Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hirsch's Nineteen Letters- A Model of Honest Kiruv that the Clowns Should Live By- Pt I

In my post the The 20th Letter, I made reference to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's famous work, The Nineteen Letters.

The book was written in the 19th century to address the so-called enlightened Jews of Germany who had left the fold of orthodoxy. Thus, this book is perhaps the first "kiruv" book! (Correct me if I'm wrong, Mississippi Fred.

However, while much of this blog has been devoted to pointing out kiruv clowns and their dastardly ways, I think it only fair to point out a heartfelt and straight from the heart kiruv approach from an established torah giant.

This book should be held out as a bright, shining torch to all the clowns in the kiruv world. Perhaps they will listen to a Rav from over 100 years ago, if they won't take Suggestions from the blogs of disgruntled BT's. If so, they could get rid of the "clown" part of their title.

Now, just because a kiruv book doesn't succeed in "converting" all its target audience does not mean it's a failure by any means. If the book or essay or blog or approach is honest and does not use bible codes and schroeder, specious arguments such as Gosse theory, or censorship disguised as "moderating", it's off to a great start. Ironically, all of these clowns pay homage to Rav Hirsch's ideas. Why don't they take his straightforward approach to kiruv as well, I wonder?

Next, if the book, essay, blog, or approach actually acknowledges the perspective of one who is either skeptical, or who became skeptical, and can even articulate that person's viewpoint, well- then you have a real Rabbi, who shouldn't even have "kiruv" as part of his appellation.

Rav Hirsch's Nineteen Letters, framed as a dialogue between a Rabbi and an off the derech former congregant/talmid, is actually written by Hirsch himself. In fact, he wrote it pseudonymously, which we bloggers can certainly appreciate!

When I read this book the first time, I wasn't ready to appreciate it. You see, I was a newly-minted B.T., and the first letter written by the OTD former talmid actually hurt to read. I felt an inner voice crying out, "hey this guy is right, not the Rabbi!" Well, I was in denial mode. Now, many years later, I can be more circumspect about the issues involved, and yet see the true merit of the author.

That letter really rings true to me now as a skeptic. And it also makes me wonder- how could Rav Hirsch write these things if he didn't feel them himself? Was he just parroting the pronouncements of the various and sundry enlightened reformers frequenting the local churches on sunday? I'm actually not sure; what do you think?

Well, without further adieu, I am going to go through the first letter, with my comments on why it hits home for me personally and perhaps a lot of you. [The book, which I recommend you get to make up your own mind as to Rav Hirsch's responses, is published by Feldheim and others.]

"My Dear Naftali [he's address Rav Hirsch]:

When, recently we met again after many years of separation you did not imagine what interest the subject of our conversation had for me. You found me so changed in my religious views and practices that, despite your usual tolerance, you could not help askin "Since when:" and "Why?" I answered you with a whole series of accusations against Judaism, based upon my reading and contact with the world since I had left home and my parents."

You listened quietly and then you said, "Do You really think you understand the subject which you are attacking? Have you tried by honest and earnest investigation, to acquire a real understanding of the most sacred and important aspect of our lives?" You pointed to the only sources of my own knowledge; the mechanical practice of parental customs, a few fragments of the Bile and Talmud taught me in an old-fashioned cheder, the writings of certain Christian authors and reformers, and, in general, a view of life based oupon a suppression of the inner voice of conscience in facor of the demands of superficial pleasure and comfort. [Now, I really don't like when kiruv Rabbis immediately comment that your problems with OJ are due to "your ignorance and that you therefore need a year or two of BT yeshiva to straighten you out", but be patient, there's more...]

I was forced to admit the gaps in my knowledge. I asked you for instruction. Then, the coachman called and you had only time to call out to me "I will write." ["I will post in my blog," that is...]
My dear Naphtali, while you have thus made me distrustful of my own views, you have neither refuted them nor given me better ones in their stead.

Every religion, I believe, should bring man nearer to his ultimate goal. What else can this goal be than the attainment of happiness and perfection? But to what happiness does Judaism bring its adherents? From time immemorial misery and slavery have been their lot. They were always either misunderstood or despised by the other nations. While the rest of mankind climbed to the summit of culture, prosperity and wealth, the Jewish people remained poor in everything that makes human beings great and noble, and that beautifies and dignifies our lives.
[It's interesting to have over 100 years of perspective on this complaint. It seems, religious or not, we remain "misunderstood and despised by the other nations," no matter how well some hide it. Clearly, reform didn't help much in this department, witness the Holocaust and world double standards towards Israel.

Yet, with the abandonment of orthodoxy, many Jews have attained the "summits of culture prosperity and wealth." It's kind of ironic when certain kiruv Rabbis point out our many Nobel Prizes, wonderful classical musicians, doctors and lawyers (ok, perhaps not the lawyers, but the Judges) as proof of "chosenness" they seem to miss the point in a profound way- none of this would likely have been accomplished were any of those folks frum. See the previous post on Rosh Yeshiva Einstein for that debate.]

The Law [halacha] prohibits all enjoyment. It is a constant hindrance to the enjoyment of life. For two thousand years we have been tossed about, driven from the paths of happiness. And as for perfection- what culture, what conquests have Jews wrought compared to those of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, English or Germans? [I cringe at the "Germans" part, but of course they have contributed quite a lot to the world other than genocide].

Robbed of all the characteristics of nationhood, we are, nevertheless, deemed a nation, and every one of us, by his very birth, is doomed to form a link in this endless chain of misery. It is the Law that is chiefly responsible for all this. It enforces our isolation and thereby arouses suspicion and hostility on the part of others. It invites contempt by its stress on humble submissiveness. It discourages the pursuit of the formative arts. Its dogmas bar the way to free thought. Through this enforced isolation, the Law removes every incentive to achievement in the sciences and arts. And what about our own Jewish lore? It perverts the mind by cramming it with petty subtleties until it becomes incapable of producing simple and straight thoughts and opinions. Thus, I have always wondered how you, who have sampled the beauty of the works of Virgil, Tasso, Shakespeare, and penetrated the ideas of Leibnitz and Kant, can find pleasure in the crude and tasteless writings of the Torah, or in the illogical arguments of the Talmud.

That last question is pretty interesting, but take the last paragraph as a whole. Things sure have changed, haven't they? I mean we are able to live in the modern world, even being "shomer mitzvohs" but on the modern side, one influential commentator notes he spends "98%" of his time in non-Jewish pursuits and environments.

That's the the first half of this letter. In many ways, once you read the whole first letter, you will see it could either be a template for all that's wrong in Judaism or for all that you think is wrong, but it really isn't that bad or that way nowadays. In any event, the letter could certainly be a template of questions a skeptical BT ought to have answered early on. The times may have changed enough so some of the questions are already answered, but we shall see...

I hope you find this endeavor fruitful.