Monday, July 06, 2009

On Comments and Rav Hirsch's Humanism

I appreciate comments and questions regarding what I write. I try to take people's remarks seriously.

Recently I wrote about a movie, which sounded intriguing to me. It's about three hours long and just watches monks in their element. I included rave reviews and mentioned my hopefulness tinged by ambivalence regarding the movie. Sometimes acclaimed documentaries don't grab me the way they excite the reviewers. (Since that writing I've watched about 40 minutes of the movie and find it good but not so easy to watch).

Flying Bubbie had this to say about that post, "It's a very mysterious concept to me, I'll tell you, opting out. But people say we do this, as Orthodox Jews, all the time. We say we're different, though, and as the drill is based on doing things, being active, maybe we are." I gave that comment some thought and wrote a long response, which I hope was helpful to Flying Bubbie and other serious minded readers. Check Spelling

Last Friday I was at a beautiful bris and wrote up some of the Torah of the parents. Included in that post was the fact that the esteemed late grandfather of the newborn boy was fond of the expression Mensch-Yisrael (which I wrote the way Rabbi Norman Lamm put in a drasha of his in 1966, as Yisrael-Mensch). Yitz Newton commented that, "R' Hirsch's was "Mensch-Yisroel."

The comment got me curious as to where Rav Hirsch uses the phrase. I sought the help of librarian friends - Beverly Geller at Frisch and Zalman Alpert at Y.U. The former pointed me in the direction of the eighth volume of The Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch, which is named Mensch -Yisrael: Perspectives In Judaism. In the introduction to that work the editor writes that Rav Hirsch used this term in his seminal work on the commandments, Horeb. I found it there and posted about it last night. I hope that the research I've done and shared has been helpful to Yitz Newton and other serious readers.

Zalman enlisted the help of Dr. Itzhak Levine, who pointed out that there is an extended footnote in Horeb, in which the editor, Dayan Grunfeld, addresses the term. He also showed me where it is available on line. I have pasted that note as the first comment. It is fascinating.

At the end of his in depth footnote, Dr. Grunfeld writes, "see also Humanism and Judaism, by Dr Mendel Hirsch (a son of Samson Raphael Hirsch). Dr. Levine found that article on line, here.


Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...


Additional Notes on Horeb by Dayan Dr.I. Grunfeld

A. TOROTH, chapter i } para. 4

It is extremely difficult to give an adequate English rendering of the expression 'Mensch-Jissroel' (Homo Israelis), which was coined by Samson Raphael Hirsch and is used by him as a 'key' term throughout his writings. Some American Jewish writers have tried to render the Hirschian term Mensch-Jissroel by the English expression "Israel-Man" which seems to me inadequate. For lack of a better rendering, the term
Mensch-Jissroel has been ranslated throughout this work as man and
Israelite. The term was meant by Hirsch to express his own view of
religious humanism and of Israel's role in the world as a 'light to the nations', (ohr lagoyim) and as witnesses to God (atem eiai) and the spiritual values of life; Israel proclaims His will and is His instrument for the education of humanity. Hirsch deliberately did not say 'Jissroel- Mcnsch,' but 'Mensch-Jissroel, he put the human element first. For Judaism, according to Hirsch, means humanism elevated to a higher
plane by the ennobling influence of the Torah. This idea runs like a golden thread through his works and is woven into the whole structure of his spiritual edifice. His interpretation of Jewish laws is also governed
by this conception; so is his Jewish symbolism.

July 6, 2009 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...


A characteristic example is Hirsch's explanation of the law of tzitzith, in his Commentary on the Pentateuch (Num. xv, 37-41) and in his work A Basic Outline of Jewish Symbolism (Collected Writings, Vol. Ill, pp. 329). The law of the Torah commands the children of Israel to make fringes upon four-cornered
garments and to put upon the fringe of each corner a cord of blue (techeilet). Hirsch explains this law as follows: White, the colour of the majority of the threads, is the symbol of pure humanity; the blue thread symbolizes the ennobling influence of Judaism. We find in the Tabernacle that blue is the colour of the mantle of the High Priest and of the cover of the ark. Blue represents the colour of the sky and symbolizes the heavenly gift of the Torah. As the Talmud (Menachoth, 43b) puts it: Blue resembles the sea and die sea resembles the sky, and
the sky resembles the Divine Throne of Glory; for it says (Exod. xxiv, 10) : " . . and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the likeness of the very heaven for clearness." There is, therefore, no colour which is as suitable as is techeilet to remind Israel of their Father in heaven. Yet, when it comes to the making of the tzitzit the Talmud prescribes, (Menachoth 39a), that one starts with the winding round of die white thread, continues with the blue and finishes with the white again. To this legal dictum Samson Raphael Hirsch gives the following explanation, which is characteristic of his conception of religious humanism and of the term Mensch-Jissroel: *If we meditate on the blue thread of our tzitzit, we find that the blue thread was wound round the white ones. It is the colour of blue which symbolizes the Sanctuary and the colour of white which represents the pure human element. It is, therefore, the Jewish task, as symbolized by
the Sanctuary, to lift up the human element in man on to the plane of the Divine law; but the Jewish task and the Jewish consciousness are not something which should be separated from the human task and from human consciousness. The Jewish task must not be conceived as
something alien to and divorced from the human task. Never must we
think that the Jewish element in us could exist without the human element or vice versa. The Jewish element in us presupposes the human element; it builds on it, ennobles it and brings it to perfection. The Jew
cannot fulfil his calling in isolation, but only within human society. The highest perfection of the Jew is nothing but the highest perfection of his task as a human being. So it is that we begin the windings of our tzitzit with a white-coloured thread, representing pure humanity,
continue with a blue thread representing Judaism, and finish off by returning to the white thread. Pure Judaism always returns to pure humanism.' I think that this exposition of Hirsch's thoughts on humanism and Judaism is the best aid to an understanding of his term
Mensch-Jissroel which recurs throughout the Horeb and which we have rendered as "man and Israelite" (see also Humanism and Judaism, by Dr Mendel Hirsch [a son of Samson Raphael Hirsch] ).

July 6, 2009 at 6:37 PM  

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