Return to Basics: A Call to Revitalize R’ Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz
How is it that over the past few decades, Yeshivos all over the United States have produced students that are “un-Jewish” (to use a Hirschian phrase)?
By that I mean that, after twelve years of a Jewish education, many of them are not committed to Judaism at all. Not until after high school, when students learn in Bais Medrash/Seminary for a year or two (often in Israel), do they become committed to a Torah lifestyle. A second problem that presents itself comes as a result of the Yeshiva day school system naturally feeding into a kollel lifestyle. This lifestyle has become automatic for many Yeshiva/Bais Yaakov graduates: they do not decide as individuals whether or not a kollel lifestyle is appropriate for them. These two problems not only afflict the Yeshiva world; they also affect the insular Chassidish world.
Based on my own experiences in Yeshiva and upon anecdotal evidence heard from neighbors and friends, I can list a number of reasons why these problems exist. These include: Appearances (some parents force their children to fit into a “Yeshivish lifestyle” regardless of their child (ren)’s personality and leanings); Peer Pressure (both students and their parents desire to be like everybody else, which has resulted in a “cookie cutter” society); Apathy (today’s students are indifferent toward Judaism due to either superficial study or multiple distractions/outside temptations); Judgmentalism/ Fear (intellectually curious students are often branded as heretics for asking questions); and Insularity (studying anything other than Gemara is considered, at best, a waste of time). These ideas are probably familiar to the reader from his/her own personal experiences.
An effective solution to “un-Jewish students” or to students who have mindlessly “chosen” a kollel lifestyle, is a return to R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s educational system. Both the modern day Yeshiva system for boys and the Bais Yaakov movement for girls are based on R’ Hirsch’s ideal of Torah im Derech Eretz. In fact, without R’ Hirsch’s successful educational program (in the 1800s in Germany), the Bais Yaakov movement would likely not have been started and the modern day Yeshiva system would not exist as it does. Unfortunately, today’s Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs have strayed far from their original forebear’s weltanschauung. This is undoubtedly due to a takeover of the Yeshiva system and its ideology into every phase of life – and the Hirschian school of thought has seemingly lost this struggle. To a large extent, even the supposed successors of R’ Hirsch have given up on him. What then, can be expected of everybody else?
If one learns and examines R’ Hirsch’s works, one understands that R’ Hirsch’s writings are as apropos now as they were in the 1800s. Although we do not need to confront the (now dying) Reform movement (as R’ Hirsch did), similar conditions to R’ Hirsch’s era (religious, political, technological, and social) continue to develop and expand in today’s society.
What does Torah im Derech Eretz have to offer? It provides one with an ability and wherewithal to regulate one’s interaction with this secular and material world in every phase of one’s busy and active life through Torah. Although many branches of today’s Yeshiva system choose to replicate the model of the pre-Churban Eastern European Ghetto, by rejecting this world and insulating themselves against it (these see the yeshiva/the Jewish home as a ‘taivah’), most students today seek to engage the world around them. They wish to replicate the Western European model of R’ Hirsch’s day, where Jews were out in the secular world and needed to blend their Torah values with their lives within general society. My experience has found that teenagers, in particular, are not willing to ignore the world around them, nor should they need to do so. In fact, a careful examination of the pre-Churban European Yeshiva system reveals that it was initially meant to create an elite group of Torah giants.
Most members of European Orthodox Jewish society were not expected to be successful in this elite system. Although most frum Jewish men strove to incorporate daily Torah study within their busy lives, most were not considered to have the ability to be part of that elite group of Bais Medrash/Kollel students. R’ Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz system, on the other hand, is applicable to every Jewish individual and shows each one, on his/her own level, how to live a life of Torah. R’ Hirsch’s view of life is a “middle of the road” path available to all.
