Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rabbi Hirsch on "The Nations"

Alice C. Linsley

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a German Bible commentator and Jewish philosopher. In 1846, he became the Chief Rabbi of Moravia. Shortly thereafter, he served as a member of the Austrian Parliament, where he fought for equal rights for the Jews of Austria and Hungary.

In 1851, Rabbi Hirsch returned to his native Frankfort to help the 11 remaining members of that decimated Jewish community. Rabbi Hirsh hoped to help them resist the secularization that was sweeping through Europe's Jewish communities. His writings represent Jewish neo-Orthodoxy, which insists on the divine origin of Torah. He attempted to provide philosophic and historical justification for the Bible.

Rabbi Hirsch understood the concrete rather than philosphical nature of the Hebrew language. He wrote, "Our sacred literature does not use obscure language, but describes most things in words clearly indicating their meaning. Therefore it is necessary at all times to delve into the literal meaning of words to achieve complete understanding of what is actually meant."

What follows is an excerpt from Rabbi Hirsch's Commentary on the Pentateuch, originally published in 1867, in which he examines Genesis 9:25-27 in the face of the spiritual darkness and bestiality of Europe in his day.

Noah's sons, as a confedertion of 3, do not represent the progenitors of all mankind. Instead we have a typical 3-clan Kushite confederation. Genesis 10 in not a "Table of Nations." It is a chronicle of related clans whose ethnicity was originally Kushite.  Many of these clans were metal workers.  For more on this read "The Peoples of Canaan" and "Afro-Asiatic Metal Workers."

Rabbi Hirsch wrote:

"Noah spoke: Canaan will be accursed. A servant of servants shall he be unto his bretheren. And again he spoke: God will be blessed, the God of Shem, may Canaan become his servant. God will open the mind of Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem. And may Canaan be a servant to them." (Genesis 9:25-27)

That which is said in these verses contains perhaps the deepest and farthest reaching prophesy which ever a human eye has been allowed to see of the future, and which God has allowed to be spoken by human lips. The whole history of mankind, the beginning, the end and the middle lies in these three verses.

We recognize in the names of the sons of Noah the essential nuances which characterize the nations which descend from them, according to whether spirit, sensuality or feelings predominate in their national character. Here they stand in their double significance, as individuals and as founders of the nations of the future.

When Noah woke up and got to know of Ham's behavior, his first thought was that the principle that showed itself here in Ham, can and will never be the ruling one. Raw sensuality, which has no control over itself, which has lost all reserve and all respect for anything spiritually high is unfit for ruling. For freedom, it in itself is unfruitful, is a curse without progress or blessing, it bears its ruin in itself.

That Canaan will have the fate of being a slave, there must undoubtedly be some connection between the Canaan-character and the slave fate. And, as a matter of fact, as the curse lies in Canaan, so that the future belongs only to the pure and ennobled, but not to the course, unrefined, so also in the social life, in the social and national life, in the relation of man to man and nation to nation, freedom is only achieved and retained by those who can master and control themselves. Sensuality, uncontrolled licentiousness, is the bait by which one is led by strings into slavery. He who at all times is master of himself, who can easily control giving satisfaction to the urges of his senses, he cannot be bribed or enticed, for him gold cannot become golden chains; he can die, but he cannot become enslaved. Thus for men, thus for nations.

In contrast to the curse of Canaan is the blessing of Shem, the recognition of the God whom Shem teaches will gain an ever greater circle, will spread, progress until finally it will become that principle to which all the world will subscribe. While Ham represents the most ignoble, unvarnished audacious sensuality, Shem teaches of a God who not only once served as the Original Force which called heaven and earth into being, but who still is mover of the heaven and earth, still rules everything, so that every fiber of our being and every impulse of our will belongs to Him; accordingly, the very opposite of Ham. Shem and correspondingly Canaan are not looked on personally as individuals, but as the future nations descended from them. Japheth designates feelings being open to all external impressions and influences. Hence naivety, one who is easily talked over and easily deceived. Japheth is responsive to feelings.

Thus we have placed before us the representatives of the three main tendencies which characterize people and nations. Spirit, sensuality and sentiment constitute the inner man, and these three powers predominate characteristically in nations. Not that there are completely one-sided nations who have either only mind, only sentiment, etc. But just as in individuals all three are present, but nevertheless everybody has one of them which marks his personality, so is it with nations. For us who do not stand, as Noah did, at the very beginning of history, but can look back on four thousand years of history, it is easy to see the working of these different forces in nations in the development of world history.

The greatest ado in the world has been made by Ham, that sensuality, worldliness, which harnesses all that belongs to spirit and mind to their chariots of fame, and only allows intellect to be used or valued as far as it serves as a means of furthering the material side of life, nations that conquer, plunder and enjoy. Nations pass across the stage who represent hardly anything but raw force, sensuality and bestiality.

But nations also appear which use their forces in the service of beauty who characterize themselves in nurturing art, aesthetic beauty. They are conscious of some higher ideal up to which mankind is to work itself out of crudeness. This tendency teaches people to cloak raw sensuality in the garb of respectability and graciousness. Through grace and beauty they foster a taste for more spiritual activities, music, poetry, art. All those nations who cherish that which appeals to feelings represent the Japheth character.

