web analytics
March 6, 2015 / 15 Adar , 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Dynamic Orthodoxy

Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch

Recently I stumbled on an article written by Professor Mordechai Breuer in an old issue of Hamaayan (Tammuz 1999) about Orthodoxy in the 19th century. Much of what we “know,” in retrospect, turns out to be false, including the provenance of the term Orthodox.

Conventional wisdom teaches that the term was applied to religious Jews by our ideological foes and was meant pejoratively. In fact, Prof. Breuer demonstrates, the term was first used by the German theologian Johann David Michaelis as a friendly reference to Moses Mendelsohn, who then began using the term in his writings about Jewish life. The expression, meaning “correct belief,” has defined Torah Jewry for at least 150 years.

What was especially fascinating about Prof. Breuer’s article was the description of the efforts made by rabbis in the early 19th century to accommodate the nascent Reform movement so as to avert a schism in the Jewish people. Innovations were made and deviations were accepted, all for the greater good, though in fact not in major areas of halacha.

For example, no less an authority than Rav Yaakov Etlinger conducted bat mitzvot in his shul, and Rav Natan Adler of Hanover (later chief rabbi of the British Empire) told anxious questioners to obey a new German edict that prohibited Jews from burying their dead until 48 hours after death. Confirmed Orthodox rabbis – like Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch – wore ceremonial robes and preached in German, certainly to the horror of Eastern European rabbis.

One reason for the openness was that all rabbis (except the Chatam Sofer) supported the Emancipation and knew the fall of the ghetto walls would offer both risks and opportunities. They tried to present a more modern face to Torah and thereby keep less observant but nominally “Orthodox” Jews in the fold as well as those leaning toward Reform. Unfortunately, these efforts were abandoned after Reform leaders held a conference at Braunschweig in 1844 and renounced fundamental principles of Judaism, giving up any pretense of adherence to tradition.

Nonetheless, the innovations in Orthodoxy in the 1800s puts paid to the notion that the Torah world is frozen, frigid, unresponsive and archaic, all criticisms one still hears today from people who find fault with the Torah and desire to conform its laws to the times. Prof. Breuer counts at least eight innovations or movements that transformed Orthodoxy in the 19th century, and most of them are still influential today.

Chassidut, which technically arose in the 18th century, was perfectly placed to retain the allegiance of Jews who were not drawn to the study of Torah and provided a powerful emotional hook to lure Jews who would otherwise stray.

The yeshiva movement, started by Rav Chaim Volozhin in 1804, revolutionized the study of Torah. It was originally a counterforce to chassidut but made Talmud Torah into a national project and desideratum (rather than just a local matter) and inspired many imitators across Europe.

The Mussar movement of Rav Yisrael Salanter endeavored to permeate Jewish life with ethical sensitivity in a systemized way. The study of ethics became a routine feature in many yeshivot.

Torah and Derech Eretz of Rav Hirsch was designed to make the modern world less frightening to the Jew. He taught and inspired generations that one can be a faithful Jew and part of the modern world.

Formal rabbinical training was unknown before the 19th century. Spiritual leaders simply learned Torah and were sent to communities. The German rabbinate – credit here Rav Azriel Hildesheimer – pioneered the rabbinical seminary in which students would learn Torah and general knowledge, and acquire the skills necessary for leadership.

Scientific study of Jewish subjects, a matter fraught with danger, also attracted its share of religious proponents, as Jews for the first time began attending university in large numbers. Additionally, professions historically limited to Jews like law, medicine, and engineering now provided avenues out of the poverty in which most Jews were forced to live.

The land of Israel was reborn to Jews in the 19th century and at first was primarily a religious movement. Disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov made aliyah in the early 1800s, and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer already in 1840 exhorted Jews to return to Israel.

Women’s Torah education began in the 19th century in Germany, not, as is widely assumed, with the Beis Yaakov movement in 1917 Krakow. The advent of mandatory education for both boys and girls necessitated this change, which revolutionized Jewish life as well.

It turns out that the 19th century was hardly a time of stagnation for Jews but rather an era of immense vibrancy and growth.

And if one thinks Orthodoxy has become dormant since, consider some of the great successes of the Torah world in the past 100 years. Certainly a more educated laity is at the top of the list, followed by the prominence of Orthodox Jews in every profession and endeavor, and the gradual permeation of the ethos of Torah in Israel, including the development of the Orthodox soldier (the scholar-warrior), something not widely seen in Jewish life for almost two millennia.

It is certainly through God’s Hand that the Torah has been rejuvenated and the Am Hashem is again dynamic. Our obligation as always is to anticipate the challenges of the future, craft appropriate responses, and glorify the Creator, His Torah and His people.

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and author, most recently, of “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2014). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Dynamic Orthodoxy”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, calling for rejection of a bad nuclear deal with Iran, on March 03, 2015.
Post-Bibi Bipartisanship May Result in Congressional Ability to Review Iran Deal
Latest Indepth Stories
Ron Prosor

Values at the very heart of the UN are threatened by extremist ideologies targeting our way of life

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Anti-Semitism today focuses on Israel and the quest to delegitimize it.

Ballots for elections "made in Samaria."

Any Jew who ties his fate to Israel should be able to vote in Israel’s elections-even before aliyah

A young Moshe Meir Weiss introduces his mother, Mrs. Agnes Weiss Goldman, to Rav Moshe in 1979.

There were no airs about him. Rav Moshe was affectionately known as the Gaon of Normalcy.

Israel’s full sovereignty over a united Jerusalem is the only path for true peace in the region.

Just like Moses and Aaron, Mordechai decides to ruin the party…

The president has made clear – I can’t state this more firmly – the policy is Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

Obama has an apparent inability to understand Islam in particular and Mid-East culture in general

Pesach is a Torah-based holiday whose fundamental observances are rooted in Torah law; Purim is a rabbinic holiday whose laws and customs are grounded in the rabbinic tradition.

In honor of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s successful speech before Congress.

Mr. Spock conveys a message with painfully stark relevance to our world today, especially in the context of PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Obama created the “partisan politics” by asking Dem. party members to avoid Bibi and his address

Enough is enough. The Jewish community has a big tent, but the NIF should have no place in it.

I vote for the right and get left-wing policy. Every. Frigging. Time.

More Articles from Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Pruzansky-Steven-NEW

Pesach is a Torah-based holiday whose fundamental observances are rooted in Torah law; Purim is a rabbinic holiday whose laws and customs are grounded in the rabbinic tradition.

Torah-Hakehillah-121914

The travail of Yosef was undoubtedly the greatest trauma of Yaakov’s life, which certainly knew its share of hardships.

The brilliance of Yaakov’s approach – and by extension, any type of individual or group effort – is that it appealed to three different modes of salvation.

There is a certain unwordliness to the pope’s call for a two-state solution, an obliviousness to the reality on the ground.

One can’t only take; one must give as well. Giving – not taking – is the essence of the righteous person.

Much of what we know about 19th century Orthodoxy is false, including the provenance of the term Orthodox.

A president who today used the language of FDR or JFK would be derided. If he were a candidate, the media elites would bury his chances of winning the election. He would be a laughing stock to the aimless young people whose uninformed opinions on public affairs seem to matter more than they should.

With the constant drumbeat of articles about “Orthodox” female rabbis appearing in the media almost weekly – essentially the same articles making the same points to the same eager audience, all to make the phenomenon of such “rabbis” seem commonplace – it is important to take a step back and examine how we arrived at this destination.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/dynamic-orthodoxy/2014/01/16/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: