Saturday 22 May 2021



Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn 1856-1935.


R. Chaim Hirschensohn (1856-1935) is another of those forgotten rabbis whose voices have been quietened and whose ideas have been, unintentionally or otherwise, overshadowed by history. This article seeks to explore some of R. Hirschensohn’s thinking and is based extensively on the research by Dr David Zohar[1] who is republishing an updated version of R. Hirschensohn's writings.


Essentially, R. Hirschensohn, an early ideologue of religious Zionism, believed that secularism and modernity were not incompatible with Torah values.

R. Hirschensohn was born in Tzfat and lived and worked in Jerusalem before moving to America where he became the Head of the Education Committee of the Union of Rabbis. He established the first Hebrew Kindergarten in the United States and became a founding member the Mizrachi movement. He also worked with Eliezer Ben Yehuda in introducing the Hebrew language as the spoken language of the Jewish people. He helped found the Safah Berurah (Plain Language) society in Jerusalem.

In 1878, R. Hirschensohn left the Holy land and spent two years travelling to centres of Torah study in Russia and meeting the great rabbinic scholars from whom he received his rabbinical ordination.

But it wasn’t only Halacha and Talmud that inspired this young man. He was drawn towards rationalism, science and nationalism, not as a means of escaping from Judaism, but of enhancing it.

In 1884, he again left Palestine, this time for Hungary and Germany, where he published a monthly Torah-scientific journal, entitled Hamisdarona.

Primarily, R. Hirschensohn was a posek or Halachist who dealt with the burning question of that era: Can the Jewish people Halachically have a homeland? He did not write for the people but mainly addressed himself to the rabbis. This differentiates him from Rav Kook who, although from the same camp, wrote his prolific poetic philosophy for the people.

Zohar writes:

“For the first time, a systematic attempt was made to answer the question whether it is possible to establish a modern and democratic Jewish state on the very foundations of the Halakha; whether a state that empowers the people with legislative authority, embraces modern values and develops modern social, cultural, and economic order is compatible with the Halakha.”

For us in the post-Israel era, it is difficult to even imagine such a question, but it was a controversial question in Halachic circles during the first part of the twentieth century. For R. Hirschensohn the answer - based on his strongly held worldview that Judaism is compatible with modernity - was a resounding yes. Zohar emphasises that:

“[T]he Torah is not opposed to most of the values that modernity offers to the believer. On the contrary, it is possible to re-establish full Jewish life by responding and opening up to the surrounding modern world.”

Because of these views, R. Hirschensohn - like Rav Kook - was condemned and placed under a ban by the ultra-Orthodox factions and he left Jerusalem for the United States in 1903. As a result of the ban, R. Ezriel Hildeshimer became his most ardent supporter.[2] R. Hirschensohn became the Chief Rabbi of Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1904. It was in America that he wrote most of his works which numbered about 40 books in total. His central theme focused on the questions of modernity vis-à-vis Halachic Judaism and he was not afraid to point out that, in his view, rabbis were generally only dealing with the challenges of modernity by ignoring them.


In 1918, R. Hirschensohn took part in the 21st Zionist Conference in Pittsburgh where the resolution to establish a democratic government in Israel was adopted. This was a novel idea as Jews were used to the historic notion of a Kingdom not a State. R. Hirschensohn volunteered to research "A discussion of questions regarding the conduct of a Jewish government in Palestine from the standpoint of the Halakha". The questions raised at this conference inspired him to write his six volumes of Responsa, Malki baKodesh.

In the introduction to his Malki baKodesh he writes:

“There is nothing in biblical law and Halakha which contradicts in any way progress or common sense. The objective of my research is to show that Halakha does not pose any obstacle to the development of private life or the life of an entire nation.”


On the matter of whether Israel should adopt the political model of a monarchy or a democracy, R. Hirschensohn writes:

"In these days of democracy when kings are toppling from their thrones and monarchy rightly seems to be doomed, when war is being waged against autocratic powers to make the world safe for democracy, how is it possible for us to consider the setting up of a hereditary king to reign over us in Palestine as Jewish tradition demands?"

