Samson Raphael Hirsch – A Light to the Nations ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 0

			Everybody knows the term ‘Orthodox’ and its association with a certain segment of Jewry. ‎The Orthodox are the really religious ones, those who actually take all the rules seriously and ‎make a solid attempt to run their lives around Judaism. Orthodox has a connotation of being ‎both traditional and correct. It is a historical curiosity that the term was never used by the ‎Orthodox to describe themselves until the advent of Reform Judaism during the 19th century. ‎It was actually the Reform who referred to those traditional Jews as ‘Orthodox’ - a ‎derogatory term implying that they were behind the times and not keeping up with the ‎modern world. ‎
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In fact, one of the leading defenders of the traditional Jews claimed that ‘the name was at ‎first resented by old Jews. And rightly so. Orthodox Judaism does not know any varieties of ‎Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and indivisible. It does not know a Mosaic, prophetic ‎and rabbinic Judaism, nor Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. It only knows Judaism and non-‎Judaism. It does not know Orthodox and Liberal Jews. It does indeed know conscientious ‎and indifferent Jews, good Jews, bad Jews or baptized Jews; all, nevertheless, Jews with a ‎mission which they cannot cast off. They are only distinguished accordingly as they fulfill or ‎reject their mission.’ ‎
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The Orthodox Jew who made that statement was Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century ‎leader of the traditional Jews in Germany. His life spanned most of the century (1808-1888) ‎and his rabbinic career (almost 60 years) most of his life. Hirsch is known for his introduction ‎of the term ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ (Torah with worldly ways), a phrase that originated in ‎the Avot section of the Mishna (2:2). The term ‘Derech Eretz’ is rather vague and can refer to ‎many different things, but the bottom line is that it refers to some mode of behavior that is ‎complementary to Torah while not being Torah per se. In time, it came to mean refined ‎character traits or knowledge of the natural world. Hirsch, who enshrined the phrase as a way ‎of Jewish life, explained in his commentary to that Mishna that ‘Derech Eretz includes ‎everything that results from the fact that man's existence, mission and social life is conducted ‎on Earth, using earthly means and conditions. Therefore, this term especially describes ways ‎of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order.’ He saw the combination of the two, ‎Torah and Derech Eretz, as parallel essentials to the Jews fulfilling their purpose in the world, ‎which he defines as nothing less than ‘the salvation of the whole of mankind’.‎
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He expanded upon this bold idea in what is probably his most famous work, his commentary ‎to the Chumash written during 1867-1878. In the section on Exodus, Hirsch expounds on the ‎verses (19:5-6), ‘And now if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, you will be ‎to Me as a treasure among the nations, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me as a ‎kingdom of priests and a holy nation…’ Hirsch explains that the word ‘treasure’ refers to the ‎Israelite’s unique status as belonging solely to God and not to anybody else, even to ‎themselves. This, he claims is ‘really nothing exceptional, is nothing but the beginning of the ‎return to the normal condition which the whole world should bear towards Me. The whole of ‎humanity, every nation in the world really is destined to belong to Me and will be ultimately ‎educated by Me up to Me.’ ‎

How is this to happen? ‘It is just for this ultimate destiny of the whole world that you are to ‎become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto Me…So is the impression which Israel as ‎a nation is to make on the world to be one of holiness to God. You are to be a unique nation ‎among the nations, a nation which does not exist for its own fame, its own greatness, its own ‎glory, but the foundation and glorification of the Kingdom of God on Earth, a nation which ‎is not to seek its greatness in power and might but in the absolute rule of the Divine Law – ‎the Torah – for that is which holiness is.’ ‎

Analysis ‎

These are bold and controversial ideas. To those in the know it is really nothing new. This is ‎the old ‘light unto the nations’ notion straight out of the Old Testament. That famous ‎statement ‘Or l’goyim’ ranks among the best known of the Bible. It comes up in one context ‎or another a few times in the book of Isaiah (42:6, 49:6, 60:3). The meaning is not entirely ‎clear there and the classic commentaries differ on what the light will be and who will serve as ‎that light. Hirsch, in his commentary of Isaiah 42:6 clearly understood it as referring to the ‎Jewish nation living according to the covenant of the Torah, serving as a beacon of justice for ‎the rest of the world. ‎

So what is so bold and controversial about the ‘light unto the nations’ idea? For one thing, it ‎separates the nation of Israel from the rest of the world, putting them in a class by themselves. ‎Nobody wants to hear that some other person or group considers themselves to be better than ‎everybody else. If the claim is backed by the supposed word of God it becomes all the more ‎outrageous. Hirsch takes it at face value and uses it to explain the meaning and purpose of ‎life. ‎
God created us to belong to God. We live under a perpetual illusion that our lives, our brains, ‎our talents, our souls, our time, all belong to us. We never really even consider the possibility ‎that this obvious fact isn’t true at all. Why don’t we ever ask ourselves the question, ‘How ‎did we get her?’ Or, ‘Where did my soul come from?’ Or, ‘Who gave me my mind?’ All these ‎amazing things are just birthrights that we take for granted without a second thought. ‎

