The “Ladder” of Jewish Renewal



The Torah describes a dream of Jacob, our father. Regarding the first part of the dream, the Torah states:


“He dreamt and behold! A ladder was set earthward, and the top of it reached to heaven” (Genesis 28:12).


In his commentary on the image of the ladder which connects earth and heaven, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:


 “A ladder is shown to him, signifying that there is a link between the terrestrial and celestial realms.”


The Torah states that “the top of it reached the heaven,” and Rabbi Hirsch offers the following deeper meaning of this image:


“Everything on earth is summoned and destined to rise and ascend toward a lofty, heaven-set goal.”


The mitzvos are the Divine mandates of the Torah which enable us to elevate all areas of our earthly existence; thus, through fulfilling all the mitzvos, our entire earthly existence ascends towards a lofty, heaven-set goal.


Dear Friends,


The mitzvos of the Torah can be viewed as rungs on a spiritual ladder which enable us to ascend toward a higher, heaven-set goal. During the 19th century, however, there arose a new movement among German Jews that wanted to develop a “shorter” ladder by eliminating most of the mitzvos of the Torah. Through developing a “shorter” ladder, this movement also limited the heights that we can climb. Among the leading Torah sages who responded to this challenge was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He sought to renew our people through helping us to rediscover the deeper meaning and purpose of each rung. As a result of his efforts, many straying Jews began to once again climb the “ladder” of mitzvos.

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 these new opportunities; moreover, they feared that the fulfillment of the mitzvos would limit their participation in the modern society of Western Europe. They therefore began a process of assimilation, and this movement of assimilation was especially strong in 19th century Germany. For example, the new movement that sought to eliminate most of the mitzvos of the Torah also began to deny that Jews were a people; thus, the leaders of this movement felt that German Jews should be defined as “Germans of the Mosaic faith.” They also stated that Germans of the Mosaic faith were no longer connected to Zion and that Berlin had become their Jerusalem.


Many Torah-observant Jews did not know how to combat this new trend towards assimilation. 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 renew 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 teachings and mitzvos to the modern age. His first major step in this direction took place when he was the 27-year old Rav of Oldenberg, and he was still unknown outside of his community. That year, he published his first book – one which stirred the German Jewish world. It was called “Nineteen Letters about Judaism” and it was written in the form of letters to a young German Jew who had begun a process of assimilation. The book 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.
In his first letter of response, Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“Forget the frustration that reading these writings caused you in your youth. Forget the prejudices about these writings which you may have absorbed from various sources. Let us read them as if we had never read them before, never heard about them. Let us raise in our soul the basic questions of life: The world around me – what is it to me? What am I and what should I be in relation to it? What should I be as human being and Israelite? We must read with such a questing spirit.” (Letter Two)


Rabbi Hirsch begins by showing how the study of Torah, the Divine Teaching, 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 Divine love and justice. He writes:
“Your own inner awareness tells you, and the Torah states, that the human being’s purpose is to be tzelem Elokim – a likeness of God. You are to be more than everything else; you are to exist for everything else. You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and in turn, you too are called upon to act with justice and love, not merely to indulge or endure. 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)
Rabbi Hirsch also demonstrates how an understanding of Torah is crucial for an understanding of the identity of “Yisrael” – Israel; moreover, it is through the Torah that one can gain an understanding of Yisrael’s role among the nations:
“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)
As Rabbi Hirsch explains, this people 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, and he writes: “Therefore 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; thus, Rabbi Hirsch explains to his 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)


Rabbi Hirsch also states: “Judaism, correctly conceived and conveyed, constitutes a bond of love and justice encompassing all creatures” (Letter Nineteen).


In this spirit, we chant the following prayer in the afternoon service of Shabbos:


“O Hashem, You save both human being and animal” (Psalm 36:7).


Have a Good and Comforting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Insights and Comments:


1. Rabbi Hirsch stresses that the Torah is the essence of our nation’s identity; yet, he also points out that we cannot fully express our identity without the Land of Zion, for the Land enables us to apply the mitzvos of the Torah to all areas of our existence. Without the Land, we are still a nation, but we are not a “healthy” nation, as Rabbi Hirsch writes:  “As long as the Jewish national organism is dispersed in exile, it is sick.” (The Hirsch Siddur, page 139)


2. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement who lived in Lithuania, met Rabbi Hirsch when he visited Germany, and during his visit, Rabbi Salanter also read Rabbi Hirsch’s work, “The Nineteen Letters.” After reading this work, Rabbi Salanter felt that it could benefit those Jews in Russia who were starting to assimilate due to the influence of modern western culture, and he said, “The book must not only be translated into Russian, but also into loshon ha-kodesh (the holy Hebrew tongue).” 


This book was also praised by other leading Torah sages. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Spitzer wrote in 1889: “Anybody who reads the Nineteen Letters will find that until now he did not know Judaism as he knows it now, and literally becomes like a new being.” Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector wrote in 1896 that the Nineteen Letters is “a precious and marvelous work on the Jewish faith.” He also wrote: “All his words are drawn from holy sources and sevenfold purified in the crucible of true insight and straight thinking.”


3. About fifteen years ago, Feldheim published a new English translation of “The Nineteen Letters” with a comprehensive commentary by Rabbi Joseph Elias. For information on this highly recommended work visit:   . Other works by Rabbi Hirsch include:
 A. “The Pentateuch” – A translation of the Five Books of the Torah with a commentary

B. “Horeb” – This work offers an explanation of some 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.  
C. “The Psalms” – A translation and commentary


4. As we discussed, the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to return to the ideal state of the Garden of Eden.  It is therefore relevant to mention that the haftorah that we chant on this Shabbos concludes with the following comforting message:


“For Hashem will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her ruins; He will make her wilderness like Eden and her wasteland like the Garden of Hashem; joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.” (Isaiah 51:3) 

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