The best way to reintroduce Torah im Derech Eretz is to restore R’ Hirsch’s ideals, both in theory and in practice, at the high school level. Specifically, this includes teaching R’ Hirsch’s classic sefer, “The Nineteen Letters,” which contains the core of R’ Hirsch’s views on the world and Torah. R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz told his students in America, “I cannot understand how it is possible for an American yeshiva student to be Jewish without ‘The Nineteen Letters’” (Klugman, 1998). Study of this seminal work will form the basis for a strong Hashkafic underpinning for all yeshiva/Bais Yaakov students.
In order to prevent conflict and confusion in a student’s mind, secular studies must be approached from a Torah perspective. R’ Hirsch advocated having Rabbaim and frum individuals teach as many secular courses as possible. In fact, a general paradigm shift in our community’s approach to secular studies is needed. Students must be able to make a connection between secular studies and Torah. Why should students, especially young men, feel as if they are wasting their time (bittul Torah) all afternoon? One brief example as to how one aspect of secular studies broadens one’s mind will suffice. R’ Hirsch stresses how closely history is related to Torah. This means that one can see how HaShem runs the world by examining history: if one understands Torah (the foundation of all of history for all mankind), man’s place in the world, and the place of our nation, we can see HaShem’s guiding hand throughout time.
By beginning one’s study of history with the careful study of Tanach, one sees that history is nothing more than HaShem’s hashgacha. If one does not study history with this focus, a student will not be able to truly know him/herself, nor his/her place within society. Also, by emphasizing the creation of all beings by the Oneness of the Divine Being, one’s appreciation of oneself, of all humanity, and of all facets of creation, is increased.
Once the importance of all Jewish individuals and their individual talents and endeavors is taught, a work ethic can be reinstituted. Instead of the “working boy/earner” being disparaged, as in our current yeshiva system, respect can be restored to those who combine Torah values within their workplace ethic. R’ Hirsch acknowledges that not every individual must be an exact replica of every other individual within a Torah community. In R’ Hirsch’s system, every type of individual is needed for every position. Whatever work one is doing is not considered bittul Torah; it is part of an active avodah of how one serves HaShem, as the Torah calls all Jews to an active life in this world. R’ Hirsch expresses this idea beautifully when he describes how different each of the Shevatim was (each had a unique path to HaShem), yet all twelve Shevatim were the sons of Yaakov Avinu. The Jewish people needs every kind of individual working in its “labor” force. (See for example, R’ Hirsch’s Collective Writings, Volume II, pages 361-362; Volume VII, pages 325-326; and R’ Hirsch on Bereshis 49:28).
R’ Hirsch was never afraid to examine any subject under the light of Torah. If an idea did not stand up to Torah, he dismissed it. If it did stand up under the scrutiny of Torah, that idea gave insight into HaShem’s universe. Today’s students often have keen questions in which they seek to resolve conflicts between Torah and secular perspectives. Our schools desperately need individuals who are expert enough in Torah and secular subjects, who are able to answer such questions and can assist students to examine the world with a discerning eye. Students have the right to ask questions and to receive honest answers. More importantly, students themselves have the right to be empowered to achieve this understanding. To quote R’ Hirsch:
On the other hand, it is equally true that the requirements of the child’s future occupation, and the specialized and general skills that will prepare him for it, must not in any manner be neglected. We say this not merely out of deference to his future secular career, but because our calling as Jews, the preservation of Torah-true Judaism in our era, urgently demands that its adherents must not in any way lag behind when it comes to modern, secular education. Again, this is necessary not merely so that they may be able to represent their sacred heritage in a manner that will command respect from wider social circles but, above all, in order that they may be able to view the intellectual, ethical and social developments of their time in true perspective, neither overrating nor underrating their significance but seeing them from the vantage point of Judaism in their rightful place within the Kingdom of God. Knowledge will protect our children from preconceived notions and from the errors in either direction to which the ignorant inevitably fall prey. Only the ignorant can be dazzled by spurious glitter or intimidated by empty pretense. Conversely, only the ignorant can be moved to throw away what is good and true in modern developments along with what is empty and evil. The only weapon against these pitfalls is knowledge (Hirsch, 1997).
