Halakhic Engagement with Modern Challenges: New Publication of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki Bakodesh, Part II


Marking the publication of the book Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki Bakodesh, Part II, edited by David Zohar, and co-published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies  and the Shalom Hartman Institute, 2012.

Essential to modern Jewish existence is the search for models that attempt to reconcile the dual commitment to tradition and modernity. It is of prime importance to bring to light examples that illustrate the balance between Torah commitment and openness to new challenges posed by modernity and post-modernity. This explains the recent interest in the halakhic works of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935), a fascinating model of integration of Torah learning with modern values. Rabbi Hirschensohn was born in Safed and strived to modernize the religious community in the land of Israel. Hounded by Jerusalem zealots who called for his excommunication, he eventually immigrated to the United States in 1904. There he served as rabbi of four communities in Hoboken, New Jersey, until his death in 1935. His prolific writing includes over 20 books on halakha, philosophy and Biblical and Talmudic commentaries.

Hirschensohn’s most important work is Malki Bakodesh, a six-volume collection of responsa and letters published between 1909 and 1928, which address questions pertaining to “Jewish government in the Land from a halakhic perspective.” Here Hirschensohn displays innovation and depth in dealing with challenging  and complex topics such as the relationship between halakha and democracy, the status of women, and attitudes towards secular Jews.

In response to the increased interest in Hirschensohn, the Schechter Institute has collaborated with the Hartman Institute and other academic institutions to publish new editions of his works. The goal of this collaborative effort is to bring the interesting and relevant approach of Hirschensohn to the attention of the broader public. The first volume to appear was the first volume of Malki Bakodesh (2007), followed now by the publication of the second volume. David Zohar, whose previously published book, Jewish Commitment in the Modern World Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2003) which explores  Hirschensohn’s halakhic and religious thought, has edited both volumes. In his scholarly notes to the responsa in the second volume of Malki Bakodesh, Zohar explains Hirschensohn’s approach to various historical events and personalities, and elucidates his technical halakhic discourses. He also provides a translation of rabbinic and Aramaic terms into modern Hebrew.

To illustrate Hirschensohn’s unique approach as a decisor, I will briefly describe his revolutionary response to a question about women’s right to vote and be elected. This issue was hotly debated by the Jewish community in the Land during the period 1918-1926. Rabbi Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, strongly opposed granting women suffrage. Hirschensohn, however, ruled to the contrary, even stating that in certain cases women can serve as judges in halakhic matters. He argued that halakha is based on an egalitarian approach, and offers a new interpretation of rabbinic expressions such as “women are temperamentally lightheaded” (Tractate Kiddushin 80b). To his mind, “The Torah does not deprive anyone of rights, including women, who arose to become mothers in Israel and the Lord Blessed Be He granted more wisdom to women than to men” (pp. 83-84). He further argues that Rabbi Kook and his followers tended to resist all change. Hirschensohn concluded that there is no real halakhic basis to deny women these rights; moreover, new historical and social conditions invite a re-examination of the halakhic approach to the status of women.

From Hirschensohn’s responsum on these issues, two important characteristics of his unique halakhic approach emerge, which are generally lacking in contemporary halakhic discourse.

Firstly, the responsum demonstrates Hirschensohn’s independence. That is, one must not cower before the rulings and interpretations of previous scholars but one must directly and independently address the halakhic sources. As a result, Hirschensohn’s responsum is filled with novel interpretations and perspectives. Although he always grapples with the interpretation of rishonim (earlier authorities), he generally ignores or is dismissive of later rabbinic commentaters (ahronim). What is more, when he examines the views of rishonim, he does not slavishly follow their rulings; he examines their understanding of the Talmudic sources and judges whether their interpretations are legitimate. If not, he will look for an alternative approach among therishonim which in his opinion arrives at a more legitimate understanding of the relevant Talmudic passages. For example, in the responsum regarding the right of women to vote and be elected, he cites the opinion of Maimonides (Laws of Kings 1:5) who opposes allowing women to occupy any leadership position within the Jewish community. Hirschensohn argues, however, that Maimonides misunderstood the rabbinic source that he cited. Therefore Hirschensohn concludes that we are not obligated to follow the position of Maimonides.

Secondly, Hirschensohn’s responsum displays his preference for lenient rulings. In arguing for the need to allow women to vote and be elected, he argues that on pragmatic grounds we should generally be lenient at a time of increasing secularization. That is, at a time of weakening commitment to the tradition, the sage who is stringent overly burdens the masses and alienates Jews. By contrast, the sage who is lenient is able to strengthen their acceptance of halakhic authority. Thus, Hirschensohn maintained that the scholar’s responsa should involve an understanding of the pragmatic effect of the ruling on the degree of ritual performance of the Jewish community, in an effort to bring about a greater correspondence between the law of God and the action of His people.

In short, from this brief description of Hirschensohn’s halakhic approach one can see the extent to which he offers a dynamic conception of halakhah, which exemplifies the need to seek out novel halakhic interpretations that allow Jewish law to address new challenges.


Dr. Ari Ackerman is a lecturer in Jewish Thought and Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.