Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz is remembered by many as the late, great chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, serving in that high office from 1913 to 1946, leading a vast Jewish community through both world wars.
He previously had served congregations in Syracuse, N.Y., Manhattan, and South Africa. Even before assuming the pulpit, Hertz made history as the first rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Even to those unfamiliar with these achievements, Hertz is remembered as the eponymous editor of the “Hertz Chumash” — his ubiquitous (and now somewhat dated) commentary on the prosaically titled “Pentateuch and Haftorahs,” which provided entrée to the weekly Torah reading for generations of English-speaking synagogue-goers.
Alas, Rabbi Hertz is less remembered for his many sermons, speeches, and articles on a variety of challenges confronting the Jewish people during his rabbinic tenure. His insightful, eloquent, often poetic pen continues to offer wisdom to a Jewish community beset by political detractors, and in particular, by a shamelessly biased and hostile United Nations Security Council.
In October of 1929, the Chief Rabbi addressed a “demonstration of protest” at London’s Kingsway Hall. (For the full text of the address, see J. H. Hertz, Affirmations of Judaism, Soncino Press 1975, pp. 211-214.) The demonstration had been occasioned by British forces occupying Jerusalem, who had “sacrilegiously and by force removed benches and screens from the Wailing Wall, causing commotion and injury to Jewish worshippers” during Yom Kippur services not quite two weeks earlier. The same officials subsequently had removed the aron kodesh, the holy ark housing the Torah scroll, from the Kotel, further impeding Jewish worship. These actions were undertaken in response to pressure (the “threat,” Hertz averred) of the Muslim supreme council.
Rabbi Hertz understood even in 1929 that interference with Jewish access to the Kotel was an attack on Jewish history. An attack on the truth. His Kingsway address therefore carefully detailed the history of Jewish attachment to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. To this end, he adduced not only Jewish classical and medieval sources, but corroborating and compelling historic evidence from throughout the millennia, with special emphasis on the writings of the Church Fathers: “testimony which even our enemies cannot challenge.”
Perhaps the most poignant passage in Hertz’s address is his assertion that “the hearts and souls of seventeen million Jews vibrate with indignation at this Wailing Wall incident.” The chief rabbi was making reference to the global Jewish population of the pre-Holocaust era. Fully one-third of those 17 million Jews would be murdered in the 15 years that followed his pained remarks. The worldwide population of Jews even today does not approach the number accurately cited by Rabbi Hertz in 1929.
Rabbi Hertz’s moral clarity in response to the British-supported assault on the Jewish history of the Temple Mount resides in his recognition of its profound consequences. “This action is far more than a humiliation to every Jew: it is a blot on the British name, and diminishes the moral prestige of Britain. And whatever diminishes the moral prestige of Great Britain is a setback to civilization and humanity.”
In Yevamot 97A, the Talmud observes: “When a teaching is cited in the name of a departed scholar, his lips move in the grave.” The year that has now passed marked the 70th anniversary of Rabbi Hertz’s death, but Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz continues to speak to the Jewish people in the wake of the recent infamous anti-Israel resolution of the United Nations Security Council, which shamefully was supported by Great Britain, and which the United States permitted by withholding its customary veto.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has alleged that American complicity was in fact far more insidious, and included active encouragement and participation in the drafting and presentation of the resolution. Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent speech describing the Kotel as Palestinian territory occupied by Israel lends a measure of credence to the Israeli premier’s allegations, and reprises the treachery of 1929. Britain’s prime minister Teresa May’s surprising reproach of Secretary Kerry does little to mitigate its guilt in supporting the original resolution.
That which Rabbi Hertz declared as a loyal subject of the crown, American Jews properly assert today in reference to our own national leadership. The administration’s abandonment of its Israeli ally is more than an offense against the Jewish state and an insult to every Jew. It is a blot on the name and reputation of the United States, and on the American president’s role as leader of the free world.
The United Nations’ resolution, and its tacit approval by the Obama administration, diminishes the moral stature of the United States, and whatever diminishes the moral prestige of the United States is a setback to civilization and humanity. Such a diminution in moral standing, such a failure in moral leadership, ill serves the cause of democracy and undermines the stability of the free world.
Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz did not live to see a sovereign State of Israel. He did not live to see the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. He did not live to see the area of the Western Wall reclaimed from daily desecration. Nor did he live to see the Jewish state’s principled restoration of free access to the holy sites of all faiths in Jerusalem. Yet almost 90 years after he addressed his audience in Kingsway Hall, Rabbi Hertz’s lips continue to move, and to offer today’s Jewish community — as well as leaders of Britain and the United States — moral clarity and direction both timely and timeless.
The as yet unanswered words of prayer with which he concluded his 1929 remarks on the history of the Temple Mount should be on our lips and in our hearts today:
“We earnestly pray for a final and lasting solution, that shall vindicate and assure us our rights over this sacred relic of Israel’s sanctuary. Our fire burned on it in the days of old; our blood defended it when assailed by insolent foes; and our tears have bathed it in our bitter lamentation throughout the ages. May it soon be given us to rejoice over its final and definitive return to the Jewish people.”