From The Wisdom of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, ZT”L - III
Dr. Yitzchok Levine
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, NJ 07030
The purpose of this column is to acquaint the reader with the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (RSRH). RSRH’s writings give deep insights into the nature of Yahadus. Today many are familiar with “bits and pieces” of Torah knowledge, but often lack an overview of Judaism. Familiarity with the writings will aid one to gaining an authentic Torah Weltanschauung (world outlook).
Note: The Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer Foundation and Feldheim Publishers have graciously granted the author permission to publish any quotations below from the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. (These are available at http://www.feldheim.com/ )
The following is from RSRH’s essay Sivan I (Collected Writings of RSRH, Volume I.)
The Uniqueness of the Torah
There is no symbol for the Torah for the same reason that there is no symbol for God: the Torah is One and Unique like God its Creator. It has nothing in common with other laws, teachings, systems and institutions. It is so unique that it can be compared only to itself, it is something sui generis; as soon as you describe it by names and terms taken from other spheres you falsify the essence of the Torah and bar the way to its real understanding.
It is most essential to utter this warning. We think of all other things as belonging to classes which contain many individuals resembling one another. This rule of thought makes it difficult to admit the existence of an absolutely unique phenomenon which has no parallel whatever in any similar sphere. But “absolutely unique phenomenon” is the only description we can apply to the Torah.
One is accustomed to call the Torah “Jewish Religion;” but what is usually called religion outside Judaism relates primarily, as we have seen, to something within man, to his conception of God: And any outward observance which is connected with this inward experience is, according to the general idea of religion, only its form, and, therefore, the unessential and indifferent part of it. Indeed, as long as the thought which inspires a religion is true, its sentiment pure and noble, any form which clearly expresses that inward character is acceptable; and this form must change with the inward religious sentiment. It is here that the danger of identifying the Torah with "religion" becomes manifest.
Having once applied the term “religion’ to Torah, one naturally concludes that in the sphere of the Torah too, man’s inward frame of mind, his thoughts, conceptions and sentiments alone are the essential things; while the outward observances are merely unimportant forms which may and should change as we ourselves do according to times and circumstances. But, in fact, the whole unique character of the Torah and every word it contains are a living protest against this whole conception.
It is simply not true that our inward frame of mind and our sentiments are the essence of the institutions of the Torah, while everything is merely external framework or mantle. What the
Torah wants to regulate is not only the thoughts and sentiments of man, but the whole of human existence-man’s sensual impulses, his needs and desires, his individual life as well as that of his family, society and state. The Torah is the unique message of God addressed to Man in his totality. The few sayings of the Torah which refer to our thoughts and sentiments exclusively would cover only one small page. Are we then to regard ninety-nine hundredths of its 613 precepts as a mere wrapping which can at need be dispensed with? Only one who has never attentively looked into the Torah could fail to realize how strictly it demands the observance of its laws relating to outward actions, and especially to the physical and sensual spheres of life which are quite outside the realm of what we usually call religion. Among the many laws belonging to this category we will mention only the dietary laws and the laws regulating sexual relationship. We may be sure, that unless our modern age makes the Torah a “sealed book” for the Jew, it will never succeed in robbing the people of God of its Torah and giving them an anemic “religion” instead.
And finally, let us take those laws of the Torah which are expressly declared to be the embodiment of a thought, and consequently a symbol (Ose) or, to use the modern expression, a “form,” e.g. Sabbath, festivals, sacrifices, etc. The character of all these laws makes it obvious that the name “religion” does not fit them at all; for in these laws what is called "form" stands forth as something essential, original and eternal.
Religion in general relates to the thoughts of man which find their expression in symbolic actions: in any system of religion, therefore, the thought is the original, important and essential element, whilst the external, symbolical expression of it is of secondary importance. But unlike “religion” the Torah is not the thought of man, but the thought of God, expressed in Divine Laws which are to be carried out by man as symbolic actions. It is by these symbolic actions ordained in the Torah that the Divine thought is first implanted in man. This symbolic action is, therefore, of primary importance; it is the most important element in the Pentateuch. The Torah is, therefore, a Divine document the authentic form of which must be kept and preserved with scrupulous accuracy, so that man should be able to study and assimilate the Divine thoughts contained in it.
This idea has important legal consequences. Any Jew who by word of mouth expresses the opinion that the world was not created by God is not liable to punishment according to the penal code of the Torah; and, conversely, if he had merely expressed his conviction of the Divine origin of the universe by words, sermons or lyrical poems, he would not have fulfilled his duty as a Jew. Both acts as the mere utterance of views would remain in the sphere of “religion,” of what the world calls “faith,” as the expression of an opinion held at a particular time. But opinions change and creeds alter. The atheist of today may become a devout hymn-singer tomorrow. And what he imagines to be an advanced study of natural science may create in the religious poet of yesterday the conviction that his religious hymns were nothing but childish fancy. The penal code of the Torah does not punish, therefore, the expression of opinions about religious matters. It is quite different with the symbolic language of God as expressed by the commandments of the Torah. He who celebrates Sabbath in the Divine symbolical language of abstention from work (issur melacha) has proclaimed the truth that God created the world; and he has thereby expressed this truth not as a human belief, but as a revelation of the Creator to man; he has preserved a monument for himself and mankind which may help his children and grandchildren to rise to the profoundest conception of God at a time when a misguided science has blocked the way to a true knowledge of God the Creator. And again, anyone who desecrates this symbolism of the celebration of the Sabbath has thereby overthrown for himself and others the Divine monument, he has torn to pieces the Divine document which is intended to immortalize the conception of God not as “religion,” not as a human credo, but as Torah, i.e., as actual revelation of God to man.