The Enduring Legacy of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 27, 2008
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."
Related Topics: World Jewry
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