Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rav Hirsch Lives!

One of the most significant sources in Torah-Science issues - specifically with regard to Chazal's knowledge of the natural world - is Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's letters on the topic. He considers it as basic and normative that Chazal's knowledge of the natural world was merely based upon common beliefs of their era. (He further writes that there is no basis to condemn someone who does not adopt a literal interpretation of supernatural accounts regarding Chazal.) Here is an extract:
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. (Download more at this link)
Of course, this is nothing that was not already stated and considered normative by the rationalist Rishonim of Sefarad. Still, Rav Hirsch's letters are important, for two reasons. First is that he expounds upon it at much greater length, giving concrete examples such as Chazal's mistaken belief in spontaneous generation. Second is that he is much more recent than the Rishonim, thereby giving this approach continuation, and countering those such as Rav Aharon Feldman who claim that the revelations of the Zohar render the approach of the rationalist Rishonim incorrect and no longer legitimate.

For this reason, Rav Hirsch's letters were a powerful weapon in the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-5. And the counter-claim by Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro was that the letters must be forgeries(!). This claim was 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 generation, noted to me that it was the custom for family members to make copies of correspondence. When I told him that there were people claiming the letters to be forgeries, he laughed.

Proving the letters authentic is not difficult. They were part of an extended correspondence with R. Hile Wechsler, and R. 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 R. Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled R. Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! Clearly, this scenario is absurd; the Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine.

(A friend of mine in Bayit Vegan 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." However, he later warmly endorsed Reuven Schmeltzer's notorious buch Chaim B'emunasam which maintains that the letters are forgeries.)

The Hirsch letters were originally published in the journal HaMa'ayan. When Artscroll published a Hebrew volume of Rav Hirsch's letters and responsa, Shemesh Marpeh, it would have been natural to include these letters in that volume. But Rav Shimon Schwab advised the editor, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, not to include them. Prof. 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.”

With all due respect, I have to disagree. How are they "likely to be misunderstood"? They are written extremely clearly. They will clear up existing misunderstandings of this topic rather than create new ones! As such, while they are (today) controversial, I don't see that publishing them brings unnecessary tzorres, but rather the necessary tzorres that comes with publishing the works of a great figure whose views are not accepted by everyone.

It was truly disappointing that the letters were omitted from Shemesh Marpeh. I was therefore pleased to discover that Feldheim has just published volume nine of "Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch," in which they included these letters!

Inevitably, there will still be those who insist that Rav Hirsch only said it for outreach purposes (despite that his words clearly show that he meant it as a lechatchilah), along with the claim that Torah Im Derech Eretz was only an emergency patch for his generation. Feldheim, however, seems intent on pointing out otherwise. The volume, which is also described as including "an affirmation of Torah im Derech Eretz," is titled "Timeless Hashkafah." And on the website, the book is described as "reflecting the ever-valid Hirschian ideology."

Will it cause a storm? I don't think so. Been there, done that. A few people might make a fuss, but the book will not be withdrawn from publication, and nobody will lose their job or shidduchim for their kids. The ridiculous claim that the letters are forgeries will fade. Rav Moshe Shapiro may continue to claim that "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash," but many people will fail to understand how that renders his views unacceptable, or why they should not be a part of Rav Hirsch's Beis HaMidrash.

Kol hakavod to Feldheim for keeping Rav Hirsch's legacy alive!


  1. Of course it won't cause any kind of storm. Feldheim's English volumes are not part of the charedi battei medrash (and when they are, they sit in the back gathering dust). The Wechsler letters are referred to extensively in Dayan Grunfeld's introduction to "Horeb" (which was, naturally, censored from the Hebrew version), and I believe R' Hirsch's views of chazal and medrash are outlined in his commentary of the siddur as well.

    Shemesh Marpeh's history and content deserve a much more involved discussion. As I understand it, the Breuer family in general was not supportive of the publication effort, and I believe that quite a bit of correspondence was withhend from R' Klugman when he was compiling the collection.

  2. Rabbi Slifkin , on the subject of minority opinions as in those who believe in Chazals misunderstandings of science , can you give me a clear answer to the following question:
    Would you take for a son in law a young man who believes that Hashem has a guf, after all the Raavad in Hilchos Teshuva says there were those greater than the Rambam who believed in that.
    Does your potential son in law not have the right to follow Rishonim greater than the Rambam?

  3. I have discussed this extensively in my essay "They Can Say It, We Cannot." Google it, it's freely available.

  4. I don't understand Peter Pan's comment. The issue here, as I understand it, is whether Rav Hirsch's opinions on this issue should be made available or censored, not which opinion is correct. To put it another way, the question is whether our intellectual history is to be rewritten in order to mislead people into thinking that no major rabbis have held that chazal can be mistaken about science.

  5. This statement really kills me.

    ...We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences...

    Equal to their own? I'm not sure who or what sage made this claim, if any. It sounds as if it was actually made by a third party apologist.

    History does not show us that our Sages were masters of the sciences but as Rav Hirsh says they were masters of Toros Hashem or in modern terms they were masters of the own methods of biblical exegesis which they claim was Hashem's Toros.


    Rabbi Simon

  6. I also was very pleased to see these published. It should also be noted that the new volume contains a topical index to the collection.

    Happily the 10 or so copies in the Passaic bookshop when I bought mine, appear to have sold out within a couple of weeks, so at least there's that much market.

  7. There were Rishonim greater than Rambam?

  8. "Would you take for a son in law a young man who believes that Hashem has a guf, after all the Raavad in Hilchos Teshuva says there were those greater than the Rambam who believed in that."

    I love that - take for a son-in-law. We're so middle ages.

