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.



Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Telling the Nakba in the Israeli Media


Of interest is how an Israeli media outlet in English can present in human terms a simple story of the Palestinian Nakba without hyperventilating. Whatever one’s political persuasion, human recognition should be basic and key. You can read the story here. But with all due respect to the author, I wonder about these kinds of re-telling that elude the bitter, intractable, desperate conflict between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine between 1929-1949. In these stories, there are no political actors. Without the historical context, it’s as if the catastrophe  suffered by the Palestinian people came out of nowhere and was simply suffered as such.

Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

(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.


Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Auschwitz + Camp (The Holocaust in American Life in the New York Times Friday Weekend Arts II Section)


Nobody reads print anymore, but these things matter. About the new and important exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the editors at the New York Times Friday Weekend Arts section made bad and bizarre editorial decisions.

The first was the prominent and jarring juxtaposition of “Auschwitz” and “camp” on the front page of the section of the review of Auschwitz. Sitting side by side are reviews of Not Long Ago. Not Far Away at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One would have thought that the very words do not belong together, unless one meant to be deliberately provocative as is sometimes the case about Holocaust related art. But that’s not what’s going on here. The juxtaposition is gross, and insensitive.

Then there was the decision to give the lion’s share of the page to Camp, pushing Auschwitz off to a single column on the left hand side of the page. Visually, the page is dominated by the block of large bright color photographs on the right. In doing so, the editors made a clear if unintended judgment as to what, in their minds, is a matter of more and what is a matter of less importance.

The third bad decision was not to assign the review to one of the regular art critics who could review the exhibition professionally on its merits as an exhibition relating to things of great moment regarding trauma, historical  memory, and the exhibition of object-artifacts. Was it the case that the regular art critics refused to review the exhibition? Or for Jewish things the editors call in Jewish ringers? You can read the review here, which is overwhelmed by a history facts mixed in with data and statistics that are meant to grab the reader’s attention. The review tells the reader nothing about what is actually “on view.”

Possible takeaways: This is a Diaspora phenomenon. As a general rule, Jewish things like Israel and American Jewish culture get a lot of attention at the New York Times. This reflects the New York location of the New York Times. But in this case, lacking a certain cultural tact and discretion, the editors at the New York Times, here being at Weekend Arts, do not know what to do with Jewish things like the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The page layout should have caught someone’s notice. That it did not suggests that the editors do not have an eye for these things and they lack critical judgment. It might be the case that the Holocaust and maybe Jewish life along with it do not matter anymore at the New York Times, or in liberal America, that these things belong to the margins of the culture and are of little general interest.

As colleague and friend Gail Hamner reminds me, this is both a general and a particular phenomenon in mass media aesthetics. This kind of “ugly juxtaposition is standard. John Berger in classic Ways of Seeing notes stories/pics of famine next to ads for diamonds and furs.” In fine arts, one could point to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma. These reflect formal
“facts of life” of our brutal media landscape where multiple and contradictory things are brought into view simultaneously. I would add that the difference here is between a so-called “generic” look where the figures only function as icons for other people, but there are no vested parties on hand to note the juxtaposition. Unlike the generic juxtaposition, the case at hand touches upon the lived and local concerns of particular social actors who are actually there to identify the ugly juxtaposition and call it out in something close to real time.


Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is No Friend/Enemy Distinction in Israel & Palestine (May 2019)


Until proven otherwise, after the latest round of bloodletting after the latest round of bloodletting right before the elections in Israel, it is more than clear that there is no friend/enemy distinction in Israel and Palestine. The friend/enemy distinction is a childish piece of theory. More cynical and to the core, in Israel and Gaza between Netanyahu and Hamas, there is no fast and firm distinction between enmity and cooperation. Publicly committed to the destruction of the other, they do nothing of the sort, because the one relies on the other as much as the other relies on the one, while the people in Gaza and the south of Israel suffer. Against Carl Schmitt, who coined the friend/enemy distinction as the “concept of the political,” Buber understood that political relations are too labile to fit such a hard binary conceptualization.

Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Robert Alter Reads Paul Mendes-Flohr Reading Martin Buber & Drops the Ball on God (A Meta-Meta-Meta Commentary)


Sorry to read Robert Alter’s review of the long awaited biography by Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent and the lazy reading of its subject.  You can read it here and this is a key line: “The deeply felt sincerity with which Buber invoked the idea of God shouldn’t be doubted, but it’s not easy to know what he meant by it.” As Martin Kavka notes regarding a recent review by Adam Kirsch, this rather lazy refusal to think through what Buber meant by God is of a piece with readers who write off Buber as “vague” and “hazy.”

Starting with Mendes-Flohr’s field defining study, From Mysticism to Dialogue, Martin Buber’s Transformation of German Social Thought, a lot of ink has been spent trying to get at what Buber meant, and what Buber meant was pretty simple. Anyone who has spent a minute of time before an abstract canvas by Mark Rothko would grasp intuitively that what Buber meant by God is tied up with “spiritual presence.” Alter just throws up his hands  Alter is by no means unique, although in his case, this automatic reflex is inexcusable given that Alter’s own analysis of “zero-sum revelation” in his discussion of Scholem in Necessary Angels is about as good as it gets for cracking the nut to get at the kind of theology reflected in, for instance, I and Thou.

It is as if Alter has simply forgotten what it was that had so fascinated him about Buber in the 1960s when Buber was very old and Alter was very young, on his way to becoming a great literary critics and translator of the Hebrew Bible. Hanging over the refusal to read the theology, which is tricky, hard to get, but more or less reasonable when you take a step back, is the acrid, neoconservative hot-take on everything that was naive and amiss about Buber’s politics. This is especially so as Israel slouches into the bi-national future that the Israeli and Jewish right are building for the country, proving that maybe he was right all along about the Jewish-Palestinian “encounter.” About Buber’s claim that  on the battlefields of World War I, “a new Jewry has taken shape,” Alter, like all of Buber’s readers is rightly dismissive; which is not to say that Buber wasn’t right, despite himself, and that maybe, yes, in fact, World War I altered the constitution of the Jewish people forever. That’s the problem with quick cynicism. One also notes in passing that Alter is exceptionally unkind toward Buber, whose decision to stay in Germany for as long as he did to shore up the community at this moment of crisis was nothing but heroic.

Maybe I am making too much of Alter’s review. Maybe it doesn’t rise to the occasion, except for its public appearance in the New York Times. As Jerome Copulsky notes, lost in the shuffle is a considered look at the actual biography itself. It is as if the super-commentary, including my own super-super commentary has lost sight of the direct object at hand, which is Paul Mendes-Flohr. This confusion, this inability to get to the more limited point, to keep the object in view, might have a lot to do with the aura that Buber and the figure of God without figures still command against the judgment of the critics, who are only able to see haziness, a world without objects, without knowing how to approach if not grasp it.


Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

(A Photograph) Muselmann (Henryk Ross)


I was not aware that such a thing exists, but this seems to be a photograph of a “Muselmann.” The designation refers to those suffering hollowed out people, physically alive while pushed to the brink of psychic-spiritual death. Perhaps the assumption has been that the phenomenon of the Muselmann was restricted to the labor, concentration, and extermination camps. But this photograph (it was on view at the exhibition last year at the Jewish Museum of Heritage) was taken in the Lodz Ghetto.

The photographer was Henryk Ross, who worked for the Department of Statistics for the Jewish Council. At the exhibition, no special attention was given to this particular photograph. The official title of the photograph is “Hungry man walking on the street with a pail and an empty plate.”  If I remember correctly my visit to the exhibition, I first stumbled by accident upon the image as it appeared in a Hebrew language newspaper edition (?) of the Diary of a Young Girl in the Ghetto by Rywka Lipszyc. I think there was a blowup of the photograph prepared for the museum exhibition. At some point I looked and found the more diminutive “original” snapshot copy. The smaller copy of the photograph appears on the lower right of the photographer’s contact sheet, also shown at the museum.

I hope I have done justice to this remarkable picture. My own designation that this photograph of the young man is a photograph of a Muselmann is a spectacular and perhaps false claim. What justifies the designation is that the young man is identified as such (a Muslimi) in the caption of the photograph as it appeared alongside and illustrating the material from Lipszyc’s diary.

About the collection of photographs and the exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, you can see more here.



Posted in uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment