Samson Raphael Hirsch (June 20 1808 – December 31 1888) was a German rabbi best known as the intellectual founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Occasionally termed neo-Orthodoxy, his philosophy, together with that of Azriel Hildesheimer, has had a considerable influence on the development of Orthodox Judaism.
Hirsch was rabbi in Oldenburg, Emden, was subsequently appointed chief rabbi of Moravia, and from 1851 until his death led the secessionist Orthodox community in Frankfurt am Main. He wrote a number of influential books, and for a number of years published the monthly journal Jeschurun, in which he outlined his philosophy of Judaism. He was a vocal opponent of Reform Judaism and similarly opposed early forms of Conservative Judaism.
Hirsch was born in Hamburg, Germany. His father, though a merchant, devoted much of his time to Torah studies; his grandfather, Mendel Frankfurter, was the founder of the Talmud Torah in Hamburg and unsalaried assistant rabbi of the neighboring congregation of Altona; and his granduncle, Löb Frankfurter, was the author of several Hebrew works, including Harechasim le-Bik'ah, a Torah commentary. Hirsch was a pupil of Chacham Isaac Bernays, and the Biblical and Talmudical education which he received, combined with his teacher's influence, led him to determine not to become a merchant, as his parents had desired, but to choose the rabbinical vocation. In furtherance of this plan he studied Talmud from 1823 to 1829 in Mannheim under Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger. He then entered the University of Bonn, where he studied at the same time as his future antagonist, Abraham Geiger.
In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi (Landesrabbiner) of the principality of Oldenburg. During this period he wrote his Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum, (Nineteen Letters on Judaism) which were published, under the pseudonym of "Ben Usiel" (or "Uziel"), at Altona in 1836. This work made a profound impression in German Jewish circles because it was something new — a brilliant, intellectual presentation of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, and a fearless, uncompromising defense of all its institutions and ordinances.
In 1838 Hirsch published, as a necessary concomitant of the Letters, his Horeb, oder Versuche über Jissroel's Pflichten in der Zerstreuung, which is a text-book on Judaism for educated Jewish youth. In fact, he wrote Horeb first, but his publishers doubted that a work defending traditional Judaism would find a market in those times, when reform was in vogue.
In 1839 he published Erste Mittheilungen aus Naphtali's Briefwechsel, a polemical essay against the reforms in Judaism proposed by Holdheim and others; and in 1844 he published Zweite Mittheilungen aus einem Briefwechsel über die Neueste Jüdische Literatur, also polemical in tendency.
Hirsch remained in Oldenburg until 1841, when he was elected chief rabbi of the Hanoverian districts of Aurich and Osnabrück, with his residence in Emden. During this five-year post, he was taken up almost completely by communal work, and had little time for writing. He did, however, found a secondary school with a curriculum featuring both Jewish studies and a secular programme, for the first time employing his motto Torah im Derech Eretz ("The Torah is maximalised in partnership with worldly involvement").
In 1843, Hirsch applied for the post of Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. Out of 13 candidates, mostly from Germany, he made the short list of four: Nathan Marcus Adler, Hirsch Hirschfeld, Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach and Hirsch. Adler won the position on December 1, 1844. With 135 communities having one vote each, Adler received 121 votes, Hirschfeld 12, and Hirsch 2.
In 1846 Hirsch was called to the rabbinate of Nikolsburg in Moravia, and in 1847 he became chief rabbi of Moravia and Austrian Silesia. In Austria he passed five years in the reorganization of the Jewish congregations and the instruction of numerous disciples; he was also, in his official capacity as chief rabbi, a member of the Moravian Landtag, where he campaigned for more civil rights for Jews in Moravia.
In Moravia Hirsch had a difficult time, on the one side receiving criticism from the Reform-minded, and on the other side from a deeply traditional Orthodox element, which found some of his reforms too radical. Hirsch placed a much stronger emphasis on deep study of the entire Hebrew Bible, rather than just the Torah and selected Bible readings, in addition to Talmud, as had been the custom of religious Jews up until then.
In 1851 he accepted a call as rabbi of an Orthodox separatist group in Frankfurt am Main, a part of the Jewish community of which had otherwise largely accepted classical Reform Judaism. This group, known as the "Israelite Religious Society" ("Israelitische Religions-Gesellschaft" or IRG), became under his administration a great congregation, numbering about 500 families. Hirsch was to remain Rabbi of this congregation the rest of his life.
Hirsch organized the Realschule and the Bürgerschule, in which thorough Jewish training was provided along with those aspects of secular training deemed true according to the Torah (Torah im Derech Eretz). He also founded and edited the monthly magazine Jeschurun (1855-70; new series, 1882 et seq); most of the pages of the Jeschurun were filled by himself.
In 1876, Edward Lasker (a Jewish parliamentarian in the Prussian Landtag) introduced the "Secession Bill" (Austrittsgesetz), which would enable Jews to secede from a religious congregation without having to relinquish their religious status. The law was passed on July 28, 1876. Despite the new legislation, a conflict arose whether "Austritt" (secession) was required by Jewish law. Hirsch held this was mandatory, even though it involved a court appearance and visible disapproval of the Reform-dominated "Main Community" (Grossgemeinde). His contemporary Isaac Dov Bamberger, Rabbi of Würzburg, argued that as long as the Grossgemeinde made appropriate arrangements for the Orthodox element, secession was unnecessary. The schism caused a terrible rift and many hurt feelings, and its aftershocks could be felt until the ultimate destruction of the Frankfurt community by the Nazis.
During the final years of his life, Hirsch put his efforts in the founding of the "Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums", an association of independent Jewish communities. During the 30 years after his death this organization would be used as a model for the formation of the international orthodox Agudat Yisrael movement. Hirsch had a great love for the Land of Israel, which is apparent from his writings, but was opposed to the proto-Zionist activities of Zvi Hirsch Kalischer.
Other works (besides the ones mentioned above) were:
He left in manuscript at the time of his death a translation and explanation of the prayer-book which was subsequently published. The publication, in several volumes, of his collected writings (Gesammelte Schriften or Nachalath Zwi) was begun in 1902.
Most of Hirsch' writings have been translated into English and Hebrew by his descendants, starting with "Horeb" in the 1950s (by Dayan Isidore Grunfeld of London) and his Torah commentary in the 1960s (by his grandson Isaac Levi, also of London). The bulk of his Collected Writings, that had previously been published in German in 1902-12 under the title Nachalath Zwi, were translated during the 1980s and 1990s in memory of his grandson Joseph Breuer.
Hirsch lived in the post-Napoleonic era, an epoch when Jews had been granted civil rights in a large number of European countries, leading to assimilation and a call for reform. A large segment of his work focusses on the possibilities for Orthodox Judaism in such an era, when freedom of religion also meant the freedom to practice Torah precepts without persecution and ridicule.
The principle of "Austritt", an independent Orthodoxy, flows naturally from his view on the place of Judaism in his epoch: if Judaism is to gain from these civil liberties, it has to be able to develop independently - without having to lend implicit or explicit approval to efforts at reformation.
His other major work involves the symbolic meaning of many Torah commandments and passages. Indeed, his work "Horeb" (1837) focuses to a large degree on the possible meanings and symbols in religious precepts. This work was continued in his Torah commentary and his articles in the Jeschurun journal (Collected Writings, vol. III, is a collation of these articles).
A final area of his work, which has only recently been rediscovered, was his etymological analysis of the Hebrew language. Most of this work is contained in his Torah commentary, where he analyses and compares the shorashim (three-letter root forms) of a large number of Hebrew words and develops an etymological system of the Hebrew language. Although this effort was, in his own words, "totally unscientific", it has led to the recent publication of an "etymological dictionary of the Hebrew language".
Although Hirsch does not mention his influences (apart from traditional Jewish sources), later authors have identified ideas from the Kuzari (Yehuda Halevi) and the Maharal of Prague in his works. Nevertheless, most of his ideas are probably original.
In a 1995 edition of Hirsch' Nineteen Letters, commentator Rabbi Joseph Elias makes an extensive effort to show Hirsch' sources in Rabbinic literature, parallels in his other works and those of other post-Talmudic Jewish thinkers. Elias also attempts to refute particular interpretations of his philosophy, such as the notion that many of his thinking was rooted in Kantian secular philosophy.
While the Zionist movement was not founded during his lifetime, it is clear from his responses to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer that he opposed overemphasis on settlement in the Land of Israel. In later works, he makes it clear that Jewish sovereignty is dependent only on Divine Providence.
There is considerable controversy over Hirsch's legacy; this is a matter of debate between three parties: Haredi (sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox), Modern Orthodox, and Hirsch's descendants. While it is undisputed that his Torah im Derech Eretz was his real innovation, the exact implementation has been greatly debated.
Those on Orthodoxy's right wing hold that Hirsch himself only approved of secular studies as a "Horaas Sha'ah", or temporary dispensation, in order to save Orthodox Jewry of the 1800s from the threat posed by assimilation. While a yeshiva student in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Shimon Schwab obtained the opinion's of various Poskim (authorities in Jewish law) to this effect (see Selected Writings "These and Those" where Schwab himself disagrees).
To the other extreme, some Modern Orthodox Jews understand Hirsch in the sense of Torah Umadda, meaning a synthesis of Torah knowledge and secular knowledge - each for its own sake (this view is propagated in several articles in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America). In this view, Hirsch thought that it was permissible, and even productive, for Jews to learn gentile philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for their own sake.
In contrast, a third middle opinion held by Hirsch's descendants (his son-in-law and successor Rabbi Solomon Breuer, his grandson Rabbi Joseph Breuer and the latter's successor Rabbi Shimon Schwab), Rabbi Joseph Elias in his commentary to the Nineteen Letters (Feldheim 1995) and some Jewish historians, says that both of these understandings of Hirsch's philosophy are misguided; they refer to these readings of Hirsch as improper historical revisionism. In response to the "temporary dispensation" theory, they point to Hirsch in Collected Writings as continually stressing the philosophical and religious imperative of Torah im Derech Eretz for all times (Note that Hirsch himself addressed this contention: "Torah im Derech Eretz ... is not part of troubled, time bound notions; it represents the ancient, traditional wisdom of our sages that has stood the test everywhere and at all times." (Gesammelte Schriften vi p.221); see further Rabbi Shimon Schwab in Selected Writings- "These and Those"). In response to the "Torah Umadda" theory they say that Hirschian philosophy demands the domination of Torah over secular knowledge, not a separate synthesis. On this basis, many adherents of Hirsch's philosophy have preferred the natural sciences over the humanities as a subject of secular study, seemingly because they are easier to judge through the prism of Torah thought than the more abstract humanities.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (June 20, 1808 – December 31, 1888) was the intellectual founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. He wrote notable commentaries on the Pentateuch, Psalms and Jewish prayer book, as well as ethical and philosophical works.