I admit not being well read in the writings of R' Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, but I was recently taken aback when someone suggested that he was anti-Zionist. Is this true, is it obvious in his writings (which one[s]), and why?

  • 6
    I wouldn't be taken aback personally. Zionism's primary promoters at the time were secular and were probably on a similar blacklist as the haskalah.
    – YDK
    Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:29
  • 1
    Why are people voting this off-topic? It's not asking his personal opinion, but his Hashkafic opinion. It's like asking "Why did the Rambam rule like XYZ"? Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 2:54
  • @ShmuelBrin Maybe consider contributing here?
    – DonielF
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 5:18

3 Answers 3


Just to clarify the terms: we wouldn't be talking about Herzl's Zionist movement, since that was founded only in 1897, nine years after R. Hirsch's passing. The reference would be to the various "proto-Zionist" groups and ideologies of his time. (As YDK noted, a lot of the leaders of those movements were indeed secular Jews, although it is only fair to note that there were a number of religious Jews, including respectable rabbanim, who supported or even led such movements.)

The Artscroll biography of R. Hirsch, by R. E.M. Klugman, has a chapter mostly about this subject, titled "Exile and Redemption." To quote:

Rabbi Hirsch opposed movements which agitated for a return to the land, including those attempts to settle Eretz Yisrael for messianic purposes. He expressed this opposition over a lifetime, from his first published work, The Nineteen Letters, to his last, the commentary to the Siddur.

To summarize the next few paragraphs, his reasons included:

  1. Such resettlement is not worthwhile unless preceded by teshuvah;

  2. He feared that Eretz Yisrael would become an arena for further divisiveness among Jews (prophetic words, those!);

  3. It would be a violation of the "Three Oaths" (Kesubos 111a).

The author goes on to mention that R. Hirsch did approve of and assist efforts to improve the conditions of the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, and encouraged private associations for its resettlement.

  • 2
    " (prophetic words, those!);" Not so prophetic. Israel today often unites Jews from various backrounds that otherwise would not be united.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 12:53
  • 3
    @avi: looking at it in a glass-half-full kind of way, I guess so. But I was thinking more along the lines of something that R. Berel Wein wrote in one of his history books, that the political fragmentation of the Jews in interwar Poland was transplanted to Israel "and survives there as a hardy weed."
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 2:12
  • R. Berel Wein's comment also doesn't make Rav Hirsh's comments prophetic, as Israel in this case did not create new divisions but just allowed the old ones to continue. With or without Israel existing, the argument exists. Now that Israel exists, there aren't new arguments but there are more reasons for unity.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 15:22
  • @avi, "Eretz Yisrael would become an arena for further divisiveness" does not contradict "With or without Israel existing, the argument exists." The point (I believe) Alex was making was that R' Hirsch foresaw that, whatever its potential to unite us, it was likely to perpetuate longstanding (not necessarily create new) friction.
    – Seth J
    Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 13:40

To further Alex's answer:

  • Many forms of proto-Zionism believed that Judaism could only survive with Jews living on their own in their own country; Hirsch fiercely believed that the Jew could live as a good citizen but a foreigner.
  • Hirsch was opposed to most forms of collaboration with non-observant Jews. The teachers of secular studies in his educational system could be observant Jews, or non-Jews; but not non-observant Jews. He would not allow his synagogue (or cemetery) to belong to a ritual organization also encompassing Reform institutions. I believe he was quoted as saying that non-observant Jewish movers & shakers such as Adolphe Crémieux could not be tools of the Redemption, because of their non-observance. (Interestingly, when Meir Leibush Malbim was expelled from his position as Chief Rabbi of Bucharest due to Reform pressure, it was Crémieux who, on Malbim's request, petitioned the right people to reinstate him.)

This belief can be understood from some of R Hirsch writings where he writes that Eretz Israel is only a "means to an end in fulfilling the Torah" or "a tool to further [the Jewish people]'s mission"

For instance in his Nineteen letters, letter eight

It was to be a people in the midst of the peoples; as people it was to show the peoples that God is the Source, and the Giver, of all blessing; that to dedicate oneself to the fulfilment of His will means the attainment of all happiness that man can desire; that this sacred resolve is sufficient to give stability and security to human existence. It received, therefore, the blessings of a land and state-power, not, however, as end, but as means of carrying out the Torah, its possession and retention dependent, therefore, upon fulfilment thereof as only condition. It was to be separate, even in happiness, from the nations in order that it might not learn of them to revere well-being and fortune as the goal of life, and, like them, sink into the worship of wealth and lust.

Letter nine

Through the annihilation of Israel's state-life its mission did not cease, for that had been intended only as a means to an end.

Letter sixteen

This close connection with all states is in nowise in contradiction to the spirit of Judaism, for the former independent state life of Israel was not even then the essence or purpose of our national existence, was only a means of fulfilling our spiritual mission.

R Hirsch felt very strongly that the people of Israel had a role to play in galut to bring Godliness into the world (see e.g., further in Letter nine).

[... our goal] that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity.

Others opposed his views and felt the Land of Israel was an integral part of Am Israel and that exile was only a temporary condition that could not be an ideal on its own. Rav Avraham Itzhak Kook (in Orot me-Ofel chapter 2) responds to R Hirsch views with tough but poetic words

Distance from awareness of the mysteries produces a distorted awareness of the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Due to alienation from the “secret of the Lord,” the higher qualities of godly life are reduced to trivia that do not penetrate the depth of the soul. When this happens, the most mighty force is missing from the soul of nation and individual, and Galut (Exile) finds favor essentially. To one who grasps only the outer surface, nothing fundamental is lost with the loss of land, sovereignty, and all the ingredients of an intact nation. For such a person, the expectation of salvation is but a side branch that never connects to the depth of Jewish awareness. This itself attests to the lack of understanding in such a lifeless approach. We do not negate any conception based on rectitude and awe of heaven, of any form – only the aspect of such an approach that desires to negate the mysteries and their great influence on the spirit of the nation. This is a tragedy that we must combat with counsel and understanding, with holiness and courage.

R Hirsch's commentators point out that his views were misunderstood. Even if he viewed positive aspects to exile (e.g., acquiring converts, see Pesahim 87b, or spreading faith amongst the nations of the world), "his writings constantly emphasize the Jew's prayers for the speedy coming of the Maschiach and the reunion of the Jewish people around the Beit ha-Mikdash").

For more, see R Joseph Elias commented edition of the Nineteen letters, pp. 135, 230 and elsewhere.

  • Again, it seems important to note that nothing you have cited precludes R. Hirsch from having been a proto-Zionist. He couldve for example been a proponent of mass aliya for the purpose of spiritual perfection, and even of the arrangement of a state to facilitate this. || Since you admit that R. Kook doesnt mention R. Hirsch, it seems somewhat misleading to state that Rav Avraham Itzhak Kook (in Orot me-Ofel chapter 2) responds to R Hirsch [sic] views. Consider revising.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 3:39
  • I was trying to answer the question of how people could have believed R Hirsch was anti Zionist. I don't think he actually was as the answers on this page all note and based on the explanations of his commentators. || The ideological differences between R Hirsch and R Kook were documented elsehwere, see e.g., chapter 3 in R Norman Lamm's Faith and Doubt
    – mbloch
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 3:49

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