You will often hear Jews say, with pride, that Judaism rejects a missionary or evangelizing stance. This is true in the narrow sense that Jews do not pursue converts to Judaism, but it is deeply misleading in another. The German Orthodox rabbi, polemicist, and scriptural expositor Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), a towering figure in modern Jewish thought, taught insistently that God brought the “Abrahamitic nation” onto the stage of history for “the salvation of the world through Judaism.” As he wrote in his Torah commentary, this was to be accomplished “by example and admonition,” with the Jews as “God’s messengers on earth” (on Genesis 12:1, 11:8, 18:17–19). In Orthodox Judaism today, Hirsch remains a household name. But the most important aspect of his legacy, which deserves urgent practical consideration by the Jewish community, is insufficiently appreciated.
A range of Orthodox communities claim Hirsch’s mantle. One often hears the “Hirschean worldview” invoked. Modern Orthodox thinkers cite his philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz (“Torah with the Way of the World”) as giving a Torah imprimatur to secular education. Hirsch’s pioneering study of the roots of Hebrew words is also well regarded. But Hirsch’s thought extends far beyond his contributions as an educational theorist and etymologist. He illuminated a cultural crisis of which he saw only the beginnings. That crisis, in Hirsch’s own term, is that of the Western world “sunk in materialism” (on Exodus 6:3).
Hirsch held a variety of rabbinic posts in Germany and Austria, culminating in 1851 with his leadership of the Orthodox separatist congregation in Frankfurt am Main. He is still known for his philosophical defense against Reform Judaism and for secession (Austritt) from Reform-dominated institutions. He was a meticulous and perceptive interpreter of scriptural text. Rather than Jews’ being called on to “modernize” Judaism, he preached, they were called on to fulfill an ancient “mission” on the model of Abraham himself, who “never leaves off admonishing, teaching, warning, bettering wherever and however he can” (on Genesis 18:23–26). On the famous phrase in Exodus 19:6 (“But ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests”), Hirsch wrote that Jews “by word and example” are called to minister to the world just as the Jewish priesthood ministers to the Jews: “For that which the [Jewish] Priest is to be to the [Jewish] People, the People are to be to the rest of Mankind, the ‘leading ram’ at the head of God’s flock of human beings” (on Leviticus 16:5). The purpose? “To carry through the world [a] proclamation of deliverance ever to be found from evil and guilt, or rejuvenation to freedom and life never to be lost, is your mission” (on Genesis 1:14–19).
Hirsch’s magnum opus, the Torah commentary (1867–1878), may be one of Judaism’s least read classics. Even in a modern translation, Hirsch’s prose can be intimidating. But that does not quite explain why Hirsch’s emphasis on Israel’s mission to the world fails to resonate in contemporary Jewish consciousness. When he wrote, the idea of such a mission to a hostile Gentile culture such as Germany’s hardly seemed prudent or practical. Traditional Jews were more concerned with the threat to Judaism from heterodox movements within the Jewish community. Later, immigrant generations of Jews, struggling to make it in new lands and ambitious for themselves and their children, found in Hirsch a justification for secular education but gave scant attention to his reason for advocating engagement with secular culture.
Hirsch saw the education of mankind—that is, its return to God—as the central drama shaping human history: “This gradual winning of mankind to what is good and true was God’s purpose from the beginning” (on Genesis 2:4). In this historical struggle, God’s people encountered a foe with many faces. Hirsch spoke of the “animal wisdom” of the snake in the Garden, seducing human beings with the idea that the physical urges we feel are nothing less than the “Voice of God” (on Genesis 3:1). Sometimes, Hirsch noted, the force wears the face of Jacob’s brother Esau, carrying “the orb of empire, the scepter and the sword”—physical power—with which Jacob wrestles eternally: “it is the meaning of what the whole of world-history really is” (on Genesis 32:25). What these faces and forces have in common can be summarized, Hirsch thought, in a single word: materialism.
By materialism, he meant the conception of reality as made purely of physical stuff and physical processes—the ideological outlook that gave us modern secularism. The deterministic doctrine that people are just an aspect of nature, hairless apes or advanced fishes, saps our will to make free and good—albeit difficult—moral choices of the kind animals do not make. Hirsch taught that the key to mankind’s liberation from materialism lies in the realization that we are free: Nothing holds us back from fulfilling God’s command. Hirsch presented many of the Torah’s laws as being designed precisely to educate us in this truth. He explicated such seemingly arcane areas of Torah law as those having to do with tumah and taharah (ritual impurity and purity) as examples of the subtleties of human freedom.
