May 22, 1851, is the birthdate of Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the leader of the Reform Chicago Sinai Congregation for four decades straddling the turn of the 20th century. Hirsch was both a philosopher of Judaism and the spiritual leader of one of America’s most influential synagogues, and his impact on society of that era was profound.
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Emil Gustav Hirsch was born in Luxembourg. His father, Samuel Hirsch, was the rabbi of the grand duchy; his mother was the former Louise Michols. Samuel had begun his career as a traditional rabbi, but over time he had become an advocate of Reform Judaism.
In 1866, Samuel was hired by Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, in Philadelphia, succeeding the legendary Rabbi David Einhorn (one of whose daughters Emil Hirsch later married). In Philadelphia, the teenage Emil attended the Episcopal Academy, followed by the University of Pennsylvania, where he played intercollegiate football.
Following graduation from Penn in 1872, Hirsch returned to Europe for rabbinical studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, also attending the universities of Berlin and Leipzig.
When he returned to the United States, five years later, he briefly held positions at synagogues in Baltimore and Louisville, Kentucky, before, in 1880, succeeding Rabbi Kaufman Kohler (married to another Einhorn daughter) in the pulpit at Chicago Sinai
The sacred duty of Judaism
Hirsch's tenure at Sinai, which went on until his death, in 1923, coincided with astronomical growth in both the population of Chicago in general – in the first decades of the century, it was the fastest-growing large city in the world -- and of its Jewish community specifically, from 10,000 in 1880 to 300,000 by 1920.
Recognizing the extraordinary nature of the moment, Hirsch, in his inaugural sermon at the synagogue, declared that, “The times are charged with volcanic energy: social upheavals multiply in number To-day it becomes the sacred duty of Judaism , to construct on the sacred principles of Judaism, an all-embracing philosophy of life, to study man in his ethical relations, to listen to his doubts, and to confirm him in his hopes, to brace him for the struggle of life"
In a city of great wealth, Sinai's members included some of the wealthiest. Among them were Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, who was guided in his philanthropy by the counsel of the progressive Hirsch, and two of the principals of the clothier Hart, Schaffner and Marx, who, following the rabbi's advice, settled a strike by recognizing their company's union.
Hirsch continued Kohler's policy of holding Sabbath services on Sunday, but upped the ante by cancelling Saturday services altogether.
When he delivered his Sunday morning sermon, according to historian Tobias Brinkmann, some 2,000 people would show up to listen. They were accommodated by the construction of a thousand-seat addition to the synagogue's building designed by A-list architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.
Hirsch edited several journals of Jewish thought, he served as president of the board of the Chicago Public Library, he founded a vocational high school for Jewish immigrant youth, and he was a professor of rabbinical literature at the University of Chicago.
With all its claims to be modern and rational, Reform Judaism was threatened from the left by Ethical Culture, which went all the way and dispensed with the divine at its center. Hirsch tried to provide an answer to that as well, especially as many in his congregation were drawn to Felix Adler's philosophical movement. As Brinkmann put it, in his book "Sundays at Sinai," Hirsch insisted on the necessity of both "deed and creed"; for him, "humanity and moral action sprang from and were intrinsically connected to a religious source."
In his final years in the pulpit, Hirsch's influence was on the wane, in part because during World War I, he had remained sympathetic to Germany. He also found himself unable to support the emerging Zionist movement.
Emil Hirsch died at his Chicago home on January 7, 1923, at age 71.