Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Idolatry

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the important German rabbi, during his time officiating as Chief Rabbi of Oldenberg he published Horeb in 1838, his catechism and definition of Judaism. Help me think through the quote below from Hirsch. Any Rabbinic sources come to mind? I know he wrote statements in Frankfort that differ with these views, but right now I want to help analyze this passage. Anything sound familiar? Anyone develop it further? Thoughts?

Rabbi Hirsch defines idolatry as considering the natural world as separate than God. The world is filled with natural forces and the forces within man, some seen some unseen. One should appreciate that there is a Divine law of nature and God’s providence for human destiny. Human’s are given moral freedom, which can triumph over the tyranny of ruthless power or the bondage to the passions. Your moral freedom as a gift of God and one must use to it to subordinate to God’s laws for humanity.

The quests for wealth, power, and knowledge are all forms of idolatry in that one does not subject one’s forces to a higher purpose. Idolatry, the treating of anything besides God as absolute, consists of a loss of human dignity not an intellectual mistake. One must beware the idolatrous human bondage of sensuality. Polytheism is thinking you do not have to follow God’s duty and instead one can follow the passions For Rabbi Hirsch, seeing the world as many forces or gods is polytheism, which is avodah zarah.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Hirsch portrays the idolatry of Egypt as sensuality, as slavery without freedom, and as the power of mammon and the state. Roman is portrayed as the idolatrous brutality of the state and militarism.

Originally, idolatry meant a false god or a representation of God or gods. From the 17th century onward idolatry moved from its original reference to icons to false attitudes toward life. Most of time, the major forms of polytheism were materialism, the world of commerce, and sexuality. Henry Moore, the Cambridge Neoplatonist defined idolatry as polytheism, the multiplicity of sensuality and materialism. According to Voltaire idolatry never happened but there is the polytheism of superstition.

In the 19th century Wiemar Classicism, polytheism was the worship of nature or man himself and not the higher duties. Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) warns against imagination and sensuality. Man should use his freedom and take charge of his destiny. Already in Schiller’s early Mission of Moses (1789) was “Reason’s victory over those coarser errors assured, and the ideas about the Supreme Being necessarily ennobled. The idea of a universal connection among things must lead necessarily to the conception of a single, Supreme Understanding.”

Here is the definition from Horeb.

Both minuth and zenuth lead to idolatry – riotous enjoyment leads to it directly; denial and misrepresentation of God usually over the bridge of pleasure.
And if then, in the embrace of sensuality, you have stripped yourself of everything spiritual, no longer retaining any feeling for the Divine, you will yourself become aware in your impulses of your feebleness, your instability, your inconstancy in pleasure, and you will fall prostrate before every creature that provides you with enjoyment and itself seems to you so noble and so everlasting in its enjoyment.
You can also reach idolatry, or rather polytheism, directly through the eye and the understanding of the senses, if Torah does not reveal to you the One and Only God; for with your physical eye and understanding you behold only particular beings and activities, but not the Invisible One with his dominating law. You see only gods, not God. This is avodah zarah.

You see on every side active forces and their carriers in Nature, elements and carriers of elements like the sun and the earth and the sea and the air; in the life of peoples, you see Nature, soil, rivers, mountains, and so forth; you see Nature, under the hands of man, raised to a power, and you see men with their wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, passion and folly, fashioning, destroying and influencing the fate and the life of peoples; and an unseen force that holds sway over destiny and life. And in your own life you see the spiritual and the animal in you; you see yourself as a creative force, bestowing a blessing or a curse on everything around you.

But nothing of all this exists or acts by its own power or its own will. Nothing of all this is a god; all of it is created, the servant of the One all-ruling and omnipresent God. In Nature you see God’s law hold sway; in the life of peoples God’s providence supreme; in yourself a strength sent from God. You yourself, as far as your body in concerned, are subject to the laws of Nature. You enjoy your moral freedom only as a free and loving gift of the Omnipotent, and with that freedom of will you are called upon to subordinate yourself to the universal law as God’s first servant. That much you have learnt.

What you have learnt, however…you must recognize nothing as God apart from this universal sway of God: ‘you shall have nothing alongside his omnipresent and all-pervading dominion.’.

