Monday, June 23, 2008

The Two-Hundredth Birthday of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch: Celebrating his Life or Mourning his Death?

This past Shabbat I had the good fortune to be in Washington Heights and attend K’hal Adath Jeshurun’s (KAJ) celebration of the two-hundredth birthday of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88). Hirsch is an important figure in my life. I do not exaggerate when I say that I remain an Orthodox Jew today in large part because of his writings. He was the leading figure of nineteenth-century Orthodox Jewry in Germany. He was famous both for his uncompromising defense of traditional Jewish practice and his willingness to incorporate secular knowledge into his thought. KAJ is essentially the congregation that Hirsch built, albeit transported to New York during the 1930s. At this event, there were a number of interesting speakers and events, which, for better and for worse, are a reflection of the state of Hirschian thought today.

As a featured speaker KAJ brought in columnist Jonathan Rosenblum. Rosenblum spoke about the continued importance of Hirsch to today’s issues and what Hirsch can teach today’s rabbinic leadership. Unlike many rabbis today, Hirsch’s Judaism was not on the defensive; he did not simply bunker down and try to figure out more ways to “protect” his community from the dangers of the outside world. On the contrary, Hirsch’s Judaism was on the offensive; he believed that traditional Judaism had a message for all Jews and for the entire world and that it could compete with the best of what the world had to offer. Hirsch saw Judaism as a community that encompassed many different types of people, from all walks of life. He offered a Judaism which also valued people who did not sit and study all day, but who lived in the world. Not only did Hirsch speak to the issues of the day, but he also spoke in a manner which people from all walks of life could comprehend.

Without actually naming anyone specifically, Jonathan Rosenblum had attacked the Haredi rabbinate for being out of touch. What followed can only be described as a farce. As if to prove Rosenblum’s point, after he was finished, KAJ’s rabbi, R’ Yisroel Mantel, promptly stood up and gave an impromptu speech, bemoaning the fact that we do not have Rav Hirsch anymore and that his doctrines have fallen into the hands of doctors, lawyers, and professors, who use it to belittle Torah. In this day and age what we need to do is listen to the rabbis, the gedolim. In effect R’ Mantel attacked Jonathan Rosenblum, at an event honoring Hirsch, for defending the things that Hirsch stood for. In essence, we have a Haredi rabbi who officially rejects the beliefs upon which his congregation was built upon yet, for some reason, stills holds his post. We have a congregation which has, by and large, abandoned the ideals that it was supposed to be the embodiment of.

This encapsulates what has happened to Hirsch and his theology; it failed to maintain itself as its own coherent movement; its inheritance has been split by Haredim and Modern Orthodoxy. The Hirschian movement has proven unable to stand up for its own ideals against the Haredi claim to halachic authority. Those who were left, who did not go Haredi, were not able to justify maintaining itself as a separate movement outside of Modern Orthodoxy. An important voice in the Orthodox world, one that might have been able to transcend the divide between Modern Orthodox and Haredi, has been lost.


Anonymous said...

Look at the artice printed in The Jewish Press (and on their website).

Izgad said...

Thank you.
Here is the article. It gives a lot more background information than I gave. It seems that I was not the only person angered by R' Mantel's comments.§ionid=14

Anonymous said...

You have the facts wrong. Rav Mantel was responding to a speech given by Mr. Samson Bechhofer. If you are going to have the audacity to argue against a tremendous talmid chocham at least report the facts as they occurred.

Jonathan Rosenblum said...

The impression of most of those present was that Rabbi Mantel's remarks were primarily directed to the speaker who introduced me, and were in response to perceived criticisms of the way the kehilla's educational institutions are being run. In any event, the central point that Rabbi Mantel made is, in my opinion, incontestable: no one should think that the Hirschian derech is one easily followed and unless one is vaccinated with Rav Hirsch's pure yiras Shomayim, it is fraught with danger. I felt that he offered a necessary corrective, or Hegelian antithesis, if you will, to some of my remarks.

Izgad said...

