Up-to-date Judaism Vs. Radical Judaism

“Up-to Date” – Modern; fashionable (Webster’s Compact Dictionary)


“Radical” – Relating to the root or origin; favoring basic change (Ibid)


Dear Friends,


In the early 19th century, a growing number of German Jews desired to develop an “up-to-date” Judaism. Many of them felt that the best way to achieve this goal is to have Judaism conform to the prevailing views and outlooks of their age; thus, they sought to “renew” Judaism by eliminating any belief or mitzvah which did not seem to be in harmony with the “progressive” western culture of their period. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offered a strong critique of their approach to Jewish renewal in an essay titled, “The Jew and His Time” (Collected Writings, Vol. 8). In this essay, Rabbi Hirsch argues that 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.”


In his response to those who felt that classical Judaism was “old fashioned,” Rabbi Hirsch stressed that classical Judaism, when properly understood and practiced, is actually “radical” Judaism. 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. The following are excerpts from this essay:




It has lately become fashionable to discuss the need of bringing Judaism in accord with the times…If we were to shape our Judaism to accommodate the prevailing views of our non-Jewish fellow citizens, if we were to abolish the traditions whose practice has been rendered inconvenient and bothersome by the conditions of modern times (or because their practice would expose us to the mistrust and dislike of our non-Jewish fellow citizens), then, it is argued, we would demonstrate that we grasp and practice the modern trend.


Let us see. Was Judaism ever “up-to-date”? Could it ever have been? Can and will it ever become “up-to-date”? Was Abraham’s Judaism in keeping with the spirit of the age when the ruler of his native land ordered him cast into the Chaldiaic fire-oven for destroying the sacred idols of his time? …What of Daniel’s Judaism as he, with his companions, restricted himself to a diet of vegetables at the Babylonian royal court and chose to face the fury of the king and certain death in the lion’s den rather than give up the three traditional daily prayers facing Jerusalem? [Rabbi Hirsch also reminds us that the Maccabees fought against attempts to “update” Judaism by having it conform to the Greek values and practices of their age.]


…How safe, how easy life could have been by casting the old Judaism aside, by doing away with the old customs that only led to exclusion and ridicule by the ruling contemporaries, Had it not become intolerable, nay impossible, to remain steadfast as Jewish men and women? Yet these people looked calmly to the future, disregarding the destructive elements of their time, closing even tighter the bonds of their faith.


…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?


…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.


…“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 God, as the waters covering the bed of the sea” (Isaiah 11:6,9)


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


…Hence, the Jew will not be opposed to any science, any art form, any culture that is truly ethical, truly moral, truly contributing to the welfare and progress of humankind. He will measure everything by the eternally inviolable yardstick of the teachings of his God.




The above message of Rabbi Hirsch offers a thoughtful challenge to those of our generation who call for an “up-to-date” Judaism which would conform to all the “politically-correct” notions of contemporary western culture. These voices can be found within communities that view themselves as “progressive”; however, within these same communities, we also find voices which are challenging this approach. 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; nevertheless, it was still a fascinating historical development, as a group of Reform rabbis had expressed a challenging view which echoed the earlier critique of Rabbi Hirsch.


Rabbi Hirsch himself felt that a later generation would rediscover the light and life within the “old” Judaism that was being attacked in his day; thus, the new generation would begin to engage in a process of Jewish renewal that would be in harmony with the inner spirit of Judaism. He expressed his hope for the future in, “The Nineteen Letters,” where 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.”


Rabbi Hirsch adds that we should feel not despair over the current turmoil and debates:


“By all means, let the scales swing. The more freely they hang, and the more reliably they will assess truth and life in the end, the more violently they must swing at this time. But, once the scales have come to rest, 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.”  



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 (Feldheim Publishers: www.feldheim.com  ).


2. I recommend the following biography of Rabbi Hirsch which also discusses the intellectual and religious trends in Western Europe during the 19th century: “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch” by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman. This biography is published by ArtScroll: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/RSRP   


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