Thursday, July 10, 2008

Letter One pages 1-2

Posting Note: When I refer to the 'page number' in the post titles, I'll be using the number that is printed on the scan or html version online. If you have downloaded the pdf and saved it then, for example, page 54 of the pdf file is actually page 1 of the book, THE NINETEEN LETTERS.

The first letter, written by "Benjamin" introduces a "series of accusations against Judaism", these accusations against Yiddishkeit make up the framework for TNL. Rav Hirsch, as "Naphtali", starts to deal with these accusations by replying:

"Do you believe that you really understand the object which
you are thus condemning? Have you acquired with your own eyes, and by the
dint of honest, earnest investigation, an actual understanding of the matter
which, inasmuch as it is the holiest and most important consideration of our
life, should at least not be cast aside thoughtlessly and
Often, when people make judgement calls about a Torah observant lifestyle it is based on either an outside point of view or what many refer to as "bad religious experiences". Rav Hirsh urges the reader to judge Torah Judaism from within and based on its own merit (this is a theme throughout Rav Hirsch's writings and it will come up again when we visit Letter Two).

"Benjamin" then says:
You showed me that the only sources of my knowledge were,
on the one hand, the mechanical practice of parental customs and a few imperfect
and undigested fragments of the Bible and Talmud acquired from Polish

It's important to remember that Rav Hirsch is portraying "Benjamin" as someone who was raised observant and has changed his "religious views and practices" (from page 1). Today we see children and young adults falling into the category of "at-risk" and "off the derech". While TNL letters was written as a weapon against the Haskallah, even in 1836 he is addressing the exact same issues Torah observant Judaism is dealing with today.

The phrase "mechanical practice of parental customs" demonstrates the need for parents to not only give over minhagim to their children, but explain the source of the minhag. Yiddishkeit by rote, without emotion and explanation is a common "cause" for children to indeed be "at-risk" and "off the derech".

The passage quoted above also demonstrates how the Haskallah saw the "Polish teachers" as a threat. It's interesting to note that when Feldheim republished TNL in a new edition in 1960 prepared by Jacob Breuer, they replace the phrase "Polish teachers" with "old-fashioned Cheder." Either phrase is a direct attack against an age old system of chinuch. The student-Rebbe relationship is something that goes back to Moshe Rabbenu and is a vital part of our religion.

Page 2 ends with a reference to:
modern reformers, and especially that view of life which
our present age has brought forth, and which has, as its chief endeavor, the
suppression of the inner voice of conscience in favor of the external demands of
comfort and ease

I believe that this refers to the "reformation" of Judaism and the accusation (that come up later in Letter One) that the traditional Torah lifestyle is outdated and too difficult to adhere to in the modern world. An example of this might be the lure of eating non-kosher so that one may not stand out in society.

Thank you for taking time to read this and please feel free to comment.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why blog about the Nineteen Letters?

I told a very good friend of mine well over ten years ago that I have found much mussar within the pages of The Nineteen Letters. I have always been a curious why so many people I know have never actually read or even looked at The Nineteen Letters (for this blog it will also be referred to as TNL).

I had a discussion erev Shavuos with someone I am very close with about wasted potential and missed opportunities. I decided to bite the proverbial bullet and attempt to, with time, write several posts about The Nineteen Letters. I hope that this blog will bring some of Rav Hirsch's ideas to those who are not so familiar with his works. When new material is added there will be an update posted at my other blog, or you subscribe and get email updates. I, personally, suggest this method, as I will be posting when I can the time. You can subscribe by using the form to the right or clicking here.

As a brief introduction, TNL was first published in 1836. It was written mostly as a "trailer" for his monumental work HOREB, which was published in 1838. Originally Rav Hirsch was wanted to publish HOREB, but his publisher wasn't sure if there was a market for a book dealing with "A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances". It was suggest that the author try a smaller booklet first, which became TNL.

Most of the text I'll use for blogging purposes is from the first English translation by Rabbi Bernard Drachman, published in 1899. While other versions are available, including Rabbi Elias' publication, there is one basic reason that I have chosen to use the old's available for free on goggle-books, here. In an age when we all spend time in front of computers, it's easy enough to read a few pages (or even download the pdf) if you are so inclined look up what I'll be writing about. I've included a link to the online version on the right side of your screen.

Lastly, I'm no Hirschian expert, just a guy who reads The Nineteen Letters every summer. This summer I'll, hopefully, be reading it with you!

Behind the cover page of TNL Rav Hirsch wrote the following inscription:
This quote from Megillah 3a was said by Yonasan ben Uziel when "defending his revelation of the translation of the Secrets of the Prophets"(from WebShas). This is how Rav Hirsch starts out his sefer. Originally it was published anonymously, written by "ben Uziel". There was no ego, no attempt to gain fame, only an attempt to bring light to the lives of Jews, both observant and those who were not-yet observant and defend Yiddishkeit. An example of "L'shaim Shamayim" at its' best.

Thank you for taking time to read.