Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dishonesty in Hertz’s Torah Commentary

Got a Torah passage that says something morally repugnant? No problem: just deny that it means what it says!

As I strive to catch up with the weekly Torah portion after some recent disruptive events, one of the sources that I have been consulting is the Soncino Press Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J. H. Hertz, commonly known as the Hertz chumash. This is a work originally published in the 1930s containing the Hebrew text, an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s version of 1917), and a commentary by Rabbi Joseph Hertz, then the Chief Rabbi of Britain. It has been widely used for several decades in synagogues of all denominations, particularly Modern Orthodox ones. Hertz’s commentary seems to rest on the presumption (though Hertz nowhere asserts this, as far as I know) that there is nothing in the Torah that is repugnant to science, reason, or common sense, provided that it is correctly understood. I attribute this premise to Hertz because I do not know how otherwise to make sense of some of the perverted reasonings that I find in his commentary. Here I will discuss just one example.

Consider the following famous passage from Exodus, part of the preamble to the Ten Commandments:
. . . For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me. (Exodus 20:5; Hertz, pp. 295–6)
On the face of it, the passage seems to be saying that God punishes several generations for the sins of their forebears. But Hertz will have none of that. His comment on the phrase “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” begins with the following bold assertion:
The Torah does not teach here or elsewhere that the sins of the guilty fathers shall be visited upon their innocent children.
It doesn’t? To read the pertinent line of Torah and then Hertz’s comment is like being presented with a brain teaser. How, one wonders, is Hertz going to reconcile such a comment with such a text? Where does the wiggle room lie between “God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me,” which is what the Torah says, and “God visits the sins of the guilty fathers upon their innocent children,” which is the idea that Hertz says is not in the Torah?

The only plausible way out seems to lie in the gap between “third and fourth generation of them that hate Me” and “innocent children.” If the offspring of some iniquitous progenitor “hate God,” then arguably they are not innocent. So in visiting the fathers’ sins upon them, God would not be punishing the innocent. (Of course, this would raise the question of why it should be of any relevance that the sins were committed by the fathers, and how hating God is supposed to make the descendants guilty of the ancestors’ sins: surely all that is relevant to punishing the following generations should be their sins. But let us set that question aside for the moment.)

Hertz does eventually offer an interpretation along these lines in his comment on the phrase “of them that hate Me,” where he writes: “The Rabbis refer these words to the children. The sins of the fathers will be visited upon them, only if they too transgress God’s commandments.” But the passage previously quoted comes from his comment on the preceding phrase, and is supported without reference to the phrase “of them that hate Me.” That comment continues thus:
The soul that sinneth it shall die proclaims the Prophet Ezekiel. And in the administration of justice by the state, the Torah distinctly lays down, ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin’ (Deut. XXIV, 16).
The first thing to note about this is that it is at best a rather indirect argument for Hertz’s initial claim; or in other words, it is of doubtful relevance. The administration of justice by the state is one thing: what is at issue is what God does to the children of sinners. The line quoted from Ezekiel says what God does to sinners, but not what God does or does not do to their children. Perhaps Hertz was expecting the reader to call to mind the rest of the passage from Ezekiel of which he quotes only a fragment:
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. (Ezekiel 18:20, King James Version; emphasis added)
This comes from a chapter that begins “The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying” (18:1); so Ezekiel is claiming to speak for God here, and in that capacity is expressly denying that the son “bears the iniquity” of the father—meaning, presumably, that he does not suffer the divinely ordained consequences of the iniquity.

Very well; but so what? Even if we assume that the prophet speaks with divine authority, the Book of Ezekiel must have been written hundreds of years after the Book of Exodus. Whether one regards both texts as the word of God or not, what one has on one’s hands here are two conflicting utterances. In Ezekiel, God says that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father; in Exodus, he says that the iniquity of the fathers shall be visited upon their children. Even if one could regard one text as simply canceling the other out, one would need an argument for saying that the Ezekiel passage overrules the Exodus one rather than the other way around.

