By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There is a well-known debate between the famous historians Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer, in regard to great men. Do great men make history or does history create great men? Carlyle said that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Spencer disagreed and said of great men – “before he can remake a society, his society must remake him.” Perhaps no individual in modern Jewish history can better illuminate this debate, than Rav Shimshom Rafael Hirsch zt”l, a man who changed the very course of Jewish history.
And it was a most critical period in Jewish history. The Jews of Germany had just become emancipated and leaders of the nascent Reform movement took advantage of the new political landscape. Reform was in the air. Martin Luther had started a reform movement in Christian circles, and Germany was its capital. Why not have one in Judaism too?
The reformers achieved mind-boggling success. Kehillah after kehillah crumbled. New young, dynamic Rabbis eclipsed the venerable Talmidei-chachomim and the young and the wealthy flocked to the new “synagogues” to imitate their Christian brethren. The lovely tunes emitting from the congregational organs, the dapper clerical robes, the eloquent weekly sermons extolling the latest in Kantian and Hegelian thought – they were all-too attractive to the newly emancipated Jewish masses.
And then, from the abyss, emerged a man.
Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, singlehandedly, leveled the playing field. Rav Hirsch was both fiercely orthodox and yet at the same time – remarkably open-minded in his world-view. It is not that the world-view was an innovation on his part – we find that many of his ideas were stated much earlier. It is just that his advocacy of these views was a change from the then-current thinking of European orthodoxy. Rav Hirsch’s staunch devotion to maintaining the standards of halacha can be seen in his Teshuvos. To the careful reader, his responsa (#4) forbidding all repetition in the Tefillah is an over-extension of what the halacha actually had previously stated. In his view, however, it was necessary – a different form of the Chsam Sofer’s famous pun forbidding innovations that make potentially harmful changes – “Chadash assur min HaTorah.”
His translations into the vernacular in both the Siddur and in Chumash created a new Dveikus– an inspired cleaving to Hashem that re-invigorated Torah Judaism, especially among the youth. His Nineteen Letters created a revolution; his philosophical work known as Horeb inspired the Jewish youth of the entire nation, and still does. He was the one-man Artscroll Publications, Rabbi Meir Schuster zt”l, and l’havdil Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein of the generation – all wrapped into one persona.
His writing and thinking are of a timeless nature – addressing and engaging issues of modernity that are not found elsewhere.
The changes that he advocated and achieved were profound as well. He advocated engaging society, informing society of the depths and beauty of Judaism and not retreating into a protective cocoon – the opposite reaction of the Chsam Sopher. His Judaism was universalistic in nature – but one that had decidedly rejected any associative liberalist world-view. Kiddush Shaim Shamayim, integrity, honesty, were strong values and ideals as well as uplifting and contributing to the surrounding gentile society. His brand of Universalism can be seen in the Tomer Dvorah, the writings of the Neviim, and the Rosh haShana Davening.
His legendary organizational skills led to the formation of the worldwide Agudah movement. No Rav Hirsch – No Agudah – plain and simple. His Frankfurt Kehillah was a model for much of German Jewry.
Yes, he had his frustrations. A promising student studied with him, but soon fell to the Dark Side. In a Lukasian type of encounter, Rav Hirsch fought his former protégé the all-powerful Heinrich Graetz, who claimed mastery over Jewish history, on the pages of the leading papers of the country. He had his failings as well. He might have missed the boat on the dangers of the excessiveness of German nationalism. But there is no question that the position of Torah Jewry is richer and stronger on his account.
His synthesis of Torah with Derech Eretz not only in terms of working but in terms of understanding the world around us was complex, and has been heavily debated in this past century. Leaders in the Yeshiva world has stated that it was a temporary stop-gap measure to address an immediate need, but this view is not very tenable to one who reads his writings. It is also not a pre-cursor to some of the regnant understandings of Torah uMadah. The philosophy has precedence in the writings of Rabbeinu Bachya and the Ramban too. He clearly understood the dangers involved in secular knowledge – how it can take one away from Torah, but properly learned it is a supplement to Torah knowledge and Torah is clearly ikkar – central to all.
And he cared not only for the spiritual development of Klal Yisroel, but for their parnassah as well. He cared that his students be educated and educated well. In the Rav Hirschian world a strong grasp of secular knowledge went hand-in-hand with a Chareidi Torah outlook.
Of late there has been a view expressed in certain circles that he was not the Gadol baTorah that others of his generation were. This is in error. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector zt”l, the Gadol HaDor, described him as “Hamefursam baTorah v’yirah.” Rav Yitzchok Blaser and the other Gedolim of that generation lauded him with expressions and praises reserved only for the greatest of Torah scholars and leaders.
His critique of Abraham our forefather as failing in the education of his Ishmael by not applying Chanoch laNoar al pi darko has been widely panned by the Yeshiva world. But, the Chinuch institutions that he had founded in his Frankfurt community were models of educational theory and practice. The impact on his students and the retention rate of these students to Torah-true Judaism was remarkable. He implemented the ideas “Chanoch LaNoar Al Pi Darko” in his schools and the community was enriched for it.
Rav Hirsch was also innovative in his Torah commentaries too. He writes that the Torah included the sarcastic response of Klal Yisroel to Moshe Rabbeinu, “Are there no graves in Egypt?” to teach us of the need for humor in managing the difficult periods of life. The classical Torah sources do not imply anything of the source – but Rav Hirsch felt that it was necessary to teach this important lesson.
Like during Rav Hirsch’s era, we stand at a critical juncture, where tens of thousands of our youth are losing sight of the beauty, relevance, and profundity of Torah Judaism – their birthright of Sinai. Organizations such as “Footsteps” that actively help lead people away from Judaism are thriving because we have lost our footing. Rav Hirsch looked at people who were struggling with their Yiddishkeit as people who had a remarkable potential to contribute to Torah and Judaism. Instead, we have organizations that try to take them away from Torah.
Thinker and writer Rabbi Jonathan Rietti has rightly pointed out that we are raising generations of robots who daven without meaning. And it does not have to be this way. Our educational institutions need to once again engage students – like Rav Hirsch did.
So getting back to the debate between Carlyle and Spencer – it seems that both are correct. Only a remarkable persona like Rav Hirsch could have created the societal revolution that he did – a la Carlyle. Yet perhaps only the extraordinary challenge of the devastation of the early reformers was could have created the personality that Rav Hirsch was – a la Spencer.
We too live in extraordinary times, times that warrant the emergence of a remarkable figure – a figure like Rav Hirsch zt”l. Rav Hirsch passed away on the 27th of Taives – December 31st, 1888. On this 125th Yartzeit, may he be a meilitz Yosher for all of Klal Yisroel.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org