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Torah and Derech Eretz: The Frankfort Approach

(This article is reproduced with permission from the author and Tradition…footnotes have been removed and the article has been edited for brevity. We found the translation of Rabbi Shimon Schwab’s letter interesting in light of recent attacks by supposedly centrist rabbis that referred to the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as heresy.)

In 1963, a scathing critique of the Torah and Derech Eretz movement founded by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888) was authored by R. Eliyahu Eliezer Dressler of the Musar movement, masgiach of the Ponoviez Yeshiva in Bnai Brak, and a profound thinker. Labeling the Torah and Derech Eretz movement as the “Frankfort Approach,” Rabbi Dessler conceded that very few graduates of Torah and Derech Eretz educational institutions defected from traditional Judaism. This was certainly a strength. But, he argued, precisely because secular study was incorporated into the curriculum, the “Frankfort Approach” was doomed to failure.

In effect, it produced no Gedolei Yisroel and precious few rabbinic scholars of note. In contrast, the East European yeshivot had only one educational goal: the production of Gedolei Yisroel. Secular study was banned from the yeshiva curriculum because nothing sort of total immersion in Torah study would produce them. The gedolim in Eastern Europe were well aware that heavy casualties would result from this single-minded approach to Jewish education. But that was a price they were willing to pay in order to produce Gedolei Yisroel.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab was asked to respond to Rabbi Dessler’s critique, which he did, and it was published anonymously in ha-Ma’ayan, a distinguished Israeli Torah journal in 1996. The editorial board of ha-Ma’ayan granted us permission to publish the English translation (see below).

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) was born on Frankfort-am-Main, where he was introduced to the legacy of R Samson Raphael Hirsch. In 1926 he left for Lithuania, where he studied in Telz. He would later study in Mir in Poland. While in Eastern Europe, he met and came under the influence of such Gedolei Yisroel as the Chofetz Chaim of Radin, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna, and R. Yerucham Levovitz of Mir. After srving in two rabbinical posts in Germany, he accepted a call to serve as spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel in Baltimore in 1936. His many accomplishments in Baltimore included an instrumental role in the founding of its Beis Yaakov School for Girls. In 1958, he joined the rabbinate of Khal Adas Jeshurun in Washington Heights, NY. Serving together with, and later succeeding Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer as leader of the kehilla. A prolific author, he will be remembered primarily for Bet Ha Sho’eva (New York 1942), These and Those (New York, 1966); Ma’ayan Bet ha So’eva (Brooklyn 1994), and three volumes of selected studies, published in book form between 1988 and 1994.

By Rabbi Schwab:

In response to your letter: I received the issue of ha-Ma’ayan (Tishrei 5724 [1963]) upon publication and read R, Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s (of blessed memory) essay. It was reissued in his Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, volume 3, which just appeared in print.

Who am I to render an opinion regarding a matter about which greater and better rabbinic scholars have yet to reach an agreement? The rabbis of the previous generation, indeed the ancestors of Rabbi Dressler who were the founders of the Musar movement, R. Israel Salanter (d.1883) and his disciple R. Simcha Zissel (Brioda, d. 1870) addressed this issue. I have heard that their view on these matters came very close to that of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, but that they were outnumbered and opposed by the majority of (East European) rabbis at the time. It seems to me that this was always the case historically. The majority of the rabbis refused to engage in secular study, lest they be ensnared by it. On the other hand, in every generation a minority of Torah sages engaged in secular study, sensing it as a handmaiden to serve the cause of Torah. That minority pursued its own path and sanctified God’s name throughout the universe, as is well known. R. Moses Isserles (d. 1572) already wrote in a responsum to R. Solomon Luria (d. 1574) that it was an ancient debate between the sages (see She’elot u-Teshuvot R. Moses Isserles 6 and 7 cf: [R. Abba Mari b. Moses Astruc of Lunel d. 1300)] Minhat Qena’ot.)

Who knows! It may well be that both approaches “Torah and Derekh Eretz” and “Torah Only” are true, both reflecting the essence of Torah. What is crucial is that ones’s intent be for the sake of Heaven, always according the Torah primary status, and making secular study secondary. No rabbinic court ever banned secular study. Indeed, the Torah scholars of the various generations never ruled officially in favor of the one approach after the other. Everyone is free to select whichever approach finds favor in his eyes. Let him consult his teachers and follow in the footsteps of his forefathers. The advocates of one approach must respect the advocates of the other approach. They may not cast aspersions on the approach they reject. To the contrary, they must provide support for each other. In particular one must be very wary of repudiating the view of the opposing approach, without first mastering the fundamentals of the approach being criticized.

It seems to me that the majority of the critics of the Hirschian approach have not plumbed the depths of these writings, and consequently, have not understood him properly. Let everyone stand guard over his approach for the sake of Heaven, until such time as a light shines forth and our justices and rabbinic advisors will return. Only then will all doubts be resolved and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.

Regarding Germany, it is worth noting that with the appearance of [Moses] Mendelssohn’s [d. 1786] disciples and their polluted teachings, large numbers of Jews drowned in the sinful waters of heresy, conversion to Christianity, ignorance and assimilation. Only a remnant remained loyal to God and his Torah, ie., those who came under the influence of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch of blessed memory, and his colleagues. They [the rabbis] built fences around the breaches that marked their generation and renewed the foundation of the Jewish religion. Indeed, they focused all their attention on repairing the breaches. Their most talented disciples necessarily devoted themselves entirely to the pressing needs of their generation, ie., to winning Jews back to Judaism. These disciples followed with precision the instructions they received from their teachers. One can hardly blame them [ie., the teachers], if none of them [ie, the disciples], were recognized as renowned geonim. Nevertheless, several of the disciples were distinguished rabbinic scholars. Perhaps, in proportion to the number of observant Jews in Germany, no fewer Torah scholars were produced in Germany than in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, with its population of 5,000,000, Jews, most of them observant Jews who studied in chadarim, aside from the thousands and tens of thousands who attended yeshivot, it comes as no surprise that many reknown geonim were produced. Moreover, truthfully, it must be noted that already 200 years before Mendelssohn, renown geonim were no longer being produced in Germany. It is well known that the majority of rabbis originally from Germany and West Europe, already by that time had migrated to Poland, Lithuania and Russia. When Mendelsson’s disciples began polluting the air in Germany, few were the recognized geonim in Germany who were native born and trained in Germany. A child could count them. Virtually all rabbis in Germany, Holland and the like at that time, were natives of Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and other Eastern lands. This is no small matter! Surely, at that time, our forefathers in Germany did not pursue secular study and did not attend gentile schools, rather the vast majority of them were Torah-true, God-fearing observant Jews. Yet they imported their rabbis from afar, selecting geonim from Eastern Lands because they could no longer produce them (with some expectations) in the West. Who knows why a specific land produces geonim over a prescribed period of time, only to cease doing so when the privilege is transferred to another venue! This very questions needs to be asked regarding the Jewish communities in Babylonia, Spain, and North Africa, all of which centers of Torah. At an appointed time they ceased to be so. Why this phenomenon occurs is hidden from us; doubtless, it is recognized among the secrets of He who announced the generations from the start.

In the period following Mendelssohn, the only renown native born geonim born in Germany were R. Moses Sofer [d. 1839], his teacher, R. Nathan Adler [d. 1800], and R. Wolf Hamburger, [d.1850]. In a slightly later period, we find the last gaon in Germany, R. Jacob Ettlinger [d. 1871], author of Arukh la-Ner, a reknowned authority universally recognized in all yeshivot. He, however, mastered secular study and attended the University of Wurtzberg for an academic year. He studied at the university together with his colleague, R. Mendel Kargau [d.1842], and Hakham Isaac Bernays [d.1849], teacher of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. (Incidentally, R. Jacob Ettlinger published a periodcal, half in fluent German and half in Hebrew, called Der Treuer Zions-Waechter (The True Guadian of Zion). In this regard, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch followed in his footsteps.)

