Monday, August 1, 2016

An Alarming Mischaracterization of Hirsch

I saw this in a blog post and email from a Modern Orthodox Torah organization based in Canada:

"In 1876 Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch was granted permission by the German government to set up a separatist community. He did not want any of his tax money used to support Reform institutions and set out to create an Orthodox-only Jewish community. His view was a minority one, especially since the Reform dominated community agreed to fully support the Orthodox institutions. Hirsch believed that nonetheless the Orthodox should have nothing to do with the general community, neither paying nor receiving money from them. Not only did most rabbis in Germany disagree with Hirsch the vast majority of his own shul members refused to heed his call to leave the general community preferring to pay double taxation so that they could be members in both communities. "

"While Hirsch was in this domain unsuccessful in his lifetime, it is his view that has become the norm in Orthodox today, even amongst many who identify as modern Orthodox. 

"Hirsch’s antagonism towards those who disagreed with him was such that he put a cherem on the communal Orthodox shul, banning his members from stepping foot in the shul."

So the portrayal here is of this intolerant man who started us all off on this environment of intolerance that the blogger, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, believes is rampant in the frum world today.

I won't get into characterizations of the present environment. But I do have to wonder why the blogger didn't wonder how Rav Hirsch, who was so tolerant in his outlook on religion and life - or how else would the Modern Orthodox world look to him so often - who had such a positive view of the role of good gentiles in the scheme of life, who made a place in Jewish religious life for the best of world culture, could so uncharacteristically be so intolerant.

The real answer of course is that Hirsch was not being 'intolerant' in his desire to separate from the general community. He was trying to save his community, to save Torah observance in Germany. 19th century Frankfurt was not 21st century Toronto where each person politely goes about doing his own thing, particularly in religious matters. As we still see in Germany today, Jews who wanted to partake of Jewish institutions or facilities had to pay a significant tax to a general Jewish community and submit to the rulings of its board. In Frankfurt, this meant that the Orthodox had to submit to the rulings of the reformers who controlled the board. Imagine taking the money that you may spend on yeshiva tuition or tutors and paying it instead to a reform Jewish organization that controls your child's education.

And imagine not post 1960s era reform Jews who don't have a clue about the workings of Torah observance and are just following along with how they were raised but imagine people who were raised Orthodox who left it and oppose it. They know what they are opposing. A typical reform Jews has never heard of shatnez. He couldn't make fun of it because he doesn't know it exists. But someone who leaves the fold - and I have known a few in my day - is another kind of person entirely. He's like a rocket ship that is trying to get enough thrust to escape earth's gravity. He is not like a satellite that passively orbits the earth. Such would be the grandchild of the one that leaves the religion. But the one that leaves has a chip on his shoulder, a cause - whatever you want to call it. He can be a major obstacle in you keeping to the commandments. He can confuse the heck out of you which would be a minor problem compared to him outright obstructing you.

Hirsch lived in a city that had once been the glory of yiddishkite. When he got to Frankfurt he saw devastation. One resident of the city claimed that as a 14 year old boy he was the "only one in my age group who still put on tefillin." (Hirsch, Artscroll Biography, p. 116) The  IRG, the community Rav Hirsch joined as leader, had only 100 members and no shul building when he arrived.  

Additionally, the general Jewish community board was not a random group of individuals, but a cohesive unit of Masons.  As Jacob Katz tells us, this problem was unique to Frankfurt. (p. 117) Due to the anti-religious activities of reformers in Frankfurt, Torah study in groups had become outlawed. (p. 116) Here are some excerpts from the Hirsch biography that tell the tale of the activities of the community board to which Hirsch was trying to extricate his community: (p. 114-7)

"Traditionally, the community had provided kosher meals to patients in the city's hospitals, but this practice was also stopped. When Rabbi Trier forbade work on the renovation of the Jewish hospital on the Sabbath, the Community Board overruled him and ordered that the work proceed, especially on Shabbos, in spite of the objections of the hospital's administration. One of the directors of the hospital volunteered to cover the added cost of the cessation of work on Shabbos out of his own pocket, but this offer was also refused."

"In 1838, the Community Board declared, in an official report to the Senate of Frankfurt, that the value of Tanach was doubtful," and the Board also decided that any Jew who still put on tefillin was ineligible to serve as a Board member.""

"In 1837, a group of about 200 Jews who had remained faithful to tradition sought permission to renovate, at their own expense, the two abandoned and dilapidated synagogues. (Reform services were held in the Philanthropin building.) Their request was denied. Similarly, permission to renovate the old mikveh was refused, and women who wished to perform ritual immersion were forced to use facilities in the nearby towns of  Bockenheim or Offenbach.  Eventually the Community Board ordered the old mikveh to be sealed up completely. "

"Already in 1812, the government reorganized the Community Board and set new regulations governing its activity and authority. Over the years, most of the board members and community officials were strong adherents of Enlightenment and Reform. As such, the Board launched a systematic campaign to eradicate the study of Torah, and endeavored to bring about the complete atrophy of all religious institutions." Not content with merely banning religious studies from the Philanihroptn, the only officially sanctioned Jewish school in the city, the Community Board refused to tolerate them anywhere in the city. Thus, from 1818 to 1838, at the Board's initiative the Frankfurt authorities made it illegal to operate a Talmud Torah, and young people who wished to study Torah were forced to do so in hiding. All teachers of religious subjects were banished from the city, and anyone who attempted to teach Torah in spite of this edict was subject to a civil fine of 50 florins. The intention of the Board was to compel all parents to send their children to the Philanthropin, and to a great measure they succeeded. In no other Jewish community in Germany did the proponents of assimilation work so diligently and for that matter so successfully, to achieve their aims."

"Thus, Rabbi Hirsch's charge that the destruction of authentic Judaism with such success in Frankfurt was the result of the single-minded efforts of the Community Board is a historical fact. Even the Reform Rabbi of Frankfurt, Leopold Stein complained, in a pamphlet explaining his resignation in 1861, of the tyranny and the total lack of tolerance of the Board." 

"Reform Judaism, of course, was hardly a phenomenon unique to Frankfurt. But as one observer put it, there was a difference. Whereas elsewhere the Reformers were, by and large, mumarim le'tayavon (sinners for pleasure), in Frankfurt they were mumarim le'hach'is (premeditated sinners)."

This is the context of Rav Hirsch's attempts to set up an independent community. If one wants to discuss history, he has to know history, he has to know the situation of the people he is criticizing. I believe what this blogger has done is project his own frustrations with the Charedi world onto Rav Hirsch and assume that life in tolerant and affluent Toronto is how life has always been for everybody everywhere. This is what's called being spoiled. That Rav Hirsch became the victim of it is an incredible irony.

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