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Humanity, Liberty, Rationality: A Review of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Volume IX


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Looking for inspiration? Read Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. This is my general rule of thumb, which is why I was thrilled when the ninth (and presumably last) volume of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Feldheim Publishers) came out a few weeks ago.

The two speeches that I had been told would appear in this new volume – one celebrating the 100th birthday of the German poet Friedrich Schiller and another glorifying the ideals of the French Revolution – did not disappoint. Indeed, they only reinforced my belief that Rav Hirsch is truly unique among the pantheon of rabbinic greats.

One of the themes in Rav Hirsch’s writings that has always struck me is his universalism – mainly because it runs so counter to the prevailing parochialism in many contemporary Orthodox communities. Take, for example, the recent open letter signed by a number of prominent rabbis in advance of the Internet Asifa. In it, they declare that the world revolves around the Jews and therefore theorize that the Internet only entered world history to test the Jewish people’s moral character. What about the rest of the world? Are these rabbis really suggesting that an Internet that affects billions of lives only appeared on planet earth as a moral test for one million Orthodox Jews? Apparently they are.

Rav Hirsch’s writings could not stand in greater contrast to this sentiment. “The God of Jewish Teaching is the universal God,” writes Rav Hirsch in an essay in this new volume. God’s covenant with our forefathers was “only for the benefit of all of mankind” (emphases in original). In The Nineteen Letters Rav Hirsch even argues that the “universal acceptance of the brotherhood of mankind [is the Jewish people’s] ultimate goal.”

Rav Hirsch’s ode to Friedrich Schiller is filled with the same universalistic spirit. “[E]nlightenment and…moral civilization,” he says, “are intended to be the heritage of all to whom God has given breath on earth. It is the seedling of this heritage that God has planted into the hearts of mortals, and the purpose of Judaism is to be the sunshine that will cause these seedlings to ripen.”

Rav Hirsch lauds Schiller, a “sublime flower enveloped in an earthly husk,” since his poetry contained ideas that “are now increasingly germinating in mankind’s breast, where they will eventually complete the enlightenment and ennoblement of all humanity.” According to Rav Hirsch,

anyone who emerges in the midst of mankind as a herald who knows how to employ the gift of poetry to inspire the human mind with enthusiasm for all that is pure and true and godly, anyone who knows how to make man proud to be human and to enable him to recognize his God in every breath of his existence, anyone who can snatch man from the dust to have him stand upright in all his dignity and nobility, is, in the view of Judaism, a messenger of God on earth….

I quote Rav Hirsch at such length not only because his rhetoric is so beautiful, but because the universalist strain running through these sentences is truly remarkable. Would that contemporary Orthodox Jews thought of non-Jews in such lofty terms!

Rav Hirsch’s glorification of liberty in another speech appearing in this new volume – delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig – is no less amazing. Many contemporary Orthodox Jews speak fondly of the “good-old days” in Europe when Jews lived in shtetls and ghettos, shielded from the allures of the outside world. They believe freedom’s advance in Europe destroyed an idyllic ideal. They essentially share the perspective of the Baal HaTanya who prayed in 1812 that Czar Alexander I defeat Napoleon, fearing the freedom and concomitant spiritual dangers that a French victory would bring.

Once again, Rav Hirsch could not stand in greater contrast. To be sure, Rav Hirsch was not blind to freedom’s hazards and writes in The Nineteen Letters that he cannot welcome freedom if the abandonment of Judaism is its price.

Nonetheless, freedom, qua freedom, is an unmitigated blessing in Rav Hirsch’s view – “a triumph of Divine justice” – and the French Revolution, which unleashed liberty on Europe, “was one of those moments when God visibly entered history” (emphasis in original). In that year, 1789, “with a light that the world had not previously seen, and with a victorious power hitherto never experienced, the sense of justice triumphantly entered into the minds of men.”

Rav Hirsch did not regard the ghetto as an ideal. In an essay printed elsewhere in the Collected Writings, Rav Hirsch writes: “If in recent centuries German Jews remained more or less aloof from European civilization the fault lay not in their religion but in the tyranny which confined them by force within the walls of their ghettoes and denied them intercourse with the outside world.” Yes, freedom comes with risks, but, as Rav Hirsch writes in another essay, where “religion is truly present, it will find expression, especially in the sunshine of freedom.”

The speeches on Schiller and liberty alone would make this volume a worthwhile buy, but perhaps even more important than both of these items are two letters by Rav Hirsch on the nature of aggadata. In them, Rav Hirsch declares unequivocally that “aggadic statements do not have Sinaitic origin,” that “they reflect the independent views of individual Sages,” and that “it is not mandatory for a Jew” to accept them.

These assertions should not raise eyebrows. The Rambam already declared 850 years ago that Chazal’s scientific knowledge did not stem from Sinai and can often be incorrect. The same Rambam also argues that many midrashim are allegorical – not historical – while the Ibn Ezra famously rejects midrashim that he finds ridiculous. Perhaps the most succinct formulation of this school of thought is that of Rav Shmuel Hanagid (11th century): “Aggadah comprises any comment occurring in the Talmud on any topic which is not a commandment, and one should not derive from it more than what is reasonable.”

And yet, this view – held by so many Torah authorities throughout Jewish history – is considered semi-heretical nowadays. Indeed, it led to the banning of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s books in 2005. Rav Hirsch, however, not only declares this position perfectly acceptable; he even states that teaching it is essential. “[W]e have a duty to inform [our pupils] of this [view], lest they come to think that it is part of Jewish doctrine to believe literally every exaggerated statement found in the aggadic literature and that whoever does not believe this is a heretic, God forbid.”

I cannot say enough about the importance of these two letters. Comprising 17 pages, they are a veritable treasure, and a model of rationality and reason.

No doubt, even with the appearance of this volume, many right-wing Jews will continue to claim Rav Hirsch was essentially a typical black-hat rabbi who only pretended to embrace culture and modernity so that German Jews would remain Orthodox. No doubt, they will continue to argue that Rav Hirsch only propagated his Torah im Derech Eretz ideal as an emergency measure to salvage Judaism in Germany.

Alas, to quote Rav Hirsch, “Nothing is more clever, nothing can deny better or is more all-knowing than ignorance.”

Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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