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.

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 in 1851. 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.

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 Jew 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!'”

There is no doubt that Hirsch was highly successful in winning over more than one generation of German Jews to a deeper appreciation of the meaning of Judaism for modern man. In Hirsch’s congregation in Frankfurt and elsewhere there were to be found cultured men and women, bankers, university professors, physicians, artists, scientists, and men of letters, thoroughly at home in Western society and yet observant in their daily lives. These men demonstrated that Hirsch’s philosophy was viable. To the present day, neo-Orthodoxy is an acceptable Jewish way of life, and for this most of the credit goes to Hirsch and his vision.

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

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