Thursday, January 04, 2007

Questions which R. Zecharya Frankel were asked by R. Hirsch: 19th century Neo-Orthodoxy defined

To this day when I hear the name Zecharya Frankel I think of the Chaim Potok book The Promise (and, I think also The Chosen) in which the Zechariah Frankel Seminary stands in for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and [Samson Raphael] Hirsch College, for RIETS.

You probably know, if you don't you can click the link, that R. Zecharya Frankel was a prime mover in a 19th century religious movement that called itself variously the Historical School or Positive-Historical Judaism. It rejected Reform, and in terms of halakhic practice could, by today's standard, be regarded as basically indistinguishable from Orthodoxy--and even in terms of hashkafah many things acceptable within parts of today's Orthodoxy would not be very different from this group. So much so, that--at least in America--a great many people were unaware of three interpretations of Judaism in the 19th century, knowing only of two: those who were not Reform and those who were. Of those who were not Reform, there could be Jews of the Historical bent. Of those who were Reform there might even be some. But basically it wasn't clear to all parties that this was a third approach, although many Reformers and many Orthodox recognized that it was.

One person who believed that it was not Orthodoxy was R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who regarding R. Frankel with suspicion, posed the following open questions to him upon the news that he would head the about-to-be-established rabbinical seminary of Bresslau (to be called the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar / Jewish Theological Seminary):

1) What will revelation mean in the forthcoming Seminary? For Orthodox Judaism it is the direct word of the personal, one God to man; for it, "God spoke to Moses" is a simple supranatural fact just as one man speaks to another. Do the leaders of the Seminary acknowledge this Orthodox belief?

2) What will the Bible mean mean in the forthcoming Seminary? Orthodox Judaism believes in the divine authenticity of whole Bible and knows neither of the various authors of the Pentateuch, nor of Pseudo-Isaiah, nor of Maccabean songs under the name of David, or of Solomon's Ecclesiastes from the days of the second Temple, and so forth. What say the leaders of the Seminary of the authenticity of the Bible?

3) What will tradition mean in the forthcoming Seminary? For Orthodox Judaism it is the word which has its origin in God no less than the written word. Everything that is taught in the Talmud as d'oraita (of Torah origin) has in Orthodox Judaism the same origin and the same value as the biblical word. Orthodox Judaism knows nothing of a tradition that had a history in the course of the ages. It knows nothing of its founders who alleged the extension of the law to be divine tradition. It rejects with resentment any such thought as bringing our great and honorable forbears under undignified suspicion. How do the leaders of the Seminary stand in relation to this Orthodox principle?

4) What will be the meaning of derabbanan (rabbinic law) and minhag (custom) in the forthcoming Seminary? Orthodox Judaism recognizes it as divine obligation never to depart even from the statutes, and even minhagim (customs) have the same obligatory power as the category neder (vows). What say the leaders of the Seminary to this principle of Orthodox Judaism?*

R. Zecharya Frankel never answered these questions; although it could well be that he did not have an Orthodox answer to those questions, I assume he also regarded them as inquisitorial. Frankly, I'm not sure R. Hirsch even wanted them answered so much as to clarify his own point of view and vision of what the Seminary should be like, if it had a reason to exist.

It is interesting to see in a nutshell how R. Hirsch defined Orthodoxy, apparently vis-a-vis its positions on four key issues. Although there is no question that individual Orthodox Jews did and do not agree with all of the points in every particular, I think it's pretty fair to say that his formulation does basically reflect Orthodox positions that are still current.

There is more to this story, in that the Seminary would also employ as a member of its faculty a man with whom R. Hirsch had a personal history with, Heinreich Graetz, a former student-friend, a founder of modern Jewish historiography and author of a multi-volume magnum opus on Jewish history which R. Hirsch considered to be appalling.

* From The Growth of Reform Judaism: American and European Sources Until 1948 by W. Gunther Plaut

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