Sunday, September 23, 2018

19 Letters

I read through some of Hirsch's 19 Letters recently and resolved something that had always bothered me. Benyamin writes a heartfelt letter of his frustrations with Judaism and how it keeps him out of the ebb and flow of the world. Naftali writes back without addressing his complaints directly. The picture Naftali paints is one of which we are familiar. As Professor Marc Shapiro has noted, today, we hear the 18 letters of response and much of it sounds familiar, but that's because we live post 19 Letters. That's the influence Hirsch had on the Jewish world. He introduced many of the understandings that now seem commonplace. (Of course they are basic Torah ideas found in Chazal but ones that to a large extent were forgotten by the common Jew.) It seems as if he is giving a cliched, canned response but at the time the ideas were new to most people.

But not only that. I realize now that Hirsch was addressing Benyamin's gripes. He was saying, you feel as if you are not part of the world and are not contributing to it. But the Jewish mission concerns the world. The Jews are to serve as a beacon, as teachers of morality to the world.

This is a different answer than one might get in some places. Often people are told, well, who cares if you are missing out on gentle endeavors like art and music. That's all emptiness anyway. The gentiles are horrible, disgusting. We don't care about them. That's often the answer one gets.

But is that going to work on someone with Binyamin's concerns, someone who feels that high culture, science, and democratic government are good for the world. Is someone who identifies in whatever way with the other humans on this earth going to be drawn to Judaism when Judaism is depicted as hostile with and unconcerned with the human race?

Hirsch's answer, through the fictictious Naftali, is very clever. He doesn't slam Binyamin to the floor, but works with him. He also doesn't do what many others in the kiruv world do, say, oh, you like art, you can be an artist here too. -- These are not the same kiruv people who tell you that all gentile culture is garbage. It's more the Modern Orthodox kiruv approach. -- Because quite frankly, it's very difficult to be an artist in the frum world. Or let us put it a different way, it's hard to be part of the art world in the frum world. Because the art world is so full of illicit and problematic images and people, that one really can't be a part of it in normal circumstances. Yes, you can make some art, but, except for those who can't function without it and for whom we make exceptions, you can't move to Paris and be part of the art scene. It really is disingenuous to pretend otherwise, even though some kiruv people often do.

Rather, Hirsch is saying, you can make an even higher contribution. You can show the world the way in morality.

This presumes that the Jewish mission cares about the human race. And I have quotes from the Netziv and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and others that show how such a view does fit in with Chazal and Tanach even if we have lost touch with that part of Judaism in recent centuries. For example:

"There are religiously committed Jews who are indifferent to the concerns of the larger non-Jewish society. They are content to reside in isolated communities with unconcern, if not actual disdain, for the Gentile world and for the problems which afflict humanity. This introversion can be explained as a reaction to the centuries-old derision and persecution which have been the Jewish historical experience and to which they were subjected with particular ferocity in modern times. Nowadays, there are particular aspects of moral perversion afflicting the general society which are repellant to Jewish sensibilities. Nevertheless, this insularity cannot be vindicated as authentic Judaism even if it can be understood and justified in particular historical periods and situations."
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Man of Faith in the Modern World, p. 73.

This is one of the reasons that it's not so easy to be a Hirschian in Israel. People in Israel are so obsessed with Zionist politics, so obsessed with Arabs, who overwhelmingly are deemed an enemy (not my perspective) and see everybody else only in terms of how they seem to treat the State of Israel. So Europe is deemed anti-Israel therefore we don't like Europe. That's the attitude over here.

There's not a whole lot of interest in the human race in Israel, except maybe in leftist circles which are quite far from religious.  It's not a great place for Hirschians and it's a very bad place to send newcomers to Judaism who have Hirschian leanings because they can get turned off. I know of numerous cases of baalei teshuvah who were directed to Eretz Yisroel to study and got so turned off by the anti-gentile attitudes and the politics that they did not stay with the religion.

This is why Hirsch was a master of kiruv, maybe the first kiruv person in modern times, and why he had the respect of the great rabbanim of Eastern Europe such as the Chasom Sofer, R' I.E. Spektor, R' Y. Salanter, and R' Chaim Ozer Grodinsky. He offered a path in Judaism that was a true path, that required definite sacrificies, but he did not impose demolition of the mind, nor did he sell a bridge. He found the fine line between competing outlooks. It's all there in the 19 Letters, a book he wrote at the ripe old age of 28.


