2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh



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Samson Raphael Hirsch

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), representative of the strictly traditionalist approach, viewed Wissenschaft and its methodological tools as essentially dangerous to religion and opposed any concession to Wissenschaft ideas. Hirsch and his supporters were vehement in their attacks not only against the burgeoning Reform Movement, but also against Frankel and the members of his Breslau seminary, themselves opponents of Reform. Hirsch’s opposition was both theological and practical: he considered the adherents of Frankel’s “Historical School” heretics who denied the divinity of the Oral Torah and reformers who were willing to dispense with halakhah on the basis of their academic inquiry.

Whereas Frankel viewed human involvement in the development of halakhah as precisely that which infuses the law with kedushah, Hirsch and his followers believed that to remove the Divine element was to strip the halakhah of all sanctity. If the Written Torah alone was God-given and the Oral Torah was entirely the product of human endeavor (albeit with God’s sanction), then, Hirsch asserted, one is under no obligation to accept the ongoing authority of HaZaL: “We could then, just like these earlier authorities, sit down ourselves and interpret the Law in accordance with our own views and consider our interpretations binding upon our own generation.”25

Ironically, given that we have identified systematic integrity as the strength of Frankel’s approach, Hirsch’s major objection to Frankel’s scholarship was what he regarded as the bifurcation of truth. He did not believe it possible to remain an Orthodox, God-fearing Jew, while studying God’s Torah with a scientific methodology that led one to conclusions which contradicted the very basis of belief:

There can be only one truth. That which is true by the standards of dogma must be true also according to the standards of scholarship, and, conversely, that which scholarship has exposed as falsehood and delusion cannot be resurrected by dogma as truth. If the results of scholarly research have convinced me that the Halachah is the comparatively recent creation of the human mind, then no dogma can make me revere Halachah as an ancient, Divinely-uttered dictate and allow it to rule every aspect of my life.26
Hirsch did not believe that an historical approach was possible within the guidelines of ikkarei ha-emunah.

Looking around him at the proponents of Wissenschaft, many of whom did, indeed, seek to reform the practical observance of Judaism, Hirsch became convinced that in this realm, too, there was no compatibility between modern scholarship and a Torah lifestyle:

What does the practicing Jew want with this modern learning? He would have to bring his whole domestic and civic life to a standstill, or rather, at any rate for the time being, let it become exceedingly lax, open his business, throw kosher and trefa overboard, etc. He would have to take the Tanach and the Shulchan Aruch out of his children’s hands, in order first to examine critically whether all this is really divine commandment and holy duty. . . 27
But given Hirsch’s openness to secular studies and modern intellectual sensibilities as reflected in his own biblical commentary and in his writings on Torah im derekh erets, it is questionable whether the vehemence of Hirsch’s objection to Hokhmat Yisrael was not primarily circumstantial, a response to the anti-rabbinic overtones of Wissenschaft in his own day.28 It is not entirely clear whether, in this area, Hirsch accused Wissenschaft of guilt by association alone, or whether he believed that laxity in observance was a necessary by-product of modern scholarship. He certainly believed that Wissenschaft would engender lackluster observance. As he articulated in his monograph, Judaism Eternal:

Has this new science really probed to its depths the speech of the world of God, the language of our ancestors, and brought to light the genuine and eternally valid conceptions of the Jewish spirit embodied in it? For then, indeed, our sons and daughters might with avidity turn to this language for their own world of ideas and sentiments; they might feel a longing to develop their spiritual life from its roots and with the breath of its spirit; then they might mould their outlook by its very vocabulary and learn to think and feel Jewish. . . . It has not done nor attempted anything of all this. . . . Among all the living currents of genuine Judaism, who in the wide world would have anything to do with this Jewish science; what living section of much-divided Jewry would adopt this science as its companion through life and as the teacher and moulder of its youth?29


Hirsch predicted that Wissenschaft would never become popular enough to earn the status of “ve-hagita bo yomam valaylah” because in practice, he could not imagine such scholarship engaging the nation: “We cannot see them looking upon and enjoying this study in the same way that our own grandfathers looked upon and enjoyed the intellectual labor, the ‘lernen’ of their time.”30 His articulation of the religious value of Talmud Torah was not, however, an endorsement of classical Torah le-shma. Hirsch’s major objection to Wissenschaft was its incapability of transmitting the spirit of Torah as a guiding principle.

