Don’t miss my essay over at First Things on the mission of the Jews to the world. This, I think, the key idea that the Jewish community needs to absorb at this very unusual cultural moment, for the time is so, so right. Non-Jews are waiting for us to fulfill the roll God gave us in the Torah. Please tell me what you think by commenting here, there, or both.
You will often hear Jews say, with pride, that Judaism rejects a missionary or evangelizing stance. This is true in the narrow sense that Jews do not pursue converts to Judaism, but it is deeply misleading in another. The German Orthodox rabbi, polemicist, and scriptural expositor Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), a towering figure in modern Jewish thought, taught insistently that God brought the “Abrahamitic nation” onto the stage of history for “the salvation of the world through Judaism.” As he wrote in his Torah commentary, this was to be accomplished “by example and admonition,” with the Jews as “God’s messengers on earth” (on Genesis 12:1, 11:8, 18:17-19). In Orthodox Judaism today, Hirsch remains a household name. But the most important aspect of his legacy, which deserves urgent practical consideration by the Jewish community, is insufficiently appreciated.
A range of Orthodox communities claim Hirsch’s mantle. One often hears the “Hirschean worldview” invoked. Modern Orthodox thinkers cite his philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz (“Torah with the Way of the World”) as giving a Torah imprimatur to secular education. Hirsch’s pioneering study of the roots of Hebrew words is also well regarded. But Hirsch’s thought extends far beyond his contributions as an educational theorist and etymologist. He illuminated a cultural crisis of which he saw only the beginnings. That crisis, in Hirsch’s own term, is that of the Western world “sunk in materialism” (on Exodus 6:3).