Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Progenitor of Modern Orthodoxy

There is a fascinating post on Hirhurim by Rabbi Gil Student that asks the question: Was Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch Modern Orthodox?

Although I am pretty familiar with the Hashkafos of Rav Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) and Austritt (which basically advises that Orthodox Jews leave the wider Jewish community when its leaders are anti Orthodox) I am certainly no expert in it.

Suffice it to say Rav Hirsch was a firm believer in studying Torah and Mada as an integral part of being a more educated Jew and therefore better Jew.

But do his views really make him modern Orthodox? I think Modern Orthodoxy must first be defined. It is a term that is defined differently by various segments of Orthodoxy. The following is my definition.

The word Orthodox implies that one is observant and follows Halacha. This does not necessarily mean that an Orthodox Jew follows every Halacha. It just means acknowledging that a Jew is supposed to follow it.

An Orthodox Jew tries to the best of his ability to fulfill all of the Mitzvos but does not always succeed. In fact there may be areas where any given individual Orthodox Jew is in constant failure to follow one Halacha or another. But as long as he realizes that he is indeed failing and does not do it Lehachis – in defiance of God – then he is still Orthodox.

There are however three major Mitzvos that a Jew must follow which have traditionally been used to define an Orthodox Jew. If he doesn’t follow them he cannot really be considered Orthodox. These Mitzvos are: 1) Shabbos, 2) Kashrus, and 3) Taharas HaMishpacha - observing Shabbos, keeping Kosher and keeping the family purity law (e.g. a married woman using the Mikva). Although there are other factors involved pertaining to belief (as in the 13 Ikkarim of the Rambam) as it pertains to one's actions those are the three defining Mitzvos of an Orthodox Jew.

This definition applies to Orthodoxy at all levels - from the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy to the extreme right of Charedism.

The word modern means that one accepts modernity and engages in it both academically and as a legitimate lifestyle choice. Combined with the word Orthodox one must add the following condition - as long as there is no conflict in Halacha.

Modern Orthodoxy then includes both right wing and left wing modern Orthodox Jews. The differences between these two ends of the MO spectrum is more Hashkafic than Halachic.

Charedi Hashkafos do not see any positive value at all in modernity (even when it does not contradict Halacha) unless it relates to health or Parnassa. Otherwise engaging in it is frowned upon and strongly discouraged.

Where does this place Rav Hirsch? Let us examine some of the descriptions of him mentioned by R’Gil (based on an article by Rav Yitzchak Blau):

R. Hirsch occasionally exhibited some unusual practices, such as wearing canonicals adopted by Christian and non-Orthodox clergy, enforcing limitations on head coverings (link) and removing Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy

I can’t imagine any Orthodox Rav doing any of these today.

Quoting Rav Blau, R’ Gil mentions two things about Rav Hirsch that are decidedly not Modern Orthodox:

1. Non- (or anti-)Zionism

2. Separation from the non-Orthodox community (Austritt)

But there are six things about Rav Hirsch pointed out by Rav Blau that are decidedly modern Orthodox:

1. Analyzing biblical characters as great but flawed human beings

2. Considering the legends of the Talmud (aggados) to be non-binding

3. Asserting that the science of the talmudic sages was occasionally incorrect

4. Encouraging women’s intellectual development

5. Embracing a Universalist belief in the spiritual value of all people regardless of race, sex, nationality or religion

6. Believing in the inherent value in secular studies, including the liberal arts

I was not aware that all of these six items were part of Rav Hirsch’s Hashkafos. I was aware of the final 2 items but not the first 4. But I will take Rav Blau and R’ Gils word for it.

In any case these are all controversial beliefs in our own time. R’ Gil points out (as have I many times in the past) - Charedi leaders have tried mightily (and have partially succeeded) in revising these beliefs out of Rav Hirsch’s Hashkafa. They want to make Rav Hirsch Charedi and his Hashkafos of TIDE nothing more than Charedi Hashkafos with German Minhagim. Ascribing to Rav Hirsch any of those six beliefs as a L’Chatchila is denied and seen only as a B’dieaved - a necessary concession to the enlightenment spirit of the times – a B’dieved that no longer applies today.

But those who have studied Rav Hirsch in depth know the truth. It is all in his writings.

So what was Rav Hirsch in the end? Was he the prototype for today’s modern Orthodoxy? R’ Gil concludes that he was somewhere in between Charedi and modern Orthodox. My own view is a bit more complex.

Using the information supplied by R’ Gil, I would have to say that Rav Hirsch was very unique and not quite ‘peg-able’. His controversial views about wearing canonicals adopted by Christian and non-Orthodox clergy and removing Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy seems to almost take him out of Orthtodoxy itself. Forget about modern.

On the other hand his views about Austritt and Zionism of even the religious kind would put him squarely on the Charedi side of those issues. But the six items at the bottom of those lists are clearly modern Orthodox views.

But as ‘unpeggable’ as he is, in my view he is in fact the true progenitor of modern Orthodoxy despite his apparent discord with respect to some Charedi and some Modern Orthodox practices and beliefs.

He may not exactly fit the mold but those six points are a virtual textbook of Modern Orthodox beliefs. While we moderns may not agree with his views of Zionism and Austritt, I believe it is very possible that Rav Hirsch may have changed his views about Zionism in the post Holocaust era, much like the Rav did.

And with respect to Austritt, there too he may have had second thoughts today where engaging with seculars is not the same as it was in his time. Most secular Jews are not interested in ‘reforming’ Judaism as they were then. Today outreach requires engagement, not Austritt.

While there may be minor differences in today’s Modern Orthodoxy, (and there is no way of knowing this for sure) I nevertheless believe that in his heart Rav Hirsch would have been clearly in the modern Orthodox camp, at least the right wing version of it.