Samson Raphael Hirsch: The Father of Neo-Orthodoxy

The 19th-century rabbi who shaped a modern Orthodox community in bridging traditional practice and Enlightenment thinking.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) [was a] German rabbi and religious thinker. Hirsch was born in Hamburg where he received a general as well as a traditional Jewish education. His teacher in Hamburg was Isaac Bernays and in Manheim, Rabbi Jakob Ettlinger, the most distinguished Talmudist in German Jewry. Both these teachers were men of a comparatively broad outlook. Influenced by them, Hirsch saw his life's task as being to demonstrate that traditional Judaism is fully compatible with Western culture.

Hirsch studied classical languages, history, and philosophy for a short time at the University of Bonn but he did not take a university degree. Abraham Geiger was a fellow student of Hirsch at Bonn but later their paths diverged, Geiger becoming leader of the Reform movement to which Hirsch was relentlessly opposed.

In 1830, Hirsch was appointed Rabbi of Oldenburg and in 1846, he was appointed District Rabbi of Moravia, living in the town of Nikolsburg. A small number of Orthodox families in Frankfurt-on-Main, disturbed by the assimilated tendencies of the general Jewish community, invited Hirsch to be their rabbi in1851. This new Orthodox community flourished under Hirsch's guidance.

Establishing Neo-Orthodoxy

Hirsch believed that the only way to preserve the Orthodoxy of his community was to obtain permission from the German authorities to establish a separatist organization. To further this aim, Hirsch argued that the differences between Orthodox and Reform were akin to those between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity: two religious attitudes that could not exist side by side.

Hirsch's community soon became the model for communities strict in adherence to Orthodox practices, hence the term neo-Orthodoxy by which this tendency is known. In a real sense, Hirsch was a child of the Haskalah, but his enlightenment had a far greater thrust in the direction of Orthodox Jewish beliefs and observances. In his early work, The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, Hirsch typically remarked that it would have been better for the Jews not to have been emancipated if the price they had to pay was assimilation.

Hirsch's Nineteen Letters was written while he was Rabbi in Oldenburg. The work made a great impression in wide circles of German Jewry and beyond. The historian Graetz, then a young man, was so impressed that he came to Oldenburg to study under Hirsch for three years, but later Hirsch and Graetz came to differ widely in their views, chiefly on the historical approach to Judaism, an approach for which Hirsch had no sympathy because it tended to produce a relativistic attitude towards the Torah.

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