Saturday 11 March 2023

421) Hirsch, Hildesheimer and Hoffmann: Examining the boundaries of Orthodox modernity

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch
R. Esriel Hildeshimer
R. David Tzvi Hoffmann


R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), R. Esriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) and R. David Hoffman (1843-1921) were early protagonists of what has become known as the Modern Orthodox movement. There were, however, some major disputes between them. This article, based extensively on the research by Professor David Ellenson and Dr Richard Jacobs,[1] looks at some of the differences between these early Modern Orthodox rabbis. 

Orthodox branches of the Enlightenment movement

As early as 1836, R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch expressed reservations about the Wissenschaft des Judentums of the Jewish Enlightenment movement. The Wissenschaft wanted to study the history, philosophy and the ‘science’ of Judaism, academically, giving Judaism a more ‘prestigious’ status among the nations, and: 

“to raise the dignity of contemporary Jewish life and to aid in the task of Jewish collective self-understanding” (Ellenson and Jacobs 1988:28). 

But R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch writes that its scholars laboured: 

"with vicious energy to undermine that which they pretend to represent."[2] 

On the other hand, R. Hildeshimer became a supporter of the Wischenschaft, claiming that its adoption by the Orthodox community would promote "the estimation of our party."[3] 

Hildeshimer’s Rabbinerseminar

R. Hildeshimer opened a yeshiva in Berlin which operated differently from conventional yeshivot. It was known as the Rabbinerseminar and was the only Orthodox institution that required a prior and significant secular education before students were admitted. It proved quite successful because in 1851 it started with only six students and by 1868 it had acquired 128 students. His son, R. Hirsch Hildeshimer, was a professor in that academy. R. Hildeshimer believed such an approach was: 

"an absolute necessity . . . to meet the competition (and) . . . answer the demands of the time."[4] 

The main purpose of this unusual yeshiva was specifically to train Orthodox rabbis to become the future leaders of the Jewish community. When challenged that his academic standards did not match those of the Wissenschaft, he claimed that some of his lecturing staff, like R. David Hoffmann, even exceeded those standards. 

As to be expected, R. Hildershimer’s Rabbinerseminar attracted much criticism. Besides the opposition of R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch, Yitzchak Halevy wrote that the Rabbinerseminar was so overly concerned with cold academic scholarship that it became: 

"unimportant whether a person either writes for or against Torah."[5] 

At around 1860, R. Shimshon Refael Hirsh published articles in his journal, Jeschurun, that attacked a work entitled Darchei haMishna, by R. Zechariah Frankel (a colleague of Geiger and Graetz). This work developed the notion that the Oral Law had evolved over time. Frankel argued that the laws which fell under the rubric Halacha Moshe miSinai were rulings of the rabbis from the Talmudic period and ascribed to Moshe to give them authority. He also advocated for a return to the study of the Talmud Yerushalmi. 

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch expressed his view that Darchei haMishna was a heretical work, while R. Hildeshimer, seemed to refer positively to it. 

I find this most interesting because, during the one year that I spent at a non-Chassidic yeshiva, the Gemara Rebbi used to refer, periodically, to that very book. He did mention, though, that it was not such a ‘well-known’ work. 

The Hirsch-Hildeshimer controversy

Around 1870, an anonymous critique of Hildeshimer’s Rabbinerseminar appeared in Der Israelit. It is believed to have been written by R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch’s son, Yitzchak Hirsch, under the encouragement of his father. The Rabbinerseminar was deemed too close to the ideology of the Wissenschaft and the Enlightenment movement. 

This becomes an intriguing controversy because both the Hirsch and Hildeshimer families were proponents of Modern Orthodoxy and both believed in the importance of a secular education going hand in hand with a Torah education. 

The controversy became intergenerational because R. Hildeshimer’s son, Hirsch Hildeshimer also got involved in the fray. In a letter which he similarly wrote with his father's express approval, Hirsch Hildeshimer states: 

"I know that our 'orthodoxy' does not meet the standards [established] by Rabbi Hirsch's son, Isaac Hirsch. This is clear from his articles opposing us and our Rabbinerseminar which appeared in Jeschurun [over a decade ago, as well as] ...the open letter that he published in Der Israelit at the time of the establishment of our Seminary." 

