Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Torah is the word of G-d - no need to apologize

Rav S. R. Hirsch (Judaism Eternal vol 2 page 216): Let us not deceive ourselves. The whole question is simply this. Is the statement, “ And G‑d spoke to Moses saying,” with which all the laws of the Jewish Bible commence, true or not true? Do we truly believe that G‑d, the Omnipotent and Holy, spoke thus to Moses? Do we speak the truth when in front of our brethren we lay our hand on the scroll containing these words and say that G‑d has given us this Torah, that His Torah, the Torah of truth and with it  eternal life is planted in our midst? If this is to be no mere lip service, no mere rhetorical flourish, then we must keep and carry out this Torah without omission and without carping, in all circumstances and at all times. This word of G‑d must be our eternal rule superior to all human judgment, the rule to which all our actions must at all times conform; and instead of complaining that it is no longer suitable to the times, our only complaint must be that the times are no longer suitable to it. And if, again, in carrying out this word of G‑d we choose to follow the teachings and instructions that have come down to us from the Rabbis, we can and must do this only if and because we recognize in them the same divine origin as in the written word of G‑d. They have been handed down to us by previous generations with the same guarantee, as a tradition transmitted from G‑d, from the same omnipotent and holy G‑d, to Moses, and from Moses orally through every succeeding generation for the purpose of regulating the practical observance of the word of G‑d. This tradition again is nothing more than tradition, than the orally transmitted word of G‑d, as Rabbinic Judaism has taught throughout the centuries of its history. But if this tradition is no tradition, if it is only a pious mask under which a priestly caste has imposed its views on the people as the orally transmitted word of G‑d, if the fathers have with it deceived their sons and grandsons, they have let them live and suffer, endure and die, for a fraud and an illusion, and if it is permissible to us also to be each one his own oracle and to remodel Biblical law according to his own views and opinions, then it can and ought to be no longer the word of G‑d; then G‑d did not speak to Moses; then we have not the word of G‑d in our possession; then we, and with us the whole of mankind whose hopes of salvation are rooted in this word are all deceived and deceivers, and it is time to shake off openly the whole miserable encumbrance. This is the alternative; there is no other course open. If Judaism has been established by G‑d then it is destined to teach the age, but not to let itself be taught by the age.


  1. So does that mean that even the stuff that's wrong -- like babies not being able to survive the 8th month -- are true?

    1. no - but that is a totally different topic

  2. That is my good, old S. R. Hirsch: fully of lofty pathos, which is, I suppose, easier to understand in the original German than in translations.

    However, in practice, law and philosophy of law do not work like this, nor does jewish law work like this.

    In practice, there is seldom one absolute best solution, in general law-making and jurisprudence require balancing of different, often contradictory interesests.

    LIkewise, the torah sets out ideals and aspirations, as well as explicit laws, which always have to be balanced one against the other. In this balancing process, the spirit of the time plays an important role.

    Therefore, the "judgement of the priestly class" is just as important in determining halacha as the "eternal word of the Almighty". There is no opposing one against the other. Jewish law has always changed and can always change according to the spirit of the time, and there is always ample room to accomodate "a pious mask under which a priestly caste has imposed its views on the people", as we see in many past and contemporary events. (see, for example, your own struggle in favour of juvenile sex abuse victims, where the "priestly cast" had strong views that you deem unjust.)

  3. For the time I have been reading this blog I thought a lot about jewish law.

    For example, I came to the conclusion: since the validity of witnesses is so important, if a whole society was consistently governed by jewish law, the defense lawyers of that society would have as a primary task find fault with the life of the witness (in order to invalidate them as kosher witnesses). Trials would not so much about finding out the truth, but a fight between solicitors and defense about the reputation of the witnesses...

    1. Batmelech - I admire your idealism - but not the nasty spin you insist on putting on everything. I don't know why you are so bitter. Your conclusion that Judaism isn't concerned about establishing the truth - simply doesn't follow.

    2. I did not say that Judaism is not concerned about establishing the truth - but actually, you yourself brought examples where judaism is not concerned about establishing the truth: take the example of mamzerim, where the evidence of paternity tests would be ignored (Judaism prefers to overlook mamzerim rather than establish the truth).

    3. What I meant in this post was:

      imagine a society going mainly according to witnesses in criminal and civil justice. The mainly preoccupation of defense attorneys would be to invalidate witnesses against the defendent.

      That the reality does not go according to lofty ideals - you see it every day in hareidi society, no need to prove that, I suppose...

    4. Batmelech - you keep ignoring what I say

      " take the example of mamzerim, where the evidence of paternity tests would be ignored (Judaism prefers to overlook mamzerim rather than establish the truth)."

      A mamzer is sort of like a recessive gene. It doesn't manifest itself unless it is established to be true. There is no issur involved in marrying an un-outed mamzer. It has nothing to do with the concern for the truth.

