This Day in Jewish History |

1888: The Man Who Told Jews It Was Okay to Engage With Modern Society Dies

Samson Raphael Hirsch, uncompromising to the end, could reasonably be called the father of modern Orthodoxy.

David Green
David B. Green
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Rabbi Samson Raphael HirschCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On December 31, 1888, Samson Raphael Hirsch, the German rabbi who could reasonably be called the father of modern Orthodoxy, died, at the age of 80.

Hirsch was a man of apparent contrasts -- a student of the Enlightenment who believed that Jews had a role to play in contemporary society, not only for themselves but because they had something to offer humanity, but also a traditionalist and staunch opponent to Reform who wrote that it would have been better for the Jews not to be emancipated if the price they it entailed was assimilation.

Samson Raphael Hirsch was born in Hamburg on June 20, 1808, the first child of Raphael Hirsch, a merchant who was learned in Torah studies (and himself son of a highly regarded teacher and rabbi), and Gella Hirsch. He was educated in public school, where he had a secular education, while he pursued his Jewish education at the same time with top-level scholars. Later, he studied at both yeshiva and, briefly, at the University of Bonn. One of his classmates was Abraham Geiger, who became the leading proponent of German Reform and Hirsch’s ideological adversary.

In 1830, Hirsch became rabbi of Oldenburg, a job he held for 11 years, a period during which he wrote “Nineteen Letters on Judaism,” a defense in epistolary form of traditional religion. That was followed two years later, in 1838, by the publication of “Horev,” an explanation of the 613 commandments expounded in the Torah.

Torah with Derekh Eretz

In 1843, while serving as chief rabbi of Emden, Germany, Hirsch applied for the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He came in a distant third, however, in voting among the country’s different Jewish communities. Although he did little writing during this period, when he was occupied with pastoral responsibilities, this is when he developed the concept of “Torah with derekh eretz [literally, “way of the land”]”. This can be understood as both a call to combine a life of study with regular work, so that one can support oneself, and a call to be engaged with the outside world in a more general sense, behaving vis-à-vis other people, including non-Jews, with propriety and respect.

Torah with derekh eretz became a byword for “neo-Orthodoxy,” what we know today as modern Orthodoxy.

From 1851 until his death, Hirsch was rabbi of an initially small Orthodox congregation in Frankfurt, a city most of whose Jews had been won over by Reform. Under his leadership, a group of 13 families grew into a community of some 500, with a religious school for its children. Prussian law at the time allowed for only a single, united, recognized Jewish community in a particular locale. Hirsch, whose opposition to Reform became more combative with the years (he saw Reform as a mortal threat to the Jewish people), lobbied for a change in the law, so that groups like his would be able to “secede” from the larger community, which meant not having to pay to support it. The law was indeed changed, but the Reformers in Frankfurt responded by reaching out to the traditionalists within Hirsch’s synagogue with a number of concessions intended to keep the community intact. Hirsch pressed on for secession, but was overruled by a majority of his congregants. This was a source of some bitterness for him.

Hirsch was a lover of the Land of Israel, but a loyal German, who showed little interest in the political Zionist movement that was showing signs of emerging at the time. And for all of his worldliness, he was committed to the idea of the divine origin of all Jewish law and opposed to the “historical” study of Scripture that came into vogue during his lifetime. And of course, he remained uncompromising on the question of the binding nature of halakha.

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