Imitation is not Renewal

Dear Friends,


As the previous letter mentioned, a growing number of German Jews desired to “reform” Judaism during the 19th century. Many of them felt that the best way to achieve this goal was to have Judaism conform to the prevailing views and outlooks of their age; thus, they sought to “renew” Judaism and the Jewish people by eliminating any belief or mitzvah which did not seem to reflect the western culture of their period. In this series on the soul of Zion, we also discussed how most of the leaders of the World Zionist Organization sought to renew the Jewish people through adopting the ideology of nationalism which was becoming popular among the nations in their era; thus, these leaders adopted the slogan, “Let us be like all the nations!” In the spirit of their slogan, they sought to have “nationalism” replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote an essay which helps us to understand that imitating others is not Jewish renewal, for true Jewish renewal is to be true to our own identity and mission. The essay is titled, “The Jew and His Time” (Collected Writings, Vol. 8). In this essay, Rabbi Hirsch argues that until the arrival of the messianic age of universal enlightenment and shalom, Judaism is to serve as a challenge to each age, and he writes:


“From the very beginning God placed Judaism, and thereby the Jewish people, in contrast with the fashion and the demands of the day.”


Rabbi Hirsch therefore encouraged the Jews of his generation – both “reform” and “traditional” – to engage in a deeper study of classical Judaism in order to rediscover the Divine teachings which challenge each age of human history, until the arrival of the messianic age, when these Divine teachings will be universally accepted.


As we previously discussed, Abraham’s “Judaism” emphasized the spiritual service of following the ways of the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – the Unifying Source of all life. Abraham’s emphasis on the Unifying One was during an age when most people worshiped many competing and capricious gods. Rabbi Hirsch therefore asks the following rhetorical question:


“Was Abraham’s Judaism in keeping with the spirit of the age?” (Ibid)


In our letters on Chanukah, we discussed how the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenistic Jewish allies attempted to impose on the Jews of Zion a pagan Hellenistic culture where the education and various customs emphasized the worship of physical beauty and male sexuality. The Maccabees resisted this attempt, and they helped to preserve the independent spirit of our people. Rabbi Hirsch therefore asks another rhetorical question:   


“What of the Judaism of the Maccabees who fought heroically against the introduction of Greek customs and Greek education?” (Ibid)


And he adds:


“What would have become of Judaism if our ancestors had striven to shape their Judaism in accordance with the prevailing views and conditions of every age? What would have become of Judaism if our ancestors had measured their Judaism by the values of Egyptian culture, Babylonian mysticism, Persian magic cult, Greek philosophy, Gallic wisdom or the asceticism of medieval cloisters and monks? What would have become of Judaism if the examples of monasteries and monks had been taken as a comparable standard for Judaism, if even today Judaism would conform to the prevailing views and practices of the time and country?”


Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that Torah is the Divine Teaching, and he therefore writes:


“Is it then conceivable that I should place myself at the crossroads of history and inquire of every passerby as to his views and opinions, illusory or otherwise, and seek his endorsement of the living Word of God? …Should I be allowed to alter the Divine Word to fit my own weakness and then announce with pride: Here it is and here I am, in conformity with my time?” (Ibid)


Rabbi Hirsch also cites in this essay the following admonitions of our prophets which were proclaimed at the beginning of our exile:


“And that which enters your mind will not come to pass, when you say: We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, worshiping wood and stone (Ezekiel 20:32).”


“Remember the teaching of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel – its statutes and social laws (Malachi 3:22).”


Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that our loyalty to our unique mission leads to a universal goal, and he writes:


“The Jewish people are and shall remain the heralds of God who bring to a waiting world the promise of a brilliant morn that will dawn over all humankind.” (Ibid)


He then cites some of the prophecies regarding the “brilliant morn” including the following prophecy:


“Then the wolf will dwell with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the bull together, and a little child will lead them…for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters covering the bed of the sea” (Isaiah 11:6,9).  


Rabbi Hirsch then adds:


“Then when times will have become in conformity with God, Judaism will also be seen as in conformity with the times.”


The above teachings of Rabbi Hirsch offer a thoughtful challenge to those of our era who want Judaism to conform to all the “politically-correct” notions of contemporary western culture; however, we also find new voices in our era that are challenging, to some degree, the desire to conform to contemporary culture. For example, in the summer of 1998, the Reform Movement began to discuss a proposed “Ten Principles for Reform Judaism.” The original draft which appeared in the magazine, Reform Judaism, was prepared by a committee led by Rabbi Richard Levy, who was then President of the CCAR – the Reform rabbinical organization. The draft included the following radical statement:


“Standing at Sinai, the Jewish people heard God reveal the Torah. Through study, we become aware of God’s mitzvot, commandments, that call to us even though we live in modernity. In the worldview of Reform Judaism’s founders, modernity was the center, the scale on which we measured what was valuable and enduring in Jewish practice and belief. Looking back at a century which has witnessed some of the greatest gifts and the most awful consequences of modernity, we proclaim that the mitzvot of the Torah are our center, and Judaism is the scale by which we judge the modern world.”


This radical statement was not included in the final version adopted by the Reform movement, as the movement was not willing to endorse a statement which implied that Reform Jews should be fully committed to the path of the Torah. Although this statement was not adopted by the Reform movement, it was a fascinating historical development, as a group of Reform rabbis had said, “The mitzvot of the Torah are our center, and Judaism is the scale by which we judge the modern world.” This statement echoes to some degree the following statement of Rabbi Hirsch:


“The Jew will not be opposed to any science, any art form, and any culture that is truly ethical, truly moral, truly contributing to the welfare of humankind. He will measure everything by the eternally inviolable yardstick of the teachings of his God.” (Op. cit)  


Rabbi Hirsch felt that a later generation would rediscover the light and life within the “old” Judaism that was being attacked in his day, and in his book, Nineteen Letters, he writes to his correspondent:


“And things will be different in Yisrael; our age is unmistakably leading to that. Do not view it with such gloom, my friend. True, it is a time of anxiety, like the hour of labor that precedes childbirth. …This period of labor may well outlast our generation and that of our children – who knows, even that of our grandchildren. But our great-grandchildren will rejoice in the newborn that will have struggled into life and light – the child whose name is “self-comprehending Judaism.” (Letter Eighteen)


Rabbi Hirsch also states that “the spirit of Yisrael will stand revealed in its full brilliance, comprehending itself, its teachings and its destiny, pervading all of Yisrael’s members and engendering the fullest life in this spirit.” (Ibid)


As the Prophets of Israel foretold, our ultimate spiritual renewal will be in the Land of Zion, and following this renewal, proclaimed Hashem, we will regain the ability to prophesy:


“And it will be after this, I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 3:1).



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. The essay, “The Jew and His Time” appears in “Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch” – Volume 8. “Collected Writings” is published by Feldheim:  .


2. I highly recommend the following biography of Rabbi Hirsch which also provides some fascinating historical information regarding religious and intellectual trends in Western Europe during the 19th century: “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch” by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman. This biography is published by ArtScroll:  

Hazon - Our Universal Vision