Friday, December 27, 2013

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch ztz”l

Guest Post by Paul Shaviv

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch
Paul J. Shaviv M.A., M.Phil is the headmaster of The Ramaz School. Ramaz is a coed  Modern Orthodox day school located on the the upper East Side of Manhatan.  On the occasion of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s upcoming Yahrzeit, he has submitted this essay. I am honored to publish it here. His words follow.

Away from home, and invited to speak at Seudah Shlishit, I did what I always do in such circumstances – check whose Yahrzeits occur a few days before or after Shabbat!  This week, there is a veritable roll-call of figures.

But Monday, December 30 -- 27th Tevet – is the 125th Yahrzeit of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch ztz’l, who died in 1888.  

Hirsch was probably the most original, profound and revolutionary figure in modern Orthodox thought.  (Does Rabbi Jonathan Sacks hold the promise of being his equal?)  Whether aware of it or not, almost every reader of this blog is, in part, indebted to him.  If you attended both yeshiva and college; if you daven in a shul where the derashot and the shiurim are in English; or if you are observant and enjoy general culture without feeling guilty, he is your man. If you read the commentary in English in a chumash, or use any halakhic manual in English, he is your man.  

He was the first to conceptualize, and implement, a positive theoretical and practical vision of traditional Judaism and Jewish community in a post-Emancipation, intellectually open, world – one in which most Jews would naturally speak a European language, dress like the society in which they lived, and as a matter of course receive a general education. 

His mantra ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ made it clear that his vision was to see Torah Judaism functioning in a relationship of synthesis with modern society and modern knowledge.  (The Chatam Sofer, whose brilliant insight was that the new freedom of Europe included the freedom to opt out of it, prescribed cultural self-isolation as the alternative strategy of Orthodox survival in the modern world.)

You can read diametrically opposite interpretations of his personality, hashkafa and vision in two excellent biographies.

In the best biography ever published by Artscroll, packed with fascinating and meticulously researched detaii, Rabbi Eliyahu Klugman gives a staunchly traditionalist perspective on Hirsch (“Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:  architect of Torah Judaism for the Modern World”).

By contrast, an earlier book by the late Rabbi Dr. Noah Rosenbloom (“Tradition in an age of Reform”)  is a radical interpretation of Hirsch, including a very convincing, but very controversial, biographical account, and an analysis of Hirsch’s philosophy.

I am not going to rehash the controversy of whether Hirsch intended his views as emergency measures for his time (le’shaah) or as a permanent ideology for all similar circumstances (le’dorot), but ask instead some “What if…?” questions.

The first revolves around trying to predict Hirsch’s reaction to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.  Hirsch was a fierce German patriot – embarrassingly so, in the light of subsequent history. How would he have dealt with Germany’s total betrayal of its Jewish citizens?  Would he have changed his disapproval of early Jewish nationalism?  (He did not live to see the organized Zionist movement.) 

Paradoxically, some of his most successful disciples and followers were the “Yekkes” of the Yishuv and the early State of Israel  -- able to fully participate in Israeli society in academic, professional and commercial/industrial life in a way of which their post-Holocaust diaspora peers could barely dream.  The religious kibbutz movement also contained strong Hirschean influence.

The second question is whether the same dire circumstances would have led him to change or suspend his opposition to cooperating with non-Orthodox Jews in Jewish communal endeavor - the Austritt philosophy which he embraced in his final years in Frankfurt. (A strategy that even at the time drew fierce criticism from his fellow-Orthodox in Germany itself.) 

The third is how he would have reacted to the social situation of Jews in twentieth / twenty-first century America or other western countries?   Would he have still pursued ‘Torah im Derekh Eretz’, or would he have rejected the idea?  Certainly, current adherents of classic ‘Torah im derech eretz’ are few and far between.

Even though Orthodox views of Hirsch focus almost exclusively on his Frankfurt years (1851-1 1888), his earlier years suggest a more flexible personality than the common stereotype suggests. He was a fabulously original thinker – currently out of fashion, but his life and work still deserve study.  I am not a Hirschean, but recognize the greatness of this under-appreciated personality. On his yahrzeit, we can only yearn for someone of his vision in our contemporary community.  Yehi zichro baruch!