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R. Hirsch as a Modern Orthodox Leader

Rav Yitzchak Blau
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By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #11:  R. Hirsch as a Modern Orthodox Leader



Emphasizing which ideological team a rabbi belongs to often obscures more important questions about that rabbi’s 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 Orthodoxy’s 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 Israel’s 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 covenant’s 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 project.


            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 contrast, R. 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 Breuer’s 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.[1]


            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.


            R. Hirsch consciously distances himself from other approaches:


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 is…


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.[2]


            R. 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.[3]  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 Slifkin’s books, this position of R. Hirsch deserves wide dissemination. 


His attitude to women’s 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 blessings, R. 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 Yochanan’s 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. Hirsch’s sympathies clear.[4]  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.”[5] 


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 non–Jews.[6] 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 18:1).


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.[7]


            R. 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 God’s firstborn because the other nations are also God’s children and they, too, will help realize the ultimate goals of humanity (commentary on Shemot 4:22).


            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 one’s origins, anyone can join the Jewish mission and destiny.  “In God’s 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. Hirsch’s lifework and, indeed, he has much too say about this topic, it seems fitting to conclude with some thoughts about R. Hirsch’s approach to general wisdom.  In the course of this presentation, I shall counter two mistaken understandings of R. Hirsch’s views.


One well-known 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. Hirsch’s 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. 156)


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.[8]  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.


            Additionally, R. 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 Schiller’s 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).


            Furthermore, R. 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.[9]  When we think of the yeshiva students in Eastern Europe who abandoned the tradition upon encountering Western culture, we can appreciate R. Hirsch’s argument.


            In a number of articles, Prof. Yehuda (Leo) Levi has argued that R. Hirsch endorsed study of science and history but not the broader world of Western humanities.[10]  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 Schiller’s writings.  Could we imagine a Rosh Yeshiva from Volozhin or Slobodka going on for fourteen pages about Schiller’s greatness?[11]


            One final quote about the value of world literature should close this debate:


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. 219)


As we have seen, R. Hirsch 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 eminence. 


[1] Mordechai Breuer, “Samson Raphael Hirsch and Modern Orthodoxy,” Niv Hamidrashia 1993, pp. 31-42.

[2] See R. S. R. Hirsch, Collected Writings, vol. 8 (New York: Feldheim, 1997), pp. 110-111.

[3] The letters were prepared for publication by Mordechai Breuer and appear in Hama’ayan Tevet 5736, pp. 1-16.

[4] Collected Writings, vol. 8, pp. 83-136.

[5]  Ibid., p. 135.

[6] Collected Writings, vol. 4 (NY: Feldheim, 1986), pp. 23-24.

[7] Judaism Eternal, vol. 2, p. 219.

[8] Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, pp. 163, 206; Judaism Eternal, vol. 2, p. 235.

[9] Judaism Eternal, vol. 1, p. 171; Collected Writings, vol. 8, p. 322.

[10] See his “Ha-Rashar Hirsch Ke-moreh Derekh Le-dorenuShana Be-shana 5753, pp. 421-432 and “She’ela Be-inyan Limmud Chohkmot ChitzoniyotHama’ayan 5768, pp. 35-42.

[11] Heretofore, this address has only been available in the original German.  Prof. Marc Shapiro has done the Jewish community a significant service by translating this address.  His translation will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Torah U-Madda Journal. I thank Prof. Shapiro for providing me with a pre-publication copy.  

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