    5. Bad comparison. Actually Mamzerut is like a dominant gene, since it is transmitted equally by the father and by the mother...

      So on the one hand, jewish law chooses to ignore mamzerim, even if an angered non-father (husband) brings proof via a negative paternity test.

      On the other hand, this blog has been brandishing the Mamzerut-weapon for all kinds of Gittin that might or might not be forced...

      Where is the consistency?

      If you choose to ignore, ignore the forced get, where's the problem? Why is it so much more difficult to ignore "persuasion techniques" than paternity tests???

  4. It's possible Batmelech is noting something that you yourself once pointed out: for the halachic system of justice to work, all the participants need to be in complete fear of God. The system does not have much of a contingency plan for people that are prepared to lie. Consider: a modeh b'miktzas has to swear and then he gets off from the balance of his obligation. But for me to accept that situation I have to believe that the modeh b'miktzas actually worries about swearing falsely!

  5. I wonder what practical examples Rav Hirsch was actually thinking about when he wrote this paragraph, particularly the part about not being "taught by the age". His followers certainly were taught by the age in a sense. His descendents and expositors wrote numerous novels, which was certainly a newfangled thing inspired by German culture, some became Kantian philosophers (yes, apparently you can do that while being frum), and even quasi-Marxist political philosophers (I'm thinking of Rav Isaac Breuer). So being "taught by the age" didn't mean not being influenced by philosophical and artistic trends.

    By the way, those interested in the agunah issue might want to take a look at Rav Hirsch's Horeb, chapter 51, paragraph 377. It's not about the topic specifically, but certainly challenges those who feel that there's nothing wrong with permanently keeping their wives from remarrying.

  6. "So being "taught by the age" didn't mean not being influenced by philosophical and artistic trends."

    That's true. Because hirsch himself is totally a child of his time. He writes in the style of his contemporary writers in Germans, his Euro-centristic image of the world ("primitive tribes", etc) is typical for colonial Europe, he even dresses like a lutheran minister. (I suppose that was the fashion for Rabbis of his time).

    Plus he defends torah when there are contradictions with his current mentality (I think on the theme of slavery, for example), but only in a theoretic way: he does not ask to re-introduce slavery as sketched in the torah, he just says that slavery according to the torah was less inhumane than in other contexts.

  7. Batmelech: Yes, but since he was writing at a time when people extolled ethical humanism, his writings are filled with a really sincere and beautiful ethical vision of Judaism, which I think (in light of views you've expressed on the agunah issue) you might really appreciate. I don't have Horeb with me now, but check out the chapters on love, tzedadah and gemilut chassadim, and the one I referenced above.

    Although Rav Hirsch did presumably write in the style of his time, keep in mind that the last English translation was in the 1960s, when Americans were still used to long, complex sentences. A translation today might strike us as less foreign, in terms of writing style.

    It seems that while Rav Hirsch and his descendents and followers believed that the Torah was 100% true and to be followed, they also believed in incorporating the best of the ideas of the age in their worldview, including their vision of what Judaism is and should be. What would a Hirchian response to the feminism of the 20th century be? I don't know, but I would think that it would reject the egalitarianism of the Conservatives, while taking seriously women's suffering (such as agunot) and the interests of many women to have more opportunities for advanced Torah study, secular education and leadership in Jewish organizations.

    1. I read the commentary to the chumash, in German (not all of it, but quite some), and you often find sentences of 10 lines and more - that is typical pathos-laden german intellectual style of that time and after (see Thomas Mann who is famous for it).

      It is true, he embraces beautiful, sincere humanitarian values. When I read this blog here, I come to the conclusion that he misrepresents true Judaism, since true Judaism (as it is presented on this blog) does not embrace many of those values.

      Indeed, Hirsch takes quite some pain to show that Judaism is NOT at odds with the positive values of his time, in order to make it palatable to his fellow German Jews who, to a great extend, followed the movements of enlightenment and rationalism. He fights against the idea that jewish values should be outdated (at his time).

      Honestly, I never perceived any kind of "male supremacism" in Hirschs writings, but now that you say so, it is true: neither could I argue that he embraced egalitarinsm.

      According to his spirit I would suppose that he would embrace voting rights for women, etc, if he were alive today. On the other hand, the only hirschian community of a German-speaking country I know does not allow women to vote or even participate in the General Assembliy. But then: It is said that in Hirsch's school boys did not wear Yarmulkes during non-religious lessons... So it is quite hard to distinguish what are myths, assumptions, and what is reality.

      By the way: When I read "der Judenstaat", I discovered that Herzl was against democracy and had quite strong class prejudice. This is mentionned nowhere in the myth about Herzl. From this I learn that we easily project our modern-day values on other generations who might not have shared them, even if they were just a century away.


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