The two pieces that follow deal, respectively, with the relevance of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch for the relationship of Torah Jews to their fellow Jews and with what he still offers to Torah Jews as individuals and a community. Those two subjects formed the substance of my speech in Washington Heights on the occasion of Rav Hirsch’s bicentennial. I apologize for the considerable overlap between the two pieces, but decided to publish both, as they focus on different facets of Rav Hirsch’s legacy.
The Enduring Legacy of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch
Today marks the bicentennial of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, whose vision dominated German Orthodoxy from the early 19th century until its destruction by the Nazis.
When Rabbi Hirsch first burst on the scene, as the 27-year-old author of The Nineteen Letters, German Orthodoxy was in full flight. In the first decades of the 19th century, for instance, nearly 90% of Berlin’s Jews made their way to the baptismal font. The Nineteen Letters was the first work to address the modern age from the perspective of Torah. That work and its successor Horeb arrested in mid-flight thousands who had all but turned their back on traditional Judaism.
One rabbinical contemporary wrote, “Anybody who reads The Nineteen Letters will find that until now he did not know Judaism as he knows it now, and literally becomes a new being.” Rabbi Hirsch’s writings provided the initial inspiration for Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov network of schools for women, and the lay leaders of the original Agudath Israel movement were almost all drawn from the ranks of his disciples.
Because of his openness to secular studies Rabbi Hirsch is sometimes described as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. That is a mistake. In the context of German Orthodoxy of his day, Rabbi Hirsch was considered a zealot. His insistence on a complete separation from the government-recognized communal bodies, on the grounds that they bore the taint of institutionalized heresy, divided the Orthodox community of Frankfort that he had almost single-handedly built. Every page of the voluminous Hirsch corpus cries out his intense Fear of Heaven.
Rabbi Hirsch is more accurately described as the architect of Torah Judaism for the modern world (the subtitle of the definitive biography by Eliyahu Meir Klugman.) He wrote for a modern world lacking the protective insularity of the ghetto, one in which every Jew simultaneously lives in a broader non-Jewish society. Though he recognized the dangers of Emancipation and repeatedly stressed that participation in the larger society could never justify the slightest deviation from one’s duties as a Jew, Rabbi Hirsch saw Emancipation as allowing for a fuller Jewish life.
The narrow constraint of Jewish life in the ghetto had, in Rabbi Hirsch’s opinion, robbed Jewish learning of its intended vitality, through actual application to life situations. “The goal of study,” he lamented, “has not been practical life, to understand the world and our duty in it.”
Rather than approaching the broader society in an exclusively defensive posture, Hirsch viewed it with optimism. He saw the historical circumstances of any period as the raw material upon which the ideals of the Torah must be impressed to the extent that the larger society provides the opportunity to do so.
His writings are filled with an enormous confidence in the power of Torah to uplift and transform every period of history. Accordingly, he addressed the entirety of German Jewry on a monthly basis on the major issues of the day. No Torah scholar of comparable stature fills that role today.
THE LAND OF ISRAEL has not provided fertile soil for the Hirschian tradition. Orthodox refugees from Germany, or at least their children have virtually all gravitated either towards Mizrachi or to the mainstream yeshiva world. It is often pointed out by the latter that the last 150 years of German Orthodox life produced no more than two or three Talmudists or poskim (legal decisors) of the first rank, compared to hundreds in Eastern Europe. For that reason, the Hirschian tradition will never become the dominant one within the Israeli haredi world.
Nevertheless Rabbi Hirsch’s writings still have much to offer both to the haredi world itself and the broader Jewish society. Indeed it is hard to think of any nineteenth century Jewish thinker who speaks with such astonishing contemporaneity. More than 100 years after his passing, new translations of his work, particularly his commentary on Chumash, continue to appear regularly. On any issue to which he set his pen, his word continues to be not just the first word but the last.
As more haredim enter the marketplace and, as a consequence, seek some form of advanced secular education, Rabbi Hirsch’s writings on the confrontation between modernity and Torah will gain many new readers. His corpus is already standard reading for ba’alei teshuva drawing closer to the world of Torah study and observance.
