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Rabbi Dick Hirsch: A Liberal and Zionist Hero

At a time when too many people think that Liberalism and Zionism are at odds, at this moment when too many Reform rabbinical students spend more energy bashing Israel than celebrating it, one of the Jewish people’s great synthesizers has died at the age of 95. 

At a time when too many people think that Liberalism and Zionism are at odds, at this moment when too many Reform rabbinical students spend more energy bashing Israel than celebrating it, one of the Jewish people’s great synthesizers has died at the age of 95.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch spent his long life reconciling liberalism and Zionism, Reform universalism and Israeli particularism, human rights and Jewish rights, religious devotion and nationalist pride, Israel and Diaspora, as mutually-reinforcing movements, ideals and values. In the process, this liberal and Zionist hero left not only a long line of achievements in his wake, but also generations of fans like me, charmed by his passion, his wit, his warmth, his vision, his generosity and his infectious smile.

This central catalyst in the Zionizing of Reform Jewry was born in Cleveland in 1926. Ordained by Hebrew Union College, a young Dick Hirsch insisted on doing some of his training in the newly-established State of Israel, helping to create a precedent thousands of Diaspora rabbis have followed. He founded the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. in 1962. After an intense decade of social activism that included lending his offices to Martin Luther King Jr., when the reverend was in town and helping to write the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hirsch moved to Jerusalem in 1973. He insisted on moving Progressive Judaism’s international headquarters to Jerusalem, which he deemed Reform Judaism’s “most significant decision … in the 20th century.”

Building Reform Zionism’s ideological and institutional infrastructure, Hirsch helped create the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and founded two Reform movement kibbutzim (Yahel in 1976 and Lotan in 1983). He told me that those two kibbutzim were his greatest achievements—beyond his extraordinary marriage and family.

He told me that those two kibbutzim were his greatest achievements—beyond his extraordinary marriage and family.

Rabbi Hirsch also led the long, frustrating fight for religious pluralism in Israel, demanding a “Jewish State,” meaning a state with a Jewish character, not a state privileging Orthodox Judaism. In 1974, Rabbi Hirsch lectured Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the importance of opposing “the politicization of religion and the religionization of politics,” while nevertheless remaining friends with the thin-skinned, hot-tempered, Rabin.

Hirsch was not naïve, and was no pushover. He saw how easy it is for fanatics of one side or the other to set up constant tensions between Reform Judaism and Zionism. He explained that Reform Judaism “was grounded in hope for Jews in a gentile world,” while Zionism “was mired in hopelessness for Jewish survival in the gentile world.”

In the Diaspora, he taught,

“Jewish life is voluntary. A person is free to decide on Jewish identity and the extent of participation in, and support of, the Jewish community. In Israel, Jewish identity is compulsory. By virtue of living in a Jewish state, the individual Jew is obligated to identify as a Jew, pay taxes to the Jewish state, and fight in the army to defend the Jewish state. … In Israel, the Jews are not afforded the luxury of selecting favorite issues and noble causes. All issues are Jewish and all are denominated as Jewish, both by those who live in the state and by those who live outside it. Both the private and the public sectors are Jewish. Indeed, everything is Jewish: from economy to culture, politics, the army, and the character of society. In the Diaspora, Jews tend to distinguish between universal and particular concerns. In Israel, every issue is both universal and particular. It is impossible to separate between humanness and Jewishness.”

Hirsch loved that balancing act, the synergies released, the tensions resolved—and persisting.

As a Religious Zionist attuned to the Jewish and Zionist imperative Na’aseh v’Nishma, “We will do and we will listen,” Hirsch said that in establishing the Reform seminary’s magnificent campus overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, the movement was marrying history. In 2000 he articulated Reform Jewry’s “Declaration of Interdependence”: “of people and faith, of Jewish tradition and contemporary needs, of the universal and the particular, of Israel and the Diaspora, of each Jew with all Jews.” In his classic statement that year, “Toward a Theology of Reform Zionism,” which I included in my anthology, “The Zionist Ideas, Hirsch hewed to the golden middle path, insisting, “The establishment, protection, and development of the State of Israel are integral premises of Progressive Jewish belief.”

Hirsch was enough of a liberal-nationalist to recognize the State of Israel as “a state like all other states.” But as a devout liberal Jew, he always recognized “the return to the Land of Israel and the restoration of the Jewish people’s sovereignty” as fulfilling “sanctified religious aspirations … rooted in the Jewish concept of the covenant between God and Israel.”

Seeing Israel as “the testing grounds for keeping the covenant between God and God’s people,” he knew the Jewish State would often be in an agitated state, “confronted by the tension between the holy and the secular, the potential and the actual, the vision and the reality.” For this reason, he refused to stop criticizing what was wrong to make things right, but also refused to stop celebrating what was right because it was wrong to abandon your own people, your own state, your own values and dreams.

The focal point that helped him juggle all these ideals was simple: we are all one family, he preached. We need one another, and we need to learn from each other: “American Jewish culture needs the stimulus that come from Israel, just as Israel needs the stimulus that comes from the diaspora.”

Hirsch’s Zionism began with his devotion to peoplehood, refusing to limit Judaism to a religion without appreciating its national aspect. What he dismissed as a sterile “religionized” American Judaism risked losing “its family feeling, its activist impulse, its historic soul, encouraging assimilation.” Hirsch was grateful that, for all the problems, “Israel has restored balance and perspective to Reform Judaism, necessitating the strengthening of our ties with the Jewish people. Israel has enriched the consciousness of Jewish peoplehood, and, in doing so, has revitalized Jewish history and culture.”

He added an important warning to those who some of us call today’s “un-Jews,” those who seek to undo this fundamental link between Judaism and Zionism: “If liberal Judaism can flourish only in a non-Jewish environment and not in a Jewish environment, then we will be like fish that can [only] live out of water.”

“If liberal Judaism can flourish only in a non-Jewish environment and not in a Jewish environment, then we will be like fish that can [only] live out of water.”

A decade ago, I wrote: “For appreciating Jewish peoplehood not just as a glue that binds us together but as an engine driving us to greater heights; for using the very best of liberalism to make the United States and Israel fulfill their loftiest ideals; for championing Zionism as a vehicle of Jewish idealism, not just a Jewish insurance policy against bigotry; for being the kind of rabbi who ministers to the masses and lives his ideals every day; and for urging us, welcoming us, teaching us to ‘let the debates continue,’ I designate Rabbi Richard Hirsch one of my favorite Zionists.”

On a personal note, for hosting me with many a cheese-toast in his office, regaling me with compelling tales from the past and equally inspiring thoughts for the future, and always having a kind word for me and my writings, I also salute Dick Hirsch as one of my favorite people.


Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.

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