To this attitude Hirsch writes. We belong to God. The normal human situation is to ‎understand that we belong to God. It is abnormal to believe otherwise. We are truly God’s ‎children and everything we have, from our souls to our toenails, belongs to God. We do not ‎exist for our own fame, greatness, or glory, ‘but the foundation and glorification of the ‎Kingdom of God on Earth’. This is why we are here. This is the only reason why we are here. ‎

The Israelites, and their successors, the Jews, were created to be a ‘treasure’ of God – an ‎example to demonstrate that everything and everybody belongs to God. The mission of the ‎Jews is to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ charged with teaching this fundamental idea. The Jews ‎are to be a ‘holy nation’ dedicated to ‘not seek its power in greatness and might but in the ‎absolute rule of the Divine Law – the Torah – for that is what holiness is’. Holiness, according ‎to Hirsch is simply dedication to God and to God alone. Any other goal is self-serving, and ‎therefore devoid of holiness. ‎

Why did God need one group to demonstrate this fundamental idea to everyone else? Why ‎not just command the entire world to dedicate themselves solely to God and be done with it? ‎The answer to this question is rooted in the nature of humanity and borders on racism. Human ‎beings simply do not dedicate themselves solely to God. They think of themselves, of their ‎own survival and comfort and pleasure. There is nothing really wrong with such an attitude. It ‎is the way of the world. But it isn’t holy and wasn’t God’s goal in creation. ‎
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The Jews, perhaps because they had the debatable fortune of powerlessness, have continued ‎to carry that light against all odds. Maybe they haven’t done a perfect job. Perhaps they sank ‎too much into bitterness against the nations for the treatment that they received wherever ‎they wandered, and raised their own feeble walls of insularity to protect themselves. But that ‎light was always there, calling out to the world to recognize that it also has a higher calling. ‎This is the role of the Jews. Neither the Jews nor any other nation would volunteer to bear ‎such a burden, but bear it they have. ‎

Being a ‘light unto the nations’ comes with a heavy price. It is a great responsibility and more ‎often than not is resented by those who could benefit the most from it. Not everyone wants ‎to hear that they, and everything about them, belong not to themselves, but to God. These are ‎challenging words that cut through the entire facade of personal pride and worship of the ‎self. But without such a challenge human beings will never rise above the limitations dictated ‎by evolution. The mission of the Jews, whether or not they choose to accept it, is to teach and ‎to demonstrate otherwise. ‎
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Practical ‎
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To belong to God is both constricting and liberating. It is constricting in that one can no ‎longer do whatever one feels like doing. There is an overriding sense of servitude that ‎permeates all of one’s doings. It means acting different, speaking different, even thinking ‎different. It means being apart from normal ways of the world, not being able to eat the same ‎foods or to frequent the same places or to partake of the same forms of pleasure. It means ‎studying obscure wisdom and treasuring obsolete customs, to say nothing of abiding by a ‎rather stringent code of ethics. But most of all, it means not allowing oneself to be the person ‎whom one would be if one did not have a sense of belonging to God. There is an inner ‎change of the personality in which it is understood that the primary use of the mind is to ‎enrich the spirit rather than the body. ‎
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But servitude of this kind can also be liberating. It frees the person from the shackles of social ‎pressure and conformity. It frees the body from the artificial need to pamper itself at the ‎expense of everything else. It enlightens the mind to be able to see and understand itself as a ‎source of willful internal choice and not as a victim of conflicting and contrasting ‎bombardment from external forces. It enables every human being to rise above the pettiness ‎of jealousy and the restrictions of arrogance, to see other people as creations of God in the ‎image of God. It baths the entire world with a luminescence that can never be dimmed by the ‎taint of cynicism and apathy. The world, as a creation and a possession of God, is holy. It is ‎not a playground but a sanctuary. ‎
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This attitude is surprisingly easy to attain, but frustratingly difficult to maintain. Attaining it ‎is simply flipping on a switch and seeing things from a different angle. You are not just you. ‎You are a child of God, a fully independent creation, while totally dependent on your Creator ‎for your very being. That contradictory state is the human condition. In a flash we can see ‎ourselves as utterly subservient to God. But just as quickly we can lose touch with that insight ‎and revert back to the default state of blissful ignorance of God’s existence. It may sound ‎surprising, but this is what God expects out of the Jews. It is also what God expects out of ‎every human being. ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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The prediction of the Jews being a ‘light unto the nations’ has spurred more than its share of ‎resentment and confusion. But in spite of all that, it has proven remarkably true. Why are both ‎Jews and non-Jews frequently so resistant to the idea? ‎


		


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