Beware lest, instead of building your material life of God alone, you base it on wealth or power or knowledge or cunning or the like. If you do any of these things, you sin against the law: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’

Nor is this idolatry merely an error, a mistaking of falsehood for truth. In that case, it would be simply an intellectual mistake, a delusion, deplorable indeed, but, even at the worst, not the worst that might happen….But this is not the case. As soon as you set anything else beside God as God, and still more as your God, forthwith human dignity, purity and uprightness fall to the ground, the fabric of your life goes to pieces.

The only people who still speak like this are those influenced by Marxism: Erich Fromm (he was also a Hirschian) Herbert Marcuse, or Cornell West. Old time Christian Fundamentalists and left wing Muslim Marxists also speak like Rabbi Hirsch. Centrist Orthodoxy seemingly accepts the many gods of mammon, hedonism, militarism, degrees, self-fulfillment, and the professional drive to succeed.

9 responses to “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Idolatry

  1. The only people who still speak like this are those

    Actually, the idea is still out there. I have seen a variant of it presented – both in MO and Chareidi contexts – regarding idolizing sports and celebrities, for instance (in fact, I probably used it in a similar way, too). Also, in some ways, some of it can be traced back to the neviim. One of R’ Menachem Leibtag’s favorite memes is how much of what Jeremiah calls idol worship is actually a kind of worship of God, but done in a foreign way. Particularly, he traces a development whereby Isaiah and Jeremiah try to wean late First Temple Israel from a quasy-pagan I-serve-God-to-bribe-Him-so-he’ll-be.on-my-side attitude, towards an I-serve-Go-because-under-the-covenant-it-is-my-responsibility-to-champion-justice-and-equity attitude. R’ Leibtag’s reading of the sources is very reasonable and straightforward.

    I also recognize some influence from medeaeval philosophy, tough I can’t chapter and verse it right now.

    So, I’d like to qualify what you write by saying that it’s not that R’ Hirsch’s conception of idol worship is made up of predominantly period attitudes, but rather, that he took some more timeless attitudes, but combined them and argued for them in a way that is thoroughly a product of his time. Thus, I recognize that his tremendous emphasis on the dangers of sensuality (Sinnlichkeit) is a particular recurring feature in his writings.

  2. I’d like to clarify: The link I see between R’ Hirsch’s understanding of idolatry and R’ Leibtag’s reading of what the Later Prophets include in idolatry, is partly indirect. Both sensuality and desiring a material outcome for worship, come together in that the desired result becomes more important than the medium, and thus, the Divine is cut down in size in the mind of the worshiper. However, I do not claim that sensuality itself is not considered idol worship by the prophets.

    IOW, I am more interested in demonstrating the Jewish context out of which R’ Hirsch formulated his description, than in showing necessarily a precise match.

  3. Idolatry is the attempt to draw down into a physical object the spirit of some spirit or being besides God.

    • A spirit into an object is part of the Picatrix tradition, pseudo Ibn Ezra – it had a new lease in the Early modern period and then found it way into Kabbalah and Hasidut. I am looking for source for Hirsch, not Rav Nachman.I want Rabbinic sources for Hirsch.

  4. Sorry. I did not understand what you had meant. I thought i would just say over my idea about idolatry. But as for Rav Hirsh it seems not all that much based on the any Talmudic passage that i can remember. And Rebbi Nachman did not go much into any definition of idolatry that i can remember. It is just that i have been a bit bothered by what i see in breslov and so i have tried to figure out some type of definition myself. I was helped along to my definition by jose faur and a passage in the or hachaim

    • where in the Or hahayyim? What page in Faur? Be specific for both. Why does this spirit possession definition speak definition speak to you in 2010? Do you live in a world of spirits?

  5. His material is produced by going to an academic library and taking all the books from the shelf and then reworking it without sources.

    I have the same complaint, but with greater intensity (because it’s about written published material) about Daat Mikra. I really would like to explore some of what they quote, be they academic or traditional sources. They mostly quote only Chazal explicitly.

  6. I am just trying to find a proper definition of idolatry based on the Chazal. The explanation of Rav Hirsh seems to be coming from a different place that the Talmud

  7. There is Shabbat 105b as a spring board.
    Tehillim 81:10 There shall no strange god be in you.
    What is the strange god within a man’s body? It is none other than the impulse to evil.

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