Shiur #11: R. Hirsch as a Modern Orthodox
ideological team a rabbi belongs to often obscures more important questions
about that rabbis thought and can distract us from our basic responsibility to
talmud Torah. For these
reasons I have left the topic of R. Hirsch as a Modern Orthodox leader for
after we have examined his ideas.
However, that being
said, a community needs guiding polestars, and Modern Orthodoxy often lists
R. Hirsch as
one of theirs. An analysis of his
views on some issues that divide the Orthodox world today will clarify whether
or not Modern Orthodoxys appropriation of R. Hirsch is accurate. More importantly, such analysis should
challenge us to think seriously about our commitments regarding those issues on
which he sides with Modern Orthodoxy and those issues where he does not.
Regarding two important issues, R. Hirsch differs from much of Modern
Orthodox thought. He was not a
Zionist and taught that the Jews should not actively try to end their exile
(letter 16 in The Nineteen Letters). He emphasized the Torah as far more
fundamental than the land. The
bond of Israels unity was at no time land
and soil but only the common task of keeping the Torah (letter 16). In fact, the ark of the covenants poles
were never removed in order to indicate that the Torah can always successfully
transfer to another location (see commentary on Shemot 25:15). In all fairness, it must be noted that
the shulchan and menora, representing the fullness of material and
spiritual flowering according to R. Hirsch, have their poles removed since
those goals are rooted in the land of Israel. R. Hirsch certainly did not deny the
significance of our Holy Land, but it was not a
major theme in his thought and he did not endorse the Zionist
Modern Orthodox communities tend to be open to some level of working
together with other Jewish denominations on issues of common concern, as long as
the Orthodox retain their autonomy over their own religious institutions. In
Hirsch was a fierce champion of austritt, or
separation. Several scholars have
wondered why a rabbi with cultural openness toward Gentile wisdom would be
closed to working with other Jewish denominations. Prof. Mordechai Breuer enumerates
various approaches, but I am partial to Breuers own approach. R. Hirsch was a man of yosher or
truth. He did not deny the truth
that Gentile wisdom had something to contribute and that we could benefit from
studying it. For the same reason,
he could not work with a group whose ideology he viewed as a distortion of the
truths of Torah.
However, on a host of other issues, R. Hirsch does endorse positions commonly
associated with Modern Orthodoxy.
He analyzes the avot (forefathers) as great figures who yet were
capable of human failings. While
maintaining great reverence for them, he views them as subject to normal human
emotions and, like any other human being, capable of sinning. Thus, according to R. Hirsch, Yitzchak erred in
giving Esav the same education as Yaakov when Esav was not the kind of
personality who could flourish in the beit midrash. Esav needed to hear about how he could
serve God out in the fields as a man of action, but Yitzchak was wedded to the
singular model of his children as scholars (commentary on Bereishit 25:27
and Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, pp. 244-251). A different educational approach might
have salvaged Esav.
Hirsch consciously distances himself from other
We have dwelt upon
this episode in the life of our matriarch [Rivka] not in order to find an
apology for her act, nor because of any feeling on our part that we must not
allow any shadows to attach to the biographical pictures of our great
forebears. We completely disagree
with that view. Our ancestors were
never presented to us as angelic models to emulate in every respect; indeed, had
they been presented to us as angelic creatures, their example for us to follow
in our own lives would have been far less ideal and instructive than it actually
Also, our Sages never
turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of our forefathers; they demonstrate how
each error of our great ancestors had its own unhappy consequence. The commentators on the Word of God,
including, for instance, the Ramban, follow our Sages also in this respect.
Hirsch both relies on precedent and argues that an approach
that transforms our ancestors into angelic beings renders them irrelevant to us
as role models.
Two important letters on the status of aggadot also identify
R. Hirsch as
sharing common ground with Modern Orthodoxy. R. Hile Weschsler asked R. Hirsch about aggadot
in general and about the science of Chazal in particular. R. Hirsch contends that aggadot
deserve great respect as the wisdom of our sages but they are not, for the most
part, traditions handed down from Sinai.
While he himself feels comfortable with a literal understanding of
miracle stories involving our sages, he does not reject someone who would
interpret them otherwise.
On the topic of the
science of Chazal, R.
Hirsch says that our sages relied on the science of their day
just as contemporary rabbis do.
