Sunday 9 July 2023

436) A Hirschian rejection of Maimonides


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Micha Gottlieb,[1] examines the sharp anti-Maimonidean writings by the nineteenth-century rabbi, Shimshon Refael Hirsch. In the previous article, “An 'enlightened' rejection of Maimonides,” we discussed how the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment movement) wanted to adopt Maimonides as their official ideologue and ‘poster rabbi’ because he encouraged secular education, and elevated the position of the sechel (intellect) as the prime component of the human being. We then showed how this ‘enlightened’ focus on Maimonides was severely challenged by R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, initially a member of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the official arm of the Jewish Enlightenment). In this article, we examine another rabbi also somewhat associated with the Haskala, R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), who similarly rejects Maimonides and his rationalism, but for different reasons. 

The Nineteen Letters

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsh’s approach to Maimonides is to be found largely in his monumental work on German Neo-Orthodoxy, the Nineteen Letters, compiled around 1836. R. Hirsch claimed that Maimonides had overstepped the mark with his emphasis on rationalism over traditionalism (Gottlieb 2009:284). R. Hirsch was also concerned that the Haskala was attempting to use Maimonides as an example of an early ‘reformer’ of Judaism, which may have served the agenda of factions within the Haskala

R. Hirsch and the Haskala

R. Hirsch describes his upbringing as “enlightened and religious” (erleuchtet religiös).[2]  His paternal grandfather was a personal friend of Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Berlin Haskala; and his uncle was known as the “Moses Mendelssohn of Hamburg.” 

However, by 1818, when R. Hirsch would have been ten years old, the Hamburg Jewish community had become more secularised and the first Reform Temple was established in that city. This means that R. Hirsh would have been aware of what he would have considered a downside to the benefits of the Haskala, something his predecessors might not have yet been alerted to. R. Hirsch then decided to devote his energies to promoting a culture of Halachic observance although within an ‘enlightened’ framework (Gottlieb 2009:271). 

The problem was that by the mid-nineteenth century, even the moderate branch of the Haskala, was no longer able to maintain the delicate Halachic-Hasklic balance. And they were using Maimonides to argue for reform to traditional Judaism. 

Maimonides is used as ‘leverage’ to promote the abandonment of the mitzvot 

One did not have to look far for instances where previously religious people had used Maimonides as a precedent for abandoning their observances. Shlomo Maimon serves as such an example, and R. Hirsch would have been well aware of these occurrences: 

Shlomo Maimon

One of the radical Maskilim (members of the Enlightenment) was Shlomo Maimon (1754–1800). He was born Shlomo ben Yehoshua, but he became so infatuated with Maimonides’ rationalism and the idea that human perfection is built upon intellectual perfection, that he changed his surname to Maimon. But Shlomo Maimon went to such an extreme that he began to neglect and then reject Halacha

Shlomo Maimon and his childhood friend Moshe Lapidot slowly began to move away from Halacha. The latter felt guilty but Shlomo Maimon was unremorseful. On one occasion, as they both happened to pass the local synagogue, they mentioned to each other that they no longer prayed. Shlomo Maimon evoked an idea from Maimonides that prayer is simply the expression of our knowledge of divine perfections, it is “intended for the common man who cannot attain this knowledge himself and is accommodated to his primitive understanding of God” (paraphrased by Gottlieb 2009:272).[3] Based on this, Shlomo Maimon concluded that: 

“As we see into the end of prayer and can attain to this end directly [i.e., through our independent philosophical speculation], we can dispense with prayer altogether as something superfluous.”[4] 

Shlomo Maimon also based himself on his reading of Maimonides’ approach to Talmud study (which according to a letter allegedly written by Maimonides, was “a waste of time,” and for that reason, he summarised the Talmud in his Mishneh Torah so that future generations would not have to look into Talmudic dialectics anymore). Shlomo Maimon writes: 

“the best days of our lives when the powers are in full vigor being spent in the soul-deadening [geisttötende] business of studying Talmud.”[5] 

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch would have certainly been aware of this type of thought being promoted and expressed within his environs as he was growing up. He, therefore, became cautious of Maimonides because he saw how leaders in the community were using Maimonides as leverage to move away from religious practices.

Additionally, R. Hirsch would also have been aware of how Maimonides was being used as an authority to enhance the emerging Reform movement. 

Maimonides used as a ‘precedent’ for Reform 

Michael Creizenach

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch had visited with the Reform scholar, Michael Creizenach, around the time he (R. Hirsch) joined the University of Bonn in 1830. He was certainly familiar with Creizenach, and Robert Liberles even suggests that R. Hirsch’s work “Horeb” (published in 1838) was influenced by Creizenach’s Shulchan Aruch![6] 

In 1833, Creizenach published his Shulchan Aruch, which was his presentation and vision of Jewish law. Although Creizenach does not evoke Maimonides by name, his arguments follow a typical Miamonidean pattern. He attempts to explain Halachic principles to students not familiar with Talmud study to help them: 

“distinguish between the spirit of law and its formal details… In this way, the student can learn to discern which laws are truly ‘religious provisions’ (Religionsvorschriften) and which are merely the product of social circumstances and so can be modified or discarded.”[7] 

Not only was R. Hirsch familiar with Michael Creizenach, but it was in his home that he met Abraham Geiger, the architect of Reform, and the two initially became close friends until they had a falling out and became opponents. 

