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Artscroll vs Soncino

by David Conway
Artscroll vs Soncino
Artscroll vs Soncino
Artscroll vs Soncino
Artscroll vs Soncino

This talk concentrates on the contribution to Anglo Jewry of Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the Hertz Chummash translation and commentary. For many, the choice of whether to pick up an Art Scroll or a Hertz Chummash is of style. The Hertz Chummash can look weather beaten, old fashioned and in a font reminiscent of the 1940’s. The Art Scroll, on the other hand, has a modern look, is on the face of it an easier read and has an authoritative feel.


The Art Scroll series was created in 1976 in Brooklyn, New York by Rabbis Zlotowitz and Scherman and has a close connection with the yeshivah world. It has successfully marketed itself producing and innovating with interlinear translations, transliterated versions and in different sizes.


This talk is not about Minhag but translation and content and Rabbi Joseph Hertz. It is not to denigrate Art Scroll which has facilitated an unprecedented amount of texts especially, despite its origin, to those who have not had a yeshivah education and has therefore had an enormously beneficial impact on the Jewish world, but as for modernity, for substance, the Hertz Chummash, in my opinion, has the edge.


Compare the rather allegorical Art Scroll translation of Shir hashirim with the literal one in the Routeledge Machzor but also the broad sources quoted by Rabbi Hertz throughout his Soncino translation of the chummash. The less literal a translation the more likely it is going to be attacked as a covert commentary.


The context of Anglo Jewry feeling threatened by events in Germany is important in understanding the background to Rabbi Hertz and the Soncino publication. In his “Additional Notes” on Devarim Rabbi Hertz looked at what was happening on the world stage and says,


It is noteworthy that the Biblical regulations concerning justice precede the appointment of a King…..”Justice must be guided solely by State interests said a Nazi ruler” “Every Judge must promote nothing but the prevailing policy of the State” said a Soviet commissar. As far as these two governments are concerned the Divine command of “Justice and only Justice shalt thou pursue” was made in vain. Civilisation is once again witnessing travesties of, and outrages on justice that recall the darkest days of the Middle Ages”


Rabbi Hertz was born in Rebrin, Hungary in 1872. His family emigrated to New York in 1884. He attained a BA at New York City College and a PhD from Columbia University. He obtained semicha from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America which now a Conservative movement establishment. back then it was still a modern Orthodox institution and highly respected as such.


After ministering in South Africa until 1911, (when he was expelled for pro British sentiments), he was in 1913 appointed Chief Rabbi, which post he held until he died in 1946.


He was a passionate supporter of Zionism when even many prominent Jews were either sceptical or opposed to the idea.


With the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, he founded the Council of Christians and Jews.

He was on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


In the 1920’s he opposed a League of Nations sponsored calendar amendment which would have required an 8 day week at least twice a year and which would have played havoc with Shabbos observance. He mobilised worldwide opposition to this.


At this time English translations of Jewish texts were few. English speaking Jewry was largely reliant on Christian translations.  Rabbi Hertz saw a need for an authoritative Jewish commentary to be used every-day in the Synagogue. This coincided with an attack, both internally and externally, on the divinity of the Torah receiving wide-scale sympathy.


Rabbi Hertz was not only a significant critic and strongly opposed to Reform and Liberal Judaism but feared the effect of what was then termed as “scientific criticism” of the Scriptures, known as “documentary hypothesis”

Scientific criticism was led by Julius Wellhausen, a German biblical scholar, Professor of “Old Testament” at Gottingen. His works have an unmistakeable anti Jewish bias and sought to argue that parts of the Torah were written in different eras. Rabbi Hertz using strong historical arguments often quoting non Jewish sources to demolish these views.  In his Chummash commentary he quotes a non Jewish commentator, W H Green in his “Additional Notes” on Leviticus saying


“It is utterly out of the question that a body of laws, never before heard of, could be imposed upon the people as though they had been given by Moses centuries before; and that they could have been accepted and obeyed by them notwithstanding the fact that these laws imposed new and serious burdens, set aside established usages to which the people were devotedly attached and conflicted with the interests of powerful classes of the people”

Rabbi Hertz analysed the Torah language saying convincingly that it precludes a “late date of composition”, which theory by the critics totally overlooked issues of context and the subject matter of a number of the narratives in the Torah


