Reading articles by Rav Yonasan Rosenblum and Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein on the bicentennial of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, I could not help but be struck with all the missing potential of Modern Orthodoxy.
As I've written before, many in the Modern Orthodoxy consider Rav Hirsch to be the founder of the movement. In truth, he had very little to do with it, as Rav Rosenblum notes:
Because of his openness to secular studies, Rabbi Hirsch is sometimes described as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. That is a mistake. In the context of German Orthodoxy of his day, Rabbi Hirsch was considered a zealot. His insistence on a complete separation from the government-recognized communal bodies, on the grounds that they bore the taint of institutionalized heresy, divided the Orthodox community of Frankfurt that he had almost single-handedly built.
Thus even today the Hirschian community in New York has little officially to do with the Yeshiva University crowd and far stronger connections with the Agudah. Rav Hirsch was not seeking to create Modern Orthodoxy but rather a Chareidi Judaism that could survive the open environment of emancipated German Jewish society. As Rav Rosenblum notes:
Rabbi Hirsch is more accurately described as the architect of Torah Judaism for the modern world. He wrote for a modern world lacking the protective insularity of the ghetto, one in which every Jew simultaneously lives in a broader non-Jewish society. Though he recognized the dangers of Emancipation and repeatedly stressed that participation in the larger society could never justify the slightest deviation from one's duties as a Jew, Rabbi Hirsch saw Emancipation as allowing for a fuller Jewish life.
Yet, as Rosenblum's article goes on to say, his founding principles could read like traditional Modern Orthodox doctrine:
The narrow constraint of Jewish life in the ghetto had, in Rabbi Hirsch's opinion, robbed Jewish learning of its intended vitality, through actual application to life situations. "The goal of study," he lamented, "has not been practical life, to understand the world and our duty in it."
Is this not what Modern Orthodoxy preaches? A confrontation with the modern world leading to a more complete Jewish life.
Yet there is a fundamental difference between today's Modern Orthodoxy and Hirsch's Torah Im Derech Eretz. Hirsch sought to take what was best of the modern world and use it to supplement one's Torah Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seeks to take what is best of Torah Judaism and use it to supplement one's modernity. It's a world of difference between the two.
Rav Hirsch, for example, did not restrict himself to discussing modernity and its accompanying concepts like free will and independent thinking. His commentary on Chumash tackles the most arcane parts of the narrative, such as the symbolism of the Mishkan and its appurtenances with such detail and comprehensiveness that the understanding reading gains a deeper appreciation of what they meant than from any other source.
For Hirsch, it was about Torah and what the modern world could add to it. Nowadays, in the absence of the environment that produced Torah Im Derech Eretz and a comparable leader to push its agenda, its influence has diminished and this is a tragic shame. Many amongst the current Chareidi leadership would like you to believe that there is one, and only one, lifestyle for a Jew. As Rav Adlerstein notes:
Lastly, in a Torah world that increasingly opts for limitation, restriction and a narrowing of creativity, individuality and world view as the best way to avoid problems, many of us sense that outside of Israel, this is not the best way to go. We are buoyed by the great vision of RSRH, and reminded of the way Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l once said that Torah Im Derech Eretz: “means the Torah’s conquest of life and not the Torah’s flight from life. It means the Torah’s casting a light into the darkness rather than hiding from the darkness. It means applying Torah to the earth and not divorcing it from the earth.”
In the end, Torah Im Derech Eretz is a side group in the Chareidi world, having failed to make much of a foothold in Israel or the greater United States Jewish community. Yet its principles do reflect what Modern Orthodoxy should espouse on a more consistent basis. Perhaps the movement could learn from Rav Hirsch's principles and allow them to influence its thinking in order to strengthen its identity and beliefs. One can certainly see that those in the Modern Orthodox community could already identify with these principles. It is time to make them more than just fanciful words.