Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rav Hirsch's attitude towards Kabbala - Rav Elias

The following comments by Rav Joseph Elias appeared in  Jewish Action Magazine 1996 as a response to Rav Shlomo Danziger's review of Rav Hirsch's 19 Letters published in translation by Feldheim with Rabbi Elias' notes.

Concerning kabbalah the Nineteen Letters are very clear:  "One aspect of Judaism, the actual repository of its spirit (my italics), was studied in such an   uncomprehending way as to reduce this spirit to physical   terms, as man's inner and outer endeavors came to   be interpreted as a mere mechanical, magical dynamic   building of cosmic worlds - thereby often reducing all   those activities ... to mere preoccupation with amulets"   (p. 144).  "If I properly understand that which I believe   I do comprehend, then it is indeed an invaluable repository   of the Tanach and the Talmud, but it was also   unfortunately misunderstood ... Had it been correctly   comprehended, it might perhaps have imbued the practice   of Judaism with spirituality" (p. 267).  

In which way was kabbalah misunderstood? It  deals with the profoundest philosophical and ethical   issues facing man: the relationship between God and world, the working of Divine Providence, and the inter- Rabbi   action between God and man. These are questions that, by their very nature, transcend the realm of the worldly and mundane. Yet we have no way to describe and dis cuss them except in our mundane language. Therein ,  lies a grave danger: just as we must not, God forbid, take "the hand of God" in a literal, physical sense, so too the expressions and descriptions used by kabbalah must not be taken in a literal mundane way. Yet, this was almost unavoidable when kabbalah became popularized (hence the restrictions imposed by the Rabbis as to who was permitted to study it). Very clearly this is what   Rav Hirsch referred to when he wrote that "what was to be understood as inner perception was seen as dis external   dreamworlds," to be manipulated by "amuletic does   practices" and the "magical building of cosmic worlds."  There is not the slightest indication that he ever questioned the validity of the essence of kabbalah, its extra-mundane teachings (properly understood), and its interpretation of "man's inner and outer endeavors."
          But this is not Rabbi Danziger's understanding. He puts forth his own idea on what kabbalah is, which he seeks to read into Rav Hirsch’s words. Thus he equates kabbalah and aggadah as merely being “both, in his view, rhetorical and metaphorical works”; the proper understanding of kabbalah (Rabbi Danizer’s italics) should have been ethical, not extramundane.” “It is in this midrashic, metaphorical sense that Rav Hirsch considered kabbalah ‘an invaluable repository of the spirit of Tanach and Talmud.”” Very clearly Rabbi Danizer excludes here the extramundate foundations of kabbalah.  We must ask: which Torah authority, of whater camp, has ever put forward this interpretation of kabbalah? Certainly Rabbi Joseph Caro, the Shelah, the Vilna Gaon, or the Nefesh HaChaim did not. Nor did the poskim who considered kabbalah (unlike aggadah) in their halachic deliberations, from the Remah down to the Mishnah Berurah (which contains more than 200 references to kabbalah). Yet Rabbi Danizer ascribes this view to Rav Hirsch without the slightest shred of evidence. True, Rav Hirsch consistently chose to offer rational ethical explanations in his work. (The reasons for this decision of his are discussed at length in my commentary.) But nowhere does he indicate that he considered his rationalistic interpretation of the mitzvos as negating kabbalah, rather than an alternative to it. In fact Rav Breuer quoted Grosswardeiner Rav, Rabbi Mosheh Fuchs, as saying   that anybody who knows kabbalah will find kabbalistic ideas throughout Rav Hirsch's Chumash commentary,   though clothed in rationalistic terms. Moreover, there are in it actual outright quotations from the Zohar (albeit unattributed), such as to Bereshis 2: 15.  

Rabbi Danziger mentions Rav Hirsch's objection to philosophical speculation about God, "mystical as well as philosophical.” " In the first place, his primary objection was to the religious philosophers because their efforts to remove any thought of Divine corporeality “in the end run very nearly into the dangers of losing all ideas of the personality of God” (Bereshis 6:6). While he was surely not in favor of philosophizing about the essence of God, there are many passages in Rav Hirsch’s writings that speak about God’s attributes, closely following kabbalistic ideas (e.g., Shemos 15:6, about God’s “right hand” and “left hand,” or Tehillim 104:1 and 145:6). These are good examples of how the ethical teachings that Ra Hirsch draws from kabbalah are deeply rooted in its extramundane essence.
            There is indeed one verse (Vayikrah  7:38), quoted by Rabbi Danzinger, which suggests an outright rejection of kabbalah, the korbanos “do not form a chapter of kabbalistic, magic mysteries.” Howerver, lo and behold, Rav Hirsch never wrote this. The word “kabbalistic” was inserted by Dr. Levy in his English translation. The original German text read “[noch] bilden sie fuer sich ein Kapital thaumaturgisher, magischer Mysterien.” “they do not form, by themselves a chapter of thaumaturgic, magical mysteries.”   According to Webster, thaumaturgic means magical miracle working – all we have he is a repetition of the worlds which Rav Hirsch used to describe the misuse of  kabbalah.  There is no indication whatsoever, then, that Rav Hirsch rejected or denied the transmundane aspect of kabbalah. It may be revealing, in this context, to note that Dr. Isaac Beruer, grandson and loyal disciple of Rav Hirsch, introduces kabbalistic concepts in his Neue Kusari, notably the Sefiros (see his Concepts of Judaism, edited by J.S. Levinger).
Yet Rabbis Danziger is so convinced of his own ideas about kabbalah that he accuses such eminent Hirschian interpreters as Dayan Grunfeld, and YaakovRosenheim (and by implication Rav Schwab who shared their views on this subject) of falsifying Rav Hirsch's teachings "in the interests of ideological correctness." What about Rav Hirsch's preparatory notes for the Horeb drawn from the Zohar, and the "echoes and parallels to kabbalistic literature" in his works? Rabbi Danziger replies that "they were put to use only in the kind of rational concepts we find in the Horeb."Yet these notes as well as the "echoes and parallels" are so clearly rooted in the essential transmundane substance of the Zohar (as mentioned above) that obviously Rav Hirsch could not have negated the latter. For another matter, if Rav Hirsch only drew upon kabbalah for midrashic metaphorical purposes, how do we understand his praise of the Ramban's understanding of the spirit of Judaism, considering that the Ramban's whole approach was pervaded by kaballah? And finally, what about the kabbalistic marginal notes in Rav Hirsch's siddur which Dayan Grunfeld reported he himself saw? Can they reasonably be explained away as mere homiletic inspirational ideas? In short, with all due respect to Rabbi Danziger, I do not believe that we are the ones misinterpreting Rav Hirsch's position.


  1. Please also post Rabbi Danziger's response.

    1. Rabbi Danigzer comments are available from the link. If you want to transcribe it be my guest.

    2. I would like to receive Rabbi Danigzer comments on Rav Hirsch and Kabala

  2. Rabbi Elias does not respond to the criticism of his treatment of Aggadah.


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