Joseph Herman Hertz was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1913 until his death in 1946. He was the editor of the Hertz Chumash, the first English language translation of the Five Books of Moses with associated Haftaroth and commentary.
In 1886, Hertz began studying at the newly established Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Reflective of his role in bridging Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship, he received his BA from New York City College (BA) and, in a two-day period in 1894, he received his PhD from Columbia University (on the philosophy of James Martineau) and became the first rabbi ordained by JTS.
After a short tenure in Syracuse, NY (1894-98), Hertz was appointed rabbi of the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa. While there he agitated for greater Jewish rights under Kruger’s Boer regime. At the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899, Kruger declared him an enemy of the state. Hertz took refuge in British controlled parts of South Africa until Johannesburg fell to Lord Roberts’ army in 1902.
Return to America
In 1909, he returned to America to serve as a rabbi and teacher at the JTS.
Hertz defined his aims in 1919: to uphold “the teachings and practices which have come down to the House of Israel through the ages; the positive Jewish beliefs concerning God, the Torah and Israel; the sacred Festivals; the holy resolve to maintain Israel’s identity; and the life consecrated by Jewish observances.”
This was nuanced by his commitment to what he called “progressive conservatism,” by which he meant “religious advance without loss of traditional Jewish values and without estrangement from the collective consciousness of the House of Israel.” Hertz drew on general world culture and archaeological research as well as traditional sources to demonstrate the sophistication and continuing relevance of biblical thought.
In 1911, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Hermann Adler, died and Rabbi Hertz sought the position. His reputation, diplomatic skill, and possibly his loyalty to the British cause while in South Africa helped him gain this position in 1913. In this role he led the Orthodox communities of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations.
In midlife, Hertz was struck by two personal tragedies. His wife Rose died in 1930 at age 49. Six years later, Hertz’s son Daniel committed suicide at the age of 26. After these events he turned to an energetic partner in the young rabbi named Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld. In 1939, Schonfeld married Hertz’s daughter Judith, and the alliance became familial.
Hertz was a committed Zionist. In 1917, he advocated for the Balfour Declaration which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Before the British Government issued the declaration, they sought the opinion of eight leading British Jews. While there was significant opposition to Zionism in Anglo-Jewry, Hertz was one of the five who urged the government to issue the declaration.
Hertz viewed his mission as defending Judaism from attacks from Liberal Judaism (the Anglo version of American Reform) and biblical criticism, which viewed the Torah as the result of multiple human authors. To the first group he proclaimed, “You have dethroned God; and you have put your own reason in His place. You pick and choose among His precepts, retaining only those which suit your inclination or expediency.” To the second idea, Hertz held that “Judaism stands or falls with its belief in the historical actuality of the Revelation at Sinai.”
Hertz’s defense of tradition combined secular education and interests with strict observance. Hertz sought to reconcile the Orthodox Jewish view of the divine revelation of Scriptures with the findings of modern science.
In halakhic matters Hertz worked to balance pressures for change with loyalty to halakha. Hertz consistently refused to allow the organ to be played at Shabbat and Yom Tov services, even by a non-Jew and would not allow any move toward mixed seating of men and women in prayer.
In the 1920s, the League of Nations considered a system called the World Calendar, which enabled a given date to fall on the same day of the week every year. This resulted in days being skipped or added, which meant the Jewish Sabbath would not occur every seventh day. Hertz realized this would cause problems for Jews and Christians alike in observing their Sabbaths, and mobilized worldwide religious opposition to defeat the proposal.
World War II
From the early 1930s, Hertz called attention to Nazi intentions and atrocities, rallying Jewish and non-Jewish leaders in support of European Jewry. Through the Council of Christians and Jews and the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council, he persuaded the British Government to grant visas to thousands of refugees, including 10,000 children and 500 rabbis of all denominations. While using every means possible to save Jews, Hertz was opposed to the Kindertransport if it meant Jewish refugee children would be raised in the homes of gentiles.
Hertz’s best-selling volume for many years was a collection of quotations by and about Jews, A Book of Jewish Thoughts. Originally assembled for British soldiers in the First World War, it eventually went into 22 editions, was translated into at least seven languages, and had sold a quarter of a million copies by 1953.
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs of Rabbi Hertz shaped the way in which English-speaking Jewish laypersons understood their Judaism in the next half century.