He argues that biblically there was a correlation between establishing a Jewish King and the war to eradicate Amalek which led to the building of the Temple:

“The King was needed to accomplish the destruction of Amalek. After completing this task, his next duty was to build the Temple for sacrifices. Moreover, the King had to be appointed only through a Prophet.”[3]

R. Hirschensohn concludes that since there is no longer Amalek, nor prophets, nor a commandment to appoint a king, it would be permissible and appropriate to appoint a democratic government elected by the people (who would include men and women equally). In fact, not only is it permitted but, in his view, the desired form of government according to the Torah is a democracy. This was because the Torah references the notion of following the majority.

We may take many of these ideas for granted today, but these were the types of debates and Halachic responses taking place exactly a century ago. R. Hirschensohn soon realised after his arrival in America, that secularism was a fact of life and was here to stay - it could not be dealt with by the common thinking that it was merely a temporary state. 


The next question was just whom could participate in this this new Jewish democracy. In those times, it was not all that clear that a Jewish government could simply comprise any democratically elected representatives.

Zohar explains:

“[R. Hirschensohn][4] proposed a more tolerant approach towards secular Jews and sought Halakhic solutions which would justify the modern state of affairs where Jews who were not Torah observant would still be part of the Jewish nation. The solution he proposed was that Jewish identity would be based on Jewish nationalism rather than religion. There is no doubt that religion in a major component of the Jewish identity, but not the only one. As long as a Jew retains a bond to his people, he will continue to be thought of as a Jew for all intents and purposes, even though he is not Torah observant. As a result, Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn established a common basis for both religious and secular Jews.”

R. Yom Tov Schwarz was another posek who also wrote about the inclusion of secular Jews and the ‘normalisation’ of religious Judaism.


In an unusually powerful piece of responsa literature, R Hirschensohn sounding rather like a historical-critical and morality-critical Maimonidean, writes:

“All the power of men over women in historic times was due to the economic situation and the underdeveloped moral state, where it was thought that it was possible to be religious without morality... Religion together with morality is our sacred Torah.....and we should infer Halakha from these historic situations.....just like we need not live in tents simply because our forefathers did...”[5]

And Zohar clarifies:

“Does [a woman’s] inferior social status reflect an ontological stand which sees the woman as an inferior to man, or is it merely a result of historical, cultural and social norms? …

[While the][6] Ultra-Orthodox see the inferior status as stemming from her ontological state, Rabbi Hirschensohn viewed the inferior status as an outcome of the cultural and social-economic realities prevalent in the world until the modern era …

There is no difference - ontological or social - between men and women and the differences are in the area of religious ritual only.”


R. Hirschensohn soon realised that an irrevocable change had taken place within the world in general and the Jewish people in particular.  Halachic focus, until then, generally centred on issues of Kashrut, and specific cases relating to personalities in unusual circumstances. Zohar explains:

“In his books, R. Hirschensohn attempts to give a Halakhic response to the new historic situation which was created as the result of the Balfour Declaration. He states that it is imperative that we deal with national issues and not with problems of individual Jews as had been prevalent until now. It is now important to deal with the issues of national leadership of the nation which will soon earn its independence.” 

This called for a wider scope within Halachic literature if it was to remain relevant in the new reality of Jewish state in a modern world:

“R. Hirschensohn wished to prepare the Halakhic tools in order to create a constitutional base for a modern democratic Jewish state. These new problems include economic, societal, cultural, scientific and philosophical questions.”


R. Hirschensohn takes the position that it is an absolute given that, in the broadest sense, Halacha would not contradict the achievements of civilisation. He believed that just like a posek or Halachic decisor, who deals with a case of mamzerut (‘illegitimacy’) and agunah (where a woman in ‘chained’ to a religious marriage in a case where her husband disappears) tries his utmost to reach a kind and practical solution – so should the posek adopt this model with virtually every issue he examines and not look to uphold multiple stringencies.[7]


R. Hirschensohn  maintained that it is not at all ‘heretical’ to point out that the text of the Pentateuch undergoes scribal emendations as even Rashi has shown that it does. On the contrary, he says, when dealing with such seemingly critical issues it is even considered part of the mitzvah of Torah study. [10]



Marc Shapiro informs us in 1910, when one of the first American rabbinic periodicals entitled Ha-Mitzpeh was published, its first issue contained an anonymous open letter from a member of the Agudat haRabbanim of the United States and Canada. It called for the accommodation of some of the issues effecting the new American Jews who were on the verge of assimilation and read:

"Are we at present able to find a heter [dispensation][8] for some rabbinic prohibitions, based on the principle that a decree that has not spread among most of the community can be voided by a lesser Beit Din [than the one that instituted it]?" The basis for this suggestion is Maimonides' ruling (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mamrim 2:6-7) …” [9]

The anonymous letter called for these Jews to somehow be accommodated by the Halachic structures instead of being abandoned.

