Remembering the first Jewish warrior for tradition in the modern era.
There is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew.
Or, more accurately, the term “Orthodox” has no basis in Jewish tradition. The appellation was coined by the earliest Jewish reformers in 17th Century Germany to differentiate between themselves and the Torah establishment. In the minds of these newly “enlightened” Jews, the practices of traditional Judaism were, like the Jewish ghettos of Europe, anachronisms with no purpose than to shackle the modern Jewish world in a self-imposed Dark Age.
In those intoxicating times when Jews found themselves with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, in the midst of their zeal to find acceptance among their cosmopolitan gentile neighbors, German Jews recoiled from the antiquated style of Jewish dress and Jewish speech, from the rejection of secular studies common in formal Jewish education, and from the Torah observance of those who perpetuated the stereotype of the “wandering Jew.” Thousands upon thousands turned away from what they denounced as “Orthodoxy” to embrace the modern Jewish reformation which, they believed, would lead them into an era of enlightenment.
Seduced by the attraction of modernity, observant Jews throughout all of Germany cut off their side locks and cast off their religiosity. Devout but poorly educated parents mourned over children who found little reason not to forsake the archaic customs and rituals of their fathers for the wealth of opportunity offered by the modern world.
In neighboring Bohemia-Moravia, however, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch took notice and could not sit idle. A member of Parliament as well as a rabbinic leader, Rabbi Hirsch left his secure position to accept the post as rabbi in the undistinguished community of Frankfort-am-Main. There he would build his bulwark against the tides of change.
CRISIS OF FAITH
In 1729, almost 80 years before Rabbi Hirsch was born, a brilliant thinker by the name of Moses Mendelssohn had introduced a new approach to Judaism to the Jews of Germany. Believing that he had identified the cause of anti-Semitism as the visible “otherness” of Jews living in gentile society, Mendelssohn’s solution adjured each of his brethren to live as “a cosmopolitan man in the street and a Jew in your home.”
With his extraordinary intellect and the convictions of his own philosophy, Mendelssohn managed this ideological tightrope walk in a way that his followers could not. Four of his six children abandoned Torah observance completely, and within two generations the reformers who looked to him as the father of their movement had forsaken the most cherished and time-honored precepts of Jewish practice.
By the time Rabbi Hirsch arrived on the scene, traditional Judaism was in full retreat. Recognizing the gravity of the crisis, Rabbi Hirsch crafted a response that at once strengthened the traditional community while drawing the teeth of those who sought to dismiss tradition as irrelevant and headed for extinction.
Observant Judaism’s detractors argued that traditional Jewish dress was a throwback to the dark ages, that the pidgin tongue of Yiddish was a gutter language unfit for the modern world, that the traditional community knew nothing beyond their Talmudic tomes and, even worse, wanted nothing to do with the secular world. To the Jews caught up in the excitement of a new age, their indictment effectively equated Torah observance with social leprosy.
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
Rabbi Hirsch met their objections head on. Within his community in Frankfort, he instructed his congregation to dress in the modern style, to learn and speak High German, to attend university, and to acquire professional positions in the heart of German society. He instructed his community to take on the outer trappings of the secular world, while creating a K-12 dual-curriculum educational system that built a rock-solid foundation in Torah study while providing the tools to succeed in the secular world.
Applying and adapting the philosophy of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmoel, Rabbi Hirsch described his approach as Torah im derech eretz, “Torah study and observance together with secular culture.” In Rabbi Hirsch’s vision, professionalism, secular education, and a familiarity with ways of the world pose no threat to the devout and committed Jew, so long as Torah law and Torah philosophy remain both the compass that points his way in the world and the anchor that prevents him from being carried away by the tides of intellectual fad and fashion.
In 1836, when he was 28 years old, Rabbi Hirsch published The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a dialogue between an “enlightened” Jew and his traditional childhood friend. Writing anonymously, so that the personality of the author would not interfere with the book’s message, Rabbi Hirsch articulated the fundamentals of Jewish belief powerfully and concisely. His discourse forced many attracted to reform to look with new respect upon the wisdom of tradition.
Indeed, how could one not respond to words both reasoned and impassioned, to observations founded upon both human logic and the empirical evidence of history, to the inspiration of the divine spirit calling out from the depth of the human heart: “Not to see G-d, but to see the earth and earthly conditions, man and human conditions, from G-d’s pinnacle is the loftiest height that can be reached by human minds here on earth, and that is the one goal toward which all men should strive.”
Over the course of his life, Rabbi Hirsch produced many volumes in which he developed his ideas into some of the most profoundly thoughtful writings in contemporary Jewish literature. His commentary on the Torah is a modern classic, and his insights into the meaning and understanding of the commandments in Horeb are illuminating for laymen and scholars alike. “Dear friend,” writes Rabbi Hirsch, “forget what you know about Judaism, listen as if you had never heard about it — and not only will you be reconciled to the Law, but you will embrace it lovingly and will allow your whole life to become a manifestation of it.”
In our world today, where politics and religion are driving a polarizing wedge ever deeper into society, it’s hard to imagine a body of literature more relevant than the writings of Rabbi Hirsch. Unwilling either to negate the relevance of the secular world or to compromise the values that have enabled the Jews to survive two thousand years of exile, Rabbi Hirsch elucidates a vibrant synthesis of the body and the soul, of engaging the physical world in pursuit of spiritual goals.
Rabbi Hirsch passed away on the 27th day of the month of Teves in the year 1888. Through the impact of his leadership and his writings, however, he remains very much alive today.
Originally published at the Jewish World Review.