Hirsch Hildesheimer sadly acknowledged that: 

"a question certainly exists as to whether Rabbi Hirsch considers the seminary to be an Orthodox institution.”[6] 

Hirsch Hildesheimer continues to note that R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch criticised one of his father’s lecturers at the Rabbinerseminar, R. David Hoffmann, who had written a book called Mar Shmuel. Some rabbis had declared Mar Shmuel to be a work of heresy and R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch concurred that R. David Hoffman had written a work of heresy.  Hirsch Hildesheimer defends his father’s lecturer and says that other esteemed rabbis, like R. Nathan Adler of London, had endorsed R. David Hoffmann’s book.  (Hirsch Hildesheimer refers to R. David Hoffmann as Dr Hoffmann.) 

R. David Hoffmann

R. David Hoffmann was born in Hungary in 1843. He was a student of both Maharam Schick and R. Esriel Hildesheimer. He received a doctorate from Tübingen in Germany and he taught at the Rabbinerseminar between 1873 and 1921: 

“An examination of Hoffmann's works will…provide some vital insights into the nature of one variety of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world” (Ellenson and Jacobs 1988:31). 

This was a time when Biblical Criticism known as the Documentary Hypothesis flourished. Scholars like Wellhausen and others proposed that the Bible was layered with different texts (P, E, J and D) compiled by different interest parties over time. R. David Hoffmann strongly opposed these views and did not believe that the Torah was a product produced by humans over time. R. David Hoffman categorically states: 

“I willingly agree that, in consequence of the foundation of my belief, I am unable to arrive at the conclusion that the Pentateuch was written by anyone other than Moses.”[7] 

R. Hoffmann continues:

“The first principle is this: We believe that the whole Bible is true, holy, and of divine origin. That every word of the Torah…inscribed by divine command is expressed in the principle Torah min HaShamayim…We must not presume to set ourselves up as critics of the author of a biblical text.”[8] 

R. Hoffmann further states that his view is that one cannot understand the Written Torah without the Oral Torah (Talmud) which explains and elucidates the former. In keeping with this approach, he affirms that “the Oral Law…is of divine origin.”[9] 

However and this is where he becomes controversial to some his approach to rabbinic law is very different to his approach to biblical study: 

“Hoffmann's writings on the evolution of the literary structures, forms, terminology and modes of interpretation in both Midrash and Mishnah would seemingly be even more dangerous to the foundations of Orthodox Jewish faith…there is no question that he did investigate these texts in a manner which makes it difficult to distinguish Hoffmann from Frankel, Geiger, or other scholars of rabbinic literature” (Ellenson and Jacobs 1988:36). 

Like Frankel’s Darchei haMishna, R. Hoffman develops a theory of the evolution and progression of rabbinic law in a similarly titled work, “First Mishna”: 

“Hoffmann contends that there are obvious problems with the received text. To begin with, there is a significant generation gap between Hillel and Shammai in Avot 1:15 and Rabban Gamliel in Mishna 16. Hoffmann also finds it strange that Simeon in Mishna 17 is not identified by the title ‘rabbi,’ and finally, after Rabban Gamliel III, the son of Judah HaNasi, is cited in Avot 2:2, that Hillel is quoted again. The questions thus arise for Hoffmann as to why the quotations of Hillel were divided and separated and why there was not a consistent chronological order throughout the entire tractate. In addition, the fifth chapter possesses little continuity, in Hoffmann's opinion, with the preceding one and hardly mentions any authors” (Ellenson and Jacobs 1988:36). 

R. Hoffmann concludes that there are three distinct versions of Mishna Avot: one written by R. Akiva, one by R. Meir, and one by Rabbeinu haKadosh, R. Yehuda haNasi. These were, he claims, all woven together into the shape and form that we have today.  Essentially, what he said should not be done to biblical texts, he in fact did with Mishna Avot, while still maintaining their divine origins. 

He compares the development and interpretations of the later Sages of the Gemara (Amoraim) on the Mishna to a parallel development and interpretation of later Sages of the Mishna (Tannaim) on the ‘older’ or ‘earlier’ Mishna. This way, in his view, the later Mishnaic Sages reinterpreted the work of the earlier Mishnaic ages. R. Hoffmann explains: 

“The relationship of the later Tannaim to the old Mishna is exactly the same as that of the Amoraim to the Mishna of Rabbi Judah HaNasi…What would our mishna look like if the various interpretations of the Amoraim had been incorporated into the Mishna proper! Hardly anyone would discern even a fraction of the original mishnah.... It is ... obvious that very many old mishnayot have undergone . . . transformations through the diverging explanations of the later Tannaim. It is, of course, impossible to reconstruct... the original mishna with certainty. It can only be guessed.”[10] 

This way, one might say that R. Hoffmann developed a ‘Documentary Hypothesis,’ – not on the Torah but on the Mishna! R. Hoffman maintained that there was an original version of the Mishna, known as the ‘First Mishna’ which existed before the Second Temple was destroyed. The latter Tannaim (Mishnaic Sages – at around the time of the second century CE) disagreed on the form of the ‘First Mishna.’ 

