During the course of our conversation, I realized that Rabbi Elias has his finger on the pulse of our community with regard to the challenges facing our youth in today’s environment. Having served as a mechanech since just after World War II, he has witnessed various challenging chinuch eras over the years, and yet the one in which we live today is especially disturbing.
In times gone by, the challenge was to get children and their parents to want to attend day schools and yeshivas. Today, we are losing far too many who are already in yeshivos, many from the finest, most upstanding homes and backgrounds.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
As we were discussing the issue, Rabbi Elias, an astute student of history, pointed out that this is certainly not the first time that TorahJudaism has had a problem with attrition from some of its best and brightest. He elucidated how, in 19th-century Germany, the crisis was far more pronounced than it is today. Rabbi Elias himself attended the Samson Raphael Hirsch School in Frankfurt in his youth and served as a principal at the mosdos of its successor institution, K’hal Adath Jeshurun, He is thus intimately familiar with the history of that era and what Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch did to stem the tide.
In fact, Rabbi Elias strongly believes that Rav Hirsch’s writings and teachings are eminently timely even today and, just as they succeeded in doing more than 100 years ago, they can still address many of the issues with which our youth are currently grappling.
As is well known, Rav Hirsch became rov of a small secessionist kehillah in Frankfurt and went on to transform that kehillah. Subsequently, his model is what helped stem the tide of Reform and assimilation.
THE NINETEEN LETTERS, THEN AND NOW
One particular volume that Rav Hirsch wrote, even before assuming the position in Frankfurt, had a colossal impact on the thinking youth of his time. That slim volume, titled “The Nineteen Letters,” is a fictional correspondence between a young rov named Naftoli and his youthful friend Benjamin, who has numerous questions. In the book, not only is Rav Hirsch not afraid to answer questions, but he welcomes questions as an opportunity to explain the Torah’s view on myriad issues.
He emphasizes Torah min haShomayim, the Divine origin of Torah, and he discusses why we perform mitzvos and why Hashem would even need our mitzvos. He tackles issues related to interaction between the modern world and the spiritual world, the interface between Torah and science, and so many other topics.
When The Nineteen Letters initially appeared, it sparked a virtual revolution. Here was a rov, writing in impeccable German, addressing all of the religious issues that youth grappled with and debunking all of the common misconceptions and excuses being used to justify the abandonment of a life devoted to Torah and mitzvos.
When I asked Rabbi Elias if The Nineteen Letters would speak to today’s youth, he emphatically replied, “Yes!”
Rabbi Elias explained that for years, there was no adequate translation of The Nineteen Letters that would make it a book easily read by young people. In addition, some of the material in the actual text needed accompanying commentary to better clarify certain points for the 21st-century reader.
“I always felt that The Nineteen Letters was timeless in the sense that Rav Hirsch, in his genius, was able to encapsulate and address the primary questions and answers that any thinking young – and not-so-young – person would have when it comes to observing Torah and mitzvos,” explained Rabbi Elias. “The problem is that for years, this gem was not as accessible, because the syntax and sentence structure used by Rav Hirsch and even the subsequent translation written in the late 1890s made it difficult.”
That, however, recently changed. Several years ago, The Nineteen Letters was newly translated by Karin Paritzky and published with a comprehensive commentary written by Rabbi Elias himself. The volume, published by Feldheim Publishers, makes this classic truly accessible to today’s reader. Certainly, the reader has to be a thinking person. In today’s “instant coffee” and “microwave” generation, there is no substitute for a deliberate, logical approach to the most important relationship that we will ever have in our lives – our relationship with Hashem.
Rabbi Elias’ important notes at the end of each chapter, based on years of teaching The Nineteen Letters to seminary students, truly open the eyes and minds of the reader to understand the timeless hashkofahh espoused by Rav Hirsch and its relevance still today in 2011.
THE IMPERATIVE TO ADDRESS QUESTIONS
We have discussed in previous columns how, in today’s day and age, when there is so much out there beckoning for their attention, addressing the questions of our youth is imperative if we want to keep them on the proper path. We recently wrote how Rabbi Pinchas Jung of Monsey and Rabbi Dovid Sapirman of Toronto have been doing wonderful work in this regard with the Ani Maamin Foundation. Only if we inoculate our youth with a strong hashkofic and emunah foundation will they have the recourse, strength and backbone to withstand the onslaught of today’s nisyonos.
Certainly, the newly translated volume of The Nineteen Letters published a number of years ago with the comprehensive commentary of Rabbi Elias is a book that should be at the forefront of the battle to protect the hearts and minds of our youth.
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THE MISREPRESENTATION OF “TORAH IM DERECH ERETZ” BY REVISIONISTS
On a related note, as I was perusing the brilliant book, The Nineteen Letters, I was reminded of the foolishness of historical revisionists and how they rely on our ignorance to propagate myths. Even more than 100 years after Rav Hirsch’s passing, there still exist revisionist historians who try to use, or misuse, the teaching of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch as proof of their particular hashkofahh.
Recently, I saw an article that tried to claim that Rav Hirsch was the first espouser of what is today called “Modern Orthodoxy.” When one reads The Nineteen Letters, it becomes crystal clear that this claim is hogwash. Sadly, those who desire to foist the kelayim of the Modern Orthodox/Torah Umadah viewpoint are guilty of historical revisionism of the first order. It is a waste of time to try to answer those who want to twist and revise Jewish history to serve their aims.
In the introduction to the book, Rav Elias points out that the article I saw recently was by no means the first attempt to disguise and taint Rav Hirsch’s approach and to try to paint him in Modern Orthodox clothing. The following, from Rav Hirsch’s own writings, illustrates how foolish and underhanded it is to attempt to box Rav Hirsch into that viewpoint. There are tens of other similar sentiments in the book, but space constraints prevent bringing any more:
“…Other disciplines are to be regarded as auxiliary; they are to be studied only if they are capable of aiding Torah study and are subordinated to it as the tafel to the ikkur. The Torah’s truths must remain for us what is absolute and unconditional, the standard by which to measure all the results obtained in other branches of knowledge. Only that which accords with the truths of the Torah can be accepted by us as true. The Torah should be our sole focus: All that we absorb and create intellectually should be considered from the perspective of the Torah and should proceed along its paths. Accordingly, we will not adopt ideas that are not in consonance with this perspective; we will not accept conclusions derived from others’ premises and mix them with words of Torah.
“The Torah is not to be considered an equivalent of the other sciences as though the Torah is just one branch of knowledge among others. We should not imagine that just as there is Jewish knowledge and truths, there is also non-Jewish knowledge and truths of equal importance and authority, and that when we absorb our fill of Torah wisdom, we should then turn with the same spirit to the wisdom of the nations. If we do so, placing in our minds one field of knowledge next to the other, truth beside truth, we shall be devoid of uniform convictions and views, and we shall be lost because of the discordance of our ideas and conceptions.
“Rather, just as we are sure that the Torah comes from G-d, and all other branches of knowledge discovered by man are merely human products containing results of man’s limited insight into the nature of things, so are we sure that there is only one truth, only one discipline that can serve as our yardstick and evaluator of all the other disciplines which are valid only conditionally.”