Reconsidering the Jewish Embrace of Humanism in the Shadow of the Holocaust

April 13, 2021 | Shmuel Lesher
About the author:

Born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) spent a formative five years studying in yeshivas in Poland and Lithuania, before returning to his native Germany and then immigrating to the U.S., where he became an influential congregational rabbi. Schwab was very much the heir of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century theologian who pioneered the ideal of Torah im Derekh Erets—by which he meant a synthesis of Judaism and Western culture very different from the model of Orthodoxy that prevailed in Eastern Europe. Shmuel Lesher explains Schwab’s struggle with that legacy in the wake of the Shoah:

In a speech he delivered in 1990, [Schwab] recalled how the events of Kristallnacht, and later the Holocaust, shook his belief in Torah im Derekh Erets to the core. How could Hirsch have believed the humanism of Germany would lead to an uplifted and righteous society when the same humanistic society ended up committed genocide without much protest from the “enlightened students of Schiller and Goethe”? Hirsch must not have seen German humanistic Bildung, [character-forming education], as anything more than a time-bound compromise in order to save his community from assimilation.

Later in his life, after reassessing Rabbi Hirsch’s writings, Rabbi Schwab came to believe that his earlier view was incorrect. In this later re-evaluation, Schwab felt that Hirsch did, in fact, wholeheartedly believe in the significance of humanism for society.

Lesher adds some thoughts of his own:

[A]n irreligious or secular humanism is bound not to elevate man, but rather to debase him. Religious humanism, on the other hand, embraces the intrinsic dignity of man because he was created in the image of God. . . . By ceasing to regard man as being of a higher and divine origin, secular humanism paradoxically results in the diminishing of man’s value.

Perhaps the Hirschian response to the Holocaust challenge is that if we do not believe we are the ultimate arbiters of truth and morality, . . . our value system remains sacrosanct even when it is not recognized by society, namely, even in Nazi Germany. The utter failing of a secular humanistic society does not undermine the value of a God-fettered humanism. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, Hirschian humanism remains intact.

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