“Zionism IS a Social Justice movement,” Rabbi Dick Hirsch would often say. And no one was more committed, and no one was more passionate about the confluence of Zionism, social justice, and Reform Judaism than Rabbi Richard G. Hirschז״ל.
The world lost a giant this Tuesday with the passing of Rabbi Hirsch, just one month shy of his 95th birthday. Spanning so many generations Dick, as he was universally known, was a visionary and a builder, an ideologue, and a pragmatist.
His Torah was the Torah of action, and his actions were always rooted in Torah. He was truly and directly inspired by our tradition’s teachings, by the Zionism and commandments to establish just societies found in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and so many more.
The Torah of Dick Hirsch was, at its foundation, about the balance between Universalism and Particularism, of being deeply rooted in Jewish Peoplehood and seeing the Jews as a nation, and our nationalism to be used as a vehicle or tool through which we reach the Universal. The most meaningful lesson that I learned from him came from last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim.
“When we marched in Washington D.C. with Dr. King we, as Jews, quoted the book of Deuteronomy with the famous line ‘צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף – Justice, Justice you shall pursue’ (Deut. 16:20),” he would reminisce fondly. “But!” he would often exclaim with fervor, “what about the second half of the verse! No one knows it or ever speaks about it. The whole verse says:
“:צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ”
“Justice, Justice you shall pursue so that you may live and inherit the Land that Adonai your God has given.”
He taught that our commitment to justice was directly ingrained in our connection to the Land of Israel. That we were meant both to inherit the Land that God has given us AND establish a just society there.
Dick was a Zionist in every fiber of his being. He loved the People, the culture, and, the State of Israel. He loved the Hebrew language and would devour the Hebrew Haaretz newspaper cover to cover every morning. He was an intellectual who was always reading (well into his 90s) and kept his finger squarely on the pulse of political and religious life.
He saw our Reform Zionism manifest through institutions, as he was instrumental in creating ARZA and ARZENU – putting our Movement at the table of Zionist politics- and growing the IMPJ and World Union to a place of influence.
Born and raised in the Reform Movement, he saw the Movement as his spiritual home, and worked his entire life to push the Movement to well, move! He often regaled me with stories of arguments he had with great leaders defending and advocating for Reform Judaism: with Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Chaim Herzog, and many more; as well as deep machlokot with Reform Movement leaders, such Leo Baeck, Nelson Glueck, Maurice Eisendrath, and Alexander Schindler on fundamental questions of Jewish life, Israel, Zionism, and World Jewry.
Rabbi Hirsch treasured relationships. Everywhere he went he made friends, developed leaders, and inspired people with his signature smile and warmth. He would deliver a fiery sermon full of vision, inspiration, and rebuke, and then remember everyone’s name whom he had met that evening, and then remember their names years later when they would visit Israel or when he would run into them at a convention.
Every time we spoke, he would take time to ask me about my kids and what they were like, and how they were growing up. We often discussed the personal, cultural, and religious challenges that we felt living now outside of Israel, and most importantly he always made time.
“Always take a stand,” he told me. “Be open to others’ opinions and views, but at the end of the day have something to say and stick to your beliefs and values, and never apologize for your convictions. Without that we have nothing,” he would preach/teach. It’s a lesson that will always stay with me.
Rabbi Dick Hirsch leaves a legacy like no other. He founded institutions, organizations, commissions, camps, kibbutzim, and congregations. He raised funds and built buildings and sat in positions of leadership around the Jewish and political world. He inspired thousands of students, activists, and Jewish professionals. He changed the face of American and Israeli society. But, when asked what he was most proud of, there is no question it was his family. His life partner Bellaז״ל to whom he was married for 65 years (and in my mind I still picture them sitting together on a park bench holding hands in their Jerusalem neighborhood Talbieh just enjoying each other’s company), his four children, eleven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Their achievements and accomplishments were the highest source of pride for him.
As we work now to make the memory of this great rabbi of our generation a blessing and his lasting legacy our mission, let us take upon ourselves the mission of building on his foundation and expanding Reform Judaism in Israel and around the World, and teaching the Zionism of Social Justice or ציונות צדק to the next generation.
Please watch this video of Rabbi Hirsch sharing his life story and beliefs:
זכר צדיק לברכה – May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg