Senator Ossoff’s bible

Late on inauguration day, Jon Ossoff was sworn in as a United States senator for the State of Georgia, holding a worn-out copy of Pentateuch & Haftorahs, which had been edited in the 1930s by Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, Britain’s Chief Rabbi during the first half of the twentieth century.  This “Hertz Chumash” had belonged to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who served from 1946-1973 as the spiritual leader of Atlanta’s oldest and largest Reform synagogue, commonly referred to simply as “the Temple.”  Senator Ossoff had celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Temple long after Rabbi Rothschild had died.  He chose to be sworn in on Rabbi Rothschild’s Hertz Chumash so as to commemorate his community’s moral courage in supporting civil rights and racial integration based on Rabbi Rothschild’s teachings and thereby recommit to “fighting for equal justice under the law.”  The significance, however, of using Rabbi Rothschild’s Hertz Chumash maybe even deeper, reminding us of ethical imperatives essential to all Jews.

For over fifty years, the Hertz Chumash was the ubiquitous bible used by congregants for the kriat haTorah (Torah reading) portion of Shabbat and holiday services in synagogues and temples of every denomination throughout the English speaking world.  The Hertz Chumash contained a 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation along with a condensed version of a multi-volume Torah commentary published by Chief Rabbi Hertz and his collaborators.  As the first person ever ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary when that institution affiliated as Orthodox, Chief Rabbi Hertz sought to create a bible commentary that was self-consciously Jewish, though aware of and unintimidated by observations and critiques made by non-Jewish theologians and academicians.  For the average reader, the Hertz Chumash provided short insights throughout the Torah readings, noting key textual issues and focusing on fundamentally Jewish ethical themes.  Contemporary scholars have identified the Hertz Chumash as the primary source influencing the Jewish layman’s understanding of Judaism.  By the late twentieth century, however, the Hertz Chumash was nearly obsolete.  Each denomination published more ideological, even polemical, chumashim for their respective congregants, thereby further segmenting the Jewish world based not just on ritual or practice but on the bibles they read and revered.

It is well known that Rabbi Jacob Rothschild displayed exemplary moral courage in publicly promoting civil rights and racial integration since first arriving in Atlanta immediately after World War II.  By 1954, the United States Supreme Court had issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision eradicating the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine and opening the way for institutional integration.  That decision was deemed a second emancipation proclamation, eliciting a sharp debate in the south between integrationists and segregationists.  As is depicted in the play and eventual movie, Driving Miss Daisy, in October 1958, extreme segregationists bombed the Temple, intending to intimidate the Jewish community and squelch any of its leaders from siding with the integrationists.  Rabbi Rothschild, however, remained undeterred, continuing vigorously to support the integrationist cause.

Perhaps more importantly, Rabbi Rothschild taught his congregation that Judaism required public protest against the injustices of racial segregation.  Melissa Fay Greene describes the context, challenges and beliefs motivating Rabbi Rothschild in her book, The Temple Bombing.  Greene explains that, when Rothschild assumed the pulpit, the Temple was a “classical Reform” community still committed to the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which viewed Judaism only as a religion, eschewed deeming Jews as a people and proclaimed that: “Today we accept as binding only the moral laws . . . but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”  The Temple’s prior religious leader preferred titles such as reverend or doctor rather than rabbi, disfavored the donning of prayer shawls or head coverings, eliminated bar mitzvah ceremonies, disregarded all Jewish dietary laws and preached anti-Zionism.  Indeed, in 1906, the Temple had become one of 18 Reform synagogues in the United States that offered Sabbath worship on Sundays instead of Saturdays.  After the tragic lynching of Temple member, Leo Frank, in 1915, the Temple’s rabbi resolved even more toward ensuring his community’s assimilation into white Christian society through invisibility and imitation.

By contrast, Greene depicts Rabbi Rothschild, a northerner who had served as a United States Army chaplain in World War II, as more traditional in temperament and vision.  She recounts that: “[i]n 1937, the official body of Reform rabbis replaced the Pittsburgh Platform with the Columbus Platform: Jews were a people, the rabbis now held; rituals and ceremonies should be included in the liturgy; Zion was the center of Jewish spiritual life; and the Supreme Being was God.”  As Greene writes: “Jacob Rothschild was ordained in the principles of the Columbus Platform.” He advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state, observed Jewish rituals and preferred that only kosher food be brought into the Temple.  He forged personal relationships and friendships with other Jewish denominational leaders including the rabbi of Atlanta’s main Orthodox synagogue who was also the editor of a major journal of Jewish thought.