This goes to the heart of translation and commentary. He thought the “everyman” with a limited Jewish education is more concerned about the divinity of the Torah on his or her first dips into the text than the Rashi commentary which in the Art Scroll is not translated. In his 1936 Preface Rabbi Hertz says:


Jewish and non Jewish commentators-ancient, medieval, and modern-have been freely drawn upon. ‘Accept the true from whatever source it come’ is sound rabbinic doctrine- even if it be from the pages of a devout Christian expositor or of an iconoclastic bible scholar, Jewish or non Jewish. This does not affect the Jewish traditional character of the work. My conviction that the criticism of the Pentateuch associated with the name of Wellhausen is a perversion of history and a desecration of religion is unshaken; likewise, my refusal to eliminate the Divine either from history or from human life….’


A year later, in his preface to the next edition in 1936, Rabbi Hertz clarified the above and said in it of commentary:

Its aim is twofold; the exposition firstly of the ‘plain sense’ of the sacred Text; and secondly of its religious message as affecting everyday life of Israel and humanity. In this way alone is a commentary in true line with the tradition of Rashi and the ancient Jewish expositors of the Bible’


Rabbi Hertz draws extensively on non Jewish sources and literature.  In expounding in devarim, “Thou shalt observe the path of the upright” Rabbi Hertz says this is to go beyond the mere letter of the law and said, “If Shakespeare had been aware of this fine Jewish duty he would not have drawn Shylock as a Jew”, and then goes on to quote Rashi.  Not only that, in his reference and commentary on the Shema, when explaining that the Almighty pervades the Universe, Rabbi Hertz says that the Rabbi’s would have endorsed the lines written by Emily Bronte, (the daughter of a Christian Minister!), in 1846 and quoted from her poem “No Coward Soul is Mine”


Though earth and men were gone,

And suns and universes ceased to be

And thou were left alone,

Every existence would exist in thee


It is a mark of Modern Orthodoxy that we engage and quote from secular and non Jewish society, as well as with the non Orthodox Jewish world without compromising beliefs. Perhaps he saw himself as a precursor of Limmud, engaging also with Leo Baeck. This philosophy known as Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah with the ways of the world) is not a response to Reform. It is ironic that to many, Art Scroll is seen as a reaction to the worldliness of the Soncino Chummash whereas a substantial part of the Hertz commentary is devoted to an attack on Wellhausen’s Biblical Criticism theory which rejects the divinity of the Torah. Ironically, Masorti and Reform Synagogues claimed Rabbi Hertz’s Chummash as their own because of his engagement with the secular world, and it is only now, as they have developed their own texts are they disowning him. They may also be unaware that in 1926 Rabbi Hertz delivered a blistering set of Sermons against Liberal Judaism that would cause outrage now.  In 1915 in a case that has parallels with the Louis Jacobs affair he forced out of office the Rev. Dr Joseph Hockman of the New West End

I would also commend you to his “workaday” translation and commentary of the Siddur. If you want to find the background to the Royal Prayer, the main prayers of a Shabbat morning or just a sample of “sayings” of the Rabbanim or a lucid explanation of “Pirke Avoth” it is a good place to start. He was no stranger though to controversy, stating on page 254 that “some think that the Messiah may be Israel itself”. On that same page Rabbi Hertz says


“Judaism fully acknowledges the good work done by both Christianity and Mohammedism. Through them, says Maimonides, “the knowledge of the Bible has spread even unto the remotest islands, and unto many nations sunk in heathen errors and inhuman practices”


In his Chummash Commentary, Rabbi Hertz captivates the reader and reinforces his or her Jewish pride quoting Tolstoy’s words introducing Abraham in Lech Lecha


“The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from Heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and religions”


Rabbi Hertz had modern views rooted in tradition. His translation of the Chummash with commentary is an important part of our Anglo tradition and an important text which will hopefully remain on our bookshelves for years to come.


The “Prefatory Note” to his Siddur is signed “CH” and laments that Rabbi Hertz had only carried out proof corrections up to page 1064, ironically, “Confessions on Death Bed”. There, says CH,

“closing his great Jewish leadership which had led to a deepening of devotion in the tents and sanctuaries of Israel in English speaking lands”

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