  1. So where do you suggest baalei teshuva with Hirschian leanings should go to study?

    1. Sorry I just saw this. No easy answer to that. Do you mean in full time study? There's no Hirschian yeshiva or BT seminary. Many of the beis yaakovs do have a Hirschian style though since Sarah Schnerer was a Hirschian. If you go the Modern Orthodox route you'll get some secular studies but also lots of traife. If you go the charedi route you won't get the secular studies or the concern for humanity. Hirsch was special. My suggestion I guess is to go to a place that gives you freedom to apply hirschian teaxhings on your own. Midreset Rachel is like that. For men, Dvar Jerusalem could work. R' Horowitz is one of the translators of Horeb. Not that one has to go to Israel. America in general is more Hirschian.

  2. You cite Leftists as people who care about humanity. They certainly talk up a good game about human rights. But when in power, they usually bring poverty, persecution, and death -- an equality of misery.

    Your style has certain similarities to the Leftist approach: compare your enemy not to how other actual human societies have rated on human rights, but (apparently) to some utopian fantasy where no human being would ever hurt another. And you then demonize your enemy on this basis.

    Every society and government has committed human rights abuses. Israel is no exception. But its record with Palestinians ranks light years ahead of the vast majority of governments that have had to deal with hostile minorities. Do you deny this?

    You've somehow extrapolated R' Hirsch's opposition to a Jewish State in the 1800s, when it wan't at all clear that this route would preserve more Jewish lives; to repeating the rhetoric of those who want to destroy a de facto Jewish State in the year 2018 as a first step to annihilating the Jewish Nation. Please cite your sources that show that R' Hirsch would agree with this wild leap.

    Avi From BM of TIDE

    1. Avi I take it you identify as a political conservative. This seems to be a big part of your personal identity. I don't identity either way. It's enough of a job to identify as a frum Jew.

    2. As you well know, R' Hirsch did not compartmentalize. He saw the Torah as applicable to ALL realms, even politics.

      And we don't have to guess where R' Hirsch stood on Commmunism/ Socialism; I'll re-post the locations of his severe criticisms of these if you would like me to.

      So yes, guilty as charged. I believe that today's American constitutional conservatives are MUCH closer to the Torah ideal than are Leftists, many of whom admit openly that they hate Judeo-Christian values. Do you think they only mean by this that they hate Christianity? They use lawfare to go after a Christian baker who refuses to bake for gay weddings; do you think they will stop at Christians, or bakers, or homosexuality? It's not obvious to you that they will eventually come after Torah-true Jews as well?

      We need to stop fooling ourselves with this "above the fray", convenient veneer of neutrality. This is our fight just as much as it is the Christians'.

    3. There aren't many conservatives today. We have today neo-conservatives. Was Bush a conservative bailing out banks? Was Bush a conservative engaging in foreign wars when there was no threat to the US? Is Trump a conservative with his numerous marriages, lavish lifestyle, womanizing, and foul mouth? The liberals are decadent and the so-called conservatives are decadent. Yes, the liberals are more socially decadent with the LGBT stuff and Hollywood filth. But the conservatives turn on TV as well and go to pretty much the same movies. But the conservatives tear the world apart in other ways. It's all trash. If you think the conservatives are a bit better, fine. Maybe they are. But I wouldn't make an identity out of it and blame all the problems on the liberals.

    4. Both have lots of PERSONALLY decadent members. And true, some conservatives aren't conservative enough. But only one side hates "Judeo-Christian", aka Torah values, and is fighting to eradicate them. And that is the Left.

      This is not an identity; if somehow the Left switched to being closer to Torah values than the Right, I would switch sides. I try to act on what the Torah would want in the current prevailing derech eretz as is, as R' Hirsch I instructed.

    5. Thou shall not kill is also a Torah value. Thou shall not steal is a Torah value. Have compassion is a Torah value. The right doesn't have a good record on those Torah values.

      You my friend are a captive of Likud. I believe that's your actual religion.

  3. I go by Benny Morris is these matters. He's the expert. I don't have time to study everything about Israel's history. He says this: “Israelis liked to believe, and tell the world, that they were running an “enlightened” or “benign” occupation, qualitatively different from other military occupations the world had seen. The truth was radically different. Like all occupations, Israel’s was founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation.”

    Israeli historian Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, p. 341

    How does the compare to the USA or France? I don't know. Does that make Israel as bad, not as bad? I don't know. As bad as the USSR or China? I doubt it.

  4. Agreed, with the possible mitigating circumstance that Israel's enemy poses a clear existential threat; this wasn't as clear in the cases of France and the US.

    Unfortunately, the reality of a war of survival is ugly; no one should blind themselves to this fact.

    1. Israel does not face existential threats says former Mossad director Efraim Halevy.