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.