Idolatry and Impurity in the Thought of R. Hirsch

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Dedicated in loving memory of
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen
(whose yahrtzeit falls on 10 Tevet),

Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid (whose yahrtzeit falls on 15 Tevet),

and Shimon ben Moshe (whose yahrtzeit falls on 16 Tevet).




Shiur #10: Idolatry and Impurity in the Thought of R. Hirsch



R. Hirsch views utilitarian philosophy (evaluating things from the perspective of personal profit) and materialistic philosophy (the idea that human beings are just like all other kinds of matter) as the great intellectual dangers of his time.  The former engenders a self-serving attitude indifferent to the call of noble idealism, while the latter leads to the denial of human freedom.  His analyses of idolatry and impurity enable us to explore his thoughts on these two issues against the backdrop of the above philosophies.




Paganism does not think of gods as having a moral-religious message; rather, gods are terrifying beings who humans try to placate with offerings.  Humanity attempts to manipulate these cosmic forces to achieve material advantage.  For R. Hirsch, idolatry becomes more a moral problem than a theological error.  It reflects a worldview alien to authentic idealism.


In an essay entitled “Hellenism, Judaism and Rome,”[1] R. Hirsch identifies the Roman world with this idolatrous approach.  Roman culture thought only in terms of material gain, and its religion consisted of sacrifices intended to assuage the wrath of the gods.  In addition, the state cynically utilized religion to keep people in line.  This essay contrasts the Roman worldview with the far more positive Greek outlook.  “Not Hellenic idealism, but Roman materialism, is what we have to fear” (p. 208).


The worship of Molekh, which centered on a form of child sacrifice, typifies for R. Hirsch the pagan perspective.  He explains that the grammatical form of the term molekh means the abstract concept of rule or control, just as kodesh means holiness.  This form of worship is rooted in the idea of powers of fate that control the world.  From this standpoint, people engage in idolatrous acts to influence or manipulate these forces in order to achieve some kind of control over their own fate. 


For R. Hirsch, this explains an oddity in the laws regarding the worship of Molekh.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 64b) says that the punishment for Molekh worship only applies to a person who sacrifices some of his children and not to a person who offers all of his children.  This halakha certainly seems counter-intuitive.  Would one not assume that the more children one sacrifices, the worse the act and the more deserving of punishment? 


Some explain that the particular pagan practice that the Torah was responding to happened to involve offering only some of one’s children. According to these thinkers, there is no inherent logical distinction between offering all or some of one’s offspring.  Others maintain that the person who gives Molekh all of his children has committed an act so evil that he does not merit the atonement that punishment brings (see Torah Temima, Vayikra 18:21, note 57).


In characteristic fashion, R. Hirsch uses this odd halakhic detail as a clue to the rationale behind this prohibition.  He explains that the Torah singles out Molekh to combat an ideology that believes in giving certain things to the forces of fate for the sake of worldly success.  The parent who relinquishes all his children would not be guilty of the specific crime addressed by this commandment because the sacrifice has left him nothing to enjoy.  Sacrificing all of one’s children is terrible, but it does not reflect the attempt to bring cosmic forces under control (commentary on Vayikra 18:21).


R. Hirsch warns that this way of thinking could enter into Judaism as well.  He does not clarify precisely to what he is referring, but we can make an educated guess.  The use of religious amulets and charms to fend off harm is very close to this pagan mindset.  These items have little to do with genuine religious and moral striving and much to do with the attempt to win the cosmic forces over to one’s side.


This concern animates R. Hirsch’s reading of other biblical sources.  After the eight-day ceremony consecrating the Tabernacle and the priests, Moshe and Aharon enter the ohel mo’ed one more time before God reveals His presence.  Apparently, they need to add another prayer before divine revelation can occur.  R. Hirsch contends that if the divine glory had appeared immediately following eight days of offerings, the people could have mistakenly adopted the pagan conception that sacrifices are devices that enable us to control and influence the gods.  The delay clarified the falsehood of this notion.  God cannot be manipulated, but He can freely choose to respond to the authentic spiritual striving of His people (commentary on Vayikra 9:23).


A similar idea helps R. Hirsch solve a famous conundrum.  Vayikra 16 outlines the detailed service that the High Priest has to perform in order to enter the Holy of Holies.  Only at the end of the section (verse 29) does the Torah inform the reader that this service takes place on Yom Kippur.  Why leave this crucial bit of information for the end?  Several acharonim, including the Vilna Gaon, suggest that Aharon was able to enact this service and enter the inner sanctum on any day of the year, whereas future generations of High Priests would be able to enter only on Yom Kippur.  The beginning of the chapter addresses Aharon; therefore, it does not mention a specific calendar date.


R. Hirsch offers an alternative answer.  Perhaps the Torah was nervous that Jews might view the sacrificial order as the essential atoning component of Yom Kippur.  Atonement would then be the product of sacrificing goats and bullocks more than of a true spirit of repentance.  The Torah leaves the mention of Yom Kippur for the end to create some separation between Yom Kippur and these offerings.  These offerings are obviously a mitzva, but the essence of Yom Kippur remains independent of them (commentary on Vayikra 16:29).




With regard to other mitzvot as well, R. Hirsch distinguishes between a self-serving approach and a more idealistic one.  Hillel famously taught the prospective convert: “What you dislike, do not do unto your neighbors” (Shabbat 31a).  R. Hirsch forcefully argues against a reading that reduces Hillel’s maxim to “a clever social precautionary measure” of “calculating cleverness.”  In other words, Hillel was not teaching us to be nice to other people so that they will reciprocate.  Such an understanding reduces ethical idealism to naked self-interest.  


