(You Are Not A Jew) Samson Raphael Hirsch (Modern Orthodox Kulturkampf)

In order to become a Jew… you must observe the commands of your God. By faith you become a man, by the Law you become a Jew, (“Jerusalem”, pp. 256, 261, 264); and indeed he has never seriously looked into the Bible who thinks that the demands of Judaism are satisfied by a few abstract ”religious truths”. And even if you recite “Hear, 0 Israel” not only on the Day of Atonement but even twice daily, you are still not a Jew. And even if you not only recite it but profoundly and sincerely believe and take to heart that the Lord thy God the Lord is One –this too, does not yet make you a Jew.Only if you seal this belief…by deeds, by the devotion of your entire life to the fulfilment of His  Commands; only if “thou lovest the Lord thy Godwith all the powers of thy life and might, takest the Commands of thy God to heart at home and by the wayside, when thou risest up and liest down, raisest up thy children to obey them, dedicatest to it thy hand and thy head and thy heart, thy domestic and thy public life, thy house and thy gate”: if, that is, you not only acknowledge the Lord your God but also serve Him by the fulfilment of His Commandments — only then may you call yourself a Jew.

(Samson Raphael Hirsch, “Religion Allies to Progress” in  Judaism Eternal, pp.230-1)

In Israel, the Jewish people are entering into a Kulturkampf, a war by rightwing orthodox Jews led by corrupt politicians and violent men against secular society and liberal Judaism. The shockwaves will reverberate in North America and Europe. The war is a war of religion. Not about God, there are two component parts to the logic of this polemic. What is Judaism and who is a Jew?

What is Judaism

For the orthodox Judaism represented by Hirsch, Judaism is total commitment to a way of life. As he claims it elsewhere in his polemical masterpiece, “Religion Allied to Progress,” Judaism is not even a “religion,” if by that one means a special and set apart annex of life.

The notion is coherent and even appealing. “Judaism is not a religion, the synagogue is not a church, and the Rabbi is not a priest. Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life. To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life. To be a Jew in synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit, as father and as mother, as servant and as master, as man and as citizen, with one’s feelings and one’s thoughts, in word and in deed, in enjoyment and privation, with the needle and the graving tool, with the pen and the chisel-that is what it means to be a Jew. An entire life supported by the Divine idea and lived and brought to fulfilment according to the Divine will (p.237).

About a Jew in the parliament, in the ministry of Interior, or Finance, or Transportation, or Defense was beyond Hirsch’s ken.

Who is a Jew

Of course, most Jews are not orthodox Jews. They never were and are still not to this day. Always a minority in modern Jewish history, even in the State of Israel where they have now grabbed a hold on political power, the representatives of orthodox Judaism fight nasty with other Jews.

With undisguised contempt, leaders of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century looked down on orthodox Judaism as an unbending form of heartless rote observance. Writing in the 1920s, Franz Rosenzweig, in his own discourse on the commandments, called the pseudo law of Hirsch ugly. But in “Religion Allied to Progress,” Hirsch gave as good as he got. The view from the orthodox camp is that Reform Judaism is not really Jewish, that Reform Jews are not really Jews. This line of thought echoes to this day. The position pushed by Hirsch in regard to the mitzvot was all or nothing. Every single positive and negative commandment, every prescription and interdiction is essential and without which there is no Judaism. This line of thought also echoes.

Hirsch misrepresents the gentle Moses Mendelssohn. To be sure, Hirsch and Mendelssohn shared the notion that what is unique to Judaism is the law. By this Mendelssohn meant ceremonial law. But even here, Mendelssohn rejected the notion that a religious body has the right to excommunicate or otherwise write off its members who dissent. And he rejected theocracy, the notion that ecclesiastical authorities have the right impose religion onto the public and political spheres. Religious law has only the power to persuade, not coerce. In contrast, the logic of Hirsch’s argument extends Judaism across the entire social sphere while anathematizing the majority of Jews. A creature of the nineteenth century, Hirsch was not a Zionist. Not even a proto-Zionist. What Hirsch was unable to anticipate is how that logic plays out when Jews assume sovereign power and orthodox Judaism takes control over the institutional organs of a Jewish majority state.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to (You Are Not A Jew) Samson Raphael Hirsch (Modern Orthodox Kulturkampf)

  1. dmf says:

    stay or go?

Leave a Reply