Thursday, February 3, 2011

Symbolism I - 'ala Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was one of the great leaders of German Jewry in the 19th century. His vast legacy includes significant works of scholarship and thought that continue to speak to us to this day. While some might suggest were he living now he'd be a champion of "Modern Orthodoxy," I question this premise simply because I don't think the label is very fair to modernity or to Orthodoxy. So we'll leave politics aside for now.

Hirsch's "Collected Writings Volume III" is dedicated to his studies of Symbolism in Jewish life. One of his primary foci is on the mitzvah of Bris Milah. I intend to share some of his teachings through a series of blog postings on this subject.

The following comes from his "preview" of the subject, which appears in his overview of the book, the chapter on "Symbols in Jewish History." (pages 23-24)

The forefather has been promised the nation and the land. He was already ninety-nine years old and his wife eighty nine, when the scion who was to be the bearer of this promise was begotten. But even as the original inhabitants of the promised land will lose the land only because they had forfeited their moral stature, so too, the fulfillment of the promise, the emergence of the nation and its possession of the land were to be dependent on Israel's attaining and maintaining its moral greatness. The resolve to achieve this end, and the acceptance of this obligation, were to precede the birth of the first scion. A year prior to Isaac's birth, God appeared to Abraham and said to him, "Conduct yourself before Me and be whole." (Genesis 17:1)

In that momentous utterance God expressed the full extent of this moral condition for the survival and prosperity of the promised nation. התהלך לפני! Conduct yourself before Me. Do so without any inducements from the outside, indeed,, if need be, even in opposition to all outside influences, והיה תמים, and be "whole." The adjective תמים "whole" (or "perfect") is the most flagrant antithesis to רעע, "broken." Be whole! Let all the aspects of your life, physical and spiritual, all of your character, be governed freely by one principle; subordinate yourself entirely, unconditionally, to the One sole God. This is the condition for the survival and prosperity of the promised nation, this the obligation in the Divine covenant to be assumed by Abraham and his people. Abraham fell upon his face and dedicated himself completely to the fulfillment of this obligation. However, the mission that was to be the everlasting foundation for the spiritual and moral development of the nation in every aspect of its life was not to be entrusted to the spoken word alone. "Now then," thus God concluded the verbal announcement of His covenant, "circumcised the flesh of your foreskin, so that it may become the sign of the covenant between Me and you. Thus My covenant upon your body shall become an everlasting covenant, and an uncircumcised male who does not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, his soul shall be eliminated from the community of its people; he has broken My covenant!" (Genesis 17:11-14)

Is not the circumcised foreskin a symbol, and circumcision a symbolic act? Are both not אות ברית, symbol of the covenant that calls out to everyone who bears it upon his flesh the eternal admonition: התהלך לפני והיה תמים!
To be continued...

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