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Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) is a household name today in virtually all of Orthodox Jewish society. His writings are republished almost every year and his books can be found in Judaica stores across the U.S., Europe, and Israel in communities spanning the Orthodox spectrum.

Few contemporary Jewish leaders or institutions, however, explicitly claim Rav Hirsch as their moreh derech. Parts of his all-encompassing worldview – advanced during a time of unprecedented challenge in the 19th century – have been adopted by various communities, but few adopt his weltanschauung in its entirety. In this essay, I will trace the origin of Rav Hirsch’s ideas and indicate how they’ve impacted – often quite dramatically – the course of both Modern Orthodoxy and Charedi society.



I. Intellectual Orientation

Samson Raphael Hirsch was born in 1808 in Hamburg. Ten years later, the first truly successful Reform Temple opened. The Hamburg rabbinate galvanized opposition to the halachic deviancies promoted by the Temple’s leaders and soon a new chief rabbi was hired, Chacham Isaac Bernays (1792-1849) – a master, not only of Tanach, Gemara, and poskim, but of medieval Jewish philosophy, world history, and German philosophy.

Chacham Bernays was the first formidable intellectual mentor of the young Hirsch. When Hirsch decided to pursue a career in the rabbinate to combat the Reform movement, it was Chacham Bernays who recommended that he attend the yeshiva of Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (1798-1871) – the foremost Talmudist in Germany at the time and famous today as the author of the Aruch LaNer. Rav Hirsch received semicha from Rav Ettlinger after nearly a year and a half of studies and then attended the University of Bonn for a year where he studied, among other topics, classical languages, literature, and experimental physics.


II. Published Works

During this time, Rav Hirsch became chief rabbi of the German state of Oldenburg where he published his two earliest works, The Nineteen Letters and Horeb. Uniquely, these two works were written in German and in a style that was accessible to the average reader. Instead of attacking the non-observant, Hirsch presents – in the first of the 19 letters – the point of view of a young German Jew who had abandoned religious observance after being exposed to the modern world. He then proceeds to respond to each one of his critiques in the subsequent 18 letters.

Rav Hirsch stresses the essentially rational character of Judaism and its relevance for the modern world. Not only is traditional (Orthodox) Judaism not antiquated, he argues, but only this form of Judaism can provide answers to modern sociological, political, and cultural challenges. Rav Hirsch also insists that Judaism does not demand the seclusion of its adherents. Quite the contrary. “The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will his views and aspirations be, the less aloof will he be from anything that is noble and good, true and upright, in art or science, in culture or education,” declares Hirsch in a later essay.

Rav Hirsch further developed his ideas in his monumental Chumash commentary, published between 1867-1878, his journal Jeschurun (which he established in 1854 and whose essays comprise the bulk of Hirsch’s nine-volume Collected Writings), his commentary to Tehillim (1882) and the Siddur (posthumously published in 1896), as well as essays on Mishlei, halachic responsa, and personal correspondence.


III. Ideology

The slogan most famously associated with Rav Hirsch is Torah im Derekh Eretz. What Rav Hirsch meant by these words is that the Torah is not inherently connected to any one particular culture or civilization. It is meant to impress meaning upon any culture in which Jews live. Thus, there is no need for self-imposed ghettos, in the view of Rav Hirsch, since ghettos represent a retreat from the present form of culture. Instead of retreating, Rav Hirsch called upon Jews to actively participate in the culture but to insist on the Torah’s absolute authority to determine which aspects of it may be embraced by Jews and which must be rejected.

Rav Hirsch was a master pedagogue and saw to it that his educational ideals were realized. He established schools in Frankfurt for both boys and girls (in separate classes past the younger grades) that taught both religious and secular subjects. These schools were innovative for two reasons: 1) secular subjects were part of the curriculum and 2) they taught girls.

As early as the 1830s, when Rav Hirsch wrote Horeb – which he dedicated to “the thinking young men and women of Israel” (the first work by a rabbinic luminary to have such a dedication) – he had called for the systematic education of Jewish girls. He maintained they should be taught most of the same subjects as boys, with the exception of Gemara and mathematics. In Rav Hirsch’s words: “people forget that Chana and Devora most certainly understood Chana’s prayer and Devora’s song!” (letter from Rav Hirsch to Rav Eliezer Liepman Prins, published in Liepman Philip Prins: His Scholarly Correspondence [Ktav], p. 37).

Well before Sarah Schenirer, who was directly influenced by Rav Hirsch, the great gadol in Frankfurt declared that it is essential to sway the hearts of our daughters by “teaching them to draw spiritual nourishment from the original sources, to prefer on their own Isaiah and Amos to Goethe and Shakespeare…. If you wish to provide for your future, do not forget your daughters!” he wrote (ibid.).

Torah im Derech Eretz is related to two other ideals or principles that Rav Hirsch consistently taught: Mensch-Yisrael and Austritt. The former posits that Jewish identity builds upon human identity rather than eviscerating it. Rav Hirsch noted that Avraham Avinu was commanded to circumcise himself only at the age of 99, after an entire life as an “ordinary” human already behind him.

