Five Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Thinkers: A Retrospective Analysis

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



In loving memory of Ya’acov Ben Yitzchak (A”H),
beloved father and grandfather,
whose yahrzeit was the 25th of Tammuz.
Dedicated by: Stanley & Ellen Stone
and their children, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi.



Shiur #30:

Five Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Thinkers: 

A Retrospective Analysis



This series investigated the thought of five rabbinic figures functioning at roughly the same time.  Four of them were born in the nineteenth century (R. Lipschutz was born in the previous century) and their rabbinic careers were solely in that century (with the exception of R. Meir Simcha, who lived until 1926).  These rabbis lived in various parts of Europe and served different roles in the Orthodox world.  R. Lipschutz and R. Hirsch were community rabbis in Germany, an area with an Orthodox community that was fairly integrated with the surrounding culture.  R. Meir Simcha was a community rabbi in a very different atmosphere, the Eastern European town of Dvinsk.  R. Berlin was Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, a mitnagdic stronghold, whereas R. Zadok flourished in a chassidic orbit.


Before addressing specifics, I would like to mention shared qualities of rabbinic greatness.   We noted several times the breadth and range of these writers.  Netziv wrote commentaries on Chumash, Talmud, She’iltot, and Sifrei, as well as repsonsa.  R. Meir Simcha penned commentaries on Chumash, Mishneh Torah and Talmud.  R. Zadok wrote halakha and machshava works, the latter incorporating a good deal of legal material.  R. Hirsch produced a commentary on Chumash, many works of Jewish thought, and important essays addressing the communal issues of his day.  In addition, his Chumash commentary relies upon significant expertise in the areas of kodshim and taharot.


Of all these writers, R. Lipschutz produced the fewest works, but his classic commentary on the Mishnah is all-inclusive.  In this commentary, abstract Talmudic analysis and practical halakhic rulings appear together with philosophic, historical, linguistic, and scientific questions. 


Each of these thinkers manifests rabbinic excellence in his broad Torah knowledge and erudition in Tanakh and Talmud, while formulating Jewish thought that is rooted in halakhic details. The intellectual ailment of narrow specialization, common in modernity, did not afflict these writers.


Furthermore, they all reveal keen psychological insight.  One thinks of R. Lipschutz’s analysis of why studying away from home promotes educational growth,  R. Zadok’s explaining how lack of internalized wisdom leads to scholarly arrogance, and R. Meir Simcha’s noting the reciprocal influence of the elite and the common man’s attitudes to rising leaders.  Greatness demands more than erudition; it requires penetrating insight as well.                  


The thought of these five writers reveal interesting parallels.  Both Netziv and R. Meir Simcha deal with discrepancies between peshat and derash in the legal portions of Torah.  R. Berlin often explains that the peshat meaning addresses the law for that generation, while the rabbinic interpretation reflects the law for eternity.  He applies this methodology to passages about the red heifer, the Temple service on Yom Kippur enabling entry into the Holy of Holies, and sending those ritually impure out of the camp.  R. Meir Simcha adds a different possibility in which peshat instructs us regarding a specific halakhic scenario.  For example, he mentions a case in which a Jewish servant truly serves “le-olam.”  I did not find a relevant parallel to these methodologies in R. Hirsch’s commentary.


R. Hirsch and Netziv both treat the avot as great individuals with human limitations.  In an earlier shiur, we noted explicit texts from R. Hirsch to this effect, including his faulting Ya’akov’s educational decisions when raising Eisav.  Netziv contends that Rivka’s relationship with Yitzchak was not like that of Sarah with Avraham or Ya’akov with Rachel.  Both Sarah and Rachel were able to articulate their disagreements with their husbands, but Rivka was always intimidated by Yitzchak.  Therefore, she did not confront him directly when she disagreed with his apportionment of their children’s blessings.[1]   I would emphasize that treating the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as human does not entail attributing as many sins to them as possible.  Rather, it means that they are subject to the emotional gamut of all human beings – hopes and aspirations as well as fears, frustrations and difficulties.


Netziv and R. Zadok share an understanding that the process of the Oral Law during the First Temple period differed from that of the Second.  In R. Berlin’s magnificent introduction to his commentary on the She’iltot, he contends that a more intuitive kind of pesak ruled the day during the First Temple period; afterward, there was a move toward halakhic rulings based on creative analysis.  R. Zadok suggests that First Temple Halakha was more based on ad hoc prophetic rulings than on the insight of the sages. 


Despite the commonality, some differences of approach exist.  For R. Berlin, both halakhic methodologies reflect the work of sages; for R. Zadok, the sages only rise to prominence during the Second Temple period.  Additionally, R. Zadok thinks that the old method ceased completely, while R. Berlin talks about an ongoing tension between the two methods, with differences between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi reflecting the continuing dialectic.  However, these two rabbis share a willingness to introduce some dynamic change into their history of the nature of halakhic rulings.


Both R. Hirsch and R. Meir Simcha emphasize that Judaism calls for the sanctification of the physical rather than its renunciation.  This parallel may be less significant if it simply reflects mainstream Jewish thought.   At the same time, it may also indicate greater movement in this theological direction in the modern era.             


    With the possible exception of R. Zadok, they all convey certain favorable attitudes towards the Gentile world.   This was most pronounced in the commentary of R. Lipschutz, particularly on Avot.  Recall his enthusiastic praise for Jenner, Drake, Gutenberg, and Reuchlin and his insistence that they (and all righteous Gentiles) surely have a place in the World to Come.  R. Hirsch’s writings on Emancipation also convey a sense of universal human brotherhood.  We do not find such passages in Netziv’s works, yet he does care about the welfare of Gentiles.  His introduction to Bereishit emphasizes how kindly the Patriarchs treated their Gentile neighbors, and his interpretation of the covenant in Bereishit 17 includes a universal element.  R. Meir Simcha argued that murder of a Gentile may be worse than murder of a Jew due to the combination of a heinous crime with a desecration of the divine name.  For that reason, it is not a death-penalty crime, since such a punishment cannot atone for the severity of the deed.             


Apparently, rabbinic voices from quite divergent backgrounds all affirm Judaism’s concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of the Gentile population.  As previously noted, some of the writers, including R. Lipschutz and R. Meir Simcha, also avow an inherent difference between Jew and Gentile.  Though I am concerned that this approach may lead to chauvinistic arrogance or an indifference to Gentile suffering, these rabbis avoided those pitfalls.  They simultaneously state the difference between Jew and Gentile and emphasize respect for every human being.      


   Almost all of the five discuss rationales for the commandments.  This was clearly a major part of the Hirschian endeavor, and we can also find such analysis in R. Meir Simcha, R. Berlin, and R. Zadok.  Though rabbinic voices exhibit differing tendencies regarding the significance and implications of this enterprise, almost all assume its worth.   The position that we must eschew all speculation about ta’amei hamitzvot seems to be the position of a small minority.      


Highlighting contrasts reveals a few differences that fit our expectations.  R. Zadok, the one chassidic figure, is the most influenced by kabbalistic ideas, while the Western European R. Hirsch exhibits little interest in kabbala.  Conversely, R. Lipschutz and R. Hirsch are the most outspoken champions of studying secular wisdom.  Perhaps more surprisingly, Netziv also writes of the benefits of secular wisdom, but he does not cite the writings of Schiller or Cuvier as his German counterparts do.  Nor are we shocked to discover that R. Lipschutz and R. Hirsch write in more universalistic and humanistic terms than R. Zadok does.   


Other divergences generate surprise.  The assumption that rabbis more open to secular wisdom would be the most interested in medieval Jewish philosophy turns out to be false.  We noted R. Hirsch’s lack of enthusiasm for abstract philosophizing and his harsh critique of Moreh Nevukhim.  The eighteenth chapter of The Nineteen Letters faults Rambam for letting foreign modes of thought unduly influence his Jewish philosophy.   Both R. Zadok and R. Meir Simcha treat Rambam’s Guide with greater reverence.  R. Zadok sometimes manages this by converting Rambam’s ideas into to fit his own system, while R. Meir Simcha often accepts Rambam’s philosophy at face value.


Rambam states that Hebrew is called “the holy tongue” because it lacks terms for genital organs, for the reproductive act, for urine and for excrement.  When Hebrew needs to describe these things, it borrows terms with other meanings or employs allusions.  This linguistic limitation makes the language sanctified.[2]  Ritva penned an entire work entitled Sefer Ha-zikaron dedicated to defending Rambam from Ramban’s critiques; yet he refused to defend Rambam’s explanation for “lashon ha-kodesh.”  Nevertheless, R. Zadok cites this view of Rambam as a legitimate option, even defending Rambam from the critiques of Ramban and Shem Tov.[3]


He also endorses some of Rambam’s rationales for mitzvot, including the explanation that circumcision helps restrain sexuality.[4]  In another example, he utilizes Rambam’s rationale in a halakhic context.  Acharonim debate whether a contemporary court, which invariably lacks real semikha, can levy fines or can only demand restitution of the principal.  R. Zadok argues that the court can extract double or even fourfold payment in order to deter criminals.  He notes that Rambam attributes the greater severity of double payment for a thief to the need for a harsher punishment as a deterrent, since burglary is more common than armed robbery.[5]  R. Zadok contends that our administering such fines to intimidate criminals reflects exactly what the Torah does in this scenario.[6]


