Judaism locates authenticity in continuity with the past. Religious claims gain greater authority by connecting to precedents, the older the better. This turns the study of history into an exercise far greater than an academic search for truth. It is a quest for religious justification. This politicization of Jewish history, the elevation of historical explanations to the theological level, forces us into caution when evaluating controversial claims. Radical historical theories, of which there seems to be no end, may pique interest but must be held at bay before the speculative harms the practical. The rewriting of history to fit religio-political goals is a pitfall faced across the religious spectrum.
One victim of historical revisionism is R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Wikipedia bio). The nineteenth century Jewish leader pioneered a unique form of Orthodoxy, called neo-Orthodoxy. A prolific writer and original thinker, R. Hirsch’s image as a staunch Orthodox leader is claimed by multiple sub-communities within Orthodoxy today. Was R. Hirsch the equivalent of Charedi, Modern Orthodox or somewhere in between? In a recent essay, part of a series on Modern Rabbinic Thought, R. Yitzchak Blau argues that R. Hirsch can be anachronistically classified as Modern Orthodox (link).
It would be wrong, I believe, to focus on practice. R. Hirsch occasionally exhibited some unusual practices, such as wearing canonicals adopted by Christian and non-Orthodox clergy, enforcing limitations on head coverings (link) and removing Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy. I suspect that the first and last were concessions under extreme pressure and the middle was an example of his German acculuration that is best examined as a philosophy. Rather, the appropriate method to determining whether R. Hirsch can be classified is by examining his philosophy and ideology. This is precisely what R. Blau did.
In a post a few years ago (link), I listed a number of Modern Orthodox values and argued that someone who espouses many of them falls within the spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy (exactly how many varies by value and remains unclear). R. Blau lists the following two of R. Hirsch’s views that are NOT Modern Orthodox:
- Non- (or anti-)Zionism
- Separation from the non-Orthodox community
I would have added R. Hirsch’s staunch opposition to the academic study of Judaism. He wrote at length against it, declaring many of its practitioners heretics — including the great Orthodox halakhist R. David Tzvi Hoffmann!
R. Blau proceeds to list the following of R. Hirsch’s views that are consistent with Modern Orthodoxy, stopping to prove the assertions that may be controversial:
- Analyzing biblical characters as great but flawed human beings
- Considering the legends of the Talmud (aggados) to be non-binding
- Asserting that the science of the talmudic sages was occasionally incorrect
- Encouraging women’s intellectual development
- Embracing a Universalist belief in the spiritual value of all people regardless of race, sex, nationality or religion
- Believing in the inherent value in secular studies, including the liberal arts
Some of these descriptions of R. Hirsch’s views are controversial. Charedi writers have long tried to rewrite his philosophy as theirs, allowing that he accommodated certain ideas as an outreach tool, in order to keep people within the fold, but never believed they were ideal. R. Blau correctly dismisses that approach as false revisionism. More than writing history in their own image, these would-be historians attempt to negate Modern Orthodoxy’s authenticity by severing its connection to the past.
Do these proto-Modern Orthodox views overcome the non-Modern Orthodox views and add up to a Modern Orthodox identity? I’m less certain than R. Blau. Zionism and some sort of Feminism are currently among the primary platforms of Modern Orthodoxy and R. Hirsch was antagonistic to the former and very weakly aligned with the latter. His championing of woman’s Torah education is no more than what is currently standard in the Charedi community today. And his aversion to academic history mitigates his creativity in biblical commentary. I would say that R. Hirsch lies somewhere in between Charedi and Modern Orthodox Judaism, in the middle ground that is quickly disappearing as we grow more polarized.
Does Modern Orthodoxy need R. Hirsch as one of their own? Dr. David Berger, in a fabulous essay in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, shows a long history of medieval Modern Orthodox thinkers (using the term anachronistically, of course) and Dr. Shnayer Leiman, in the same volume, describes similar figures in the modern era. Modern Orthodoxy has ample authenticity and authority that it can afford to view R. Hirsch as an opposition figure, perhaps somewhat sympathetic, who has much to teach even if he would vehemently oppose some Modern Orthodox teachings.