(Moses & Israel & Monuments) The Political Theology of Deuteronomy (Hertz Commentary)


The introduction to the last book of the Pentateuch in the iconic Hertz Pentateuch commentary (1936) comes as something of a surprise, maybe. Of course, there are those banner lines from this biblical book, its anthem, the Shema Yisroel, extolling that The Lord is our God, the Lord is One; and the exhortation to love God with all your heart, soul, and might. But aren’t there more important books in the Bible than Deuteronomy? Genesis and Exodus or Psalms and the Song of Songs come immediately to mind. For the Hertz, though, it is Deuteronomy whose influence on “both the domestic and personal religion in Israel” has “never been exceeded” by any other biblical book throughout millennia.” Part of the attraction is the “literary aspect,” its oratory “unsurpassed in its rush of rhythmic sentences, its ebb and flow of exalted passion, its accents of appeal and enunciation.” The speech of Moses is aesthetic. It shines like his face in the expression of “whole-souled love and devotion to God, and large-hearted benevolence towards man, and indeed towards all sentient beings” (intro. to Deuteronomy, emphasis added). The other big part of the attraction is political.

Putting poetry aside, I would point to the monumentality of Deuteronomy and the monument that is Moses that are key to the aesthetic register of the Hertz. These are what gives Deuteronomy such standout totality in the Hertz. That marble-like quality –I am thinking here obviously of Michelangelo–  mirrors the Hertz, which is a monument to conservative-liberal Jewish religious patriotism in the face of the combined force of assimilation and anti-Semitism across Europe circa 1936.

Palestine and landscape frame that patriotic ethos. Spanning the “goodly hill country” from the other side of the Jordan, Moses’ view of the whole of “W. Palestine” is of “one compact mountain mass,” “a thing of surpassing natural beauty.” In this aesthetic apologetic, the “deep love of mountains and mountain scenery” is now claimed for the Bible, to psalms,” unsurpassed in Greek and Roman literary sources which show no such interest in this kind of scenery. Written in his spirit, the Hertz invokes John Ruskin, “supreme in modern times among the revealers of the glory and mystery of mountain landscapes.” We learn from the Hertz that Ruskin drew this inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, “which his mother taught him to read daily” (note to Deut. 3:25). Referring to Herder’s paean to Palestine, the Land is a place set apart, surrounded by mountains, seas and deserts. Indeed, Israel should have been a brave and hardy mountaineer people had only Israel fulfilled the will of Moses (note to Deut. 33:29). The “clear air of Palestine” is a part of that mountain spirit (note to Deut. 34: 1).

In this patriotic ethos, Israel stands out as an exceptional people. Quoting one Cardinal Faulber, Israel turns out in the Hertz to be nothing less than “the super-people in world history” (note to Deut. 4:8). A note to this comment refers us back earlier in the Hertz, where Tolstoy is marshalled and from whom we learn that, “The Jew is that sacred being” who is “the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their  religions” (note to Gen. 12:2).

The secret of Israel’s “greatness,” according to the Hertz, is the example it sets; the sudden rise of a horde of slaves, to a state of well-government (sic), prosperity, security, and tolerance. After Alexander’s conquest, enlightened Greeks looked upon the Jews also as monumental figures, “philosophers of the east.” The secret of Israel’s greatness was and, of course, remains their unique monotheism, fidelity to the will of God (note to Deut. 4:6), the “nearness of man to his Maker,” themes found in prophets and psalms and deepened by the rabbis (note to Deut. 4:7). The poor laws, rights of labour, and the administration of justice are stood up in the Hertz against “Nazi detractors of the Hebrew Scripture.” About the religious tolerance ascribed here to the ancient Israelites, the claim is composed of two parts. First and about the Bible, the claim is that pagan cults were rejected in Scripture because of their “savage cruelty,” not because of their dogma or ritual. Second rabbinic sources provide evidence of positive attitude towards “their contemporary heathens” in Roman and Persian empires. Relying on Malachi and rabbinic sources, it turns out that what we call paganism today was more simply a set of rules of conduct maintaining the existence of human society and that morality is the only standard upon which to judge these ancestral traditions (note to Deut 4:14).

What then about the “jealous God” of Deuteronomy? For the Hertz, I am suggesting that this theme is a monument in its own right, what early sociologists of religion would have recognized as a totemic image of ancient Israelite society. The first mention of the jealous God is to an iron furnace, hot enough to melt iron. It is a “symbol of intense suffering and bitter bondage (note to Deut. 4:20). Looked at sociologically, the zeal of God is a mirror image of human suffering, the burning image of Israelite suffering correlated to the inalienable relation between the people and its God, the picture of human suffering in the image of God’s devouring fire, “[c]onsuming whatever rouses His indignation.” Zealous and jealous are both the God and God’s people, a people steadfast in entire sincerity and complete self-surrender. According to the Hertz, the jealous God was the concept that kept Israel from “going under in the days of ancient heathendom, as well as in the days of Greece and Rome.” And not just then. The idea of “the jealous God” resists modern “neo-paganism,” the false gods and false ideals of the today and the tomorrow of the commentary from the 1930s. Under what Jan Assmann will call with not much charity “the Mosaic distinction” is the stubborn notion that truth makes no concession to untruth, that the “one unique universal God of Israel” is the only living God and that other gods of the day, aligned against and threatening to overpower the Jews and Judaism, are mere “figments of the imagination.” Citing Solomon Schechter, the glory of Abraham is revealed in the Hertz in fighting opposition to the whole world (note to Deut. 4:24). 

