Rabbi Samson (Shimshon) Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) was the most influential rabbi of nineteenth-century Germany and the founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of Judaism, which stressed that “the Torah is maximized in partnership with worldly involvement.” Author of Horeb and Nineteen Letters on Judaism, Hirsch labored to win westernized youth back to Judaism and helped make Torah relevant to the modern era.
Rabbi Hirsch has been considered controversial among many prominent rabbis, who disapproved of his integration of secular and Jewish studies. Nevertheless, there are some who understand “Derech Eretz” to mean anything elevated through Torah study or practice, and therefore secular studies can be reconciled with practical knowledge or whatever was necessary to earn a living.
Other Jews, however, understand Rabbi Hirsch in the sense of Torah U’Madda, a synthesis of Torah knowledge and secular knowledge–each for its own sake. This is the prevalent philosophy of Yeshiva University, the New York campus noted for its blended curricula. In this view, it is considered permissible, and even productive, for Jews to learn gentile philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for their own sake.
The following is a letter of the Rebbe. Written in 1962 to a Yeshiva University professor, the Rebbe explains the nature of today’s American Jewish youth and why they can no longer relate to Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz.
I must touch upon another, and even more delicate, matter concerning the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch whom you mentioned in your letter.
There has been a tendency lately to apply his approach in totality, here and now in the United States. While it is understandable that the direct descendants of Rabbi Hirsch or those who were brought up in that philosophy should want to disseminate his teachings, I must say emphatically that to apply his approach to the American scene will not serve the interests of Orthodoxy in America. With all due respect to his philosophy and approach, which were very forceful and effective in his time and in his milieu, Rabbi Hirsch wrote for an audience and youth which was brought up on philosophical studies, and which was permeated with all sorts of doctrines and schools of thought and disciplined in the art of intellectual research etc. Thus it was necessary to enter into long philosophical discussions to point out the fallacy of each and every thought and theory which is incompatible with the Torah and mitzvoth. There was no harm in using this approach, inasmuch as the harm had already been there, and if it could strengthen Jewish thought and practice, it was useful, and to that extent, effective.
However, here in the United States we have a different audience and a youth which radically differs from the type whom Rabbi Hirsch had addressed originally. American youth is not the philosophic turn of mind. They have neither the patience nor the training to delve into long philosophical discussions, and to evaluate different systems and theories when they are introduced to all sorts of ideas, including those that are diametrically opposed to the Torah and mitzvoth, and there are many of them, since there are many falsehoods but only one truth, this approach can only bring them to a greater measure of confusion. Whether or not the final analysis and conclusions will be accepted by them, one thing is certain: that the seeds of doubt will have multiplied in their minds, since each theory has its prominent proponent bearing impressive titles of professors, PhDs, etc.
Besides, the essential point and approach is “Thou shalt be wholehearted with G-d, thy G-d.” The surest way of remaining a faithful Jew is not through philosophy but through the actual experience of the Jewish way of life in the daily life, fully and wholeheartedly. As for the principle “know what to answer the heretic,” this is surely only one particular aspect, and certainly does not apply to everyone. Why introduce every Jewish boy and girl to the various heretics that ever lived?
The whole problem is a delicate one, and I have written the above only in the hope that you may be able to use your influence with certain circles in Washington Heights, that they should again re-examine the whole question and see if the Rabbi Hirsch approach should be applied to the American scene. My decided opinion is, of course, that it should not, and I hope that whatever measure of restraint you may accomplish through your influence will be all good. I hope to hear good news from you also in regard to this.
Enclosed is a copy of my message to the delegates of N’shei Chabad, which I trust Mrs. Goodman will find interesting, since the contents of the message are intended for all Jewish men and women.
I was gratified to read in your letter that you recall our conversation with regard to your writing of your memoirs, and, as in case of all recollections in Jewish life, the purpose of which is to give it expression in actual deed, I trust that this will be the case also in regard to your memoirs.
I want to take this opportunity to mention another point which we touched upon during our conversation, and which I followed up in writing. I refer to the movement of Torah im Derech Eretz, which has sometimes become a doctrine of Derech Eretz im Torah, alluding to the saying of our Sages that derech eretz came before Torah. However, the term derech eretz is interpreted as a college education, and it is claimed to be the doctrine of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of blessed memory.
As you will recall, I made the point in my previous letter on this subject that in my opinion, with all due respect to this policy and school of thought which had their time and place, they are not al all suitable for American Jewish youth and present times and conditions, especially in the United States. I even made so bold a move as to try to enlist your cooperation to use your influence to discourage the reintroduction of this movement on the American Jewish scene, since it is my belief that your word carries a great deal of weight in these circles here.
I want to note with gratification that on the basis of unofficial and behind the scenes information which has reached me from the circles in question, the point which I made with regard to this school of thought has been gaining evermore adherents. It is becoming increasingly recognized that a college education is not a vital necessity and is not even of secondary importance. Many begin to recognize that the Torah, Toras Chaim, is, after all, the best sechorah (reward), even as a “career.” In the light of this new reappraisal, attendance at college is being recognized as something negative and interfering with detracting from the study of Torah. So much for the younger generation.
However, the older generation, especially those, whose own character and background has been fashioned overseas, in Germany, still cling to the said school of thought. The reason may be because it is difficult for a person in the prime of his life, or in a more advanced age, to radically change his whole outlook and reexamine the whole approach in which one has been trained and steeped, in the light of contemporary conditions in the United States, or it may simply be due to inertia and the like.
In view of the above, and inasmuch as a considerable impact has already been made in the right direction, I consider it even more auspicious at the time that you should use your good influence in this direction. All the more so since, judging by your energy and outlook, I trust you can be included with the younger generation and not the older one. For the younger generation is not only more energetic and enthusiastic about things, but is more prone to take up new ideas which require an extra measure of courage, to be different from others and to face new challenges. I believe that you have been blessed with a goodly measure of these youthful qualities.
I might conclude that this subject is timely in these days, on the Eve of Shavuot when the first condition of receiving the Torah was the unity of the Jewish people so that it could be receptive to the unity of G-d, as expressed in the first and second of the Ten Commandments. For the unity of G-d means not only in the literal sense of the said commandments, but that there should be no other authority or power compared with G-dliness, until there is the full realization that “There is nothing besides him.” And this idea is brought about by the One Torah, which is likewise one and only and exclusive, so that when we say that it is Toras Chaim, it means that it is literally our very source and only source of life in this life, too, and that there can be no other essential source or even a secondary source next to the Torah, even as far as our daily resources in the ordinary aspects of the life are concerned.
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