R. Hirsch on the role of Greek philosophy

R. Hirsch was not opposed to Greek philosophy. He sees a place for Greek thought within the overall spiritual scheme of things. R. Hirsch identifies Shem, Cham and Yafet, the three sons of Noah, as three distinct civilisations. Judaism stems from Shem, Greek Hellenism and rationalism stems from Yafet, and Cham represents what he refers to as ‘primitive’ civilisations. These three aspects also correspond to three distinct facets within the human persona: the spirit is Shem, the mind is Yafet, and the sensual is Cham. R. Hirsch maintains that Cham corresponds to the ‘slavish’ component of the persona, because “one who prizes sensual gratification above all else is always dependent on the external means needed to satisfy these desires” (Gottlieb 2009:275).[8] R. Hirsch develops this concept further and describes his understanding of the development of humankind over history. He begins with an analysis of Cham, which is an early and primitive civilisation: 

[B]y seeing well being as dependent on forces of nature beyond their control, people come to be oppressed by violent emotions, especially fear. Unscrupulous leaders then teach the people that these forces of nature are divine and that the only way to prosper is to curry favor with these angry and cruel deities. This requires bringing sacrifices to priests and recognizing the political authority of kings who are the gods’ earthly deputies, if not gods incarnate. In these ways, man is always ‘taught to look outwards’ and his individual personality is reduced to ‘complete insignificance’” (paraphrased by Gottlieb 2009:275).[9] 

Later, Hellenism (Yafet) emerged to uplift Cham (the ‘primitive’ period). Hellenism and Greek philosophy redeemed humanity by raising the value and status of the primitive and superstitious individual. R. Hirsch saw Yafet, ‘the mind (Gemüth)’ as an intermediary between Cham (primitive humankind) and Shem, ‘the spirit (Judaism).’ This way, R. Hirsch sees a place for Yafet (Greek philosophy) in the biblical verse: “Yefet will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). This means that, in his perception, there is a place for some degree of Hellenism in Judaism. 

However, Hellenism (Yafet – a tendentious allusion to Maimonideanism) is not sufficient as it neglects the spirit and soul (Shem). Furthermore, beneath the “polished exterior of a refined culture there remains sybaritic [self-indulgent][10] pleasure-seeking and brutish animal-like sensuality[11] which is ready to erupt into violence and subjugation at any moment (Gottlieb 2009:276). 

R. Hirsh continues by contending that Yafet (Greek civilisation) did not equally apply justice to all. Justice and equality remained within the domain of the elite. He points out that in ancient Attica, the intellectual capital of ancient Greece, which was “the finest state in the Hellenic civilization,”[12] there were only 130,000 free men as opposed to 400,000 slaves: 

“The cultured classes were quite willing to tolerate tyranny and violence as long as their own rights were respected” (Gottlieb 2009:277). 

For these reasons, the picture only becomes complete by turning from the role of Yafet, the ‘mind,’ to Shem, the spirit and soul, which is Judaism. There is a place for the sensual, the intellect, but the crown of humanity only reaches its fulfilment through the spirit. Essentially “Judaism provides an antidote to the alienating, oppressive tendencies of Hellenism” (Gottlieb 2009:278). 

But R. Hirsch is not just writing about ancient Greece and ancient primitive civilisations, he is all the time alluding to what was going on in the very vicinity where he was domiciled the centre of the Haskala and the emphasis it had placed on the Jewish version of Yafet, which was Maimonides: 

“[F]or Hirsch, confronting Haskalah requires confronting Maimonides” (Gottlieb 2009:279). 

R. Hirsch’s view on the limited value of Maimonides

Just as R. Hirsch was not entirely against Yafet, he was not entirely against Maimonides. He understood that during Maimonides’ time, Judaism was in a bad state due to the constant disputes between the Gaonim (as the major rabbis of the time were known). The Jews turned to the Greek culture of the Arab schools as a more stable and exciting source of inspiration, and “Maimonides inserted himself into this conflict seeking a synthesis between Judaism and Greek philosophy.”[13] Importantly, Maimonides upheld the authority of Jewish law and Halacha. R. Hirsch lauds Maimonides for saving Judaism with his Halachic work, the Mishneh Torah

However, Maimonides, claims R. Hirsch, was inadequate, because: 

“[B]y accepting the Hellenic notion that intellectual perfection constitutes the highest good, he was forced to interpret all halakhah as a means to this end, and so, halakhah could be discarded if one could achieve intellectual perfection by other means.”[14] 

Interestingly, and along similar lines, R. Hirsch tellingly maintains that Maimonides only gave deep explanations for the laws written in the Torah, but did not go to the same extent for the laws contained in the Talmud.[15]  R. Hirsch bitingly proclaims that Maimonides did not have time for Talmudic dialectics and its “nitpicking subtleties [milbenklaubende Spißfündigkeiten].”[16] 

R. Hirsch also shows that some rabbis, like Yehuda haLevi, although he passed away when Maimonides was a young boy, were already issuing warnings against the dangers of Hellenism which Maimonides clearly ignored. 

