Tradition Today: Remembering Chief Rabbi Hertz

The position of chief rabbi in England is certainly one of the most prestigious rabbinical positions in the Jewish world.

Siddur 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Siddur 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The position of chief rabbi in England is certainly one of the most prestigious rabbinical positions in the Jewish world. Both the current chief rabbi and the former were made Lords, not an insignificant achievement. It should be noted, however, that the post – known in England simply the “the chief” – is not really chief rabbi of Great Britain, but chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues. The ultra-Orthodox have their own organization, as do the Liberal, Reform and Masorti movements, none of which recognize the authority of the chief rabbi.
As the United Synagogue begins its search for a new chief rabbi, it is interesting to look back at one of the most celebrated chief rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz. Hertz was a graduate of the first class of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York in 1894, before the Conservative Movement as such had been created, but when the Seminary represented the approach of the Historical Positive movement in Judaism that had been founded by Zecharia Frankel. He served as a rabbi in a synagogue in Syracuse, New York, that was identified with that approach as well.
He was chosen as chief rabbi in 1913 and served in that post until his death in 1946. During that time, although he was opposed to liberal Judaism in England, he never denied his Seminary background and surely the open, inclusive attitude that is shown in his writings reflected that.
The Humash that bears his name was the most widely used Torah commentary in English-speaking synagogues for generations and was, for its day, an excellent combination of traditional Biblical commentary and modern understanding. In recent times it has fallen out of favor due to a number of factors. To its misfortune, it is both too liberal and not modern enough.
The Reform and the Conservative/Masorti movements have each produced a Torah commentary reflecting modern Biblical studies and the specific ideologies of each movement. At the same time much of Orthodoxy has moved to the Right and finds Hertz too liberal, preferring the more fundamentalist ArtScroll version.
LESS WELL known is Hertz’s commentary on the prayer book which was issued following his death in 1946, although major portions had been published during his lifetime. Unlike the recent Daily Prayer Book of the current chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, Hertz’s was evidently not intended for synagogue use, but for study purposes and thus never replaced the standard “authorized” Singer’s prayer book.
A glance at Hertz’s work, however, reveals how startlingly open was his approach. It certainly reflects quite a different time in the history of British Jewry, one in which the chief rabbi felt quite free to utilize non-Orthodox authorities in his commentary and to voice unusual views.
Hertz quotes liberally from non-Jews including William James, Joseph Addison, Matthew Arnold, George Foote Moore and many Christian biblical scholars. Even more startling is the fact that he quotes from non-Orthodox rabbis, including Solomon Schechter and Leo Baeck. He even includes twice a long excerpt from Cyrus Adler, a non-rabbi who was president of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary of America, calling him “a noble Jew,” and also quotes Moses Mendelssohn and Kaufman Kohler, the president of the Reform Hebrew Union College!
No less daring for his day was his statement that an intensive Jewish education must be extended to “every Jewish boy or girl” (page 120) and his statement that some think the Messiah may be Israel itself (page 254). In his comments to the blessings in the early morning service thanking God who “has not made me a heathen,” “not made me a slave,” and “not made me a woman,” Hertz quotes a Prof. Abraham Berliner, who urged that these three be eliminated and replaced with the words “who has made me an Israelite.”
Hertz concludes, “He has rightly maintained that ‘to be filled with gratitude to God for having allotted to me the distinction of participating in Israel’s mission and destiny, is surely far more expressive than the present negative formula’” (page 21). I agree, but I also wonder if Hertz were alive today, would he be considered as a suitable candidate for the position?
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).