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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!