In anticipation of Shavuot I chose this year to ready myself as is intended through the shloshet yimei hagbala by studying an edifying text. I sought a text that would take me out of the banal, out of the routine Jewish living and into the compelling sphere of intellectual curiosity about who I am. A text that would make me pause ponder and wander about my purpose on this earth as well a how to best utilize my most precious natural resource that of being a Jew.
I recalled having studied the Nineteen Letters written by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as a rabbinical student, but I vaguely remembered the full thrust of the book. I did however recall how well written the book was in that it drew you in and involved you passionately in its well articulated arguments for reasoned orthodoxy and against the by-product of the enlightenment, the reformers.
Studying the book now, as a mature adult and from a perspective other than a yeshiva student I realized that his arguments though poignant were no longer as compelling as they once may have been. I am drawn in particular to the fourth letter that discusses man’s free will. Hirsch argues in this letter that man has the choice to follow God’s will or to disregard it. While it seems pretty cut and dry and not much to argue about once we begin getting into the detail and the specifics it get a little problematic.
There is, however, an inherent contradiction found within Letter number 4. On the one hand Hirsch believes that we are destined to be he servants of God and that everything we ought to be directed in fulfilling his commandments because we are the servants of God. On the other hand he maintains that we are to be his partner in the creative force which governs the earth n which we live. How can we be on the one hand servants of God but n the other hand partners with him. Partnership assumes to some degree the ability to think, make decisions and act in the best interests of the partnership. An element in partnership is creativity. Without that element that can be no genuine partnership. We may be trustees but we can’t function in the capacity of a decision maker that requires at time creativity. And indeed in Hirsch’s Letter number 5 he holds that man is meant to function creatively:
“You rightly state that just by contemplating man’s capabilities we can readily see that he is meant to function creatively.”
There is an interesting theory that our civilization could not have evolved had we taken prima facie instruction from God without deviating. Had Adam and Eve adhered to God’s instructions and admonishments we would still be living in the Garden of Eden, not ever having the benefit to experience God’s world which was created on behalf of man. Had man complied with His instructions, Man could never have become co-partners with God in Tikkun Olam. Had man feared God to the point of being his loyal servant man could never have exercised his creativity.
Another example of man’s disloyalty to God and in so doing pushes forward the progress of man is the story of Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright. Jacob was clearly wrong in his deception and his mother’s complicity didn’t go unnoticed by our midrashim and commentaries. His deception was a clear violation of God’s moral law. However, by Jacob doing so, by him acting independently and against the conventional moral code, he won the birthright and changed the future of the Jewish people. In a sense the Jewish people have given the world a new moral axiom by which to live: do what is good – not that which is right.
Man has engineered into his DNA the need to make his own decisions without necessarily complying with guidelines that may be expected of him. By so doing, by living according to his free will and exercising his creative instinct does man progress. Only by making choices does man move from an infantile stage to that of maturity where he is responsible for his actions. We are programmed to “push the envelop”, to explore new frontiers in science technology the arts, philosophy and religion, and in so doing we are always on the cusp of new discoveries.
It would appear then, that Hirsch is correct with some modifications. Our mentality must be such that we emulate the Avot and other exemplars of our tradition. None of them functioned as pure servants, but integrated their love of God with an appreciation of the creative spirit inbred in each of his creations. We also mustn’t forget that in each of us is the little small voice that occasionally informs us of the need to go against conventional wisdom, to step out against the crowd, that by not doing so we do a disservice to ourselves to our people and to our God.