“[H]is efforts to reconstruct and discover that form, his willingness to investigate the disparate strata which undergirded that form, as well as his work on the Halakhic Midrashim, in which he noted differences of terminology, authorities cited, and models of interpretation between the academies of Ishmael and Akiba, all combine to reveal the seminal nature of his studies in the academic area of rabbinics” (Ellenson and Jacobs 1988:37). 

This is a relatively free approach compared to R. Hoffmann’s strictly traditional view of Torah literature which he believes underwent no such development whatsoever. He explains this disparity as follows: 

“The for the best part of divine origin as far as its content is concerned, but the form has only been fixed at a relatively later time. From Moses until the Tannaim the form of the Mishna was fluid, and each transmitting teacher handed down the received teaching in the formulation that appeared fittest to him (Iggeret Sherira Gaon). Thus, in the study of the Holy Scriptures on the one hand, we consider the authenticity and integrity to be absolute, and we can recognize as true only such results as do not question that premise. With the Mishna, on the other hand, any criticism (unless it contradicts a halakha fixed in the Talmud) as well as any research as to the age of the Mishna and the time of its expression in the extant form is not only considered permissible to us, but even required for the scientific examination of the tradition.”[11] 

In other words, since by its own admission, the Oral tradition had evolved over a long period of time, there was nothing wrong with studying its process of evolution, provided no attempts were made to depart from the established law or Halacha. And, in so doing, he maintained that there was still no threat whatsoever to the belief that the Oral Law, like the Written Torah, was of divine origin. 


R. David Hoffman’s reasoning and argument represent the tensions between traditionalism and modernism.  In his model, one aspect becomes designated as a ‘no-go-area,’ and that is the provenance of the Torah text. However, rabbinic texts may be interpreted with academic rigour. At the same time, the ultimate divine origins of rabbinic law are not challenged and Halacha remains sacrosanct. While maintaining this delicate balance, allowance is made for the recognition of an evolutionary process, but only within the category of rabbinic law. Still, as we have seen, some of these ideas were considered too radical even for those within the Modern Orthodox camp.

[1] Ellenson, D., and Jacobs, R., 1988, ‘Scholarship and Faith: David Zvi Hoffmann and His Relationship to Wissenschaft des Judentums’, Modern Judaism, vol. 8, no. 1, 27-40.

[2] Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, trans. Bernard Drachman (New York, 1960), 136-137.

[3] Azriel Hildesheimer (ed.), "Harav azriel hildesheimer 'al zecharia frankel u'veit hamidrash l'rabbanim b'breslau" [Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer on Zecharia Frankel and the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary], Ha-Ma'ayan (Tishrei, 5713-1952), 65.

[4] Adass Jisroel Berlin: Entstehung, Entfaltung, Entwurzelung, 1869-1939, (ed.) Max Sinasohn (Jerusalem, 1966),19.

[5] Iggerot Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevy [Letters of Rabbi Isaac Halevy], (ed.) Asher Rechiel (Jerusalem, 1972), 132.

[6] Rabbiner Esriel Hildesheimer Briefe, 208-209.

[7] David Hoffmann, Das Buch Leviticus: Ubersetzt und Erkldrt, 2 Vols. (Berlin, 1905), Vol. I, V.

[8] Ibid., 6-7.

[9] Ibid., 1.

[10] David Hoffmann, The First Mishna and the Controversies of the Tannaim, 72-73.

[11] David Hoffmann, The First Mishna and the Controversies of the Tannaim, 1-2.


  1. It's interesting to note that R' David Tzvi Hoffmann was actually an employee of R' Hirsch for two and a half years, teaching at his school. See R' Hoffmann's famous (or, for some, infamous) account in teshuva 56 in his מלמד להועין here:


  2. All would have been suspect, at the very least, to your eastern european ancestors? For those from your background out of contrivance to veer to their pathways would have been suspect, at the very least, to them as well?

    From an individual of german jewish descent

  3. It's hard to put Rav Hirsch into the Modern Orthodox category. He was more about saving Chareidism from assimilation than creating a modern movement.

    1. That is left-leaning poor revisionism.besides being anachronistic.He was hardly either category, and independent of both. Though hard right strident modern orthodox would fit best