Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom

Part 8: Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch

Following Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, the second most explicit discussion of Chazal’s fallibility in the scientific era is found in the letters of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, which also discuss the status of aggadah:

In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmit­ters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interper­sonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.
…We are not to budge from the road to life shown us by our rishonim when they made a major and intrinsic dis­tinction between statements made as transmissions from God to Moshe and statements made as Aggadah. Their very names speak for themselves. The former were transmitted from mas­ter to disciple, and their original source is a human ear hearing from the mouth of Moshe who heard at Sinai. The latter, though transmitted from master to disciple (for many aggadic statements are introduced by a disciple in the name of his mas­ter and sometimes even in the name of the master’s master), have their origin in what the originating scholar stated as his own opinion in accord with his broad understanding of Tanach and the ways of the world, or as statements of mussar and fear of G-d to attract his audience to Torah and mitzvos.

In dealing with these important letters – also unacceptably relegated to a footnote (p. 224) – R. Schmeltzer follows Rav Moshe Shapiro’s lead and denounces the letters as forgeries. He rates the content of these letters as heresy “along the lines of Azariah de Rossi’s Me’or Einayim.”

This claim is based on the fact that the letters from Rav Hirsch were unsigned and were not written in his handwriting. However, Professor Mordechai Breuer, the greatest expert on Rav Hirsch in our day, noted to me that it was the custom for family members to make copies of correspondence. He laughed when I told him that there were people claiming the letters to be forgeries.

R. Schmeltzer claims that there is no basis for attributing them to the “tzaddik Rav Hirsch.” This is simply false. Rav Hirsch’s letters were part of a lengthy exchange with Rabbi Hile Wechsler, and Rabbi Wechsler’s original handwritten letters are extant. To maintain a belief that the Hirsch letters were forged, one would have to claim that somebody was consistently intercepting the letters that Rabbi Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled Rabbi Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! This is absurd. The Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine.

R. Schmeltzer claims that the publisher of Shemesh Marpeh (the anthology of Rav Hirsch’s letters) asked Rav Shimon Schwab about these letters, and Rav Schwab “forbade him from publishing them, as though they were written by his hand, and therefore they were omitted.” If that were to have been the case, then Rav Schwab would have been mistaken. However, it seems instead that R. Schmeltzer has either been misinformed or is misrepresenting what happened. R. Schwab did advise the editor, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, not to publish the letters but this was because the letters would be considered controversial and cause problems for him.[1]

What is especially disturbing is that the proof of the letters’ authenticity has already been pointed out a long time ago. A friend of mine in Bayit Vegan, Rabbi Matis Greenblatt, brought the Wechsler letters to Rav Moshe Shapiro’s attention. Much later I heard that when someone else asked Rav Moshe about Rav Hirsch’s letters, Rav Moshe no longer claimed that the letters were forgeries and replied instead that “Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash.” So why is Chaim B’Emunasom still claiming that the letters are forgeries?

R. Schmeltzer must concede that the Hirsch letters are genuine. Which in turn means that either Rav Hirsch was espousing heresy, or that the fundamental message of R. Schmeltzer’s book is false.


[1] Lawrence Kaplan, in “Torah U-Madda in the Thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,” BDD vol. 5 (Summer 1997) p. 28, reports a conversation that he had with R. Schwab and says that he is citing him practically verbatim as follows: “The editor consulted with me, and I advised him not to publish them. I told him that the letters are controversial and likely to be misunderstood, and that his publishing them would just bring him unnecessary tzorres.”


  1. actually what is unacceptable to be relegated to a footnote is the second half of r schwabs statement which you so conveniently left out of the post- "and likely to be misunderstood"
    evidently, he was right

  2. Anonymous (please use a name or pseudonym, or I will not post further comments from you), why on earth is it unacceptable to relegate that to a footnote? The subject of this post is whether the letters exist and are authentic, not whether they are misunderstood. Besides, how have they been misunderstood?

  3. Is this letter included in the collected writings by feldheim? I am curous.

  4. I'd like to add that it's not a chiddush for RSRH to have held like R. Avroham ben Harambam, based on how one understands his statement in Horeb that "all that springs from the second school has no power to bind".

    I've seen two different interpretations of Horeb. If one interprets it like R. Dessler understands R. Shmuel Hanagid, it's not such a chiddush.

    However, if you interpret Horeb differently(I saw an article by an adam gadol who did so and disagreed with Horeb), then RSRH in Horeb is giving less authority to Aggadah.

    It is clear that according to the above Haredi adam Gadol(which I don't want to mention the name in this forum because I don't have access to the article now), there is no reason to claim forgery for the Wechsler letter because it's in line with the Horeb quote.

    See also R. Elias's Nineteen Letters pg 281(linked in part), and R. Leo Levi "Vistas from Mt. Moriah" regarding the Horeb quote.

  5. >>"Much later I heard that when someone else asked Rav Moshe about Rav Hirsch’s letters, Rav Moshe no longer claimed that the letters were forgeries and replied instead that “Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash.”
    So why is Chaim B’Emunasom still claiming that the letters are forgeries?"

    I see two possibilities:
    1) It means your assertion that R' Schmeltzer is representing Rav Moshe Schapiro's view in every page of this book is an overstatement.
    A glowing approbation just indicates approval for the basic position in the book--it does not indicate approval of every method used to establish this position.

    2) The person you heard the above quote from was not conveying what he heard accurately.

  6. Who published this book and why is falsifying truth allowed? Chas Veshalom someone should come out with a book about Judaism and blood libels being true. Would the jewish nation around the world not stand up in protest to such a book. Now, when someone is invalidating an established course in Judaism no one does anything. Why is this so?

    It is so sad that there are Rabbonim that are considered great that would allow complete falsifications to run rampant around Judaism, when they themselves know they are falsifications. If they don't know then that is REALLY sad.

  7. Isaac, I never once claimed that R' Schmeltzer is representing Rav Moshe Schapiro's view in every single page of this book. What I claimed is that in general he represents it well. If on this topic, he is not representing it well, this is still a problem, no?

    But in any case, you are missing out a third possibility.

  8. I cannot think of a third.

  9. Maybe one problem here is using the word "fallibility". It seems somewhat confrontational, yes?

    Perhaps a different way of stating the obvious would be more acceptable.

    Only God is omniscient. Therefore our Sages, as brilliant as they were, were not. Thus it is possible there is scientific information they were simply not aware of at the time they live. This does not make them fallible. Using the knowledge base of their day, their conclusions were undoubtedly correct while now, with an expanded scientific understanding of Life, the Universe and Everything (which I presume you've read) there is a different understanding of how things work.

    We don't say Isaac Newton or any other physicist was fallible, just that they were constrained by the available data. What's more, if Chazal were to come back to life today, would they continue to insist on scientific understandings of 1500 years ago or would they immediately immerse themselves in today's knowledge, a la the Chazon Ish, to better understand the world?

    What is so wrong with understanding this in this manner?

  10. > I cannot think of a third.

    The third is that Rav Shapiro is not a man of truth. When confronted with the evidence, he will say that the letters are not a forgery, but that Rav Hirsh is not from our Beth Midrash. To others he will still say that the letters are a forgery.

  11. We don't say Isaac Newton or any other physicist was fallible, just that they were constrained by the available data.

    That's part of the definition of 'fallible', which just means capable of error, whether due to the limits of the human mind or to lack of sufficient or correct data.

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