This week’s parsha speaks of Yaakov’s meeting with Esav. Chazal teach us that we should learn from Yaakov how to relate to, and interact with, the nations of the world. This essay will build on this topic, specifically in reference to the Enlightenment, as well as that which we spoke about a little bit in my essay last week.
As the Enlightenment of the 18th century gained steam in Europe, there developed four Rabbinic responses to it. We shall classify said four responses as follows: the Litvish response, the Chassidic response, the German response, and the Hungarian response. The four pioneers and champions of these responses were R. Chaim of Volozhin, the Ba’al Shem tov, R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, and the Chasam Sofer, respectively.
R. Chaim & The Chasam Sofer
R. Chaim’s approach in response to the Enlightenment was one of pure Torah learning. In what could be described as a “trickle down” approach, he believed that it was of utmost importance to establish yeshivas with intense Torah study in order to train and produce the top scholars of the next generation. These elite scholars would then positively influence the rest of the nation, protecting them from straying.
The Chasam Sofer advocated for a similar approach of intense Torah learning. His vision of the purpose of the yeshivas, however, was different than R. Chaim’s. The Chasam Sofer believed that yeshivas should be established in order to educate the laymen — not just the elite. All should be learned, the Chasam Sofer felt, not just the best of the best. In producing such people, the yeshivas would automatically also produce the top-notch Torah scholars that R. Chaim sought for the protection and guidance of the nation. However, the main purpose of the yeshivas would be to produce as many men as possible who were Torah scholars of at least some stature.
In essence, both R. Chaim’s and the Chasam Sofer’s approaches were similar in that they both felt that the primary way to ensure the Jewish nation would remain faithful to the Torah was Torah study itself, and the nation’s connection to it.
Chassidus & R. Hirsch
On the other hand, there is the Ba’al Shem tov and his creation of the Chassidus movement. While it is impossible to deny that certain great Torah scholars have indeed historically been drawn to Chassidus, it is equally impossible to deny that Chassidus was started as an essentially “populist” movement. It was felt that the ignorant laymen had no connection to the Torah, and subsequently no connection to Judaism itself. Due to the social or economic conditions of the time, the Ba’al Shem Tov felt it was impossible to assume that more than a handful would grow into great scholars. In light of this, the Ba’al Shem Tov felt that he needed to create a system of Judaism that gave the disconnected laymen a newfound connection to their religion. A major component of this plan was the Chassidic Rebbe and the layman’s ability to connect to Judaism through him. Communities would thus be built that encouraged this association and in this way would keep the average Jew loyal to his faith.
Notably, not one of the aforementioned approaches felt that one should voluntarily embrace the outside secular world. It is here that R. Hirsch’s approach comes starkly into focus. When it comes to a Jew’s relationship with the outside world, R. Hirsch felt rather differently than did his colleagues. He believed that one could — and likely should — embrace the outside world and secular knowledge, so long as it was clear that such things were only secondary to (or in R. Hirsch’s own words, “the handmaiden of”) the Torah proper. R. Hirsch’s approach also embraced Torah study, of course, though not as intensely as either R. Chaim’s or the Chasam Sofer’s. In this, R. Hirsch was seemingly more inclined towards the Chassidic approach of community identification in terms of ensuring the perpetuity of an observant Jewish nation. Indeed, R. Hirsch felt that this was the primary way to keep people faithful to Judaism. The uniqueness of R. Hirsch’s approach lies in his embracing of secular knowledge, and the outside world in general.
It is not this author’s intention to declare any one of the aforementioned approaches to be the “correct” one when it comes to the retention of an observant Jewish nation. However, it should at the very least be noted that R. Chaim’s (and the Chasam Sofer’s) approach was what was done pre-Enlightenment, and was the old, more traditional approach in Europe.