Baruch Hashem, the study of Torah continues to be on the rise. This study of Torah must be balanced with action. As mentioned earlier, R’ Hirsch constantly stressed how Torah is applicable to the world, here and now. He neither advocated living an insular lifestyle nor keeping focused solely on the world to come. This idea of engaging with our world, which runs throughout the Torah, is in sharp contradistinction to the ideas of Christianity and Islam that stress asceticism in this world and a focus on the next world. Rabbaim must teach their students how to conduct themselves in this world and not to let the world pass them by. To quote R’ Hirsch, “I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of heaven, they would ask you, ‘Did you see the marvels of God on earth?’ Then, ashamed, you would mumble, ‘We missed the opportunity’” (Hirsch, 1997). To R’ Hirsch, putting Torah into action is its purpose.
Will R’ Hirsch’s answer be a solution for every single person? Undoubtedly, a solution that fits every single individual does not exist. Those elite individuals who desire to be completely involved in Torah exclusively are to be commended. However, demanding that level of commitment from every Jew is neither possible nor desirable. The Gemara in Brachos (35b), states that while many tried, unsuccessfully, to follow Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, many others successfully followed Rabbi Yishmael. R’ Breuer, in his essay, “The Relevancy of the Torah im Derech Eretz Ideal,” ponders the following pertinent question: “How many victims may have been claimed by the rejection of the Torah im Derech Eretz ideology?” (Breuer, 2010). The attrition rate away from Judaism by those who have followed R’ Hirsch’s system is extremely minimal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Yeshiva system. This fact has been recognized both by proponents of and antagonists to Torah im Derceh Eretz (such as Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (see Tradition, Spring 1997, R. Shimon Schwab: “A Letter Regarding the “Frankfurt” Approach”).
R’ Hirsch’s words are as pertinent now as ever, “…but Torah im Derech Eretz is nevertheless the one true principle conducive to “truth and peace,” to healing and recovery from all ills and religious confusion. The principle of Torah im Derech Eretz can fulfill this function because it is not part of troubled, time bound notions; it represents the ancient wisdom of our Sages that has stood the test everywhere and at all times.” Like it or not, we live in the ultimate Western World. Today’s latest social and technological challenges (for example, cell phones, smart technology, and the Internet) can be met utilizing R’ Hirsch’s approach. A return to a pre-technological age (for example, banning use of technology) is neither practical nor effective. Such measures will not return disaffected Jews to Judaism. Torah im Derech Eretz is an alternative, proven approach. It has already saved the world once; it is time we allow it to do that again.
Daniel Adler studied at Yeshiva Gedolah of the Five Towns. He attained his Bachelor’s Degree from Touro College in Psychology and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Speech-Language Pathology. He has taught for CAHAL at Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, is an ardent follower of R’ Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz ideal, and has created a syllabus to teach R’ Hirsch’s ‘Nineteen Letters’.
19 LETTERS OF RAV HIRSCH:
Even more difficult to assess, as far as spreading the word of Hirsch is concerned, is Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz. Despite vocal opposition from his Eastern European colleagues, Mendelovitz taught Hirsch’s writings to his students at Torah Vodaath and hired likeminded educators to teach at his school.74 And, like Bernard Drachman, Mendelovitz, according to his biographer, encouraged his students to learn German in order to study Hirsch’s original writings.75 Mention should also be made of the support and encouragement lent by Mendelovitz to Philipp Feldheim, when the latter established his fi rst bookstore on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1939. Feldheim was most instrumental in disseminating English translations of Hirsch’s writings in America, but not until a sizable German Orthodox community emerged in America.76 Nonetheless, Mendelovitz’s lasting infl uence on Torah Vodaath was mitigated by Eastern European elements that took control of the school and steered the institution away from Western thinkers like Hirsch.77