There were already English commentaries on the Five Books before that of Rabbi Hertz, but they were written by non-Jews, and Hertz felt they had an anti-Jewish bias. Hertz described such commentaries: “As if a version of Shakespeare were made into Spanish by a Spaniard who had but an imperfect acquaintance with English…and who was filled with hatred and contempt for the British character and the entire British people.”
The Hertz Chumash served the very practical need for a commentary that could be used in the synagogue. The volume combined a Hebrew text of the weekly Torah reading cycle, translated into English, with a wide-ranging commentary that explained and fortified Jewish faith.
The volume we now know as the Hertz Chumash had a gradual and difficult birth. The work was written with the aid of four collaborators (Joshua Abelson, Abraham Cohen, Gerald Friedlander, and Samuel Frampton) and began as a single volume of the book of Genesis. There was a dispute when only the editorship of Rabbi Hertz was shown on the title page (although the others were acknowledged in the introduction.)
Published in 1929, the Genesis volume sold poorly, and Hertz considered canceling the publication of the remaining volumes. But others attributed the sales to a hesitancy to buy the single volumes when they anticipated publication of the entire five books in one work.
In 1936, the Soncino Press published the combined five volumes and changed the text of the English translation from the revised King James version to what some felt was a more readable 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation. With the Soncino edition, sales took off and the work became the mainstay of English-speaking synagogues of every denomination for decades, with estimated sales of 20,000 to 50,000.
Hertz was a staunch traditionalist and a fiery advocate for the Divine authorship of the Bible and the integrity of the Oral Law. Much of his commentary waxed apologetic about the divinity of the Torah and polemicized against those who rejected it.
Hertz put special focus on rebutting the ideas of 19th century German Christian theologian Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Hertz reinforced the morality and authenticity of biblical and rabbinic Jewish law and argued for Judaism’s advantages over what he saw as the Greco-Roman influenced Christian faith. To prove his points, Hertz harnessed the tools and methods of the critics themselves. For instance, he cited non-Jewish scholars as often as he referred to Jewish ones. Hertz referenced archaeological findings and a parallel Babylonian flood story.
Hertz provided rational explanations for what appeared to be supernatural if they did not compromise his conviction that God can and does act in history. He accepted the evolutionary development of humans but rejected the view that evolution lowers the place of humans in creation. Hertz theorized that the plagues visited on the Egyptians were miraculously intensified versions of natural catastrophes.
It took until 1981 for the Reform movement to emulate the Hertz’s Chumash. Two Orthodox alternatives appeared in the 1980s: a translation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s 19th Century Torah commentary, and the Living Torah by the mystical writer Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
In 1993, the ArtScroll’s Stone Edition became widespread in use, and signaled a change in Orthodox thinking, omitting non-Jewish sources, and fortifying Jewish practice by tradition rather than by scientific and anthropological argument. In 2006, the Chabad Lubavitch movement published the Gutnick Edition.
Hertz served as ex officio President of Jews’ College. He was President of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and of the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers. He was Vice-President of a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish bodies, including the Anglo-Jewish Association, the London Hospital, the League of Nations Union, the National Council of Public Morals and King George’s Fund for Sailors.
In 1942, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Hertz founded the Council of Christians and Jews to combat anti-Jewish bigotry.
In 1925, he was made a governor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Hertz was a powerful leader of world Judaism during the period of two World Wars, the tragedy of the Holocaust and the gestation of the future State of Israel. He employed novel approaches to defend Jewish tradition and informed Jewish practice throughout the 20th Century.
Joseph Hertz died on January 14, 1946.
Sources: “A Bridge across the Tigris: Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz,” IDEALS.
“Joseph Herman Hertz,” Britannica.
Michael Feldstein, “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” Jewish Link, (April 8, 2021).
Yosef Lindell, “A Call For a New Modern Orthodox Humash,” Lehrhaus, (June 5, 2017).
Rabbi Hertz’s papers are at the Archive Department of Southampton University MS 175 Papers of Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz
A Vindication of Judaism: The Polemics of the Hertz Pentateuch (Moreshet Series, V. 14). by Harvey Warren Meirovich
Chief Rabbi Hertz: The Wars of the Lord. By Derek J. Taylor, Jonathan Sacks (Introduction by) 2014. ISBN: 9780853039181
Affirmations of Judaism, and a further three volumes of Sermons, Addresses, and Studies.
A Book of Jewish Thoughts (1917), a selection of Jewish wisdom through the millennia.
The Battle for the Sabbath at Geneva, an account of his work opposing calendar reform.
Hertz edited a Hebrew-English edition of the Jewish Prayer Book (1946).
Photo: National Library of Israel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.