R. Zadok alters Rambam’s explanation of sacrifices, placing it in the context of his own thought.  Rambam contends that the sacrificial order reflects a divine concession to the religious understanding of the ancient Near East.  That world could not imagine religious life devoid of animal offerings, so God wisely included such offerings in His Torah, utilizing them to guide the people from paganism to pure monotheism.[7]  For R. Zadok, this illustrates the idea that the glory of light is only clarified against a backdrop of darkness.   We appreciate the Jewish sacrificial order in contrast to pagan versions.[8]


In a different passage, R. Zadok argues that Rambam reverses the correct causality.  The Torah did not respond to ancient paganism; rather, paganism responded to the Torah.  People can pervert any noble ideal and the parallels between certain mitzvot and pagan practices reveal a pagan perversion of Torah.[9]  This coheres with R. Zadok’s “zeh le’umat zeh” principle, in which historical trends find parallel expression in the Jewish and Gentile worlds.


Sometimes, R. Zadok combines criticism with reverence.  Rambam writes that the Temple’s incense comes to counteract the bad smell generated by animal offerings.[10]  Not surprisingly, many later authorities reject such a practical and prosaic reason for a mitzva.  R. Zadok also disagrees, but he writes: “Since these words came out of a holy mouth, they must be external garments for the true reason for the mitzva according to the mystical tradition.”[11]  He proceeds to reinterpret Rambam’s words in line with kabbalistic conceptions.       


Of course, the option of translating Rambam’s words into a different system of thought is easier for a mystical thinker than for R. Hirsch.  R. Hirsch would not reinterpret Rambam’s words nor could he assume that a holy mouth could not have uttered a purely mistaken position.  Thus, R. Hirsch may only emerge as more critical of Maimonides because R. Hirsch engages in a more straightforward confrontation with Rambam’s thought.  Issues of temperament and ideology also play a role here, since R. Zadok may have been more philosophically inclined than R. Hirsch.                            


The same can be said about the contrast between R. Hirsch and R. Meir Simcha, perhaps the most enthusiastic reader of Moreh Nevukhim among our five figures.  Meshekh Chokhma contains more than twenty references to Rambam’s Guide.  He approvingly cites Rambam’s ideas regarding the limitation of individual providence to humanity,[12] the nature of humanity’s first sin in Eden,[13] the idea that intensity of providence depends upon continued cleaving to God,[14] the doctrine of negative attributes,[15] and his explanations for the rationales for mitzvot.[16]  He even incorporates Rambam’s reason for sacrifices, suggesting a compromise between it and that of Ramban.  Bamot, private altars, are intended to wean the people from paganism, while the Temple’s sacrifices serve a more inherently valuable purpose.[17]


Even when R. Meir Simcha strongly differs from Rambam’s position, he does not mention the sage of Fustat by name.  He rejects Rambam’s reason for the incense offering, but only cites it as the approach of kadmonim (early authorities).[18]  Apparently, due to his great reverence for Rambam, he did not want to sharply criticize him in an explicit manner.


An earlier shiur analyzed R. Meir Simcha’s extended discussion of the problem of free will and divine foreknowledge.  Clearly, R. Meir Simcha had a significant affinity for philosophic thought.  These issues interested him much more than they intrigued R. Hirsch.  This should caution us against too easily assuming what individual rabbinic thinkers will say based on which “team” we think they belong to.  Great figures are far too complex, nuanced, and subtle for that.  The five rabbinic thinkers we have investigated certainly qualify as great.  Our community can only benefit from more intensive exposure to their thought.                              



[1] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 24: 65.

[2] Moreh Nevukhim 3:8.

[3] Or Zaru’a La-tzaddik, p. 46.

[4] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 153. Rambam’s view appears in Moreh Nevukhim 3:49.

[5] Moreh Nevukhim 3:41.  Rambam’s view differs from that of the gemara (Bava Kama 79b) which suggests that theft could reflect deeper religious shortcomings.

[6] Levushei Tzedaka pp. 3-4.

[7] Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[8] LIkutei Ma’amarim, p. 240.

[9] Or Zarua La-tzaddik, p. 19.

[10] Moreh Nevukhim 3:45.

[11] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 207.

[12] Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 19:18, Devarim 6:5.

[13] Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 3:4.

[14] Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 26:6.

[15] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 15:11.

[16] Meshekh Chokhma, Devarim 10:13, 22: 10.

[17] Meshekh Chokhma, introduction to Vayikra.

[18] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 40:5.