Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Who is Hirschensohn, What is He

Having recently acquired a presentation copy of R' Chayim Hirschensohn's commentary on Horios (inscribed to R' Y. Sheinkman; other owner signatures Avraham Goldberg and Ishmael (?) ben Esther Hinda; wonder who they all were), I thought I'd write up notes on R Alan Brill's lecture on Hirschensohn.

R’ Chaim Hirschensohn was born in 1857 in Sfat; his daughter Nina Alblum wrote a biography of life in Sfat in the early days. He visits the Berlin Rabbinerseminar, moves back to Israel, and by 1901 was the chief rabbi of Constantinople. He responds to R’ Reines call for allies, and in 1903, he moves to become rabbi of industrial Hoboken, NJ.

What makes him interesting is his vision for a new era, expressed in a shelf of seforim. This is a new era, wherein to found a new kehillah based on democracy – Judaism, Halacha, Dayyanut to be based on consent of the governed.

· Eleh haBrit: different covenants within Tanach where for each we get more and more obligations.

· Commentary on Horios expresses political theory.

· Responsa collection Malki Bakodesh on how to run a government.

Nobody has really analyzed this material yet. Eliezer Schwied put out a volume on him in English; he and David Zohar have gone through and pulled out punchlines, without analyzing if this is a good read of Horios, how he relates to Rambam and earlier teshuvos.

1) we all have to be democratic, all Jews are part of the universal democratc Ben Noah covenant of complete equality between Jew and nonJew.

2) Halacha empowered by people. In HaBrit, explains that we have many covenants, and Judaism is about Kiymu veKiblu.

He works through “what about Marah” “what about Mishpatim” “what about kiymu vekiblu” which others had not yet done. Hirschensohn talks about a future Israel where halacha and democracy have to work together. Things are solvable, if you use your ingenuity to reexamine texts under modern conditions. He’s not writing Wissenschaftliche history, but halacha of current and future needs. We’re not bound by, e.g., Deutoronomic laws to destroy 7 Nations or Amalek, since we’re now bound by international law. There’s a need to confront new ideas, like higher criticism, because you can’t say that the Torah is dated – it can handle all challenges.

Pg. 41-42 in Malki Bakodesh: While we’re in exile, you don’t have to tell us not to kill the 7 Nations, but as a free people, what will happen when the state is created? Keep ideas fresh, for new great leaders to answer. . We will have to cancel gentile-based minhagim since we don’t have to mix with them any more. Return to a pristine halacha. Return to spirit of shakla vetarya of the Tannaim.

A great undying principle: God is not a tyrant, religion is not based on Divine will, but on our acceptance of covenants of Sinai, Moab, etc. Freely-created covenants of the people. Even the mitzvoth are ultimately voluntary, we took them upon ourselves in response to God’s plan, but we took them – social contract description of Halacha. Individual election to observe the mitzvoth, not a collective klal-yisrael acceptance that most Religious Zionists would see it.

We don’t make up our own laws, we have elected representatives, etc., and halacha works the same way – individual covenants, which apply to our children, because that’s the way law works. To be a good citizen, or member of the Brit of Klal Yisrael, you have to take upon yourself the keeping of mitzvoth.

His unique approach to, e.g. autopsies: Pikuach Nefesh is not sufficient to allow autopsies, because the individual is already dead, but Nivul haMet only deals with memory and honor, not with the actual body,. He has to sit and think about different halachic approaches to problems.

Where others have small-scale pragmatic agendas, he has an overarching vision driving his approach to psak.

In terms of the Bible, he can give you an answer about any narrative, such as miracles, that they are not parables, but historical accounts, similar to Shada”l, but he intimates that we should use the best tools available for analyzing the Bible. He doesn’t want to run through philosophy or kabbalah in America, because people in America don’t really understand this any more. If you want to do Judaism and halacha, you have to know the whole Gemara and all interpretations and all Poskim.

Some of his stuff is translated on Meimad and/or Kibbutz haDati websites, that regard him as a bit of a hero, but only excerpts, not full analyses of issues.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

very interesting

Ha-historion said...

I think he is the subject of Marc Shapiro's upcoming book.

thanbo said...

I just got a copy of Schweid's book on him, "Democracy and Halakhah". There's a short biography in Eisenstein's "Otzar Zichronotai", which can be found on . I'm also in the middle of R' Adam Mintz' lecture on him (see the Kehillat Rayim Ahuvim website).

R' Mintz notes that David Zohar in Israel is reprinting and editing a new edition of Malki Bakodesh, the shu"t collection. He credits with the renaissance of interest in Hirschensohn, because until that site put them up, they were almost impossible to buy beg borrow or steal.

Yitzhak said...

[I posted this on Areivim]

[thanbo] wrote [on Areivim]:


> Maybe it's time for R' Hirschensohn to rise from the dustbin of history?

I know of him through the critiques of his work by his sparring partner,
Rav Elazar Meir Preil, in the latter's T'shuvos Ha'ma'or. Rav Preil was
the FIL of Rav Pinchas Teitz and his predecessor as Rav of Elizabeth.
Rn. Rivkah Blau has fascinating material about the Preil / Teitz family
in her book [0].

[0] Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah -

[end of Areivim post]

Rav Preil was also a fascinating thinker, and at least some of his debates with R' Hirshensohn were about the sorts of issues you mention. Rav Preil engaged RH on the permissibility of autopsies, and their respective positions are critiqued by Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel in the latter's Mish'p'tei Uziel.