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Proud To Be A Hirschian

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“I don’t care what group you identify with, as long as you are ashamed of it.” There is much wisdom in the throwaway line with which Dennis Prager frequently challenges audiences to admit to the flaws of the groups with which they identify.

Of the many labels that doggedly pursue me, there is only one that I am not ashamed of at all. I am a Hirschian, and proud of it without reservation. I believe this vision for living a Torah life is at least as viable today as when it was first described, if not more so.

It took me decades to realize this, and years more to openly embrace it in a community sometimes hostile to its implications. Today, I can think of no more honorable distinction than to be considered a follower of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (RSRH), zt”l.

The bicentennial of the birth of RSRH brought many tributes, though with much hedging. Some accolades focused on the past, on the people and personalities across the length and breadth of the Torah landscape who were influenced by his writings many decades ago, and how that influence ramified into the present. Others spoke of the delight they take in his commentary to Torah. Some conceded that the program of Torah Im Derech Eretz was still relevant to some people, but implied that they were a dwindling bunch. Few were willing to shout from the rooftops that RSRH’s description of the aims and goals of the Torah personality is as vital and fresh today as ever.

I do not understand the hesitation. “Still relevant” is a wussy understatement. To many of us, RSRH has no peer in giving voice to the way we understand our role as Torah Jews, and how Torah works in helping us better ourselves and the world.

Lost its relevance? All those I know who have studied RSRH seriously are struck by how much more relevant his thought is today than when he committed it to paper a century and a half ago. He anticipated issues and problems that were of some concern in his day, but became even more important in the generations that followed. If his thought hasn’t kindled the hearts of some in our community who eagerly seek direction and purpose in their avodah, it is only because they have not been exposed to it.

I reject the notion that his hashkafa cannot be implemented without someone of his stature here to guide us. Every hashkafa, bar none, can be (and has been) misapplied.  Every hashkafa requires guidance by accomplished Torah personalities. There are no easy or safe ways to avoid perverting the intent of a valid hashkafa. Hashem gives us the guidance we need in every generation. Among contemporary luminaries are those who may not call themselves Hirschian but are not hostile to the yearnings and aspirations of the Hirschian personality.

I am a Hirschian (at least in my own non-authoritative and perhaps highly personal way of understanding the term) for all of the following reasons.

In three decades of trying to explain Torah Judaism to brighter frum students, to non-frum skeptics, and to non-Jews, the works of no other thinker have been as valuable as those of RSRH in explaining the overall telos of Torah life. Without Ramchal and Maharal, I could not explain the Torah universe; without RSRH, I cannot convey the individual.

Only in the works of RSRH are major themes of modernity – free will vs. scientific materialism; nationalism; universalism; sensuality; the esthetic; totalitarianism – not only discussed, but shown to be focal points of the Torah’s instruction.

I have observed colleagues in the world of kiruv and in the frum classroom put a damper on the asking of difficult questions. I have seen the catastrophic consequences of such suppression. It is sourced in a mixture of discomfort and impotence in not having answers to give, and basic insecurity. Neither need exist in the Hirschian, who has been energized by the boundless enthusiasm of RSRH for Torah’s ability to stand up to any challenge at all.

I have seen the vision of RSRH ignite the souls of master teachers, starting with my great mentor, Rav Nachman Bulman, zt”l. Inspired by them, I have always encouraged my students to ask questions, and tried to do my best to address them. I believe they are the stronger for it.

Major sections of Torah literature simply have no consistent, systematized approach outside the writings of RSRH. I have hundreds and hundreds of beautiful vertlach and longer insights on Chumash Vayikra, but no one besides RSRH takes all the details of the mishkan, all details of every korban, and combines them in a unified whole.

For people like myself who are frequently challenged by others, sometimes smirky and sometimes sincere, to make sense out of individual sections of the Torah, no one comes close to RSRH. Whether to believer or agnostic, RSRH’s approach to symbolism in particular almost never fails to elicit interest and spark thought and begrudging admiration in all but the most cynical critics.

Most important, many of us somehow sense within our souls that the world as a whole is a beautiful place. We believe that many people we meet outside our community live lives of value and integrity, and desperately attempt to connect with God. They have a role to play, and Hashem has a message for them. We believe that the trajectory of human civilization has been, on the whole , in a forward direction, rather than the reverse, despite many setbacks and disappointments.

We believe that there are truths to be discovered (the yesh chochmah bagoyim of the Gemara) by exposure to general culture. We reject the notion that beyond the perimeters of our community is a vast cesspool. There is much depravity, to be sure, but there is also much good. We are grateful to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for having given us a Torah that provides us with the tools to make the proper selection. We have discerned in our own lives that the Torah has much to offer the rest of humanity, not just with the advent of Mashiach, but even today.

We also fully believe that Torah can and must illuminate every (permissible) nook and cranny of the planet, that there is a way to be a Torah attorney, a Torah carpenter, a Torah journalist, a Torah politician. These are not bedieveds, but for the right people, lechatchilas, each according to his or her God-given talents. We find no one who writes as much and as convincingly about the mandate for Torah Jews to take Torah everywhere as does RSRH.

Lastly, we find ourselves in a Torah world that increasingly opts for limitation, which sees restriction and a narrowing of creativity, individuality and worldview as the best way to avoid problems. For many of us, this does not and cannot work. We are buoyed by the great vision of RSRH and reminded that Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, said that Torah Im Derech Eretz “means the Torah’s conquest of life and not the Torah’s flight from life. It means the Torah’s casting a light into the darkness rather than hiding from the darkness. It means applying Torah to the earth and not divorcing it from the earth.”

There are thousands upon thousands for whom all of these are apparent truths. Whether they recognize it or not, their lives and values are consistent with what RSRH had in mind for us.

Now as never before, I am proud to be a Hirschian.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.

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