On Jewish Laws and Observances

There are some 4,000 books in my library. Many are collecting dust and my wife has frequently suggested that I give many of them away in my lifetime. Otherwise, it would be a burden for my children to pack up 50 or 60 boxes filled with heavy tomes, mainly in Hebrew.

No, I have not read all of them, but have collected them over the course of 60 years. All the volumes of the Babylonian Talmud, Midrash, rabbinic commentaries, Shulchan Aruch…too many to count.

I have reached up high today to a top shelf and have taken down the first of two volumes by Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great German halachic authority and a philosopher and scholar of western civilization.

He was born in Germany in 1808 and died in 1888, a rare rabbi in modern history. His life saw the German revolution of 1848 and the emancipation of the Jews along with it. Universities were now open to Jews and with it, the philosophies and theologies of alien cultures.

In that year, many German rabbis, joining in the move for openness and freedom, abandoned Orthodox Judaism’s laws and commandments in search of a reform.

Samson Raphael Hirsch sought with all his might, wisdom and scholarship to redeem Orthodox Judaism and to instill in it philosophical ideals which would appeal in particular to young Jews and to sway them away from the tentacles of the Reform movement.

Rabbi Hirsch’s magnificent volumes, HOREB, A PHILOSOPHY OF JEWISH LAWS AND OBSERVANCES, is as meaningful today as it was when originally written.

I used to think of myself as lower than my colleagues and comrades. In spite of having two doctoral degrees and rabbinical ordination, I thought of myself as inferior to others. It was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s writings that opened my eyes (perhaps too late at the age of 83).

He instructs the reader that knowledge of God in one’s mind is insufficient. The knowledge of God must be in the heart.

“Holy Writ may have spoken to you as it did to generations before you in its God-revealing narratives. But you may have grasped all this only with your mind and stored it in your memory. That is not enough. So long as you do not receive God into your heart as YOUR God and embrace Him with your whole being as YOUR God, so long as this concept is a mere denizen of your brain, so long will this sovereign idea be without influence on your actual life.”

In his philosophy of self-appraisal, he reminds young Jewish men and women to recognize and to accept the role and task for which they were born.

“If you feel yourself to have been born only for enjoyment or suffering, then indeed you will bend the knee to every being that dazzles you with its powers as being in your eyes one of the levers that move the world. If, however, you feel yourself to have been assigned by God to the station in which you were born, in order to execute His will at just that post,….. then with that consciousness and that spirit you stand on a level with the most brilliant, most gifted creatures. …. This appraisal of oneself as being directly subordinate to God along with all creatures is demanded of Israel…. If, alas, you misuse the gift of your freedom in order to withdraw yourself from the service of the One God, then you sink not only below the beneficient orb of the sun but beneath the worm on which you tread, and the stone, which faithful to its duty, patiently sustains your weight.”

Samson Raphael Hirsch’s keen mind and emancipated philosophy was in stark contrast to the writings and preachings of Orthodox rabbis of the Lithuanian school with the emphasis on Torah and Talmud study alone.

Those teachings had little appeal to the German Jewish mind which, after the revolution of 1848, was eager to drink from the fountains of rational thought which were now inculcated into Orthodox Judaism.

Hirsch’s philosophy of Jewish laws and observances saved thousands of young eager Jewish minds from being swallowed up by the new liberal yet alien ideas of Reform Judaism.

Published in Altona, Germany in 1837, HOREB has until this day been an inspiration for the seeking Jew who wishes to commit his/her heart to the rational ideas of One God.

It is, in truth, a derech, a way and a guide for living an Orthodox Jewish life in a modern environment.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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