Friday, September 2, 2016

I took a second view of Torah im Derech Eretz - Rav Shimon Schwab

When I was twenty-five years old and a Rav in Ichenhausen, I wrote a controversial book called Heimkehr ins Judentum (Homecoming into Judaism). The year was 1934. This was the time when Hitler, yimach shemo, was in power, and we all witnessed the end of the short historical era of emancipation of Germany's Jews. We saw the return to the ghetto, the return to the Middle Ages. We saw the abdication of the German humanistic Bildungs ideal, on which we had been brought up. All that had a traumatic affect on me as well as on many others. So I decided to say goodnight to the German Kultur, and to bid farewell to my Torah im Derech Eretz heritage with which I was brought up. Instead, I opted in favor of a Torah-only return by the masses to the beis hamidrash of old, back to a very simple and frugal existence in which one seeks total happiness by immersing oneself in limud Hatorah, as our forefathers did in the Middle Ages. Thus we would find inner peace and emotional safety.

As to Rav Hirsch's ideal of Torah im Derech Eretz, I was of the opinion that this had been merely a הוראת שעה. It was a time-bound halachic compromise which was highly successful during the nineteenth century in saving the remnants of European Jewry from total oblivion in the flood of heresy which had by then inundated Western Europe. So about fifty-five years ago I wrote as follows and I quote myself: ''It came to pass in the days of Ahab, King of Israel. Our people were assembled upon Mount Carmel. The only one to stand firm in the midst of public confusion was Eliyahu Hanavi. He knows that in order to demonstrate the existence of the one true G-d, he must use the same methods which the idolaters employed. Like them, he, too, must now erect an altar, but this time it is an altar in honor of Hashem. However, the Torah forbids the offering of sacrifices outside the Beis Hamikdash. But when he sees an entire people
waiting in suspense, hearts hammering in breathless anticipation for a divine sign from heaven. Eliyahu Hanavi knows what he must do: namely, to decide on a הוראת שעה a halachic emergency ruling (to which a Navi is entitled) and to build a bamah on Mount Carmel. He brings a sacrifice, which is consumed by afire from Heaven. And so he succeeds in drawing from the lips of his estranged brethren the proclamation of a national homecoming to G-d: Hashem Hu Elokim; Hashem Hu Elokim!"

I continue to quote: "Let us recall for a moment the unfortunate era that followed Moses Mendelssohn. Western European culture had caught Jewish consciousness off'balance. The hunger for modern studies, for 'good form,' for the right to play a part in the concert of Europe, intensified beyond endurance. The unscrupulous priestcraft of Reform set up Jewish souls for total assimilation. Tens of thousands openly deserted. And so the eyes of all those who were troubled by these developments scanned the Jewish horizon for one ray of hope, for someone who would rescue Western European Jewry from the spiritual affiiction that was threatening its very survival.

"And then he appeared: the gifted teacher, the inspired educator, the fighter, the victor who alone was able to make the great thrust. With indomitable courage, he reconquered position after position and stemmed the devastating tide of perfidy. He became a guide through a labyrinth of conflicting and confusing paths. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was the historical hero of that period because he was able to find that redeeming, militant device which could stop assimilation short. This saintly fighter, filled with the zeal of Pinchas, emulated the dauntless daring of Eliyahu, he, too, promulgated an emergency ruling in the hour of his nation's agony.

“The device of Torah im Derech Eretz became essential to Israel's survival. However, it was not meant to be anything more than a temporary arrangement, not an ideal state of affairs. The synthesis between Torah and culture could be obtained only as long as the overwhelming impact of a seemingly impressive culture remained unbroken, keeping alive the illusion that the Torah was outmoded. It was not Rav Hirsch who wedded culture with Jewishness; he only found himself faced with a situation that had long been afait accompli. What he did was to respond to the challenge by choosing the only possible path, to make a virtue of a necessity in order to preserve the claim of the Torah.”

''Imbued with love of mankind as he was, he looked at all the accomplishments of culture in his day as the radiant harbingers of the footsteps of Mashiach. He was confident that the people of Europe, 'civilized men,' if you will, reared by Schiller and Goethe, by Leibnitz, Wolff and Schleiermacher, by Kant, Fichte and Hegel, would produce an ethical harvest that would eventually accord with the Will of Hashem and could be integrated into the solid spiritual structure of Torah ideology. I still remember a German poem that was required reading in all classes-Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich undgut. Let man be noble, helping and good.' Surely this device could be seen as a threshold to the sanctuary of Torah, and sufficient tojustify Rav Hirsch's hora'as sha'ah. But who could have foreseen that Man, in the course of his intellectual, artistic, social and economic progress, would turn into a creature that was anything but noble, helping and good?

"Rav Hirsch could not have anticipated the disillusionment of the generation of the World War [I]. There was nothing written in the indicate that civilized mankind, reared on the classics and the works of the philosophers, would eventually march into the battlefields of the World War, to kill each other off to the tune of twelve million victims. Not even Rav Hirsch's brilliant vision could have foreseen that.

"Reconcile Torah and European culture? It sounds very nice, except that European culture today is dominated by intellectual and political elements whose ideology could never subordinate itself to the discipline ofthe Torah. Not in his wildest dreams could Rav Hirsch have envisioned the frightening spectacle of the Jewish people the world over, cheated of its newly-awakened hopes, standing in shock before the remnants of a collapsing culture and subsequently embracing a new chauvinism of its own as a final quest for salvation." End of quotation.

This was 1934. At the time the satanic forces unleashed by "Der Yolk der Dichter und Denker" (the nation ofthe poets and thinkers), proclaimed loudly the total bankruptcy of Western "Kultur," "Bildung," "Humanism" or what-have-you. The Nazi deviltry had only one meaning for the survivors:
 לך עמי בא בחדריך וסגר  דלתיך בעדך חבי כמעט רגע עד  יעבר  זעם
Go, my people, come into your chambers, close your doors behind you, withdraw for a while until the storm is over" (Yeshayahu 26). Our slogan, therefore, could then only be "Back to the historic ghetto! Back to the Torah-only exist-ence!" This is what I wrote and published in Hitler's Germany with all my power of conviction. The derech eretz which we
had known and befriended was dead forever.

However, after having been rescued by the miracles and the חסדים of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, I woke up here in America only to realize that the historic intellectual ghetto, to which I longed to return, had gone up in flames as well. How could I have visualized that my galus path through the "desert of nations" would lead me into the very stronghold of another Western civilization, this time the American style? Little did I know that the same kind of spiritual European galus would come back again, and only more so.

So about thirty years ago, I took a second view of Torah im Derech Eretz by first studying in depth the writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch zatzal. Soon I found out that my notion of the Hirschian philosophy as a mere hora/as sha'ah was totally wrong. He did not consider his leitmotif as time-bound. It was not a compromise, it was not a heter, it was not a kulah, it was not meant to be בדיעבד but לכתחילה.True, he did not say to the Gedolei Yisrael of Eastern Europe, '''קבלו דעתי -- Accept my opinion." He realized they would not accept his Weltanschauung. They followed מסורות אבותיחם the traditions of their teachers. But Rav Hirsch also had behind him a solid mesorah from gedolim who showed him the way. From the time of Chazal through the period of the Geonim; the Rambam; the Chachmei Sepharad through the Talmidei Hagra all the way down to his own Rebbe, the Oruch. L'ner and his disciples. Rav Hirsch had his mesorah. (R' Shimon Schwab, Selected Speeches, p. 243).

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