Rav Hirsch, Rav Yisrael and Me

I was very “into” Rav Hirsch’s worldview as a bachur. The symbol system explains so much. Don’t mix meat and milk because for an animal, the only creativity is procreativity, it’s in who it is, the meat. But to us, creativity goes beyond milk production, and well into creativity, not the automatic action of the flesh. A parah adumah is a working animal that never worked, a symbol of untapped potential wasted. Etc…

And I still have a lot of affinity for his system. For example, I started wearing tekheiles shortly after R Herschel Schachter did. (Via my father, who became a talmid of RHS when Rav YB Soloveitchik stopped his Tues night Moriah shiurim.) I wear one string of 8 — shitas haRambam. But not because the Rambam said so, but because in Collected Writings III, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch gives the idea such beauty! (Later I found more halachic arguments as well, but that really is my primary motivator for choosing those arguments over others, say RHS’s.)

But it increasingly bothered me to depend so heavily on an explanation of mitzvos that meant that for millennia — perhaps from Shimon haTzadiq through Chakham Burnays (RSRH’s rebbe) — the masses and likely also the greats of each generation were getting little out of mitzvos. After all, the symbol system needed to unlock what the mitzvah exists to teach was lost. And is still, even for us, far from fully articulated.

Sidebar on Taamei haMitzvos

There are different ways of approaching the question of taamei hamitzvos.

The Rambam looked for the causes of mitzvos. And since Divine Thought is incomprehensible, and Hashem’s decisions don’t depend on anything but Himself, he concludes that there are elements of mitzvos that have no ta’am. Why an esrog? Because otherwise you’d ask, why a pomegranate?

The Chinukh also looked for causes, at least I think that is what he means by the “roots of the mitzvah“. But he is content analyzing what he knows only bits of the picture. He introduces the explanation of the roots of each mitzvah with “mishorshei hamitzvah — from among …”

A third approach is to despair of finding causes altogether. Instead look for lessons you can take. (To my mind, this is also the most solid approach when grappling with tragedy and difficult times.)

R Hirsch seems to set up a causal argument in the first section of Collected Writings vol III. Why symbols are a good way of communicating truths to be internalized and sharing their emotional content. And thus why Hashem gave us mitzvos to teach us those truths. So, it has a “take lesson” argument to it, but the cause of the mitzvah is to relay that particular lesson.

So, to R Hirsch, the symbol system was part of the Sinai culture. These are metaphors that would come naturally to people who lived in the prophetic period. And part of the worldview we lost that cause the loss of nevu’ah. These symbols are miSinai, the truths behind the mitzvos.

In Judaism Reclaimed, chapter 39 (Tzav: “Rav Hirsch and Sacrificial Symbolism; you can buy the book here), R’ Shmuel Phillips explains R Hirsch’s approach But I think that in his defense of it, RSP veers away from the assumption that the Hashem’s point in mitzvos was relaying truths through teach us to experience these specific poetic metaphors. Much less emphasis on the causal aspect, and so I could accept the symbol system as one of many ways to take lesson — and couldn’t Hashem have them all in “Mind”?

This approach to the role of Hirschian symbols would have taken the edge of the problem that this sidebar is providing the hashkafic background for. But the book didn’t exist yet, and we’re back to just looking at my reactions of the time.

That growing philosophical discomfort combined with other factors going on in my life.

The death of Shlomo Carlebach led to the first wave of Carlebach minyanim. Passaic initially had a Singing Minyan that wasn’t purely Carlebach in song choice, but still that kind of minyan. I was active in it. The experience made me notice the level of my own desire for “spirituality”. But also notice that Chassidus, as well as what grew to be called “Neo-Chassidus” in the YU/OU world, don’t speak to my rationalism.

Another event of around that time was when R Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer pointed to Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher — written by own rebbe’s rebbe! He called it the greatest work of hashkafah in the past 500 years. And I studied it, and fell in love with it. As longtime readers of the blog noticed, not to mention writing a book, Widen Your Tent (on Amazon here)

Which led to my realization that Mussar was part of my own roots, even though I didn’t realize at the time that was what Rav Dovid was doing.

And the approaches of Mussar and Torah im Derekh Eretz have much in common. Both Rav Hirsch and Rav Yisrael Salanter tught that Torah and mitzvos were given as a means to refine oneself.

Both teach pursuing ehrlachkeit and becoming a “mentsch“. But Rav Yisrael focuses on refining middos to emulate Hashem and become a giver. The other sees mentschlachkeit in being cultured and disciplined, of keeping the mind in charge of the animal. (And I think including in charge its middos, had RSRH articulated his vision in terms of middos.)

But in terms of our topic, Mussar gave me a way to come to terms with that question of millennia of mitzvah performance where the underlying symbols weren’t even known. Because it emphasizes the gap between intellect and emotion, the role of unconscious and habit on middos. We could be internalizing truths in ways we can’t even explain and articulate. And don’t need to.

Without giving up on my occasional-to-frequent use of Hirschian symbolism.

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  1. Yitzi Turner says:

    Interesting to note, R Yisrael was close to rsrh and discussed on all issues with him. Even wanting to bring him to Poland.

    • micha says:

      I don’t know how close they were; for most of their life the level communication you describe was impossible. Certainly during the period Mussar was invented. Yes, later, when R Yisrael Moved west with hopes of bringing non-observant Jews back.

      But what you say about bringing RSRH to Poland… In Tenu’as haMussar, R Dov Katz records a tradition that R’ Yisrael considered Torah im Derekh Eretz the right move for the needs of German Jewry, but inappropriate for Eastern Europe. He understood people well enough to know there is no one-size-fits-all derekh; these things depends on the individual and on the culture. Although R’ Yisrael expressed interest in having Nineteen Letters translated for consumption by East European Jews.

  1. June 23, 2020 – א׳ בתמוז תש״פ

    […] ended up touching on the primary topic of Rav Hirsch, Rav Yisrael and Me, but coming up with more of a synthesis solution. Different days, different […]

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