(Kiddush/Chillul Ha-Sehem) Jewish Respectability Ethics (Hertz Pentateuch)


A standout moment in the classic Hertz Pentateuch commentary from 1936, a fixture in the liberal synagogue for the better part of the 20th century, is the appeal to respectability, phrased in terms of kiddush Ha’Shem, the hallowing/sanctification of  God’s name, and chillul Ha’Shem, the desecration of God’s name.

“Ye shall not profane My holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32). In the biblical text, this injunction follows sacerdotal instruction specific to the concerns of the ancient priestly authors. It is inward looking in its concern with ritual. In contrast, in the Hertz, Jews are now remonstrated not to do anything that might tarnish “the honor of Judaism or the Jew,” particularly in relation to “any misdeed towards a non-Jew.”

Nothing less than God’s glory is in the hands of the individual Jew, and even more importantly, “the honour of his [sic] Faith and of his entire People” (italics in the original).  The entire history of anti-Semitism has been brought to bear upon this single biblical passage. The Hertz is bitterly confident that nothing “will ever beak the world of its habit of putting down the crimes, vices, and failings of a Jew, no matter how estranged from his people or his people’s Faith he may be, to his Jewishness, and of fathering them upon the entire Jewish race.” So the Jew is bidden to do nothing less than to “live as to shed lustre on the Divine name.”

Bits of rabbinic wisdom are brought to bear on this lesson: [1] a dicta about wild beasts in the world from Pirkei Avot (5:11), [2] the adage about a boat at sea and the fool who begins to bore a hole under his own seat, threatening to sink the entire vessel and drown everyone on board, [3] and the story about R. Shimon ben Shetach who returns a precious gem that he finds and returns to an Arab, who in turn blesses the God of Shimon ben Shetach and the God of Israel.

The Hertz commentary has its eye on both Jewish precarity in the world and the precarity of Judaism, on anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation, namely the estrangement of modern Jews from their faith and people.  With all of this brought to full view, long comment concludes that “It is important to make non-Jews respect Judaism, but even more so to make Jews respect Judaism.”

We are still in the Holiness Code, that important section in Leviticus (chapters 17-26) where the ritual and the ethical sit cheek by jowl. The Hertz commentary is enough to give one pause about Jewish ethics as a modern project. The at once anxious and aggressive core of that modern project called Jewish ethics is a respectability project. It would be easy to write this off as a period piece, but one wonders if this is an enduring feature of Jewish ethics, as such, lifted off and out of its ritual context. The Hertz would suggest that Jewish ethics, broadly considered to be a reflexive phenomenon, is about wanting to look good in front of gentiles, about wanting to look good in a mirror.

About this one can be of mixed mind, perhaps because the difference between “being good” and “looking good” is only infinitesimal.

On FB, friends Shaul Magid and Larry Yudelson pointed out that there is another side to the respectability coin. In the 1970s and after, the Jewish right, including Meir Kahane, fearing only God, not gentiles, absolutely rejected Jewish respectability and “Jewish ethics” in favor of “Jewish survival” and the Jewish settlement project in the Occupied Territories. As friend Laura Levitt observed, maybe it’s true, after all, that looking good is overrated.

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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