Sunday, June 30, 2013

Significance of Rav Salanter meeting Rav Hirsch?

I found the following description strange on many levels. Rav Salanter had been in Germany since 1857 dealing with kiruv issues and had not met Rav Hirsch nor was he familiar with his writings. In addition despite being involved full time with kiruv he had not apparently not mastered German after 15 years? (Prof. Etkes said he knew enough to read the newspapers.) This account indicated that they didn't really have much to talk about nor did they meet again or work together on a common project. In addition Rav Hirsch was devoting years pursuing the legal right for his congregation to separate from the official government sanctioned Jewish congregation - something that not only his congregation wasn't interested in nor did the leading halachic authority of Germany - Rav Wurtzburger - think it desirable and basically snubbed Rav Hirsch over this matter. I would have assumed that meeting with Rav Hirsch as well as Rav Hildesheimer  and the Malbim would be primary goals - working to stop Reform and the Haskala - but it didn't happen. Why not?

[This is from Rabbi Elias' edition of the 19 Letters] In the Israelit, on March 22, 1906, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ehrmann published an account of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's stay in Berlin  about thirty years earlier and of his desire to meet Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Translation from (The Light, on 14 Nisan 5738):

At about this time, Rav Shimshon (ben R'foel) Hirsch arrived in  Berlin. He often came to Berlin at the beginning of the 1870's in order  to prepare the way for the" Austrittsgesetz, ,,' which was finally passed  in 1876. Three years older than Rav Yisroel, he was always under  great strain and beset with many different types of work which made  great demands on him at all hours of the day and night throughout his  stays in Berlin. He sought out ministers, ministerial advisers, and  influential representatives in every area and, through personal represen­tation of the case, tried to win over the authoritative factions in favor  of the law. In the evenings, his correspondence and writing awaited  him, and this often kept him occupied until well into the night. Rav  Yisroel had a great longing to become acquainted with Rav Hirsch and  to hear his views on the measures for consolidation of traditional Jewry  in Russia. He had great respect for the regenerator of German Jewry,  and no one else was more deeply convinced of the desperate need of  Russian Jewry for such a personality. Questions of etiquette-regarding  which of the two was to visit the other first-did not exist for Rav  Yisroel. He asked me (as I was taking care of a few small duties for  Rav Hirsch during his stay) to ask Rav Hirsch when would be the most convenient time to visit him .... When I saw how the time of this great  man was so completely taken, up, I hardly had the courage to mention  Rav Yisroel's wish, for I knew that its fulfillment would cost him more  precious time ... I therefore ventured to remark that the matter was not  so urgent and the visit could easily be postponed for a few days.  However, Rav Hirsch refused to hear of it, and asked me to ask Rav  Yisroel to honor him with his visit the very next evening ...
More than 30 year have passed since the memorable evening. But  the overwhelming impression of the meeting between these two great  personalities has remained with me until this day. Their similarities and  their differences; the overflowing wisdom of their thoughts, and the  restrained modesty of their spoken words. The expression in Rav  Hirsch's eyes from which his great, noble soul seemed to pour forth,  and the flashing sparks which shot out from the gaze of Rav Yisroel  and blazed around his great learned brow. All that and so much more­ all of it remains in my memory as vividly as if it had just happened  yesterday. How different were the two great men in speech and bear­ing, and in various other external aspects which draw the attention; and  yet how similar and related were they in their thoughts and their  spiritual life-in short, in everything which makes a man a Jew. Never  have I sensed the binding and brotherly strength of the Torah l'tzaref  es hab'riyos more deeply than in the moment when the two men  reached out their hands to each other. Rav Yisroel who, even in  general conversation, never let a word leave his lips which had not  been carefully considered from all sides, and who knew in addition  how precious Rav Hirsch's time was - particularly then - came straight  to the matter which lay on his heart more than on anyone else's. He  explained the dangers which he believed threatened the future of  Russian Jewry and asked Rav Hirsch for his views on how best to  combat them. Rav Hirsch, in his modesty, thought that he was not  familiar enough with Jewish life in Russia to be able to express an  authoritative opinion. Rav Yisroel however, he reasoned, must surely  have thought about the problem a great deal himself, and he therefore  asked him to first state his opinion. Rav Yisroel pointed out that the  best means of preserving the younger generation for Jewry - to win  back their respect - was through literature in the Russian language  permeated with the true Jewish spirit. The exceedingly salutary results  which would ensue from writings of this nature were to him quite  indisputable. The tragedy was, however, that those Russian Jews who were permeated with the truth of Judaism could not write Russian, and  those who had acquired a secular education and had mastered the  Russian language had broken with traditional Judaism. So that the  production of such writings seemed unimaginable. Rav Hirsch suggest­  ed that if this was the case, then perhaps it might be proper to translate  into Russian works written in the German language for this purpose.  The translation, if necessary, could even be done by a non-Jew. This  idea met with Rav Yisroel's full approval, and he asked Rav Hirsch to  specify a few suitable works for this purpose. Rav Hirsch suggested the  works of Salomon Plessner. At this point, I allowed myself to enquire  whether the writings of Rav Hirsch, himself, would not be especially  qualified, particularly such a work as The 19 Letters. Rav Hirsch  replied that it would naturally please him greatly if, through a translation of his writings, this great undertaking could be accomplished.  Neither was fundamentally opposed to a Hebrew translation. I later  heard this from their own mouths. But they believed that the great  benefits which they hoped would result from the propagation of the  spirit of these writings could be effected more easily and more perma­nently if the remedy was given in the same form as the disease had  been transmitted. On the way home, Rav Yisroel asked me to procure  for him that very evening a copy of The 19 Letters and to read through  it with him so that he might be able to form an opinion for himself.  That was, however, easier said than done. At that time, Rav Yisroel  had hardly begun to read German, and so we read until deep into the  night and for still another few days after that, until we finished the first  letter. Another few weeks passed before we finally completed the book.  Rav Yisroel summed up his opinion of it, "The book must not only be  translated into Russian, but also into loshon ha-kodesh."


