Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as champion of Conservative Judaism

Zev Elelf published a fine article in the recent issue of Tradition (available at JID- here) AMERICAN ORTHODOXY’S LUKEWARM EMBRACE OF THE HIRSCHIAN LEGACY, 1850-1939. The article shows that American Orthodoxy did not see their linage as traceable to Rabbi Hirsch. I have been telling my classes that for years. Rather, we find they trace themselves to Maimonides, Spanish-Portuguese and Italian Jewry, later they traced themselves to Rabbi Reines. The article did a great job of showing that they did not look to Hirsch, but did not actively engage the multitude of authors. Specifically, the article had a presentism about who was Orthodox. Therefore it mentioned only briefly, Eminent Israelites of the nineteenth century : a series of biographical sketches (c1879). by Henry Morais.


Sabato Morais was one of the founders of JTSA of Italian birth and rabbi at the Spanish-Portuguese Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. His son Henry wrote the treatise on eminent Israelites. Half a century ago, there was a debate in the scholarly literature about whether the early figures involved int he foundation of the OU was proto-Conservative or proto-modern Orthodox, as well as a debate what the word Conservative – capital C, meant in 1898. Moshe Davis treated Sabato Morais as proto-Conservative and Charles Liebman treated him as proto-Modern orthodox. Kohut may have used the word the way we use it today to refer to something between Reform and Orthodoxy, but Henry Morais (Sabato’s son) use the word to refer to Hirsch.
Neither of the scholars looked at his Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century.In Morais’ volume Zechariah Frankel is called the Hakham, the author, and scholar, but the only person called Conservative in the entire volume is Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, who is given a more heroic image than the others. So it seems that is what he meant by the term and it shows what he aspired to do in the US. The entire book is free for download, below is from page 138.

Conspicuous, not solely as one of the acknowledged champions of Conservative Judaism, but as a profound theologian, and an active worker in Hebrew literature, is the venerable Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch. Many years have seen this divine faithfully labor in the sacred trust confided to his guardianship. The lasting services he has rendered the Jewish community are significantly illustrated by schools and educational institutions that foster and disseminate religious knowledge. But an honest and uncompromising adherence to the principles of Judaism he believes in, and a dauntless defense thereof, entitle the Rabbi to the highest commendation.

7 responses to “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as champion of Conservative Judaism

  1. A few years ago Penn created a website with Morais’ ledger, a very large collection of clippings, pamphlets etc that he collected, and that reflect his own experiences and life. You can see it here http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/morais/ and fwiw, while the Reform thinker Samuel Hirsch appears several times, SR Hirsch doesn’t at all.
    I agree with you that Morais and more broadly the role of the Sephardic (for lack of a better word) legacy in American Jewish history deserves to be better understood.

  2. It seems clear to me that the book is referring to Rav Hirsch being a champion of small c conservative (traditional) judaism. I was expecting this to be a more challenging article

  3. Bernard Drachman, the Dean of JTS, translated the Nineteen Letters. I wrote about it here.

    • I wanted to comment on your post there, but comments are no more. Re the 1959 Feldheim edition which no longer mentioned Drachman’s affiliation with JTS – I wonder if that was more due to Drachman’s falling out with JTS. Feldheim did, after all, publish Saul Lieberman’s Greek/ Hellenism in Jewish Palestine originally – both after 1959.

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