Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz on Repugnant Haggadic Texts

I just discovered that the Soncino Talmud has been reformatted by Reuven Brauner as a usable pdf, available here. h/t- On the Main Line.

I took a few moments to look at several of the pages and the introduction by Chief Rabbi Hertz caught my eye. He treats the Talmud as a record of the discussions fo the Rabbis that captured everything they said, good and bad, learned and unlearned, noble and degrading. He is willing to say about parts of the Talmud: “some of the customs depicted or obiter dicta reported, are repugnant to Western taste need not be denied. “ And he concludes that the legends, discussions, science, and folkways “consists of mere individual utterances that possess no general and binding authority.”

Hertz’s approach to the Talmud is similar to that of Shadal who in his letters deals with difficult Talmudic texts by declaring that they are just person opinion. WE lack an article on Western European Orthodox rabbinical attitudes to the Talmud. From Shadal to Steinsaltz; they tended to share Hertz view. In contrast, in Eastern Europe every line of the Talmud was sacrosanct. The Mahara”tz Chayes dealt with the folklore, demons, and unwisdom by declaring that it was not to be taken literally, rather it contained hidden didactic messages. It had to be allegory or hyperbole. But Hertz does not look for allegory and treats these texts in a straight forward manner as objectionable personal opinion and therefore rejects them

But the Gemara is more than a mere commentary. In it are sedulously gathered, without any reference to their connection with the Mishnah, whatever utterances had for centuries dropped from the lips of the Masters; whatever Tradition preserved concerning them or their actions; whatever bears directly, or even distantly, upon the great subjects of religion, life, and conduct. In addition, therefore, to legal discussions and enactments on every aspect of Jewish duty, whether it be ceremonial, civic, or moral, it contains homiletical exegesis of Scripture; moral maxims, popular proverbs, prayers, parables, fables, tales; accounts of manners and customs, Jewish and non-Jewish; facts and fancies of science by the learned; Jewish and heathen folklore, and all the wisdom and unwisdom of the unlearned. This vast and complex material occurs throughout the Gemara, as the name of an author, a casual quotation from Scripture, or some other accident in thought or style started a new association in ideas.

The Talmud itself classifies its component elements either as Halachah or Haggadah. Emanuel Deutsch describes the one as emanating from the brain, the other from the heart; the one prose, the other poetry; the one carrying with it all those mental faculties that manifest themselves in arguing, investigating, comparing, developing: the other springing from the realms of fancy, of imagination, feeling, humour:

Beautiful old stories,
Tales of angels, fairy legends,
Stilly histories of martyrs,
Festal songs and words of wisdom;
Hyperboles, most quaint it may be,
Yet replete with strength and fire
And faith-how they gleam,
And glow and glitter!
as Heine has it.

We have dogmatical Haggadah, treating of God’s attributes and providence, creation, revelation, Messianic times, and the Hereafter. The historical Haggadah brings traditions and legends concerning the heroes and events in national or universal history, from Adam to Alexander of Macedon, Titus and Hadrian. It is legend pure and simple. Its aim is not so much to give the facts concerning the righteous and unrighteous makers of history, as the moral that may be pointed from the tales that adorn their honour or dishonour.

That some of the folklore element in the Haggadah, some of the customs depicted or obiter dicta reported, are repugnant to Western taste need not be denied. ‘The greatest fault to be found with those who wrote down such passages. says Schechter, ‘is that they did not observe the wise rule of Dr Johnson who said to Boswell on a certain occasion, “Let us get serious, for there conies a fool”. And the fools unfortunately did come, in the shape of certain Jewish commentators and Christian controversialists, who took as serious things which were only the expression of a momentary impulse. or represented the opinion of sonic isolated individual, or were meant simply as a piece of humorous by-play, calculated to enliven the interest of a languid audience.’ In spite of the fact that the Haggadah contains parables of infinite beauty and enshrines sayings of eternal worth, it must be remembered that the Haggadah consists of mere individual utterances that possess no general and binding authority.
2 December 1934
Read the Rest Here.

4 responses to “Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz on Repugnant Haggadic Texts

  1. The Soncino Talmud has been available at since June 2009 in a single column format. It’s too bad the new double column version did not include a table of contents.

  2. אשכול הכופר

    From Shadal to Steinsaltz; they tended to share Hertz view.

    Steinsaltz? please, where? Normally, I think of him as dogmatic ‘reluctantly’ wearing the guise of the enlightened.

  3. For another Western European view that also would seem to track with Shadal et al, don’t forget R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in his letter to R. Wechsler published in Hamayan in 1976

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