  1. Rav Seligman Baer's position was more nuanced than commonly assumed. In many cases he was pro separate kehilot. In fact, he had been invited to Frankfurt by separatists to promote their cause, not by the anti separatists.

  2. It would seem that Rabbi Elias's opinions about Rav Hirsh cannot be trusted, so how can this account be trusted?

    1. If you read a bit more carefully you would have realized that this account is not from Rabbi Elias.

      "In the Israelit, on March 22, 1906, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ehrmann published an account of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's stay in Berlin about thirty years earlier and of his desire to meet Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Translation from (The Light, on 14 Nisan 5738)"

      This was also published in Tenuas Ha-Musar (I, pp. 199-200), . It is widely cited and accepted as accurate.

  3. Wow! what a fascinating account!

    Do we know the end of this story? We know R' Yisroel started to translate the Talmud, but what about the nineteen letters? Do the works by Solomon Plessner get printed in Russian?

    To your questions: this account itself seems to paint an interesting picture.

    It seems that R' Yisroel's primary purpose in Berlin never was to be "mekarev" the local German Jews. He was there to find a way to turn the tide of assimilation back "home" in Russia. He spent time inspiring the Russian Jews in Germany but that wasn't his main objective. He felt that the source of the great decline in observance was a scorn and disregard for tradition developed in the culture centers of Europe. So he set out to Berlin (and later Paris) to understand the new and prevalent culture. Only after understanding the source of this raging fire can he attempt to counterbalance with Torah spirited programming. Those other great generals you mentioned (The Malbim and R' Hidesheimer and Rav Hirsch) were battling for German Jewry, a different war, and totally different set of players.

    The comparison nowadays would go something like this. Suppose Lev L'achim felt that the biggest obstacle to their work, was influences originating in Los Angeles California, or New York City. The negative affect it had on their students was undoing much of their work, and enticing them to move to America and fall even further from Torah. And suppose further, that they sent a committee to come to LA or NYC to get a better feeling of what they are up against. While they are here, would they get involved in the American kiruv scene? Surely, they would spend time learning and interacting with the "yordim". They might even sit down once or twice and compare notes with an "Oorah" or other American kiruv organizations. But a joint program working together to combat assimilation would probably not happen.

    The approach of combating assimilation locally by traveling abroad, as this account seems to describe, is ironically the the exact opposite of the "shitah" famously attributed to the Chofetz Chaim Zatzal.

    The Chofetz Chaim would relate the following story. A Rabbi who traveled to Paris to give sermons to bring back large numbers of Jews to yiddishkiet. After a long journey from his little town in Poland, he rented a large hall and put up signs all over Paris. No one came. Figuring that the problem was that he wasn't a Frenchman, he traveled back to Poland. He went straight to the big city of Warsaw and tried again. No one showed up there either. So he went to his hometown to try, surely there that he's well known he'll have no problem drawing a crowd. He was wrong again and no one came. So he tried with his immediate family and was disappointed there too. Finally he just focused on bettering his own observance, and lo and behold observance in Paris was positively affected.

    If in fact R' Yisroel went to Berlin to combat assimilation in his backyard, that would be the polar opposite of the message in this story.


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