Of course, one consideration that might influence one’s interpretation is the fact that the view expressed in the Ezekiel passage is morally appealing, while the one expressed in the Exodus passage is utterly repugnant. But that cannot possibly be a legitimate basis for taking one passage to represent the teaching of the Torah and the other not to do so (especially as it is the passage from the Torah that expresses the repugnant view). Whether one takes these texts to be the writings of human beings or of God, one cannot regard the passage from Ezekiel as making the passage in Exodus mean the opposite of what it says. The problem of interpreting the passage from Exodus remains.

But Hertz has another move to make. His comment continues:
However, human experience all too plainly teaches the moral interdependence of parents and children. The bad example set by a father frequently corrupts those that come after him. His most dreadful bequest to his children is not a liability to punishment, but a liability to the commission of fresh offences. In every parent, therefore, the love of God, as a restraining power from evil actions, should be reinforced by love for his children; that they should not inherit the tendency to commit, and suffer the consequences of, his transgressions.
Hertz’s claim here is that the children of a wicked father are likely to repeat his sins. If this is supposed to be relevant to the interpretation of the Exodus passage—and if it is not, then one has to wonder why Hertz would take up valuable space in his otherwise compactly written commentary with irrelevancies—then the plain implication is that when God says in Exodus that he “[visits] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation,” the Torah “does not [thereby] teach . . . that the sins of the guilty fathers shall be visited upon their innocent children,” because the children of sinful fathers are not innocent. They are guilty of the same sins—at least, they are so in many cases. So when God punishes them for their fathers’ sins, he is punishing them for their own sins—in many cases.

And for the other cases? Well, apparently Hertz sees the problem, because he offers yet another way of removing from the passage the morally repellent implication that God punishes innocent children for their forebears’ sins:
Another translation is, ‘remembering the sins of the fathers unto the children’; i.e., God remembers the sins of the fathers when about to punish the children. He distinguishes between the moral responsibility which falls exclusively upon the sinful parents, and the natural consequences and predisposition to sin, inherited by the descendants. He takes into account the evil environment and influence. He therefore tempers justice with mercy; and He does so to the third and fourth generation.
I can say nothing about the cogency of the alternative translation, but as an interpretation, this is patently desperate. Plainly, Hertz is reasoning from what he wants the text not to mean, namely, that God punishes people for the sins of their forebears up to three generations back—or in other words, just what the text says. Perhaps the Hebrew construction used here can be rendered in some contexts as “remember unto” rather than as “visit upon.” But only a will to make the text say something other than its plain meaning can make one read into it in this context the idea that this “remembering unto” may involve seeing that the children are guilty of no sin and therefore refraining from punishing them. If they are innocent, then of what possible relevance can it be that their fathers were guilty? If their forebears’ sins are irrelevant to their guilt—and surely they are—then why should God “remember” those sins “unto” them?

Of course, if the Torah is a document composed by human beings rather than dictated by God, none of these problems arise. But presumably that view is not an option for a Chief Rabbi.

I am still trying to learn what Modern Orthodox Judaism is. My present understanding is that, as far as beliefs are concerned, the word “modern” is supposed to signify an acceptance of the findings of science and other secular forms of inquiry, while the word “orthodox” signifies acceptance of certain traditional rabbinic beliefs, among them the belief that the Torah is of divine authorship. That is the idea, but in practice, as one sees repeatedly in Hertz’s commentary, one cannot have both without some very strange mental contortions. Of course, the notion that some text is of divine authorship is hardly transparent; and I imagine that among rabbis who would call themselves Modern Orthodox there is a great deal of diversity of views about what that means. But I strongly suspect that, in practice, it is always going to dictate the kind of move that we find Hertz making in his commentary: upon finding scriptural passages that mean something repugnant to reason, science, common sense, or common decency, take whatever measures are necessary to impute to them some other meaning.

Previous entry: From Satanism Libel to Blood Libel: This Time, It’s Coming from Haitians

Next entry: More Insights into the Ways of God