While we should not quickly dismiss their scientific ideas in favor of
contemporary theories, we are certainly allowed to do so if we are convinced
that these are more correct.
Chazal write about a creature that grows out of the earth because
Pliny the Elder reported just such a creature. They followed the experts of their day
just as we would grant credence to a contemporary explorer who reported on an
unusual species. R. Hirsch also points to a
gemara (Pesachim 94b) where the Jewish sages conceded to the scientific
position of the Gentile sages.
Clearly, the sages did not cite Sinaitic traditions regarding scientific
issues; rather, they employed human wisdom that incorporated some scientific
theories of the day. Given the
recent controversy over R. Natan Slifkins books, this position of
deserves wide dissemination.
His attitude to
womens issues should be added to our list. R. Hirsch was certainly not a
contemporary feminist, but he was concerned that women receive their
intellectual and social due.
His approach emerges powerfully both from his life and works. His opening a girls high school was a
significant innovation for nineteenth century Orthodoxy. The same can be said of his dedicating
Horeb to the thinking young men and women of Israel. In his commentary on the morning
Hirsch is adamant that these blessings do not indicate a lesser
religious role for women. In his
commentary on Avot (1:5), R. Hirsch argues that Yossi ben
Yochanans instruction that husbands not overdo sicha with their wives
refers only to idle chatter. Yossi
never meant to limit substantive conversation between spouses.
A man who truly
respects his wife will have more to offer her than just trivial talk and idle
amusement. He will want to discuss
with her the serious concerns of life and will derive enjoyment from the
resulting exchange of views and counsel.
An extensive essay on
The Jewish Woman makes R.
Hirschs sympathies clear. He summarizes his view thus: The view
of the sages of Judaism is that every human being, regardless of class, sex or
nationality, is capable of intellectual and moral perfection.
This citation also
indicates a strong sense of the potential spiritual grandeur of non-Jews
another characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy. R. Hirsch emphasizes the universalistic
trends in Jewish thought. He notes
how prophets such as Yeshayahu empathized with the suffering of nonJews.
Circumcision differentiates between Jew and Gentile, but the first thing Avraham
does after his mila is to wait outside looking for non-Jewish
guests. For R. Hirsch, our separatism truly
serves universal aspirations (commentary on Bereishit
We see Avraham, with
the pain inflicted by this sign still fresh, sitting before his tent in the heat
of the sun and looking out for weary travelers, inviting idolatrous strangers
into his house and showing mercy and kindness and the love of God to all his
fellow-men without distinction.
Hirsch explains Jewish chosenness in a similar fashion. When God selected Am Yisrael, He
was not rejecting the other nations.
Rather, He chose the Jewish people as a first step in moving toward the
utopian prophetic vision of the end of days when all people will worship the one
God (commentary on Vayikra 20:26). The Torah refers to Israel as Gods
firstborn because the other nations are also Gods children and they, too, will
help realize the ultimate goals of humanity (commentary on Shemot
According to R.
Hirsch, biology and race should play no role in our evaluation
of a person. The Torah stresses
this point by mentioning that the convert, and not only the born Jew, brings the
Paschal lamb. Regardless of ones
origins, anyone can join the Jewish mission and destiny. In Gods state, value is granted not to
lineage and ties of birth but to the inwardness of a person to his humanity
(commentary on Shemot 12:48).
The Jew who adopts paganism transforms into a stranger, whereas the
Gentile who converts becomes a full member of the Jewish people with all the
same rights. R. Hirsch emphasizes that
although the righteous Gentile who keeps the Noachide laws may not bring the
Paschal lamb, he too receives full civil rights. When discussing Pesach Sheni, the
Torah repeats the inclusion of the convert to teach that the convert brings this
offering not only by piggybacking upon the offerings of the rest of the Jewish
people, but even if he is the only Jew bringing this offering a month after
Pesach (commentary on Bemidbar 9:14).
Since Torah im derekh eretz is the slogan most commonly
associated with R.
Hirschs lifework and, indeed, he has much too say about this
topic, it seems fitting to conclude with some thoughts about R. Hirschs approach to general
wisdom. In the course of this
presentation, I shall counter two mistaken understandings of R. Hirschs
acharon argued that R.
Hirsch endorsed secular studies solely as an emergency measure
to counter the trends of his time.
