Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In Defense of Rabbi Hertz

A recent article objected to certain aspects of the commentary to the Torah edited by R. Joseph H. Hertz. Below are his objections and some responses. But first, let me relate this story:

When I was in yeshiva, a friend of mine who lived in a shrinking Jewish neighborhood brought the following question to R. Ahron Soloveichik: His synagogue was dwindling and had just hired a new rabbi. This rabbi's first act upon assuming his position was to insist that all the Hertz chumashim be replaced with Artscroll chumashim. The congregants were upset over this and my friend asked R. Ahron what they should do. R. Ahron told him, "There is nothing wrong with the Hertz chumash." However, since this rabbi was the synagogue's last hope, they should let him do this. They did, and despite the new rabbi, the synagogue closed down within a few years.

And now to the objections:

Click here to read more1. R. Hertz writes: "Jewish and non-Jewish commentators have been freely drawn upon. 'Accept the true from whatever source it comes' is sound Rabbinic doctrine..." The author objects: "Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten or ignored the Rabbinic dictum: 'If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations of the world -- believe it. That there is Torah among the nations -- don't believe it' (Eicha Rabbasi 2:17)."

This was not an innovation of R. Hertz. As noted earlier (link), Abarbanel quotes Christian commentators regularly. As to the midrash, we apparently have a problem. The simple fact, as easily verifiable by finding a good Christian commentary and looking at it, is that gentiles can and do have insight into the Torah. While they may have many comments to which we object, they can still have profound insight (e.g. Brevard Childs' classic commentary on Exodus). Either this midrash contradicts a clear and verifiable reality or we are misunderstanding it. I believe the latter to be the case. "Torah" in the midrash can easily mean a way of life, as R. Hershel Schachter has explained it (link). Alternately, it can mean a ruling on halakhic practice; i.e. do not look to gentiles for halakhic rulings.

2. R. Hertz explains Ex. 14:21 ("And the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided") as follows (quoting Kalisch): "As in all the wonders of Egypt, this also, the greatest of all, is based upon a natural cause; and in this the boundless power of God, who, by an insignificant change, knows how to convert the natural and common course of things into extraordinary and marvellous events, is sublimely manifest." About this, the author writes: "There is no miracle."

Reading the excerpt above, that is clearly an incorrect inference. The author quotes the midrash that the sea was split so that there were 12 paths, 1 for each tribe. However, the author seems not to differentiate between peshat and midrash. On a peshat level, there are no 12 paths, and that is the level on which R. Hertz's commentary is operating. Perhaps more importantly, the objection to the attempt to "naturalize" miracles such as the ten plagues is not necessarily anything wrong. As discussed earlier, the recently published book by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, does just that (I, II)!

3. The author quotes R. Hertz's commentary to Ex. 13:21 about the pillars of cloud and fire that represented God's presence as being similar to ancient practices of having fire signals in front of armies, i.e. being a "natural basis of the miracle." While there is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, as above, it is worth quoting the next sentence of R. Hertz's commentary that the author cut off: "In that case, we should have in this narrative of the guiding Cloud and Pillar another instance of the interweaving of the supernatural and the natural in Scripture." Note the tone of a mere suggestion, rather than an authoritative interpretation and, perhaps more importantly, the explicit acceptance of supernatural. In other words, R. Hertz was saying, "Even if they are right and this was not a supernatural miracle, it does not detract from the wonder." That, I believe, is of a very different nature than the impression the author gave of R. Hertz trying to remove supernatural events from the Torah.

4. R. Hertz wrote the following in his additional notes to Genesis (p. 195): "There is much force in the view expressed by a modern thinker: '(The Bible) neither provides, nor, in the nature of things, could provide, faultless anticipation of sciences still unborn. If by a miracle it had provided them, without a miracle they could not have been understood' (Balfour)." The author interpreted this to mean: "In other words, He Who gave us the Torah, could not, chas veshalom, have anticipated the great wisdom of Darwin!"

I believe this to be a misinterpretation. In my reading, R. Hertz's meaning was simply that God, of course, knew how He created the world but could not relay that information clearly in the Torah because the recipients of the Torah were not ready to understand that complex biological mechanism. As R. Slifkin explores in his new book, there are parallels to this approach in the rishonim. It is certainly unthinkable that R. Hertz would claim that God did not know how the world was created. That would contradict everything that R. Hertz taught throughout his life, as evident in his many published writings.

5. The author notes a contradiction between the Additional Notes and the commentary itself. In the Additional Notes, R. Hertz suggests that man being created from the "dust of the ground" (Gen. 2:7) could refer to lower animals while in the commentary to that verse he quotes midrashic interpretations. However, that passage in the commentary is clearly written in a homiletic fashion and not on a peshat level.

6. The author objects to R. Hertz quoting Haeckel's "monera begat amoeba... man-like ape begat ape-like man, ape-like man begat man" (p. 195). The author writes: "[A]ll this with simple faith, as if Haeckel had been there, or at least had some sort of proof for the family tree!"

But that is all beside the point. R. Hertz was not accepting that as authoritative. He was quoting it as an example of how evolution could not have been recorded in the Torah. The order, the details, the exact language are all beside the point. His point still stands, if one take the time to think about it.

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