In his periodical Jeshurun, Hirsch published articles by Gottleib Fischer who adopted a harshly rejectionist posture and advocated a return to traditional hinukh:

There is only one cure for our era which is, alas, so sick, and that cure is the proper study of Talmud as in the days of old. Only then will we recognize the outrageous work of the revilers of Torah; only then will we realize the disgraceful false premises of all those who, from behind the mask of scholarship dare to seek, by their criticism, to destroy the God-given Torah. . . . Let us dedicate our lives to produce, once again, sons reared “upon the knees of Torah and yirah,” sons who will be thoroughly familiar with our sacred religious literature—both the Written and Oral Torah. Then we will be able to overcome ignorance with knowledge and falsehood with truth.31

Branding both the Wissenschaft movement and Frankel’s “Historical School” heretical and uncommitted to halakhic Judaism, Hirsch and his supporters identified the scientific approach to Torah texts as the source of their failure. Consequently, the Hirscheans strongly opposed scientific, historical study of Torah and insisted that such scholarship was irreconcilable with traditional Jewish faith and observance.

Azriel Hildesheimer


Though he too was a vocal opponent of both the Reform Movement and Frankel’s “Historical School,” Azriel Hildesheimer (1820–1899) parted ways with Hirsch when it came to Wissenschaft and its potential for integration into the world of Talmud Torah. After serving as rabbi in Eisenstadt where he encountered harsh opposition from the right-wing Hungarian rabbinate for his openness to secular studies and to other trappings of modernity, Hildesheimer accepted a position in the Adass Jisroel congregation in Berlin. There, in 1873, he realized a long-anticipated dream and founded the first Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Germany. In his inaugural address, Hildesheimer declared his support for the pursuit of Jewish knowledge beyond the realm of traditional Talmud Torah:

It is impossible that the desire for knowledge in one field of learning should not bridge the gap to other branches of knowledge, and since, as we say in our evening prayers, Jewish knowledge constitutes “our life and the length of our days,” it would be impossible that this idealism should not also throw its anchors into other waters of the intellectual ocean.32

Despite their scholarly inclinations, Hildesheimer and his disciples were unwavering in their belief in the unity of the Written and Oral Torah.33 It was their commitment to this ikkar ha-emunah which distinguished the Berlin approach from that of Zekhariah Frankel. Unlike the Hirscheans, however, Hildesheimer and his followers did not shy away from academic scholarship, and, in fact, believed that “scientific” investigation served to affirm traditional claims. In his analysis of the Orthodox responses to Wissenschaft, Mordechai Breuer emphasizes that Hirsch and the Hildesheimer followers shared dogmatic suppositions and that their differences lay solely in willingness to make use of Wissenschaft research and to engage in scholarly dialogue with the Wissenschaft intellectuals.34

Hildesheimer and the faculty of his Rabbinerseminar believed it was essential to present their students with a theology that was compatible with contemporary standards of truth and did not dispute modern scholarship. They recognized value in the scientific methodologies developed by Wissenschaft because they perceived that these tools could be utilized in transmitting the truth of tradition to the modern generation. Outlining an educational program for the students of his seminary, Hildesheimer asserted:

Since the last half-century there has been an entirely new outpouring of Jewish Wissenschaft, as well as the need to explore other areas cultivated from time immemorial, such as biblical exegesis, from new points of view and with the use of unfathomed new sources. We will incorporate these disciplines into our curriculum and embrace them with love and full scientific seriousness, and thus serve truth and only the truth. Should we be more apologetic due to the nature of our point of view, we will never dishonor our holy cause by setting forth the phrase instead of the thought, the subjective opinion instead of the established proof. This state of mind, as I described it to you just now, is the basic element of the building we are establishing; these should be the mark-stones within which we move.35
From an educational perspective, Hildesheimer was additionally of the opinion that students’ exposure to academic scholarship was inevitable and that it was safest for this encounter to occur within the walls of the yeshivah, where he and his faculty could address the challenges to tradition and guide students’ responses.36

David Zevi Hoffmann (1843–1921), invited by Hildesheimer to teach at the Orthodox Rabbinerseminar in Berlin and later appointed dean of the institution, agreed with Hirsch in his renunciation of multiple truths but contended that the type of scholarly research being conducted by Frankel and his “Historical School” served to reinforce the tenets of belief rather than to undermine them. Thus, his response to the challenges of Wissenschaft differed fundamentally from the response of the condemnatory Hirscheans. In a lecture delivered at the opening of the Rabbinical Seminary’s 1919 winter semester, Hoffmann asserted that Wissenschaft study was not a “necessary evil,” but rather,

Through serious scientific research carried out le-shem shamayim, Torah study can only be promoted and enriched. All concepts will be grasped with scientific clarity, much which is unclear will be illuminated by research, and numerous mistakes will be eradicated. The revealed truth cannot be in contradiction to the truths which have been researched by means of the human spirit, assuming these latter truths are truths of reality and not just hunches and suppositions. Rather the former [revealed truth] will be supported by the latter [discovered truth], and lead to full clarity and complete understanding.37
The weakness in Hildesheimer and Hoffmann’s attempt at synthesis is that despite all of their assertions to the contrary, there are some cases in which conflict between tradition and academic scholarship, particularly in the field of history, is unavoidable. The Hildesheimer approach provided no guidance for one who encounters such a situation, other than to suggest that the scholarship in question must be faulty.




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