowering majesty of God, God’s “complete freedom from everything that makes men imperfect, a “recoil” from everything impure and unrighteousness. and fullness and completeness of God’s “ethical qualities,” namely goodness, purity, and righteousness (whereas ritually it only refers to persona and thins connected with Sanctuary or otherwise consecrated) (introduction to section 2 of Leviticus 19).

Hertz calls Leviticus 19 a “remarkable chapter,” and notes its “central position” in the Leviticus text and therefore in the Pentateuch as whole. Tags meant to focus our attention include “Consideration For the Poor,” “Duties Towards Our Fellowmen,” “Prohibition of Hatred and Vengeance: Love of Neighbor.” But then what? Hertz moves on to  “Miscellaneous Precepts,” “Prohibition of Canaanite Customs,” and “Ethical Injunctions.” Unlike the discussion of sexual morality, which we discussed in a previous post, the moral fervor behind the rhetoric seems just to peter out. One might have expected more than this.

A critical reader might suspect that Hertz makes too broad a claim. It’s not just Hertz, but includes the claims made by all Jewish ethicists, who, as a general rule, tend to make far too much of this biblical chapter and others like it. One wonders how this understanding of holiness has any purchase on actual (as opposed to idealized) human life. And one suspects a contradiction when Hertz claims that holiness has nothing in common with “flight from the world, nor by monk-like renunciation of human relationships” and that it speaks the simple “transfiguration of everyday life,” a “dictate of  Natural Religion” (comment to Lev. 19:2, 3). The total holiness of God with which Hertz introduced the discussion has nothing to do with human ethics and more to do with the imitation of God.

Maybe the truth is the exact opposite than the one intended by Hertz. Maybe ethics in the Bible is not “distinct” from ritual; maybe the ritual significance of holiness makes more sense than the ethical one; maybe Jewish ethics is just a medley after all.



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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