This is not an issue of observable fact.
I grant you that it is possible that R’ Mantel was responding to Mr. Samson Bechhofer’s comments. Mr. Bechhofer introduced Jonathan Rosenblum and his comments were the more inflammatory. Since R’ Mantel spoke right after Rosenblum and Rosenblum was the “main event,” I assumed that the comments were directed at him. R’ Mantel’s comments could have been taking as applying to either of the two speakers. I do not have access to R’ Mantel’s mind so I can only offer an interpretation based on his actions. I have not spoken to R’ Mantel, but if you have heard from him that he was responding Mr. Bechhofer then I willingly concede. It makes little difference for the general point of the post.

ClooJew said...

While the incident is, lulei demistafina, another setback for the already fragile and fraying Washington Heights/KAJ community, Rav Mantel, according to these reports, said nothing that any Torah authority would argue with: We must be directed by the leaders of our time. "Dor dor vedorshov."

The German-Jewish absorption into the melting pot of Orthodox Jewish America appears now to be nearing completion. Much of the Washington Heights community blended into Monsey (which has its own KAJ) and other communities. For the most part, all the yekkes I grew up with are, today, indistinguishable from all the other yeshiva guys I went to school with.

Yekkes are barely any longer a distinct "community," not because they haven't tried, but because the culture of the United States, in all its democratic glory and fiscally upward mobility, does not lend itself to those sorts of enclaves.

What the Yekkeshe community can take pride in - and this is, lulei demistafina, the ultimate trophy - is that Torah Im Derech Eretz is the de facto standard of American Orthodoxy.

Most of us go to work, speak unaccented English, and are friendly and honest with the "outside" world. (Again, that's most of us.) Even in Lakewood, the vast majority of heads of households are not sitting in Kollel (sorry, Mr. Geezer) but hold jobs that require them to deal with the outside world. Lakewood is not the ghetto that it is perceived - nor that it perceives itself - to be.

Two centuries later, Rav Hirsch has won not simply the battle, but also the war.

Meyer Wolf said...

The best article ever written on Hirsch’s everlasing impact is the one by Rabbi Y. Frankfurter which was recently published in Mishpacha Magazine. It was a groundbreaking article in many ways. Click here to see it in full:

Mikha'el Makovi said...

Re: ClooJew

A relative of Rabbi Nachman Bulman, stated privately to me, approvingly, that whether they accept Torah im Derech Eretz in theory, most American Orthodox Jews behave like TIDE in practice.

Now, if only the Israeli Haredim...

a Breslover said...

Rabbi Frankfurter, the author of the article on Hirsch in Mishpacha, wrote a piece in the Succos edition of Mishpacha on Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's understanding of happiness which is simply breathtakingly beautiful. I wonder where this writer was all this time, since he's a true pro.

October 12, 2008

Anonymous said...

RMH said that Rabbi Mantel is a "tremendous talmid chochom". It would be fascinating to know any basis for RMH praise.

Mantel's sole actual qualification for KAJ Rav was that he is the nephew of John Rothschild, shadow prince of KAJ.

Accordingly, when Mantel was proposed as Rav, no resume was supplied to the congregation - he had no accomplishments to list. No seforim, no buildings, no campaigns on behlf of any thing, no
speeches at publaic gatherings, no public honors or acclaim, no participation in anything involving other rabbonim, gornisht.

Mantel sat in Kollel for many years and got a shteller in Lucerne, Switzerland where he presided over and some say caused, the decline of the main orthodox shul. People say that only 15 families remained when he left.

Not one Jew has joined KAJ on account of Mantel; not one Jew not a KAJnik has come twice to hear his sermons. His shiurim and droshos are attended but sparsely, and only by senior citizens. Come and see and hear for yourself! Believe me, there's plenty of good seats available!

Here's the best, longest resume of Mantel posted anywhere:

"Rabbi Mantel was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and studied at Yeshiva Beer Yaakov and at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. For the past 12 years, Rabbi Mantel served as the rav of Judische Gemeinde Luzerne Shul, where he led the observant Jewish community of Lucerne, Switzerland".

I have inquired of many people as to the tangible achievments or accomplishmenbts of Rabbi Mantel or something important he did or said. No one had any thing to tell me.

So, RMH, please fill in the missing information about Mantel. He learned for many years and had a shteller. If there are any other actual demonstrable laudatory facts about him, please let us know.