Yet, it was not traditionalism or Jewish pride that elevated Rabbi Rothschild as an inspiring moral leader but his commitment to fundamental Jewish ethics, similar to those highlighted in the Hertz Chumash.  Rabbi Rothschild preached a Judaism centered around the “ethic of responsibility,” identifying as his favorite Talmudic teaching Rabbi Tarfon’s famous statement in the Ethics of the Fathers: “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”  In a 1948 High Holiday sermon, Rabbi Rothschild implored his congregation to embrace integration as an ethical imperative mandated by Judaism, stating:

“For Jews, life just isn’t made simple.  We are held accountable for our conduct.  We are responsible for our acts.  Don’t rationalize your guilt by claiming that morality is too difficult for attainment by mere man. . . We must do more than view with alarm the growing race hatred that threatens the south. . . The problem is ours to solve — and the time for a solution is now. . . . We have committed no overt sin. . . . No, our sin has been the deeper one, the evil of what we didn’t do.”

Rabbi Rothschild underscored that the ethic of responsibility is not a matter of political choice but fundamental to “the law of righteousness,” which “is not up in heaven that we must wonder who will go there and bring it down for us and give it to us” but “in our own hearts.”

In his Shabbat sermon immediately following the Temple bombing, Rabbi Rothschild reiterated the ethic of responsibility as the fundamental moral takeaway.  He preached:

“Who is to blame for the wave of violence that has swept across our land?  The guilty ones are not alone the political leaders whose words fan the flames of hatred and incite to violence.  Not even those who perpetrate the very acts themselves bear all the blame.  Responsibility rests equally with those good and decent people who chose to remain silent in such a time.”

The Jewish ethic of responsibility is not an ideological statement particular to any one denomination.  It is the central message of the prophets, perhaps most emphatically pronounced in Chapter 1 of Isaiah, which states: “Learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.”  But it goes back to the very incipiency of the Jewish people in Genesis Chapter 18 when Abraham petitioned to save the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.  As Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the seminal Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century taught: “The Jew is a responsible being, he is responsible for society.  Abraham’s prayer to God was related to total strangers — the people of Sodom.”  In the vein of Abraham, Moses and other great biblical models, Rabbi Soloveitchik famously charged rabbis with exemplifying the need to “publicly protest against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan.”

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, also wrote much about the Abrahamic ethical model, highlighting Genesis Chapter 18 as conveying “the whole message of the Hebrew Bible.”  In To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Lord Sacks explains that, in Genesis Chapter 18, God not only informs Abraham, whose name refers to fatherhood, that he will have a child but instructs him about the responsibilities of parenting by including in that portion Abraham’s petitioning to save Sodom and Gomorrah.  Lord Sacks writes:

“Abraham, about to become the father of the first child of the covenant, is being taught by God what it means to raise a child.  To be a father — implies the Bible — is to teach a child to question, challenge, confront, dispute.  God invites Abraham to do these things because he wants him to be the parent of a nation that will do these things.  He does not want the people of the covenant to be one that accepts the evils and injustices of the world as the will of God.  He wants the people of the covenant to be human, neither more nor less.  He wants them to hear the cry of the oppressed, the pain of the afflicted, and the plaint of the lonely.  He wants them not to accept the world that is because it is not the world that ought to be.  He is giving Abraham a tutorial on what it is to teach a child to grow by challenging the existing scheme of things.  Only through such challenges does a child learn to accept responsibility.”

Lord Sacks identified the unconditional concern for the well-being of the other over the self as Judaism’s fundamental teaching.  In 2005, Lord Sacks wrote in To Heal a Fractured World:

“The message of the Hebrew Bible is that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by how they care for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless.  What renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable.”

Fifteen years later, in his last work, Morality, published before his untimely passing at the end of 2020, Lord Sacks universalized the message, ending the book by stating:

“One of the great historical lessons is that societies become strong when they care for the weak.  They become rich when they care for the poor.  They become invulnerable when they care for the vulnerable.  That is the beating of the heart of the politics of covenant.”

In the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, Senator Ossoff’s swearing-in on Rabbi Rothschild’s Hertz Chumash presents a sobering reminder to American Jews of all denominations that, notwithstanding our diversity, we are unified in our commitment to the Abrahamic ethic of responsibility.  At our core, we are not a political but an ethical community.  It is one thing to favor certain political methods or approaches — whether they be deemed conservative, liberal or something else — as the means for achieving goodness, righteousness and morality.  Such diversity should be welcome and encouraged.  It is quite another to abandon concern for truth and justice so as to accomplish a desired political result.  Perhaps if, on Shabbat and holidays, we all used the same chumash — one focused on ethics rather than ideology — that sobering reminder might be all the more effective.

About the Author
Daniel D. Edelman resides in Teaneck and works as an attorney in New York City.
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