Hirsch, Samson Raphael

views updated May 29 2018


HIRSCH, SAMSON RAPHAEL (18081888), was a German rabbi and the foremost ideologue of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy in the Western world. Hirsch was born in Hamburg and educated in an "enlightened-pious" family of Orthodox Jews who rejected the notion that secular culture is incompatible with traditional Jewish faith. Thus he continued his studies with Jacob Ettlinger and Isaac Bernays, rabbis who were receptive to modern culture. He studied at the University of Bonn in 1829 and, in 1830, became Landrabbiner of Oldenburg. In 1836 Hirsch wrote his Neunzehn Briefe über Judentum (The Nineteen Letters on Judaism ), which has become a classic expression of Jewish Neo-Orthodox philosophy. A year later, in 1837, he wrote Choreb, oder Versuche über Jissroels Pflichten in der Zerstreuung (Horeb: Essays on Israel's "duties" in the Diaspora), his major work on the nature of Jewish revelation and law. These works earned Hirsch a reputation as a champion of Orthodoxy and a steadfast opponent of Reform.

In 1841 Hirsch became rabbi of Aurich and Osnabrück in Hannover (now Lower Saxony), and in 1846 he was appointed Landesrabbiner of Moravia. Hirsch's affirmation of Jewish political emancipation, his wearing of a clerical gown during services, and his emphasis upon the study of the Bible (rather than exclusive concentration on the Talmud) appear to have alienated him from more traditional Orthodox elements in the Moravian community. In any event, he moved to Frankfurt, where he served as rabbi of the Orthodox Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft from 1851 until his death. Here Hirsch formulated his policy of Orthodox separatism from the rest of the Jewish community and implemented his conception of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy through the educational and communal institutions he created.

Hirsch soon became the leading Orthodox proponent of the notion that traditional Jewish belief in the divinity and the immutability of the written and oral laws could be combined with an affirmation of Western culture. He did oppose Wissenschaft des Judentums, however, because he feared that it undermined traditional Jewish notions of revelation. Hirsch detested Reform for its rejection of the oral law and charged that it reformulated Judaism in accordance with the demands of the age; against Reform he argued that the contemporary era had to be viewed in light of Judaism.

Like the Reformers, Hirsch proscribed neither secular culture nor secular education. He saw Torah as increasing humanity's knowledge of the true nature of humankind, while he understood secular education as increasing humanity's understanding of God's will as it unfolds itself in both nature and history. In speaking about the relationship between religious and secular knowledge, Hirsch wrote that "both should be put on the same footing" (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, p. 450). Hirsch popularized this educational philosophy through the saying found in Pirqei avot (Chapters of the fathers) 2.2, "Yafeh talmud torah ʿim derekh erets" ("An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with worldly occupation"). While derekh erets literally means "worldly occupation," Hirsch interpreted it as signifying modern culture; this saying became the rallying cry of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy in the Western world.

In addition, Hirsch enthusiastically embraced the Jewish emancipation. He saw it as a positive development because it afforded Jews increased opportunities to fulfill their divinely ordained mission. He regarded the duty of patriotism as an obligation of love, and he charged that the Land of Israel "had seduced the people Israel from its allegiance to God" (The Nineteen Letters on Judaism, translated by Bernard Drachman, New York, 1960, Ninth Letter, p. 62). Israel's union, for Hirsch no less than the Reformers, was a religious one. "Land and soil," he wrote, "were never Israel's bond of union. That function was always fulfilled solely by the common task set by Torah" (ibid., Sixteenth Letter, p. 107). Jewish separatism was justified because of the universal spiritual mission Israel was mandated by God to fulfill "until humanity as a whole might turn to God and asknowledge Him as the sole Creator and Ruler" (ibid., Seventh Letter, p. 55).

A prolific author, Hirsch articulated these ideals in many other essays, articles, and books. Among the most famous are his commentaries on the siddur and the Pentateuch. In these works, Hirsch argued that the purpose of prayer and devotion is, in terms reminiscent of Kant, an educational onethat is, to prepare the individual philosophically and psychologically for the universal ethical-religious tasks of this world. Furthermore, Hirsch employed Hegelian legal categories in these works and explicated the particular laws and statutes of the Jewish religion in a way that allowed him to identify them with universal concepts and principles of rational thought.

These intellectual characteristics, the pure German literary style evidenced in his writings, his affirmation of emancipation, his embracing of contemporary German standards of aesthetics, and his positive attitudes toward secular education and culture all combined to gain him a great degree of prominence and to mark the emergence of a new type of Orthodox Jewish religious leader. He remains the most important exponent of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy.


Breuer, Mordechai. The "Torah-Im-Derekh-Eretz" of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Jerusalem and New York, 1970. A thorough analysis of Hirsch's educational philosophy.

Hirsch, Samson Raphael. Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 2 vols. Translated from German and annotated by Isidor Grunfeld. London, 1956. Volume 1 of this two-volume work contains a complete list of Hirsch's publications. It is probably the best introduction to Hirsch in English.

Liberles, Robert. Between Community and Separation: The Resurgence of Orthodoxy in Frankfort, 18381877. Westport, Conn., 1985. An important analysis of the context from which Hirsch emerged.

Rosenbloom, Noah H. Tradition in an Age of Reform: The Religious Philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Philadelphia, 1976. The most comprehensive analysis of Hirsch's life and thought yet to appear in English. It has aroused a great deal of controversy, both because of Rosenbloom's criticisms of Hirsch and because of the charges that Rosenbloom overlooked several important sources in constructing his portrait of Hirsch.

New Sources

Bailey, Stephen. Kashrut, Tefillin, Tzitit: Studies in the Purpose and Meaning Symbolic Mitzvot Inspired by the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Northvale, N.J., 2000.

Koltun-Fromm, Kenneth. "Public Religion in Samson Raphael Hirsch and Samuel Hirsch's Interpretation of Religious Symbolism." Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 9 (1999): 69105.

Trepp, Leo. "A Reappraisal of Samson Raphael Hirsch." Journal of Reform Judaism 34 (1987): 2940.

David Ellenson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Hirsch, Samson Raphael

views updated May 18 2018

Hirsch, Samson Raphael (1808–88). Prominent exponent of Jewish orthodoxy in 19th-cent. Germany. His most important works, Neunzehn Briefe ueber Judentum (Nineteen Letters on Judaism) (1836; Eng. 1899) and Choreb, oder Versuche ueber Jissroels Pflichten in der Zerstreuung (Hobab-Essays on Israel's Duties in the Diaspora) (1837; Eng. 1962), were designed for young adults as a defence of traditional Judaism. He strongly opposed the emergent Reform movement, defending, both Hebrew as the proper language for prayer, and also the traditional synagogue organization.