Only someone who has not read R. Hirschs writings could come to such a
conclusion. A selection of
citations ends any debate regarding this point.
Israel has always welcomed
the Hellenic spirit as a precursor and helpmeet of its own mission to enlighten
and civilize mankind and likewise has wedded itself to the truth and humanity
produced by that spirit. (Judaism Eternal, vol. 2, p. 204)
But the more firmly
he takes his stand on the rock of his Judaism, the more fully he is penetrated
with consciousness of his own Judaism, the more ready will he be to accept and
gratefully appropriate whatever is true and good in other sources according to
Jewish standards; in whatever mind it originated, from whose-ever mouth it
issued. (Judaism Eternal, vol. 2, p. 223)
For this we require
schools, Jewish schools, in which equal attention shall be paid to the old
sacred inheritance of the community of Jacob, Biblical and Rabbinic knowledge,
and to all that is true, noble and good in European culture. (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p.
For these reasons,
the educational institution of the Israelite Religiongesellschaft feels
convinced that it ought to pay no less attention and devote no less care to
subjects of general education than to the specifically Jewish; nay, it regards
this care and attention as being from the Jewish standpoint also a sacred duty
the fulfillment of which can be of no small benefit to religion itself.
(Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p. 219)
Ironically, it is
actually cultural isolationism that R. Hirsch views as a product of
circumstance. In a few passages, he
argues that the high ghetto walls put up by Gentiles prevented Jews from taking
the best of broader culture, but that this did not reflect the ideal position. To be sure, R. Hirsch does not advocate uncritical
adoption of whatever passes for contemporary wisdom in the broader world. Secular wisdom must be evaluated by the
measuring stick of Torah (commentary on Vayikra 18:4). Nevertheless, R. Hirsch does assume that the broader
world has important wisdom to contribute.
Hirsch does not stress secular education as a means of earning
a living. In fact, an essay entitled On the Place of Ethical Training in School
Education (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, pp. 174-187) is highly critical of
an unduly pragmatic approach to education.
Rather, general education has value more directly related to our
understanding and appreciation of Torah.
His essays mention various kinds of benefits. Immersion in multiple disciplines trains
students to think properly (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p. 212). Study of science can help us understand
aspects of the Hebrew language (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, pp. 212-214). Study of history helps us compare
Judaism with other cultures and understand its unique qualities (Judaism
Eternal, vol. 1, p. 218). He
cites Schillers poetry as a beautiful expression of ideas that parallel Jewish
wisdom (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p. 187). King Lear illustrates parental mistakes
regarding evaluation of children (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p. 249).
Hirsch argues that preventing our students from encountering
secular knowledge will cause more problems later in life when they are forced to
study it to earn a living. At that
point, they will turn to teachers ignorant of Judaism and be overly impressed by
their message. It is better to
expose them early in life to broader ideas from a religious standpoint; then our
students will successfully view general wisdom in proper perspective. When we think of the yeshiva students in
Eastern Europe who abandoned the tradition upon
encountering Western culture, we can appreciate R. Hirschs argument.
In a number of articles, Prof. Yehuda (Leo) Levi has argued that
endorsed study of science and history but not the broader world of Western
humanities. This is simply incorrect. As noted, R. Hirsch cites Schiller and
Shakespeare. R. Hirsch delivered a fourteen
page address waxing eloquent about the great contribution that Schiller made to
humanity. Prof. Levi argues that
R. Hirsch only
gave this address for political reasons, but he provides no evidence for this
claim. Furthermore, the content of
the address makes it clear that R. Hirsch had great enthusiasm for
Schillers writings. Could we
imagine a Rosh Yeshiva from Volozhin or Slobodka going on for fourteen pages
about Schillers greatness?
One final quote about the value of world literature should close this
In teaching them the
languages of the civilized nations and introducing them to their literature we
give them the key with which, when they are grown up, they can gain entrance to
the intellectual creations of the peoples and feed and enrich their minds with
all that is good and noble and true in the contributions of the noblest spirits
to the realm of knowledge. (Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p.
As we have seen,
stands as a rabbinic authority who legitimizes many important aspects of Modern
Orthodox ideology. Of course, this does not mean he would look approvingly at
everything going on in our community.
We should feel challenged by his vision even as we rely upon as his