(Hertz Pentateuch) Bourgeois Social Order (Sotah)


Having committed to keep track of the Hertz Pentateuch commentary (1936), I would have been remiss not to include a note on the commentary to the Sotah passage in Numbers, chapter 5. As it turns out and on closer inspection, the commentary is a little more interesting than one might have thought. This infamous biblical text details the humiliating test of bitter waters forced upon a wife suspected of adultery by a jealous husband in a case where there are no witnesses. Of interest to me here is only the mixed intentions in this classical early twentieth century commentary to the Hebrew Bible, once a prominent feature in the life of the liberal Anglophone synagogue. Committed to the sanctity of Judaism and the bourgeois tradition, here are the tensions that the text provokes.

On the one hand:

Like the rabbis, the Hertz tries to mitigate the full force of this “torah” (described as such in the lower case, as it were, in Num. 5:30). The Hertz says actually nothing about the curse that this rite is intended to effect in the case of the woman’s “guilt.” Clearly, the Hertz wants to look away from the gory parts, unlike the rabbis in the Mishnah who show no such circumspection. More important is a common attempt to put the onus on the husband (comments to v.12, 14, 31) and the presumption of her innocence (comment to v.19, 31.).

On the other hand:

The Hertz is also moved by the “grievous nature of the occasion” (comment to v.21), expressing concern in the opening statement to this passage about the “foundations of social order.” This according to the Hertz. Providing protection to “the innocent wife,” it was, all the same, “necessary to arrive at certainty in cases of doubt” (comment to v.11-31). Not justice and not kindness, social order was the primary good for the Hertz in its analysis of this “an awe-inspiring ritual” (comment v.24).

In sum:

As a period piece, the Hertz illustrates in a very fine way something about the morality of the bourgeois form of Domestic Judaism. It is one which pivots around rock hard social order and the life of the group, not around the porous values that matter to most of us today such as individual autonomy, equal dignity, and right or just relations between persons.

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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