Hirschean theology sees God as the ultimate model for us in this regard. Hirsch insisted again and again that God must be understood as acting with complete freedom in the world, both as it is now and as it was in the process of creation. Accordingly, Hirsch was critical of the then-new Darwinian evolutionary theory. The history of creation was one in which God’s thoughts emerged and freely influenced the shapes of nature: “They are not the result of some force working blindly, but the work of One thinking Being, creating them with intention and purpose” (on Genesis 2:1).
His case against the Darwinian materialist worldview was framed, not in scientific terms, but in moral ones; it had nothing to do with insisting on a literal reading of Scripture or modern young-earth creationism. Writing just a few years after the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Hirsch used the biblical image of the idol Baal Peor, worshipped in a grotesquely animalistic fashion, to illustrate “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal” (on Numbers 25:3).
For Hirsch, the Jew’s mission to oppose materialism is conducted primarily in his role as a citizen. Especially in Horeb (1838), Hirsch’s work on the philosophy of the Torah’s commandments, his insistence on this point—the importance of patriotic devotion to one’s “Fatherland”—can be startling. Hirsch saw patriotism as nothing less than a divine commandment, “a religious duty, a duty imposed by God and no less holy than all the others,” regardless of whether a Jew’s adoptive Gentile homeland is generously disposed to him. By this he meant to call not for mindless, undiscriminating nationalism, but rather for improving and caring about the moral and religious culture of one’s home in the Diaspora as a good in itself just as one devotes oneself to Jewish welfare and flourishing.
In Orthodox circles, outreach to nonobservant Jews has come to be seen as an important communal interest, a vital good for its own sake. To embrace the Hirschean model today would require adapting that remarkably successful communicative technology, and the dynamic idealism that goes with it, to an even bigger challenge: outreach to non-Jews. Certainly, a first order of business would be to infuse the education of young people with a frankly outreach-directed Jewish mission. Jewish education would be remodeled around the goal of making a profound and Godly impact on the world. Some values that would be emphasized in a Hirschean educational system are rhetoric (writing and speaking, to persuade and affect a general audience); science (to demonstrate how God’s thoughts are made manifest in nature, so that an educated Jew should, as the Mishnah advises, “Know how to answer an apikoros,” a materialist religious skeptic); and, finally, business ethics (Hirsch was disgusted by the idea that Jews were known for being “sharp” in business).
Perhaps above all, rabbis in training would need to be imprinted with the full scope and grandeur of the Jewish mission, so that they could not only convey it to their congregants but also become frontline spokesmen for Judaism’s thought system in the world. Every Jew has a priestly calling, but none more so than a person whose job, as a rabbi, is precisely that of a teacher. Institutions such as Yeshiva University that prepare rabbis as well as other professionals must think far more in terms of the rabbi as public figure—a writer and speaker not only to Jewish audiences, but also to general ones, on the model of Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. This is not a matter of academic panels “dialoguing,” but, rather, a matter of seeking out opportunities to speak and write about God and man in Jewish terms that can be understood by all levels of Gentile laymen. A flagship Jewish educational institution such as Yeshiva should be at the front line of this effort, as well as at the front in formulating Jewish teachings—on God, family, personal morality, and, yes, politics—for a non-Jewish audience. A full-fledged program of study devoted to Jews’ mission to non-Jews, organized by a new department at Yeshiva designed to stand alongside Accounting, Real Estate, International Business, and Speech Pathology/Audiology, would not seem to be too much to ask.
Undeniably, the authentic Hirschean worldview poses a challenge to the traditional Jewish community, whose members today, like Jonah in the Bible, are reluctant prophets. The Jews are truly Jonah’s children. Yet, at a time when Americans and others around the globe are beset by anxieties about crumbling personal and business ethics—with moral values increasingly ungrounded by permanent structures of belief, with a world economy in distress thanks precisely to factors such as these, with life’s very meaning in doubt for many, and with non-Jews more open to Jewish influence than ever before—surely the time is at hand for Jews to seize their unique moral and spiritual mission.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus and other books and writes the Kingdom of Priests blog on Beliefnet.