In my previous post, I presented a theoretical email from a friend named Josh. He had a number of issues with the Judaism he had grown up with, and had therefore chosen to move away from a committed lifestyle. His problems included feeling held back by Judaism, being disconnected from his non-Jewish friends, missing opportunities to pursue hobbies and non-Torah interests, and losing interest in irrelevant Torah study.
In fact, those questions were not Josh’s, written in 2020. They were the questions of a fictional young man named Benjamin, writing to a friend named Naftali in the early 1800s! I adapted them from the beginning of Rav Samson Repha’el Hirsch’s 19 Letters, an imagined dialogue between two friends. Originally published anonymously, it took the Jewish world by storm, earning accolades from across the Jewish spectrum. Most surprising was the positive response from the Reformers, who appreciated the fresh and inspiring perspective Rav Hirsch outlined, even while they disagreed with his practical recommendations.
A Different Perspective
The questions are just as relevant, if not more so. We need to embrace a different perspective on Judaism, just as Rav Hirsch diagnosed 200 years ago. One that we can be proud of. One that gives meaning and direction to our lives. One that infuses relationships with Divine significance, and daily life with sublime holiness. One where Torah teaches, rather than preaches; where Halacha demarcates a path of proper living, rather than a barbed-wire fence of thou must not’s.
This likely doesn’t sound like the Judaism you grew up with. We talk about “how” much more than we talk about “why” – how to avoid transgressing, or often find loopholes around, Jewish law, rather than why Hashem might have commanded us to keep it in the first place. “Why” teaches values, ideals, perspectives on life; ignore that, and the commandments lose any hope of adding anything significant.
Over the next few articles, I am going to summarize Rav Hirsch’s conception of what Judaism was supposed to accomplish, what pushed us off track, and what we can do to get back to the original goal. Of course, the summary can’t do justice to the original; if the ideas are interesting, the best thing to do would be to pick up a copy of the 19 Letters and read it inside.
My goal is to bring Rav Hirsch’s vision for humanity, Judaism, and Torah back into the conversation. I’ve found that while many of his ideas, particularly from his masterful commentary on Chumash, are widely discussed, the central tenets of his broader perspective aren’t as much part of the public discourse, even among the Modern/Centrist Orthodox. His perspective on the ideal goal of Torah study and Mitzva observance being the uncovering of Divine values and ideals, in particular, is one which can revitalize and supercharge both areas of Jewish life.
“Now let us read… Let us raise in our soul the basic questions of life: The world around me – what is it to me? What am I and what should I be in relation to it? What should I be as man and Israelite? We must read with such a questing spirit – and we shall receive the answer, as Jews, from the mouth of Him Who alone is able to give it.”
Coming up: Letters 1 and 2
 Letter 2, pg s 16-17, Feldheim ed.