When we look to historical facts we can say: the stem of Japheth reached its fullest blossoming in the Greeks: that of Shem in the Hebrews, who bore the name of God as their God through the world of nations. Right to the present day it is only these two races, the descendants of Japheth and Shem, who have become the real educators and teachers of humanity. For all the spiritual treasures which the world has acquired these two have to be thanked, and everything, which, even today, works at the culture and education of mankind, connects up with that which Japheth and Shem brought to the world. The spiritual gifts of the Romans were only a gift of the Hellenes. Japheth has ennobled the world aesthetically. Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally. Hellenism and Judaism have become the great active forces in the educational work on mankind, and the rest of the world has been merely passive material on which they worked. In this sense, Noah's enlightened eye sees three things:

He sees that coarseness and ruthless glowing sensuality does not bear the seed of the future blossoming of mankind within it; sees that nations who give themselves up to sensuality and in whose character, the lower nature of man remains the prevailing trait, instead of becoming free, independent and mighty, sink down to slaves. More, he sees centuries in which the conception of human beings having the right to freedom is quite lost. From Ham's descendants, tyrants, mighty despots and hunters of men went forth. Not freedom, slavery is begotten by passion. Freedom only lives in the law, only blossoms there, where untouchably above all, a law of moral rules. He remains free who learns to obey the law of morals. Sensuous nations are the breeding places of slavery, Ham begets slaves and where sensuality is at its height, as in Canaan, they sink to slaves of slaves."  From here.

Rabbi Hirsch casts Ham in a bad light, as sensual and tyranical. This is typical or rabbinic myths designed to make Genesis more acceptable to modern Judaism with its strong Zionist emphasis. This sort of myth making is never well supported by Genesis. There is always evidence to contradict the rabbinic myth. Consider, for example, how Ham and his descendants are portrayed on the one hand as conquerors, warriors, and kingdom-builders and on the other hand as slaves. Which is it?

The people of Ham were Kushites who migrated out of Africa. Further, the ruler lines of Ham and Shem intermarried, so what is said about the one, must apply to the other. Rabbi Hirsch's presentation of Ham as an archetype of evil doesn't align with the data of Genesis. This piece is an example of how European Rabbis disparaged the Nilotic peoples with whom Father Abraham and his Horite Hebrew people had much in common.

Related reading:  Who Were the Kushites?; The Lines of Ham and Shem Intermarried; Where Dwelleth Japheth


Eric said...

Hmmm...wasn't this sort of interpretation often utilized by the Southern slave economy to justify itself?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Indeed people use Scripture to justify all kinds of evils. Rabbi Hirsch isn't doing that. He is using the 3 sons of Noah to speak about 3 conditions to which all humankind is prone. He knew that while the 3 brothers are the progenitors of different tribal groups, their lines intermarried. You may see how this looked in the case of Ham and Shem by going here:

Jean Wilson said...

During the summer and a break from my Disciple class, I love to go back to the beginning--Genesis, and Just Genesis specifically. Your thoughts and articles have begun teaching me so much about the history of our religion, and not only that, but, interpreting these ancient writings. We cannot read them from our perspective, but need to consider them from their time period. But, the truths in the writings were valid then and now. I was reading about Moab and its origins. I had forgotten it was settled by Moab, the illegitimate son of Lot and his oldest daughter. The younger daughter repeated the act of getting Lot drunk and becoming the parents to Ammon, the father of the Ammonites. Both of these tribes became constant enemies of the Israelites. Lot had raised his daughters in Sodom, and though he maintained he was a just man, you cannot condemn the daughters for thinking it was an acceptable thing to do as it was commonplace there. Not to mention Lot had offered his daughters to the hoard of men that wanted sex with the 2 angels that came to save Lot and his family. Then I recalled the article about 2 drunken fathers, and recalled Noah getting drunk and being seen by his son Ham. Ham thought it was funny, and a good idea to disrespect his father and show his nudity to his 2 brothers. This resulted in a curse to Ham's son, Canaan. In reading it, I tried to think of why this was such a travesty since it was just a look at the nude father. Then, as I thought about it and continued reading, I happened on an article about Jacob by Ray Stedman. He was talking about God teaching Jacob (the trickster) a lesson about the "harvest of deceit". So I thought about the damages caused by drunkenness: humiliation to the drunken person and the witnesses; sexual perversion, promescuity, rape, unwanted pregnancy, unwanted children; loss of respect; financial loss; loss of friendships from thoughtless words or fights; suicides or accidental deaths; manslaughter by drunken driving; lost jobs; broken marriages, family dysfunction...... There is no end to the list of losses caused by drunkenness or drug addiction. God was warning us thousands of years ago about the price of sin which results in death. And here you have man's continued love of fleshly desires, thinking that he would be the one that can get away with his acts of deception and shame. Thank you for your articles and wisdom. I always know you will help me understand statements in the Bible that aren't quite clear to me. I love reading and studying the Bible. What a treasure we have in this ancient book.

Alice C. Linsley said...

God bless you, Jean!