    Aside from Ploni's appropriate response, the problem with someone believing in a corporeal God in our society is not a halachic one. It would simply be strange, and one wouldn't normally pick a strange person to marry his daughter.

  9. I wrote an essay based no Rav Hirsch recently and the chareidi papers refused to print it. I think your readers will enjoy it. "Sheltering our children. Is that really our Mesora?" Read more: http://dteitelbaum.blogspot.com/2012/03/sheltering-our-children.html

  10. Just to clarify: The Collected Writings series is published by the Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer Foundation, an organization composed of Rav Breuer's descendants dedicated to publishing the works of Rav Breuer and Rav Hirsch. The Foundation is the copyright holder of the Collected Writings, the Hirsch Chumash and other works while Feldheim publishes the works on their behalf.

  11. I'm glad to see this published by Feldheim.

    But that fact that this is a "win" is really an indictment on the Torah world. When saying the obvious, common sense thing (e.g. that Chazal were human) requires support from an "authority", and when you find such support (and it's not rendered heretical) it's cause for minor celebration, this is a rather feeble state of intellectual affairs, wouldn't you say?

    I'll go further - I'd say it's actually cult-like. Whenever people start to feel inhibited, concerned about public scrutiny when expressing common sense or reason, this is a bad sign.

    If we're serious about being a light to the nations, or even a light to our own people, it's time we snap out of it already. Intellectual openness/honesty is something to embrace with a full heart, not to fear.

    To quote Rashi (quoting the Midrash) on Parshat Shelach 13:18, "If they live in open cities (it's a sign that) they are strong, since they rely on their strength. And if they live in fortified cities (it's a sign that) they are weak." So too, protecting ourselves and Torah inside strongholds of dogmatic belief may give the appearance of "strength" but is really a sign of weakness.

  12. Charlie Hall: According to the Rabad there were!

  13. What does the evidence say?

    There is only one sure fire way to prove if Rav Hirsch was right or in error, and that is to investigate the knowledge of the times in question, and see if Chazal's (fallacious) knowledge of the natural world parallels with that of the wisdom of the gentile scholars.

    To say that flawed and untrue knowledge was transmitted to Chazal from Sinai is far more controversial and brings far more unnecessary tzorres.

    It is disrespectful to Hashem and his Torah.

    Think about it.

  14. "The Foundation is the copyright holder"

    How can the works still be under copyright? Rav Hirsch died in 1888. Is it the *translations* that are under copyright? When were they done?

  15. Is there not an issue of Gneivus Daas if you purport to publish or imply that you are publishing the works of R' Hirsch. At the very least shouldn't you have a footnote regarding what has been omitted

  16. R. Schwab's advice to R. Klugman might be better understood in the context of the internal politics of the KAJ. I have heard that the Breuers opposed the publication of Shemesh Marpeh. R. Schwab might have been sensitive that anything controversial might be used by the Breuers in their feud with R. Schwab. I am not a KAJ insider, so I might have it quite wrong.

  17. The translations in the Hirsch Collected Writings were done by various writers, including Dayan Isidore Grunfeld, Gertrude Hirschler, and Rabbi Emanuel Weldler (see, for example, the Acknowledgements page of vol. II). These translations are relatively recent and are certainly subject to copyright.

  18. I believe 90% of the translations in the Collected Writings were done by Gertrude Hirschler. Her papers are in the archives of Yeshiva University.

    Incidentally, the same Rav Schwab who apparently discouraged Rabbi Klugman from publishing these two letters on aggadata also apparently supported publishing RSRH's speech in honor of Schiller's birthday, even though some people feared it would cause controversy.

  19. Professor Kaplan, but doesn't Raavad attribute their belief in corporeality to being confused by the 'aggadot hameshabshot et hasechel'? This can hardly make them greater than Rambam because they completly misunderstood Chazal?

  20. The talmud have amazing acurate cientific konowlage that can only be given by god .It has the precise minimal time of the renewal of the moon that was only cauculated precisely later with more cientific tecnology in the 20 century.
    Also the Gemara indicates a number of stars of the universe that could not
    be imaginated by regular people of those times,simply becouse they dont had telescopes and only could see a reduzed number of stars in the sky.
    Chazal was so great that we cant compare them to any rabi of our generation.If a tannaim would speak
    in a shul he would shake the world with his holiness an wisdom.
    This can chas ve shalom reduce the honor and the acceptability of the words of the Sages

  21. Unfortunately, what you say is not true. Also, I suggest improving your English, and using a spellchecker.

  22. Carol: The Rabad uses phrase "gedolim ve-tovim mi-mennu," the plain meaning of which is "better and greater than him" [i.e., the Rambam]

  23. What is fascinating is how important it is for both MO and chareidim to claim R. Hirsch as one of their own!

    (PS I must have refreshed captcha 15 times before I could figure out what I had to type.)

  24. I love Rav Hirsch, because he is on the rationalist side when it comes to things like science and working for a living, but on the mystical side with regard to divine providence. From what I can tell from reading Horeb so far, it seems that Rav Hirsch has a strong belief that absolutely everything in the world that happens is controlled directly by HaShem. I personally don't think this is incompatible with rationalism, even if it tends to be in practice.

  25. ...I love Rav Hirsch, because he is on the rationalist side when it comes to things like science and working for a living, but on the mystical side with regard to divine providence...

    I think it is very interesting but also very curious how our religion can have completely opposing views yet they are each considered legit.

    Rav Hirsh believes in divine intervention and yet others will posit the world operates only by the system of nature God created.

    Both sides will argue they are each right under the same banner of ultimate legitimate Jewish beliefs and philosophy.

    I guess we can have our cake and eat it too.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

  26. @Lawrence Kaplan,

    What do you make of the alternative reading of raavad there which some suggest?


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