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Particularism and Universalism (3)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


     PART III:  The Philosophy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch


            Until this point, we have focused upon one of two possible formulations of Rihal's position.  The second option is built upon a different approach, one which was developed by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch.


            Samson Raphael Hirsch saw himself as Rihal's successor, particularly in his attempt to construct a philosophy which stems solely from Jewish sources.  Only if we ignore all preconceived notions, he claims, will our approach to Torah be truly open.  Only then will we be able to read it without being tainted by foreign influences.


            The Torah can be seen as a series of recorded covenants.  The book of Genesis begins with the history of the failure of the first covenant, that which was established between God and Adam.  This covenant continues after Adam's sin, but is terminated with the wayward Generation of the Flood.  After that we read about the second covenant, the one between God and Noah, and it ends with the sin of the Generation of Dispersion: the Tower of Babel.  With the failure of the Noachide covenant, which was intended to be a covenant with humanity as a whole, the need to forge a new path became apparent.  The new way involved the creation of a new nation which would enter into a covenantal relationship with God.  This nation would pave the way for the ultimate redemption of all of humanity.  The covenant with Israel, then, is not an exclusionary one.  Through its role as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," the Jewish people pave the way for the rest of the world.


            The role of the Jewish people is to educate and lead "all people towards the worship of God, and to publicize His name in the world through its very life and destiny" (The Nineteen Letters, letter 16).  Other nations do their part with contributions in the fields of art and science, conquest and trade.  The Jewish people takes the world, such as it is, and attempts to open its eyes to God.


            This description of the Jewish people as a teacher to the world is not merely a piece of religious propaganda; it is the Jewish people's "very life and destiny."  This destiny is twofold.  It is fulfilled through Torah, that is, through life centered around the experience of the service of God, and through our fate, the testimony of our religious message.  This means that in a paradoxical sense the Jewish people fulfills its destiny even when sinning (The Nineteen Letters, letters 8,9).


            This provides us a solution to the question we started with.  It is through our very exclusivity, through the maintenance of the uniqueness of the Jewish people and the land of Israel, that the entire world will ultimately attain a universal redemption which transcends all borders.  This stance of R. Hirsch is not a new one.  It was previously developed by R. Ovadia Mi-Seforno, who writes:


            "And the Torah initially describes that He created man in His image, in order that he choose to become as similar to his Creator as possible, because through this, His actions will be complete and more worthy of honor than any other creator, as is appropriate for Him, blessed be He, who is elevated above all others.  And in His mercy he supplied man with all of his needs and placed him in the Garden of Eden, until he behaved badly, whereupon he ruined his livelihood, and God banished him from there, to work the land and to exert himself greatly to find his daily bread...

            And then [the Torah] relates that despite all this, He did not choose to destroy him...

            And then [the Torah] relates further that despite all this He had mercy upon the remainder [of mankind] and allowed them to eat all animals besides their own kind, and He gave the land to human beings by placing their fear upon all the animals of the land... until they gathered together to worship a foreign god, and placed its image in a tower, and nations directed their appeals to him, [until] God's name was no longer remembered among them...and since then they have consistently declined in worth...

            And then [the Torah] relates that with the disappearance of the hope for the entire human race, since they attempted to destroy all Godly improvement three times, God set aside one person out of all the human race, and selected Avraham and his progeny to achieve through them the goal He intended for all the human race, as was explained.  And the bond between Avraham and his two descendants [Yitzchak and Yaakov] who filled the world with His glory by calling His name, caused Him to be pleased to make a covenant to be their God and the God of their children after them forever, and to grant a place to their progeny when they become a large enough nation to require a land, and there they will be His unique people who will worship Him in unity."


            As we have mentioned, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch saw himself as Rihal's successor.  Another modern thinker who saw himself in a similar light was Shmuel David Luzzatto.  Shadal (his acronym) identified with Rihal in a conscious fashion and viewed his battles against the Jewish adherents of Kantian and idealistic philosophies as a continuation of Rihal's battles against the Rambam and Ibn Ezra, who had "become enslaved to the philosophies of Greece and Islam."  Shadal, too, perceives the essence of chosenness in a similar manner to that which we have been discussing; he identifies chosenness with destiny.  This understanding conflicts with other, mistaken viewpoints which, he explains, stem from illegitimate comparisons to theories of chosenness espoused by other nations (Yesodei Ha-Torah, 33ff, Jerusalem 5707, p. 47ff; see also his commentary on Genesis 18:19).


            Shadal examines two invalid interpretations which represent the concept of chosenness among the ancient nations.  The first is the concept of chosenness which is typical of the tribal religion:


"And... some of the early nations worshipped one specific god whom their neighbors did not worship... and they believed that that god watched over them and loved them... Not such is the position of Jacob, but rather [he believes that] the Creator of everything is God... if Israel is His firstborn son, all the nations are [also] His children."


            The second direction is the theory of chosenness which stems from a sense of superiority:


"And others among the ancient nations hated and despised all nations other than their own because they had not attained their level in wisdom and art, and they would call them 'barbarians'... but the Jewish people and their forefathers did not hate or despise the other nations."


            In contrast to these attitudes, the concept of chosenness in Judaism is actually the bestowal of a destiny and a vocation.  The status of the Jewish people among the other nations is, thus, similar to the status of the priests among the Jewish people, "who were separated from the populace by the rules and commandments which were unique to them" (ibid, 31).


            However, the concept of destiny can be misunderstood.  This is in fact what occurred in the Reform movement.  The religious reform in Germany chose to define the concept of destiny in a way which led inevitably to assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity.  Therefore Shadal writes in a letter in 1858:


"And the faithful Jew believes in what Moshe said, that "if your scattered nation will be (in the ends of the skies, from there God will gather you)...," and in what Yeshayahu said, "The mountain of God's sanctuary will be firm etc..." and he does not deceive himself with idle dreams that people will change and become like angels, and certainly does not imagine that this great transformation will take place through his agency, and that the success of the human race depends upon him, and he knows that these are but lies and empty consolations which the false prophets manufacture for their own benefit"  (Shadal's Letters, Cracow, 5651, pp. 1335-1336).


            The destiny of the Jewish people is the creation of a Jewish state which will serve as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  This is the necessary next stage in the edifice we are attempting to construct.


            Rav Ovadia Mi-Seforno's approach was later developed by Martin Buber.  He emphasizes a significant fact:  The Noachide sin continued to thrive in all the nations which succeeded Noah's children.  Therefore, Martin Buber suggests that it was impossible to choose a nation who sinned with the Generation of Dispersion.  A new nation was needed.


            The important issue here is not the actual choice of one nation over the others, but rather the creation of a nation with no prior history.  The Jewish people in a sense are not a "natural" nation like all other nations; our nation was born together with its destiny.  Martin Buber, as entrenched as he was in humanism and universalism, heard and heeded the divine voice which singled out the Jewish people.  This divine call creates a unique destiny and confers a special responsibility upon our people.



(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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