In early 19th century Germany, many communities found themselves in conflict between traditional Judaism and the new Reform movement. Finding the balance between living a Torah life and a German life thus became the great challenge of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s life.
Born in 1808, in Hamburg, Germany, Rabbi Hirsch attended public school and received a full Jewish education at home. When he completed his studies, Hirsch decided to train for the rabbinate under Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger. After six years with Rabbi Ettlinger, he began studying languages, history and philosophy at the University of Bonn.
Rabbi Hirsch served as rabbi in several communities. His greatest impact was made when he served as the rabbi of Frankfurt-on-Main (from 1851 until his death in 1888). The Frankfurt community had been ravaged by the bitter division between traditional Jews and the new Reform movement. Rabbi Hirsch quickly created Jewish schools, ritual baths and kosher slaughter houses, while at the same time meeting modernity’s challenge by wearing clerical robes, delivering sermons in German and encouraging Bible study alongside Talmud.
Rabbi Hirsch is best known for his conceptualization of Judaism as Torah im Derech Eretz, which is understood to mean “Torah with Modern Life.” Rabbi Hirsch believed that one could, and should, be part of the world while maintaining one’s strict adherence to Torah law.
Rabbi Hirsch’s great impact on the Jewish world came from both his actions and his writings. The Nineteen Letters on Judaism (published under the pseudonym Ben Uziel, 1836) was an intellectual presentation of Orthodox Judaism in classic German. In 1838, he published Horeb, a textbook on Judaism and a rational explanation of the 613 commandments. Rabbi Hirsch is also renowned for his extensive commentary on the Torah.
The anniversary of Rabbi Hirsch’s death is 27 Tevet, today.