Why was that? Rav Hirsch explains in his Chumash commentary that this “late” command is intended to impress upon us the falsehood of two ideas. The first, the view of Jewish Reformers, maintains that Jewish identity and human identity are identical; to be a good Jew simply requires that we be good humans. The second, the view of some Orthodox Jews, posits that being Jewish is a substitute for being human; qualities that are expected of civilized human beings need not necessarily be expected of Jews since being Jewish means to transcend human identity – that Jews are a different species altogether.

By commanding Avraham to adopt the distinctive sign of Jewishness only after having spent 99 years perfecting his purely human qualities, G-d was implicitly telling Avraham that his additional Jewish responsibilities were intended to ennoble his human character and create the most elevated and lofty human being possible, the Jew. Thus, the Jew must, for example, commiserate with human suffering of any kind and Jews must consistently show a concern for the wellbeing of their fellow human beings.

Torah im Derech Eretz and Mensch-Yisrael have influenced Modern Orthodox Jews to a greater degree than Charedi Jews. In many Charedi communities, cultural segregation is considered the ideal and Jewish empathy for non-Jewish suffering is generally not stressed.

Another idea of Rav Hirsch, though, has been widely embraced in the Charedi community and is generally rejected in Modern Orthodox communities: Austritt. This German term refers to secession from communities whose majority is Reform and thus are under this movement’s auspices. In the mid-19th century, German law only recognized one organization representing each religion in each city. Thus, there was one Catholic Church and one Jewish kehillah in Frankfurt. Once the kehillah came under Reform domination over the course of the 1830s and 1840s, Orthodox Jews who resided in Frankfurt were compelled to contribute to the maintenance of the Reform institutions. Rav Hirsch regarded this state of affairs as unconscionable.

In 1873, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck enabled a law that allowed non-conformist Christians to secede from the church of their communities without renouncing membership in their religious denomination. Rav Hirsch lobbied the Prussian parliament intensively to pass a similar law for Jews and, in July 1876, it did so.

Rav Hirsch’s Austritt campaign was supported by other stalwarts of Orthodoxy in Germany such as Rav Dr. Esriel Hildesheimer of Berlin (1820-1899) and Rav Dr. Meir (Marcus) Lehmann of Mainz (1831-1890). When Rav Hirsch wrote an open letter to Rav Yitzhak Dov Bamberger of Wurzburg (1807-1878) stressing the halachic necessity of seceding from the official Frankfurt kehillah, Rav Hildesheimer wrote that it was “so superbly structured and so irrefutable that the greatest Talmudic sage could not have expressed it better” (cited in Matthias Morgenstern, From Frankfurt to Jerusalem [Brill Academic Publishers], p. 153).

Rav Hirsch’s insistence on independent Orthodoxy led him to found an organization called the Free Union for the Interests of Orthodox Judaism in 1885. This organization became the bedrock of the Agudat Yisrael organization founded by Rav Hirsch’s disciples and descendants in the early years of the 20th century.

His son-in-law, Rav Dr. Salomon Breuer (1850-1926), was one of its founders, and he refused to follow the lead of Mizrachi, which was willing to work together with secular Zionists within the framework of the World Zionist Organization. Rav Breuer and Rav Hirsch’s disciple, R. Yaakov Rosenheim (1870-1965), believed that Orthodoxy must assert its position independently of Jewish groups that do not accept the Divine and eternally-binding character of Torah.

This attitude has crystalized into the position of contemporary charedi Orthodoxy, whereas the Modern Orthodox community generally believes in working together with non-Orthodox groups – even if only on a limited level – to achieve common goals, a position championed by, among others, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).


IV. Legacy

Rav Hirsch’s greatest impact on Orthodox Judaism is not limited to any particular group. Prior to the publication of The Nineteen Letters, rabbis had rarely published in the vernacular language (utilizing the characters of its alphabet) and generally did not write for a lay readership. Furthermore, since the Middle Ages, European rabbis had rarely grappled with contemporary intellectual currents in their writings.

Rav Hirsch did both, and the Orthodox world of the 21st century is indebted to the path he charted. Today it is taken for granted that many Orthodox rabbis are university-trained and can address contemporary issues in English. This approach – now the norm throughout much of the Orthodox world – was pioneered by Rav Hirsch.

Jewish schools now routinely teach general subjects to their students as well. That norm, too, is in large part thanks to Rav Hirsch. And as for the education of Jewish women, Sarah Schenirer told Dr. Isaac Breuer (a grandson of Rav Hirsch) that she founded the Bais Yaakov movement due to the writings of Rav Hirsch, particularly his stress on educating girls (Isaac Breuer, Moriah, p. 148). All subsequent developments in the field of Jewish women’s education are built upon the achievements of that movement.

Thus, whether acknowledged or not, 130 years after his passing, the impact of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on the Orthodox world is immeasurable.