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Rav Hirsch did not condemn everything found in the surrounding culture. In an essay entitled “Religious Education” he writes,
Our children need not forego the benefits of a worthwhile secular education; they need not sacrifice opportunities for the study of the arts and sciences in order to obtain all the treasures of truth and wisdom that Judaism holds for their lives. If both studies are nurtured hand in hand, there will be ample room for both; the one will reinforce the other and the result will be a Jewish education that will find favor in the eyes of both God and man.
Of course, problems are bound to arise if your children receive the main part of their education at non-Jewish or (what is even more detrimental) at un-Jewish* institutions where the Jewish element in the curriculum is at best ignored or, as is mostly the case, presented from a distorted non-Jewish or un-Jewish vantage point. (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Volume VII, page 21.)
Insight into the basis for Rav Hirsch’s approach may perhaps be gained from the following:
The realm of Jewish learning is not insular, remote from nature, from history, from the world and from the realities of life. On the contrary, it calls upon its disciples to study the heavens and the earth, to reflect on the connections that link the events and developments of history, to take an active part in every phase of physical, intellectual, moral and social life, and to gain the clearest, sharpest possible insight into all things and their relationship to one another. Moreover, consider that Hebrew, the language of the sacred literature of Judaism, because of the simple construction of its roots and forms, is singularly suited, as hardly any other, to stimulate and develop the powers of the human intellect and the aptitude for languages. As a consequence, Jewish learning can relate to every field of secular studies, helping and furthering their aims even as, in turn, it may look to secular learning for help and furtherance.
And so these two areas of learning do not hamper one another, are not mutually detrimental. Rather, they can strengthen and reinforce one another in such a manner that the lofty goal toward which we strive in the education of our young can be promoted and achieved in the framework of normal school hours, without subjecting our young students to undue mental strain. And what is that goal? It is to educate our children to satisfy all the just demands that will be placed upon them by the age in which they live, on the one hand, and by Judaism, on the other. Equipped with the best of all truly humanistic training and guided by the Jewish Law of God and the heritage of our Sages that will constantly give them new strength, light, counsel, admonition and inspiration, they will be able to meet the challenges that life will hold for them. (Collected Writings VII, pages 24-25.)
Rav Hirsch indicated how we should view the gentile world:
The Jew knows that the good and righteous men among nations are working alongside him to build the Kingdom of God on earth. He also knows that the best seeds of the Jewish spirit have been implanted and taken root not only to rescue mankind from heathendom more than two thousand years ago but for the benefit of manifold areas of human endeavor. And then the Jew is heartened to develop all his energies in the service of God. He welcomes each new truth as a valuable contribution to the ever more penetrating revelation of God in nature and history. In each new art form, in each new science he sees a welcome addition to the means for perfecting the service and worship of God.Hence the Jew will not be opposed to any science, any art form, any culture that is truly ethical, truly moral, truly contributing to the welfare and progress of man. He will measure everything by the eternally inviolable yardstick of the teachings of his God. Nothing will exist for him that cannot stand up before the Divine Will. The more firmly he stands on the rock of his Judaism, the more conscious he becomes of his Jewish destiny, the more he will be inclined to accept and gratefully absorb all knowledge, wherever he will find it.
Never at any time will the Jew sacrifice one iota of his Judaism, at no time will he bring his Judaism in conformity with the times. But he will gladly accept all values that his time will have to offer as long as they conform with the spirit of Judaism. In every age he will regard it as his task to evaluate the time and its conditions from the Jewish viewpoint in order to develop the spirit of his “old” Judaism to ever-fresh vitality, applying the new means produced by every age, with the new circumstances created by every period of history. Thus, with ever-renewed faith and devotion, he will be fully equal to the great tasks of his beloved Judaism. (Collected Writings VIII, pages 9-10.)
Bottom line:Just because something is Jewish doesn’t make it kosher, and not everything gentile is to be considered treif.
Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His regular column, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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