The mitzvos of the Torah can be viewed as rungs on a spiritual ladder. In fact, our father Jacob had a dream where he envisioned a ladder connecting earth and heaven (Genesis 28:12). There are mitzvos which enable us to serve and elevate the world, including the world within ourselves, and there are mitzvos which enable us to protect the world from harm or degradation, including the world within ourselves.
Throughout our history, we find individuals who wanted to change or “reform” the Torah by eliminating any mitzvah which was not in harmony with the beliefs and practices of the prevailing world culture of their age. They therefore wanted to develop a “shorter ladder” by eliminating those mitzvos which caused our people to be different from the surrounding nations. They argued that this process was necessary in order to renew our people and our culture.
There arose, however, prophets and sages who opposed this approach. Instead of eliminating any rung on the ladder, these spiritual leaders sought to renew our people through helping us to rediscover the deeper meaning and purpose of each rung. They explained that each rung on the ladder causes us to go higher; thus, the ultimate goal should be to climb the full ladder, rung by rung.
In this letter, we will begin to tell the story of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, who engaged in a process of renewal which encouraged Jews to climb the full ladder of mitzvos, rung by rung. Rabbi Hirsch lived in the era when the walls of the Ghetto were beginning to break down in Western Europe, and Jews began to gain some civil and political rights. Many Jews were dazzled by the new economic and political opportunities, and they feared that remaining loyal to the Torah's path would limit their participation in economic and professional life. Assimilation into the Gentile society became an attractive option, and there were even Jews who converted to Christianity in order to gain greater social acceptance. This movement towards assimilation was especially strong in 19th century Germany, and it also began to affect religious trends in the Jewish community. For example, there were many German Jews who wanted to change or “reform” Judaism so that it would be more in harmony with the culture of 19th century Germany. They therefore began to eliminate mitzvos of the Torah that did not seem to conform to the spirit of modern German culture. In addition, they began to teach that the Jews were no longer a people; thus, they described themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic Faith.” In order to become more like the Germans, some of them moved the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to Sunday. These “reformers” also stressed that since they were Germans, they no longer had any ties to Zion, and they called Berlin their new Jerusalem. In their view, these changes would lead to Jewish renewal in a way which would cause the Germans to feel closer to us. Although the majority of German Jews began to follow the approach of the “reformers,” a new, secular form of anti-Jewish hatred suddenly arose in Germany, and as we shall discuss in a future letter, much of this hatred was directed at the very Jews who were trying to assimilate into German society.
During the early 19th century, most of the older, traditional rabbis did not know how to combat the trends described above, for they were educated and trained under the old social system, before the walls of the ghetto collapsed. Rabbi Hirsch, however, had great Torah teachers, such as Rabbi Isaac Bernays, and Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, who were able to defend classical Judaism with some success, and they inspired Rabbi Hirsch to develop creative ways of addressing this new challenge – ways which would be in harmony with the teachings and mitzvos of the Torah.
Unlike the “reformers” of his era who were trying to change Judaism by having it become more similar to the prevailing culture of the modern age, Rabbi Hirsch began to renew Judaism from within by demonstrating the relevance of its ancient teachings and mitzvos to the modern age.
His first major step in this direction took place when he was the 27-year old Rabbi of Oldenberg, and he was still unknown outside of his community. That year, he published his first book - one which electrified the German Jewish world. It was called “Nineteen Letters about Judaism” and it was written in the form of letters to a young, assimilated German Jew. It begins with an introductory letter from this young Jew which explains why he feels alienated from Judaism, and the rest of the book is Rabbi Hirsch’s eloquent response. This new book quickly became the definitive work in Germany on the essence of Judaism, and thousands of young Jews in Western Europe drew guidance and inspiration from it. Through this work, Rabbi Hirsch began to explain the universal significance of Jewish history, the universal vision of the Torah, and the way in which the mitzvos of the Torah help us to fulfill this vision. Rabbi Hirsch's writings are based on our classical sources, such as the Tanach (Sacred Scriptures), Talmud, and Midrash. In addition, he himself was a leading Torah sage who was highly respected by leading Torah sages in other lands.
In the “Nineteen Letters,” Rabbi Hirsch encourages the assimilating Jews of his generation to put aside the prejudices towards classical Judaism which developed in modern Germany and to rediscover the deeper meaning of their heritage through studying its classical sources with an open mind. He begins
by showing how the study of Torah leads to a true understanding of human identity, and how this study guides the human being in his relationship to the earth and its creatures. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, the human being was created in the Divine image with the capacity and the responsibility to emulate the universal Divine love and justice. And he adds:
“ The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's Will.” (Letter Four, p. 56)
Rabbi Hirsch also demonstrates how an understanding of Torah is crucial for an understanding of Jewish identity. He lived in an age of growing nationalism, and he therefore emphasized the spiritual and universal raison d'etre of “Yisrael” – Israel – the People of the Torah. He writes:
“Yisrael was given the Torah in the wilderness, and there - without a country and land of its own - it became a nation, a body whose soul was Torah. Thereby it came to be a mamleches kohanim, a ‘kingdom of priests,’ a nation serving as the guardian of God's Word in the midst of humanity, as a priest serves amidst his people. At the same time, by fulfilling God's Word, it was to become a goy kadosh, a ‘holy nation,’ standing apart in holiness... Torah, the fulfillment of the Divine Will, constitutes the foundation, basis and goal of this people. Its nationhood is therefore not tied to transitory things or dependent on anything of a passing nature; it is as eternal and everlasting as spirit and soul and the Word of the Eternal.” (Letter Eight, pages 115-16)
This people, however, was to enter history as a nation in the midst of other nations in order to become a social model of the Torah's teachings. “Therefore,” writes Rabbi Hirsch, ”a land, prosperity and institutions of statehood were to be put at Yisrael's disposal not as goals in themselves, but as means for the fulfillment of Torah, Accordingly, they all were granted to Yisrael on one - and only one – condition: that it would indeed fulfill the Torah. Blessed with all these gifts, this people had to remain separate from the nations, lest it learn from them to consider these blessings an end in themselves” (Ibid).
This separation is to lead us to a universal goal. As Rabbi Hirsch explains to his young correspondent:
“You wrote that the Torah isolates us. True! If it did not, Yisrael would long since have lost its identity. Look what struggles are required to preserve the purity of Yisrael's spirit within our people despite this isolation! But does this spell enmity? Or pride? As if God were not the Lord of all creatures, all human beings? An unfortunate misinterpretation indeed! After all, Yisrael has no other task than to acknowledge as its God the One Who calls and educates all human beings to His service, and to make Him known as such through its destiny and way of life!” (Letter Fifteen, p. 198)
With the help of the Compassionate One, we shall continue our discussion on Rabbi Hirsch’s approach to Jewish renewal in the next letter.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. Feldheim published a new translation of “The Nineteen Letters” with a comprehensive commentary by Rabbi Joseph Elias: www.feldheim.com. Other works by Rabbi Hirsch include:
1. “The Pentateuch” - A translation of the Five
Books of the Torah with a commentary
2. “Horeb” - An explanation of the ethical and spiritual lessons that can be derived from the Torah's path of 613 mitzvos – including those mitzvos which teach us to respect the earth and its creatures
3. “Psalms” – A translation and commentary