Here's an example of an subtle and, on reflection, perfectly sensible insight of Rabbi Hirsch on an aggadita (Yoma 69a). The story has Alexander the Great marching towards Jerusalem intending to destroy it. Shimon Hatzadik, wearing the bigdei kehuna gedola, sets out with Jewish nobles and torches to meet the young warrior king. they finally met at dawn: "when (Alexander) saw Shimon Hatzadik, he dismounted from his chariot and bowed before him. They said to him 'a king like you should bow to a Jew?' He answered, 'the image of this one was victorious before me in the place of my war.'" (דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי)
Now I had always assumed that Alexander meant that he had seen the image of Shimon in a dream or vision before each battle. Perhaps I heard it taught that way from one of my rebbeim. But the truth is that the gemara says nothing of the sort. And just what does "victorious before me..." actually mean?
As it turns out, Rabbi Hirsch mentions this gemara (Collected Writings, volume II, page 432) and writes: "...he saw in Simon the embodiment of the ideals that had inspired his own military campaigns." Academic tradition has it that Alexander was a student of Aristotle, so he would most certainly have been a man of ideals. He probably would not have seen himself waging such violent wars just for personal power and glory, but for some higher purpose. It's not impossible to imagine Alexander recognizing in Shimon Hatzadik some kindred spirit and perhaps even the appearance of a philosopher. All this makes perfect sense and, although we can't be completely sure that there's no better pshat in the gemara, it certainly does a great deal less damage to the words themselves than the one with which I'd grown up.
But there's something more: of course God could have arranged for Alexander to be shown visions in his dreams. But why should we assume He would? Isn't it more reasonable to imagine two intelligent and idealistic individuals inspired to change the course of history through the power of their personalities, rather than through a "cheap" miracle? Isn't is remarkable that God could create such a species as man that can honorably arrange its own affairs, rather than a race of children that needs constant babysitting?
That, I believe, is the larger chiddush of those few words of Rabbi Hirsch.
Guest Post by Boruch Clinton