R. Hirsch evokes the modernist philosophy (and psychology) of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) whose notion of transcendental idealism involves a critique of pure reason and requires an understanding of the mind’s innate modes of processing evidence.[17] R. Hirsch maintains that now, even more than in Maimonides’ day, the “notion that intellectual perfection constitutes the highest good is completely untenable” (Gottlieb 2009:281).[18] He criticises the radical followers of Maimonides for using reason to adjudicate tradition. In other words, both the Maimonideans and Maskilim fail to understand the nature of Jewish tradition (Gottlieb 2009:284). Both are arrogant and require a degree of humility as they approach tradition. They judge Halacha, he insists, by how it fits their lives, whereas “the proper approach” is to judge one’s life by how it fits Halacha.[19] 

One area where R. Hirsch agrees with the Reformers

There is, however, one area where R. Hirsch agrees with the reformers. That is, in their condemnation of (then) contemporary Judaism. They are right about there being something wrong with the Judaism of their day. Judaism had simply become “the mechanical practice of parents’ customs” with the Torah and Talmud being taught with “little understood and little digested.”[20] He, in a sense, joined the fight together with the reformers against mainstream Judaism in principle, but he parted ways with their practical solutions. He genuinely wanted to reach this ideal [of reform] but not by discarding Halacha. Instead, he wanted to revitalise Judaism by paying “renewed attention to Judaism, intellectually comprehended.” He wanted a more sophisticated, intelligent understanding of Judaism than what he saw in practice. And he wasn’t afraid to say that strides should be made to show “the connections between Judaism and the nobler parts of European culture” (Gottlieb 2009:286).[21] 

Still, notwithstanding R. Hirsch’s turn towards a more modern and intellectual Judaism, Maimonides’ extreme rationalist approach had little purchase in his scheme of things.

[1] Gottlieb, M., 2009, ‘Counter-Enlightenment in a Jewish Key: Anti-Maimonideanism in Nineteenth Century Orthodoxy’, in The Cultures of Maimonideanism, Edited by James T. Robinson, Brill, 259-287.

[2] Nineteen Letters, ed. Joseph Elias (New York, 1995), Letter 2, p. 13. Gottlieb points out that this edition contains some errors, and he adjusts the translations accordingly.

[3] Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32.

[4] Solomon Maimon: an Autobiography, ed. Moses Hadas (New York, 1947), 147.

[5] Solomon Maimon: an Autobiography, 159–160.

[6] Robert Liberles, Champion of Orthodoxy, 47-49.

[7] Michael Creizenach, Schulchan Aruch (Frankfurt, 1833), vol. 1, x, xiii–xiv.

[8] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Der Pentateuch, überseßt und erläutert, erster teil, 178.

[9] Hirsch, Kislev: Der Hellenismus und das Judenthum, 112–113.

[10] Square brackets are mine.

[11] Hirsch, Kislev: Der Hellenismus und das Judenthum, 115.

[12] Hirsch, Kislev: Der Hellenismus und das Judenthum, 117.

[13] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, Letter 18.

[14] Nineteen Letters, Letter 18.

[15] Guide for the Perplexed, 3:41

[16] Nineteen Letters, Letter 18.

[17] See: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Cambridge Edition od the works of Immanuel Kant, translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood.

[18] Nineteen Letters, Letter 2.

[19] Isaak Heinemann, Introduction” to Nineteen Letters ( Jerusalem, 1965), 10.

[20] Nineteen Letters, Letter 1.

[21] Isidor Grunfeld, S. R. Hirsch the Man and His Mission, in Judaism Eternal (London, 1956), 155–252.


  1. I don't remember the 19 letters saying those things that way (fn 15 & 16). Rather, and i may be wrong, that Rambam only uses the written Torah—to the exclusion of the oral one—to develop his reasons for the commandments, and that as a fallout of the perfection of the intellect being put on a pedestal, talmudic study would necessarily suffer, as it would come to be viewed as tedious, but not that Rambam actually said that or considered it as such (the letter attributed to him aside).

  2. 19 letters was supposed to be an opening synopsis to a much larger groundbreaking publication.
    The publishers refused to accept that there might be an interested audience