Rabbi Hirsch described the prevailing religious observance of his day as preserving outward forms without the animating inner spirit. His life task was to reverse that “uncomprehended Judaism.” For Hirsch, the Torah is “Divine anthropology” – an account of Man from the vantage point of the Divine. The mitzvot must be understood not as arbitrary rules that demand only obedience but as the tools through which G-d seeks to shape the ideal human being, whose self-perfection is the goal of Creation.
In his commentary on Chumash, Rabbi Hirsch demonstrated the meaning and life lessons that each detail of observance, including that of the Temple service, seeks to inculcate. Even those who find themselves unmoved by a particular explanation will never again doubt, after reading Hirsch, the relevance of each word of Torah to daily life.
The awareness of mitzvot as educational tools for the formation of the ideal human being is closely linked to another key Hirschian concept: the imperative of sanctifying God’s Name through one’s every action. One of the miracles of the Tablets of the Law was that they read the same from whichever direction one looked. And so, Rabbi Hirsch taught, must it be with every Jew. From whichever direction he is perceived – whether at home, in the study hall, or in the marketplace – he must bear the stamp of a Jew shaped by Torah.
The glory of German Jews raised in the Hirschian tradition was their emphasis that one must not only be “glatt kosher but glatt yosher (straight).” A member of the Hirschian community of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan told me this past Shabbat that he has never experienced the temptation to cut a corner on his taxes or in business dealings.
I have no doubt that an exposure both to Rabbi Hirsch’s writings and to Orthodox Jews raised in his tradition would go a long way towards drawing non-observant Israeli Jews towards their traditions.
But there is another aspect of Rabbi Hirsch that is crucial to the entirety of Jewish society in Israel today. Absent some understanding of why the continued collective existence of the Jewish people is a matter of universal significance those with the talents and wherewithal to go elsewhere will do so. Indeed the statistics on Israel’s brain drain make clear that many already have.
Hirsch’s writings provide perhaps the fullest account of the Jewish national mission. “To reestablish peace and harmony on earth . . . and to bring the glory of G-d back to earth,” he writes in his Commentary to Chumash, “is proclaimed on every page of the Word of G-d as the result and aim of Torah.” Elsewhere he described Emancipation as a step towards “our goal – that every Jew and Jewess, though the example they provide in their own lives, should be priests of G-d and genuine humanity.”
June 27, 2008
The Enduring Relevance of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch זצ”ל
I had the privilege this past Shabbos of speaking in K’hal Adath Jeshurun of Washington Heights at the celebration of the bicentennial of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. About Rabbi Hirsch’s historical achievements there can be no debate: He was the savior of German Jewry; he stood at the forefront of the battle against the nascent Reform movement and the emerging Science of Judaism that developed into the Conservative movement; he inspired the Bais Yaakov movement, without which the remarkable growth of Torah learning in the past 60 years would have been inconceivable; and he provided the model for all subsequent efforts to reach out to Jews far removed from Torah.
Yet there are those who question whether Rabbi Hirsch, however important historically, still speaks to a vastly different Jewish world than the one in which he lived. One of the directors of the Rabbi Joseph Breuer Foundation, which will soon complete a monumental new translation of Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash into English, was told recently that there is no need for a new Hebrew translation of the commentary, since it was written for those with no Torah background.
Such an attitude is perhaps understandable (particularly if one has never read Hirsch’s commentary). At the time Rabbi Hirsch burst on the Jewish scene, as the 26-year-old author of The Nineteen Letters, Torah Jewry was in full flight in Germany. In the early 1800s, so many Jews made their way to the baptismal font in Berlin that the city council issued an order that no Jew could convert without explicit permission of the government. We live, by contrast, in a world in which Torah learning is thriving and ever expanding.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that because so much Torah is being learned that the basics of Jewish belief are fully internalized. Too many of our children are afraid to ask questions for fear of being labeled apikorsim. Too many rebbes and Bais Yaakov teachers react with horror to questions, and assume a malevolent intent. Each of us pushes off responsibility for addressing the issues that naturally arise – parents on rebbes, rebbes on parents, the fifth-grade rebbe on the previous rebbe.
