Hirsch was born in 1808 in Hamburg, Germany.
He went to the public schools, where he was strongly influenced by Schiller
and Hegel, and received his Jewish education at home. His father was
an observant Jew. His grandfather, Mendel Frankfurter, was the founder
of the Talmud Torah in Hamburg. Through the education of his teachers,
considered German Jewry's greatest Talmudists,
who were proficient in both non-Jewish and Jewish culture, Hirsch decided
to train for the rabbinate with the aim of demonstrating that traditional
Judaism and Western culture are compatible with each other. From 1823
to 1829 he studied under Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger, a distinguished German
Jewish Talmudist. He than entered the University of Bonn. While at Bonn
one of his classmates was Abraham
Geiger, who later became a leader of the Reform movement. At Bonn,
he studied classical languages, history and philosophy.
In 1830, Hirsch became rabbi of Oldenburg and in 1846,
district rabbi of Moravia. In 1851, disturbed by assimilationist tendencies
of the Jewish community, Hirsch was invited to be the rabbi of Frankfurt-on-Main.
He erected Jewish schools and mikvaot (ritual baths) and institutions
for ritual slaughter.
As a pulpit rabbi, Hirsch adopted the style of the
Reformers. He wore clerical robes, accepted a choir (male-only), shaved
his beard (before the advent of electric razors), delivered sermons
in German, the vernacular, and encouraged study of the Bible instead
of engaging in pilpul (Talmudic "hairsplitting"). He also
abolished the Kol Nidre service on Yom
Under the pseudonym of "Ben Uziel" he wrote Neunzehn Briefe uber Judenthum (The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel),
which was a brilliant defense of traditional Judaism in German, something
that had not existed before it was published in 1836. In 1838, he published Choreb, a rationalist explanation of the 613
commandments. Samson Raphael Hirsch also published a commentary
to the Torah, which exemplified his exegetical approach.
Hirsch was both a modernist and a traditionalist. His
community became known as a model for communities strict in adherance
hence the term "neo-Orthodoxy." In his work, The Nineteenth
Letters of Ben Uziel, he remarked that it would have been better
for the Jews not to have been emancipated if the price to pay was assimilation.
While Hirsch was a scholar and child of the Haskalah,
he had no tolerance for the historical approach to Judaism (then an emerging school under Zecharia Frankel and the forerunner of
the Conservative movement) as he felt it produced a relativistic attitude
toward Torah. He fully believed in the total Divinity of the Torah and
rejected the idea that law could be changed as a conscious process of
Hirsch's understanding of modern Judaism became known
as "Torah im Derekh Eretz," after the verse in Pirke Avot
(2:2) that "Torah is good together with derekh eretz." In
the context of the Mishna, derekh eretz means an occupation but Hirsch
expanded its meaning to include full engagement with western culture,
while maintaining adherence to Jewish law. In this, he created the idea
of the "Israel-Mentsch," the enlightened religious personality.
While he believed that style or non-halakhic externalities could be
changed, he believed that the essence of Jewish law and belief could
Hirsch speaks of the ideal Jew both as a believer in
the divine authority of the Torah as the mantle of eternal values as
well as a cultured person belonging to the modern world. He rejected
the pilpul (hairsplitting dialectic) method of Talmudic study, instead
arguing that Torah study must reflect the view that the Torah is the
divine guide to achieving the ennoblement of the human spirit. He argued
that the Jews have a divinely ordained role to play in the world, which
requires both Jewish education and a role in the modern secular world.
Despite these enlightened views, Hirsch was a direct
opponent of Reform, which had abolished all vestiges of ritual Judaism
including the Sabbath, dietary laws, and garb. In the Nineteen Letters
"Was Judaism ever 'in accordance with the times?'
Did Judaism ever correspond with the views of dominant contemporaries?
Was it ever convenient to be a Jew or Jewess?
Was that Judaism
in accordance with the times, for which, during the centuries following
the Disperson, our fathers suffered in all lands, through all the
various periods, the most degrading oppression, the most biting contempt,
and a thousand-fold death and persecution? And yet we would make it
the aim and scope of Judaism to be always 'in accordance with the
Yet, despite Hirsch's passion for traditional Judaism,
his congregations were made up of a diverse cross-section of cultured
society -- bankers, professors, physicians, artists, scientists and
others who were both comfortable in Western society and observant in
their own daily lives, thus proving that Torah and secular society do
Sources: Eliezer Siegel, "Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch and Neo-Orthodoxy," Louis Jacobs, "Samson
Raphael Hirsch: The Father of Neo-Orthodoxy," MyJewishLearning.com,
Raphael Hirsch," Wikipedia.