The upshot of all this is that the claim that the “Frankfort Approach” was not capable of transforming gifted students into geonim in Torah is erroneous. It is certainly true that the gifted students suffer no loss of talent by engaging in increased study. Thus, quite the contrary, to the extent that they increase their secular study, their minds are broadened and their Torah studies are deepened proportionately, so long as they truly study for the sake of Heaven. On the other hand, a student lacking in intelligence, who is also denied exposure secular study, will hardly grow in Torah and become a distinguished gaon due to that denial alone. R. Barukh Schick [d. 1808] of Shklov, in the introduction to his Hebrew translation of Euclid testifies: “In the month Tevet 5538 [1777-8, I heard from the holy lips of the Gaon of Vilna, that to the extent that one is deficient in secular wisdom, he will be deficient 100-fold in Torah study. He urged me to translate into Hebrew as much secular wisdom as possible so as to cause the nations to disgorge what they have swallowed, thereby increasing knowledge among the Jews.” R. Barukh also states “There are Jews bereft of intelligence and secular study, which is precisely why they denigrate the wisdom and knowledge that they lack. Moreover they hurl accusations of heresy against the wise, so that they can be stigmatized and viewed as outcasts by the masses.”

All the above I have written as a kind of pilpul in response to the letter of the gaon R. Dessler, in order to underscore the complexities of this difficult issue. The key question that remains unanswered, What shall be the approach—in this orphaned generation—for the majority of Jewish school children? In particular, it is difficult for young students to engage in deep Torah studies and yet still find time to master the essential and useful teachings of secular study. In any event, educational reform under the aegis of God-fearing teachers is necessary in order to stress the primacy of Torah study over secular study, and in order to refine secular study so that it can serve the interests of Torah study.

Those remnants of Jewry, who touched by God, wish to devote their lives to the study of Torah alone and are prepared to lay down their lives in order to study Torah for its own sake, come under the category of the tribe of Levy, as described by Maimonides, at the end of the laws of Shmetah and the Jubilee Year, 13: 12-13. But I worry about all the tribes of Israel, all 12 tribes, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They too are obligated to study to live by the Torah, making it primary in their lives and rendering all else secondary. I need to worry about them as well, to inculcate the fear of God in them and to teach them how to live a life sanctified by the commandments as characterized by the sanctification of God’s name.

The approach of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch enables us to induce and produce God-fearing and Torah loyal young men, and righteous and valiant young women. Indeed, this is the “Frankfort Approach, also known as Torah and Derekh Eretz. It is a tried and tested method. It is especially appropriate in this country, at this time, which has much in common with the Haskalah period in Germany during the previous century. Had not R. Samson Raphael Hirsch established this approach for us, we would not dare to expropriate it without the prior approval of the Roshei Yeshiva and Gedolei Torah of our generation. But since R. Samson Raphael Hirsch merited the production of several generations (indeed, over 100 years) of observant Jews in Western Europe—and the so-called “Franfort Approach” has grown and matured, yielding rich produce—all who follow this path walk a well-trodden path and drink from a well dug by experts (see regarding these matters, the Maharal of Prague, [d. 1609] Netivot Olam, section Metiv HaTorah, Chapter 14; and R. Jacob Emden [d.1776] She’ar Ya’avetz, vol 1. 41).

Those who for the sake of Heaven oppose this approach, must admit that a ban on secular study in our time and in our countries would be a “decree that the majority of the community could not comply with.” Let the Jewish community rest undisturbed.

Regarding the minority of the Jews who desire to study Torah only—and to do so throughout their lives at a renown citadel of Torah—may blessings fall upon them, and may they merit to study Torah for its own sake. Fortunate is their lot, the entire world exists for their sake. It is a scared obligation to enhance, strengthen and support their cause. No one disputes this. The debate is confined to the educational approaches regarding Jewish day schools, and related educational institutions that serve the majority of the Jewish students in our country at this time.

It seems to be that both (ie., The “Frankfort” and the “Torah-Only” educational approaches are well-grounded in the sources and both are essential for the continued existence of the Jewish people in our time. So it shall remain until the Redemption takes place. Then, Elijah the Prophet will resolve all problems including this one. He will decide retroactively if R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s approach was a time-bound one, intended only for his generation, or whether it was intended for all generations and all places. The Lord, blessed be He, will then shed new light on Zion, may it happen soon in our time…”

Rabbi Schwab concludes this article with a message that the Jews in Israel are subject to the decisions of their own gedolim. The notes and full text can be found at www.leimanlibrary.com.

By Shnayer Z. Leiman

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