Shapiro writes:

“This is, to be sure, an extreme position, in that it places the continuing, binding nature of rabbinic authority in the hands of the people. Yet it is not as radical, or unique, as many will think. To begin with, no less a figure than R. Joseph Karo claims that this approach is a plausible explanation of Maimonides’ statement. Furthermore, it is basic to halakhic history that the response of the community plays a role in the authority of halakhah. That is, when enough people flout a halakhah, and the sages are unable to improve matters, it is usually not long before rabbis begin to develop justifications for the people's behavior (limmud zekhut).”

This open letter received some pushback from people like R. Jacob Widerwitz who blasted the anonymous writer by saying “it is a great hutzpah for contemporary rabbis to find mechanisms [to assist the less religious].

In the fourth issue of that journal, R. Chaim Hirschensohn revealed that he was the author of the open letter. He was annoyed because his letter had not been published in full and he had not intended it to be an anonymous letter as he had put his name to it.


R. Hirschensohn strove to present Judaism in a rationalist fashion so that people would not just have to believe in it, or follow it blindly, but would instead want to participate and freely choose orthodox Halachic Judaism as viable modern option.

He was not the type of rabbi who was looking for leniencies because Judaism was too much of a burden, instead, he tried to include as many people as possible within the spectrum of normative orthodox Halacha.

Interestingly, Marc Sapiro describes there being two camps of rabbis who view R. Hirschensohn either as someone they are glad the world has forgotten - or they see his ideas “patiently mapped out in his many works of halakhah and thought, as providing the tools for a new, confident Modern Orthodoxy.

R. Hirschensohn’s unusually open and extremely pragmatic approach to Halacha is one which the religious Jew could either admire or feel free to reject. Either way, he does present orthodox options to matters where there often seems to be no choice.




On Rav Kook:



On R. Yom Tov Schwatz:

Kotzk Blog: 055) The Holocaust Didn't Just Kill Jews...

Kotzk Blog: 056) The Nonexistent Memorial...

[1] David Zohar, Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn - The Forgotten Sage Who Was Rediscovered. 

[2] Rabbiner Esriel Hildeshimer Briefe, ed. Mordechai Eliav, Jerusalem 1965.

[3] Malki Bakodesh, Part I, p. 16 – Foreword.

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] Malki baKodesh Part II, p. 192.

[6] Parentheses mine.

[7] Zohar, David (2003). Jewish Commitment in a Modern World: Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and His Attitude to Modernity (Hebrew). Jerusalem.

[8] Parenthesis mine.

[9] Jewish Commitment in a Modern World: Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and His Attitude to Modernity (Hebrew) by David Zohar (Jerusalem, 2003) Reviewed by Marc Shapiro. The Edah Journal 5:1, 2005 Tammuz 5765.

[10] R. Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki baKodesh, ii. 219.


  1. Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn seemed to be opposed to sacrifices. Rabbi Hirschensohn’s interpretation of the Cain and Abel story is interesting. What is your view of Rabbi Hirschensohn's view about sacrifices and do you think your write a post about his view of sacrifices? Thanks.

  2. Thank you Turk Hill. More needs to be written about R Hirschensohn. I did notice, interestingly, that he differed from Rav Kook on the concept of Mashiach: Rav Kook believed "redemption...would...break the historical process" while R. Hirschensohn maintained that Mashiach would be "a continuous stage within its progression" (probably more in keeping with the natural Messiah of Rambam.

    1. Thank you. That is interesting. I did not know that Rabbi Hirschensohn shared the same natural view of the messiah as Rambam. It is also interesting, as you wrote, that Rav Kook wrote a letter to Rabbi Hirschensohn about sacrifices and the messianic age since it seems he retracted on this last one. Rabbi Marc Shapiro shows Rav Kook's censored comments that seemed opposed to sacrifices and wrote that we will bring plant food instead of animals. See Dr. Shapiro’s article called “R. Kook on sacrifices and other assorted comments” where he reveals that Rabbi Kook used “essential truths” when he spoke about sacrifices continuing in the future during the messianic age.
      Shalom Shabbat.

  3. Yes. I believe Rabbi Marc Shapiro is one of the most important voices in contemporary Judaism.