One of the speakers at a three-day Torah Umesorah seminar for mechanchim on teaching the Holocaust this past week commented that children no longer raise the basic issues of theodicy that tragedy on that scale inevitably arouse. Perhaps one of the reasons is that they are afraid to ask.
“Uncomprehended Judaism,” is the Hirshian term for the failure to understand Judaism on its own terms and from within. The result of that failure, even among those few who continued to observe mitzvos in Rabbi Hirschs’ time, was observance in which “the letter of the law is preserved but from which the spirit has fled.”
But “uncomprehended Judaism” was not a phenomenon confined to former days. And where it exists even the outward observance lacks staying power. The Jewish Observer recently published an article on adults-at-risk – i.e., those born into religious homes, who learned many years in yeshivos and in seminary, who wake up one morning and realize that they have no idea why they do what they do other than lifelong habit. The results of that realization are disastrous for them and their families.
Rabbi Hirschs’ writings offer the antidote to rote observance lacking inner meaning. As Rabbi Grylak’s moving account last week of his first encounter with The Nineteen Letters makes clear, those writings still offer one of the most powerful accounts of what it means to be a Jew and what is the role of the collective Jewish people.
Rabbi Hirsch spoke of the Torah as “Divine anthropology” – an account of Man from the vantage point of the Divine. That Divine anthropology forces upon us an awareness of mitzvos, not as arbitrary rules solely designed to compel obedience, but as the tools for shaping the Ideal Man, whose self-perfection is the goal of Creation.
And who more than Rabbi Hirsch demonstrates the meaning and lessons to be inculcated by every detail of our mitzvah observance, including every aspect of the temple service. Even those who find themselves unmoved by a particular explanation will never again doubt, after reading Hirsch, that each word of the Torah provides guidance for every aspect of our day-to-day lives.
The recognition of mitzvos as Hashem’s tools to form an ideal human type is closely linked to another major Hirschian concept: the Kiddush Hashem imperative. One of the miracles of the tablets of the Law was that they could be read from every direction. And so, Rabbi Hirsch taught, must it be with every Jew. From whichever direction he is perceived – whether at home, in the study hall, or in the marketplace – he bears the stamp of Torah upon him.
The awareness of ourselves as exemplars of Hashem’s Torah instills life with the idealism that each of us needs. It also provides a cure for the prevalent competitiveness that treats success in one particular area the exclusive measure of self-worth. In our ability to proclaim Hashem through our conduct in every sphere, we are all equal and each of us has a role that belongs to no one else.
In his voluminous collected writings, Hirsch addressed the entirety of German Jewry on the major issues of the day and of every individual’s life. He revealed a Toras Chaim not confined to the disputations of the beis hamedrash, but which spoke to every contemporary issue. We lack any figure of comparable stature today who regularly addresses the broader Jewish public on the issues of the day.
In his magisterial summation of Rabbi Hirsch’s legacy last Shabbos, Rabbi Elyahu Meir Klugman, his preeminent biographer, pointed out that the Jewish world today, even in Lakewood and Bnei Brak, is one of constant interaction with a larger gentile world. Rabbi Hirsch remains a vital guide to the interface between the world of Torah and the larger society.
He did not approach that larger society in a purely defensive posture – one that conveys doubts about the power of the Torah – but with optimism, confidence, even aggressiveness. He viewed the particular historical circumstances of his time as the raw material upon which the ideals of the Torah must be impressed to the extent that the larger society permitted. He did not doubt the dangers involved in that effort; his writing are filled with warnings and strictures about where no Jew must tread.
Yet fortified with the pure yiras Shomayim that cries out from every passage, and which is manifested in the fact that virtually all of his thousands of descendants are mitzvah observant even after five or six generations, he was filled with an enormous optimism about the power of Torah to uplift and transform every period of history. We too could benefit from a healthy dose of that same confidence.
July 2, 2008