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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At Oldenberg, Hirsch also wrote his Horeb: Essays on Israel's Duties in the Diaspora, in which he set out all the precepts of the Torah in a way that would commend itself to the cultured Jews of his time. Among Hirsch's other writings is his commentary on the Pentateuch, published in Frankfurt-on-Main in 1867-68.

Hirsch's Philosophy of Judaism: Torah im Derekh Eretz

The statement in Ethics of the Fathers (2:2) of Rabbi Gamaliel III: "Torah is good together with derekh eretz" formed the basis of Hirsch's understanding of Judaism for modern Jews. In the context derekh eretz (literally, "the way of the earth") refers to a worldly occupation. But Hirsch developed the concept to embrace Western culture. This is the "way of the world" which has to be combined with the study and the practice of the Torah. Hirsch states that derekh eretz refers to not only ways of earning a living but also to the social order that prevails on earth, the mores and considerations of courtesy and propriety arising form social living and things pertinent to good breeding and general education.

Hence Hirsch speaks of the ideal Jews as the "Israel-man", that is, the Jew who is proudly Jewish, a believer in the eternal values and precepts of the Torah as divinely ordained, and is, at the same time, a cultured "man", a human being belonging to the modern world.

Cultured Jews Reading Jewish Sources

Hirsch certainly does not avoid the problem facing the modern Jew when he makes his imaginary protagonist remark in the first of the Nineteen Letters: "How can anyone who is able to enjoy the beauties of a Virgil, a Tasso, a Shakespeare, who can follow the logical conclusions of a Liebnitz and Kant--how can such a one find pleasure in the Old Testament, so deficient in form and taste, and in the senseless writings of the Talmud?" Before Hirsch, no Orthodox Jew had ever expressed such sentiments, even as a prelude to their rebuttal.

Hirsch seeks to demonstrate in all his writings that the combination of Torah and derekh eretz is not only possible but essential if Judaism is to come to grips with the challenge of modern life. Basically, his approach is to see the divinely revealed Torah as the means for the ennoblement of the human spirit by bringing it closer to the divine will for the Jews and, through them, to the whole of mankind. The Jewish people have a divinely ordained role to play in the world, one that can only be realized when the Jew belongs to the world and is, in the best sense, a man of the world.

Hirsch on "The Spirit of the Age"

This is not to say that Hirsch tolerates any watering down of the full Jewish tradition. He fought Reform in his belief that this movement pandered to the Zeitgeist, "the spirit of the age." Hirsch wrote in the Nineteen Letters:

"Was Judaism ever 'in accordance with the times?' Did Judaism ever correspond with the views of dominant contemporaries? Was it ever convenient to be a Jew or a Jewess?…Was that Judaism in accordance with the times, for which, during the centuries following the Dispersion, our fathers suffered in all lands, through all the various periods, the most degrading oppression, the most biting contempt, and a thousand-fold death and persecution? And yet we would make it the aim and scope of Judaism to be always 'in accordance with the times!'"

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.