The biblical verse parallel to Hillel’s maxim clarifies the falsehood of this view.  The Torah commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am God” (Vayikra 19:18).  What does the closing phrase, “ani Hashem,” add to the commandment?  R. Hirsch teaches that this phrase negates the pragmatic approach to loving others.  We do not love others in the hope of receiving some future benefit in return.  Rather, we do so as a consequence of our accurate conception and emulation of God’s loving and compassionate nature. 




This same divide influences R. Hirsch’s reading of the Torah’s discussion of prophecy.  The Torah contrasts nations who rely on soothsayers and necromancers with Israel, who receive instruction from prophets (Devarim 18).  Where does the essential difference lie?  Some commentaries think that the prophet has a better prophetic batting average than the soothsayer.  Only for the authentic prophet does each detail of every prophecy come true.


R. Hirsch views the difference between prophet and soothsayer as far more fundamental.  People go the latter for advice about furthering their material advancement.  When one should plant his crops or how one should invest in the market are questions for the soothsayer.  In contrast, people do not come to the prophet for their own benefit.  Rather, the prophet comes to them with the commanding words of God.  The verse says not “elav tish’alun” but “elav tishma’un” (Devarim 18:15).  Prophecy does not help us “find out through him what we would like to know.”  It tells us “what is God’s will that we ought to know” (commentary on Devarim 18:15).




What religious idea motivates the details of ritual impurity? Why do human corpses, dead animals, leprosy, childbirth, and seminal emissions all bring about ritual impurity?  One approach is that of Rambam, who argues that these laws help generate reverence for sanctified places and things.  Frequent visits diminish reverence for a place, but the many laws of ritual impurity ensure that the average Jew will not make a daily trip to the Temple (Guide of the Perplexed 3:47).  Another possible explanation is that these impure things cause actual harm, either in a metaphysical or hygienic fashion. 


We have already noted R. Hirsch’s rejection of hygienic explanations for the commandments.  Let us look at the impurity of tzara’at (often translated as leprosy) as an example. R. Hirsch cites many proofs against the idea that the leper must leave the camp as a form of quarantine protecting others from infection.  R. Hirsch refers to this dismissively as the “sanitary” approach to Torah.  Priests are the ones who deliver rulings about these leprous blemishes, but we do not see the priests serving a medical role in other contexts.  Additionally, why would the Torah select one particular illness for quarantine, when may other sicknesses should call for the same treatment?  Perhaps the strongest evidence against the hygienic approach comes from the laws of the leprous house.  The Torah teaches that the priest should instruct people to remove all the vessels from the house before he makes his judgment, so that those vessels not become ritually impure when he reaches such a verdict about the house.  From the perspective of hygienic concerns, such a method is absurd.   Those vessels were exposed to the “contagion” even if we remove them before the priestly declaration.


Rabbinic interpretations offer further support for R. Hirsch’s rejection of a hygienic explanation for tzara’at.  The sages say that the priests would not rule on potential leprosy at the time of the festivals.  From the hygienic perspective, festivals are the worst possible time to let a leper run loose, since he could infect the rest of the Jewish people gathered together in Jerusalem.  Furthermore, there are scenarios where we are lenient about safek negai’m, doubtful cases of blemishes.  Based on the principle that we take danger to life more seriously than halakhic prohibitions (chamira sakanta me-issura), we should rule stringently regarding doubtful blemishes.  Clearly, the laws of blemishes have little to do with health concerns (commentary Vayikra, end of chapter13).


R. Hirsch creates an overarching theory to explain the various categories that generate ritual impurity.  He explains that these laws combat the materialistic perspective that views man as the plaything of grand freedom-negating forces.  In each case, the source of ritual impurity consists of something that could make humanity focus on powerful physical forces and feel that humans have no free will.  From this viewpoint, it is obvious why human death represents the strongest form of ritual impurity.  Seeing a corpse can lead to the thought that mere physicality, devoid of an animating spirit, was all the human being ever was.  The laws of ritual impurity demand distance from the symbols of that mindset in order to remind us not to lapse into that mistaken conception.


Animal corpses defile for the identical reason.  In fact, R. Hirsch explains that only those corpses that somehow resemble the human body generate ritual impurity. Therefore, dead animals transmit impurity while dead fish and fowl do not.  R. Hirsch even goes so far as to suggest that the eight sheratzim (crawling creatures) that generate impurity are those whose skeleton bears some similarity to a human skeleton.  Alternatively, he posits that these eight sheratzim are those that live in the vicinity of humans.  Since humans normally see these creatures full of life and vitality, an encounter with a corpse from the eight will make mankind think that all life comes to nothingness because matter is the true essence of existence and not the spirit (Vayikra 11:47).  Again, we see R. Hirsch’s insistence on integrating the details of the mitzva into his explanation.


The same idea explains the ritual impurity of seminal emissions and of menstruation.  Sexuality and the rhythms of the human body are powerful forces that might make people feel that they are pawns under the control of larger forces.  The laws of tum'a exist to prevent that conclusion (commentary on Vayikra 15:31).


R. Hirsch explains the ritual impurity caused by a birth in the same way.  This particular source of tum'a has generated much astonishment.  Surely, the act of giving birth represents one of the finest moments in a human life.  Why should it be a source of tum'a?  Especially noteworthy is the fact that many tum’ot stem from death, while this form comes from the beginning of life.  If ritual impurity is all about death, the yoledet does not belong on the list.  According to R. Hirsch, there is no question.  The powerful contractions that overtake a woman during labor also create a sense of humanity being controlled by extremely powerful external forces.  Here, too, we need the laws of ritual purity to assert human freedom and choice (commentary Vayikra 12:2).


[We will have one final shiur on R. Hirsch next week and then proceed to the thought of R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin.]

[1] The essay appears in Judaism Eternal, volume 2, translated by Dayan Isidor Grunfeld (London: Soncino Press, 1959).