Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Lying by Omission

A little over 200 years ago there lived a great intellectual - a philosopher, historian, poet, and playwright. He was a genius of a man who possessed great wisdom. His name was Friedrich von Schiller (pictured). He was not Jewish. But he was a model of wisdom for Jews and for the entire world. I am not the only Orthodox Jew to say this and certainly not the first.

Another Orthodox Jew who felt this way was none other than Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch the ideological founder of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE). Here is an exact quote from Rav Hirsch in an article by Professor Marc Shapiro who presented a translation of a speech given by Rav Hirsch. It is from an article on YU Torah Online.

If the genius would step into our midst, of whose legacy our young friends have just presented a few sparse echoes to us, and, my friends, if we as Jews and Jewesses met Schiller, then the wisdom of our fathers would instruct us to greet him with the saying: “Blessing and praise to him who has imparted of His wisdom to mortals.”

What is important to note here is not the value of one particular individual. It is to recognize that Rav Hirsch did not view the study of the wisdom of Schiller to be a B’dieved (less than ideal) and to avoid it if possible. He considered him not only worthy of honor but worthy of study. The point being that God’s very wisdom can be learned via non Jewish sources. That – I believe - is the essence of the philosophy of Torah Im Derech Eretz. Non Jews like Schiller have a lot to teach us. To put it the way Rav Hirsch does:

The wisdom of our Sages has taught us to stand still, especially when we encounter the greatest blooming and wisdom produced in mortals. In such a case, the wisdom of our Sages does not inquire about their lineage or tribal affiliation, nor their faith or the color of their skin. Wherever someone encounters a wise man, enveloped in the splendor and light of wisdom, she looks up to the One who gave wisdom to mortals as a gift, and who has endowed “the gift of His wisdom” through the wisdom of mortals.

This does not sound like a B’Dieved attitude to me. It sounds like we ought to be going out of our way to find individuals like this and learn from them.

The problem is that in the mainstream right wing Yeshiva world of today this attitude does not exist. In fact the current attitude is exactly the opposite. Non Jewish wisdom is disparaged. Even though lip service is paid to the idea that there is wisdom among the nations – the most common refrain is the opposite. The expression ‘Goyishe values’ has become synonymous with anti Torah values. No distinctions are made. The message is that all ‘Goyishe values’ are bad.

The net result of this kind of negative indoctrination is that no matter how great a non Jew might be he is treated with near contempt. Or at least completely ignored. Can anyone recall any mainstream Yeshiva personality ever mentioning the great values and morals of a non Jewish playwright or philosopher? The non Jew is almost always the subject of derision and ridicule. No exception is ever made about great people or their wisdom.

Rav Hirsch would strongly differ with that notion – despite the revisionist history about him. As Professor Shapiro points out many of Rav Hirsch’s writings have been translated by right wing publications. Many indeed venerate him. Feldheim and Judaica Press have even recently come out with a new translation of the Hirsch Chumash.

However when it comes to the truth about his views much is avoided – like his speech on Schiller. The reason is obvious. It does not fit in with their Hashkafos. And it would not serve their purpose to highlight an aspect of Rav Hrisch that so radically departs from their current worldview. It is a world view whose message of anti Secularism and insulation from the secular world is paramount.

The current attitude is to dissociate as much as possible from the non Jewish world – to disengage with the culture as much as is humanly possible so as not to be influenced by any of their thinking. Anyone who suggests that there is Torah value in a non Jewish source will be ridiculed and condemned. The following true story illustrates this quite well.

A few years ago Rav Ahron Lichtenstein had mentioned in an article that he personally cannot have appreciated certain portions of Tanach without having studied the world of English literature. That raised the hackles of one American born Rosh Yeshiva in Israel. He was so upset by that remark that he assembled his students for the sole purpose of blasting Rav Lichtenstein (although not by name - it was obvious who he meant). The idea being “How dare he say that one can learn about God’s wisdom from a Goy?

But according to Rav Hirsch that is a very un-Jewish attitude. In effect that Rosh Yeshiva not only blasts Rav Lichtenstein he blasts Rav Hirsch.

Ignoring Rav Hirsch’s laudatory speech about Schiller is in fact lying about him. To put it the way Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter put it - they are denying the truths of history. That serves only to distort the legitimate Torah Hashkafa that Rav Hirsch promoted enthusiastically during his lifetime. One which he never retracted!

But the sad fact is that the right wing does not want this Hashkafa to be promoted. That’s why when his selected writings were published the Schiller speech was avoided. It does not speak their language. They do not want to entice their flock into studying Schiller or the works of any other non Jew. They encourage learning Torah only.

The story is told that the great leader of the German-American Jewish community Rav Shimon Schwab asked the great Charedi Gadol Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz about Torah Im Derech Eretz. Rav Baruch Ber told him that Rav Hirsch meant it only as a B’Dieved for his time. TIDE is not for our time. And that is how it is now perceived even by some of that community’s own leaders and thinkers.

But if one reads Rav Hirsch’s speech on Schiller – it becomes quite obvious that Rav Baruch Ber was wrong. TIDE was not a B’Dieved but a L’Chatchila. Frankly I don’t think Rav Baruch Ber ever read that speech.

The world of the right tries to claim Hirsch as one of their own now who used TIDE as a kind of Kiruv tool. But they are being dishonest. They ignore historical documents to the contrary. He was not a Charedi trying to do Kiruv with his Jewish constituency in Germany by creating TIDE for them. He believed his philosophy was an essential part of Torah for all Jews.

One does not have to agree with TIDE. But to distort what it represents in order to forward an agenda, no matter how important they believe their agenda to be - is unforgivable.