Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Rav Hirsch: Hero or Heretic?
Tomorrow is the 125th yahrzeit of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. The official line amongst Orthodox Jews of all stripes is that Rav Hirsch was a hero who saved Torah Judaism. But when we come to his views on Torah and science, there is a remarkable divergence of views.
There are three significant positions that Rav Hirsch takes with regard to Torah and science. First is his being one of the earliest prestigious rabbinic authorities to recognize that evolution poses no theological problems:
Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 26; for further discussion, see this post)
The second significant position that Rav Hirsch takes is with his explanation of how the Torah can contain inaccurate descriptions of the universe:
Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)
Third is Rav Hirsch's elaboration of the idea that the Sages of the Talmud did not possess any special knowledge of the natural sciences and thus accepted whatever notions were prevalent in their era, even those that were mistaken:
...The first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’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... The greatness of a person's wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. (Collected Writings vol. 9; for the full text and further discussion, see this post)
My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, stressed the importance of Rav Hirsch's approach in these areas. I know that Rav Hirsch's writings in these areas were an immense help to me, and I have seen them help thousands of people who struggle with religious crises in this area. Feldheim Publishers included Rav Hirsch's writings on these topics in their "Collected Writings" series. To all of us, Rav Hirsch's approaches in these topics further confirms his status as a hero.
But there are those who take a different view of Rav Hirsch's approach in this area. In the late and unlamented Jewish Observer, the revisionist Rabbi Joseph Elias fundamentally distorted Rav Hirsch's views and claimed that Rav Hirsch never really intended them seriously. Rav Moshe Shapiro holds that such an approach to Chazal is a fundamental perversion of the Gemara and blatantly heretical; after being disproven in his claim that Rav Hirsch's writings were forgeries, Rav Shapiro stated that "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash." Rav Aharon Feldman maintains that Rav Elyashiv "paskened" Rav Hirsch's approach to be heresy for all Klal Yisrael; when I asked him how he could do such a thing, Rav Feldman told me that "Rav Elyashiv is bigger than Rav Hirsch" (which did not seem to answer the question). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman likewise maintains that the approach of Rav Hirsch (in all three areas mentioned above) is heresy, and therefore entirely omits Rav Hirsch's views on these topics from his 800 page book on Torah, Chazal and Science.
I find it fascinating that within one very small group of relatively similar people - the Anglo Orthodox Jewish community - there are those who consider Rav Hirsch's approach in these topics to be true, life-saving, and heroic, and there are those who consider it to be false, deadly and heretical.