A jealous force of powerful pathos, the jealous God carries into the discussion of the Shema as an expression of divine power and support. “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One.” Against the world and also before the world, a witness to the suffering and fidelity of Israel, the Shema is nothing less than the “keynote of all Judaism,” “watchword and confession of faith throughout the ages,” “fundamental Truth,” “fundamental Duty” (intro. to Deut. 6:4-9). Here readers of the Hertz are now introduced to the Tetramgrammaton, evoked in terms of the “The Father and Sustainer of the lives and spirits of all flesh, the everlasting Power Who guides the destinies of men and nations” (note to Deut. 6:4). Like the base of a pedestal, the “basis of the Jewish creed” is nothing if not the “noblest spiritual surrender and love of God,” the devotion to “live and act toward our ‘fellowman’ as to make God and God’s Torah beloved in their eyes.” This bit, the Hertz takes from the rabbis.

Like a statue, the tradition of Judaism is erected in the Hertz commentary to Deuteronomy as a monument against the world and before the world. Warm and watered down pietistic sources are brought to the biblical text to convey the spirit of nearness to and delight in God. Moses Chayim Luzzato and Eleazar of Worms and Bachya ibn Pakuda make their appearance alongside the martyrdom of R. Akiva (note to Deut. 6:5). The nostalgic refrain from the hoary past is intended to make a modern point. We are to know that the Shema belongs to a historical saga that relates to the spiritual courage of Israel, and brought to bear at the precise moment of intense spiritual battle contemporary to the Hertz in Europe and the rise of Hitler. Brought together are the Shema and Jewish history as a saga of resistance, defending the Jewish God idea against the “unutterable terror” of a “long night of suffering and exile.” Writing to stir his own compatriots, the Hertz takes up “long arduous warfare” against “advanced non-Jewish writers,” “liberal Christian theologians,” and modern polytheism that turn out to be nothing other than slavery and human sacrifice hidden under the guise of “joy of life and nature, and religious tolerance” (Additional Notes to Deut., pp.920-4).

“Justice, justice, shalt thou follow.” The Hertz presents as a non-contradiction, as fully congruent, the pathos-laden relation between the jealous God of monotheism, on the one hand, and institutions of social justice, on the other hand. In a long note, the repetition in the biblical text of the word “justice” in v. 20 boils down to “passionate words,” aligned in the Hertz with humane legislation and social righteousness, human equality in the image of God, the spirit of holiness and the practice of lovingkindness. (note to Deut.16:20). Justice in the Bible is defined in terms of the worthiness of individual life, “awe-inspired respect for the personality of others, and their inalienable rights” in every human being regardless of social station (citing Felix Adler and in italics). Justice is inter-personal, intra-communal, and international, protecting the respect for all people, the members of every social class, and “each and every national group” in the spirit of the League of Nations (note to 16:20). The theocratic constitution of the “Jewish State” is introduced at the bottom of the chapter in the rule against idolatry, the full political implications to all this being laid out in the Additional Notes where monarchy and freedom sit side by side. Because God is the “real King,” sovereign human power is limited under God and law and the right of the subject and human community. The ethical foundations of justice, the dignity of labour, even democratic institutions in the state are all embedded in the prophetic tradition of self-government (pp.926-30). Viewed historically, laws of marriage and divorce are included among the humane institutions of ancient Israel, and so on and so on.

Whether or not what is perceived today as the anti-monarchical strand in the biblical tradition matches up with democratic models of limited sovereignty, of note in the Hertz is its own critique of European colonialism and empire. This is the tension. On the one hand, in the grand apologetic of the Hertz, these fine principles of social and international justice are extended (to the point of incredulity) to the laws warfare, with special notice paid to the capture of heathen cities and to the destruction of trees (cf. comments to Deut. 20). On the other hand, there is this. Returning to the theme of the violent ban against the Canaanites, (earlier broached, with more subtlety, in the commentary to Numbers), the Hertz will note, in an apologetic move, the universality of the phenomenon. There was Rome and Mexico, and, closer to home, the politics of England, the Saxons who banned the Romanized Celts and who, in turn, were “harried” by the Normans. Having drawn these historical analogies, the Hertz moves on to complete the apologetic, pointing out that ancient cruelties pale in comparison before modern ones. Here he points with considerable directness to the extermination of indigenous peoples and the institution of chattel slavery in the Americas. “Even more dreadful” than anything in the Bible “was the enslavement or extermination of the native races by both Catholic and Protestant settlers in their Overseas possessions.”

