Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hirsch's Nineteen Letters- A Model of Honest Kiruv - Pt II

Now, back for Part II of this short series. I got several comments to part one. Notably, most were just re-discovering that Rav Hirsch was quite a personality, not just another deceased rabbi quoted every 43 pages in the Artscroll chumash.

Most of you seem curious what Rav Hirsch's response will be to this hard-hitting letter. For that, I will probably just refer you to the book. That's because the "answers" are not really answers. They come more in the form of bible quotes with explanations of how the quotes demonstrate we as Jews really have such a lofty role to play as a nation of priests and so on. I think this was sort of more focused on establishing Jewish pride in the times of true Jewish self-hate being focused on the practice of Judaism. Again, I leave it to you to be impressed or not. It didn't have a real effect on me, since it sidestepped all the foundational questions of why listen to this text to begin with, since I didn't believe it to be divine.

So, here's the rest of the skeptic's first letter, entitled "Complaint":

And what effect does this Law have on our emotional life? The broad principles of universal morality are narrowed into anxious scruples about insignificant trifles. [How can anyone respond to this indictment in particular? How many mind-numbing, hair-splitting dialogues about halacha do we have to hirhurim, er I mean do we have to hear before it goes the way of the dodo? There was a guy in my BT yeshiva who told me how his grandmother's recollection of Shabbos in the old days was everyone sitting around debating "can we do this or that?" You know, can you eat the fish from the bones or dunk the tea bag or wipe up a stain, or some other melacha-related topic. All this hair-splitting is responsible for Jews losing site of their mission in life, not the arguments of atheists].
Nothing in life is taught except to fear God. Every petty detail of life is referred directly to the Creator of the Universe. Life becomes a continuous round of monastic service, nothing but prayers and ceremonies. Study the book which is put into our hands as the Path of Life [Orach Chaim]. What else does it teach except praying and fasting and the keeping of holidays? Where is there one word about the busy, active life around us? Why, it is absolutely impossible to observe these laws, for they were intended for an entirely different time. What limitation in travel, what embarrassment in our associations with gentiles, what difficulties in business!

I recently saw a young rabbi who, whenever he travels, in simple-minded piety, contents himself with bread and water. When one visits him at home, one may still find him poring over the folios of the Talmud. He is even seriously concerned about some of the members of his congregation who are so far advanced in their enlightened views that they do not close their places of business on the Sabbath.

What shall become of us, dear Naphtali? I am about to marry, but when I think of the duties of fatherhood that might possibly devolve upon me, I tremble.

Excuse me for having spoken so freely and unreservedly, although I know that you revere all this very much. I suppose you must, as a Rabbi; your position demands it. Still, I am confident that you have so much affection left for me from former days that you will, in your answer, forget your office. Farewell."

The "duties of fatherhood" line above probably is the most compelling thing for me. Were I single, I wouldn't worry so much. But the last thing I want to do is throw the "baby out with the bathwater." I know Judaism's traditions and to some extent its structure, have much to offer, but I just can't go through the motions davening, talking to a god that doesn't talk back, that I don't believe exists at all. And haven't for a long while. The hair-splitting is also too much to take. It would be nice to hear Jews focused on purpose in the world, rather than just kiruv as an end in itself, or nitpicking halachos.