Wanting to separate them from the example set in Scripture, for the Hertz, these modern atrocities were with no justification whereas the Israelite ban of the Canaanites was “moral,” based not on false belief but upon what are imagined to have been the vile actions of human sacrifice, foul immorality of gruesome cults,” and so on and so on. For the Hertz, this divine violence constitutes moral feeling and progress, while noting that Israel stands under the exact same threat of violent divine judgment (long comment to Deut. 20:18). Regarding slaves and fugitive slaves, the Hertz goes on to note, with a misplaced pride that is characteristic of its time, that no slave markets are mentioned in Scripture. And there is no record in Scripture of slave rebellions, or laws abandoning the rights of runaways slaves, unlike in the Hammurabi Code and in Greek, Roman, and U.S. law (comment to Deut. 23:16). These are the liberal blind spots about the Bible and Judaism that define and limit the moral vision of the Hertz. In the next chapters, the Hertz returns to more comfortable terrain, these being those excellent laws that protect strangers and widows and orphans, that prohibit excessive punishment while promoting generosity to the landless and kindness to animals (Deut. 24-25).

Promoting human goodness, while the Hertz condemns human cruelty, the kinds of suffering, the ones that come from God, the ones that matter most to the Hertz are “moral” in nature. The bloodcurdling chapters in Deuteronomy relating prophesies of doom and curses are followed by a simple statement on free will (30:15-20). Earlier in the commentary to Deuteronomy is a brief remark regarding what the rabbis called “chastisements of love” being the pathway of suffering paving the necessary road to the “beatitudes of the higher life” (note to 8:5). Now returning at the end of the commentary to the theme of suffering is the morality of free will. With reference to Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva), the Hertz is confident in our status as free agents with the capacity to choose between good and evil. To be sure, the individual is limited by heredity and environment, unable to control “even a half of his own destiny.” While recognizing that the individual “man” is part of larger national and cultural orbits, scaled down to the sphere of individual conduct, “he” remains largely a creature of his own making (long note to 30:19).

Relating human freedom to the theme of reward and punishment in the Additional Notes to Deuteronomy, the focus turns from the Bible to the rabbis. In the banal, bourgeois theodicy of the Hertz, suffering is not an absolute evil. Suffering educates and purifies, righteousness being its own reward, and so on and so on (p.925). I’ll note here that these type of themes about human suffering run throughout the entire modern Jewish tradition, from Kaufman Kohler through Martin Buber, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordecai Kaplan. And then it bangs up against the post-Holocaust moment, the exact moment (also on the cusp of the sexual revolution) when the Hertz, along with “modern Judaism,” begins to fall so incredibly out of date.

As it follows the path set out in the biblical text, the Hertz comes to the death of Moses and returns the commentary back to poetry and to mountain settings. The death of Moses in the Hertz commentary is an elegiac reflection on the “lot of humanity,” the fleeting human condition in contrast to those mountains at whose feet Israel wandered, and the eternity of “Him” who existed before ever those mountains were brought forth”  (intro. par.to chp. 31). This is the “majestic Farewell Song, distinguished by fire, force, and the sweep of its rhetoric,” a “didactic ode” (introductory note to 32:1-44). The poetic conclusion (intro to chapter 33) marks the secret burial place of Moses in some mountain range of the Pisgah as “the seal” of his self-effacement (note to 34:6). Combined with the wisdom of Egypt, the preeminence of Moses was “to lead into freedom a people long crushed by tyranny, etc. etc.” Quoting Henry George, the Hertz says that drew his strength from “the depths of the Unseen,” from “something more real than matter,” and so on (note to 34:10).

One final word:

Having now finished what amounts to a super-commentary here at the blog, I want to say one last thing. In no way a living commentary, the Hertz is a product reflecting all of the bourgeois proclivities and social prejudices of its place and time, including those that touch upon gender and sexual orientation. In parts ridiculous, in parts offensive, in parts sublime, even affecting, with historical distance, one can set the Hertz aside to look upon the text as a historical monument in its own right. In my own posts I have entirely omitted the apologetic-polemical war with Biblical Criticism. Just not worth the bother today, this part of the commentary tells us nothing very interesting or only a little interesting about the Hertz. Out of date and old fashioned, there is, for all that, an art to this precious period piece.

Based on personal memory, an older person might very well imagine how the Hertz shaped how bored Jews in the pews might have come to think about Judaism, one way or the other, as they leafed through its pages. That at least was my experience, such as it was, growing up. But compare the Hertz to the new Conservative Movement commentary, the Etz Hayyim. What the Hertz has that its flat successor lacks is style. There is no verve in the new commentary, no feel for poetry and pathos. Like an antique lamp or dining set or doorknob from the turn of the twentieth century, the Hertz remains a class act. It belongs to the history of nonsense that is the scholarly study of modern religion. There is so much to learn from it, not about the Bible, but about the sitz im Leben of modern Judaism in western Europe circa 1936, about the Bible as an iconic book in relation to the history of style that shapes modern religion. For those of us who are not necessarily scholars and to the degree that the reader of this post is not simply and only a scholar, one would maybe like, at the very least, to imagine what a worthy successor would even look like out there in the pews.

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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