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10 Sivan, 5782 - June 9, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Dr. Nosson Birnbaum: The First Prominent Modern Baal Teshuvah

By C. Eliav

Dr Birnbaum in his later years

This year marks the eighty-fifth yahrtzeit of Dr. Nosson Birnbaum. One of the secular founders of the Zionist movement, but later a lay leader of the early Agudas Yisroel, Dr. Birnbaum also was one of the first to return from secularism to religion. His story and his thought are of gripping interest and even importance to us today.

This is the first part of a series on Dr. Birnbaum, including his biography, a selection from his writing and the writing of others about him.

This series was first published in 1992, thirty years ago.

For Part 2 of this series click here.

I. Full Circle

He returned to chareidi Jewry from other, distant worlds of thought. The effects of his teshuva, which generated much excitement when it culminated towards the end of World War I, were far reaching. His announcement that he was returning to the ranks of Orthodox Jewry managed to halt the flow of Jewish youngsters who were deserting the batei medrash and flocking to the Zionist and Socialist movements.

Dr. Birnbaum was famous among the frum communities of Poland, Galicia and Lithuania and to a lesser extent, in Western Europe. He travelled widely and attracted large audiences wherever he went. His passionate, fiery addresses in defense of pure, untainted emunah and the denigration of kefirah, opened the eyes and hearts of his listeners. He demonstrated the shortcomings of the proposals made by the Zionist and Nationalist movements to solve the problems of Jewish life in the diaspora and declared that any "solution" which was not firmly rooted in Torah and mitzvos could never be more than a partial solution, and as such was therefore no solution at all but a dangerous breach.

The Zionist leaders were unable to come to terms with the defection of one of the originators of the Zionist ideal. They attacked him bitterly and invested massive efforts in a campaign to prove that he had gone out of his mind and should not be paid any attention. His speeches and writings however, all bore the clear imprint of absolute emes and his influence was consequently enhanced by these vicious charges rather than the reverse. The Zionists saw that the very existence of Nosson Birnbaum was a stumbling block to their attempts to win the Jewish masses over to their ideal of secular Zionism.

We present the following multi-part biographical account which shows the extent of Dr. Birnbaum's influence and fame as one of the leading Jewish secular thinkers of his time, and puts into perspective the tremendous impact of his chazara beteshuva. After his return, the message he sounded was not one of mere negativism directed at his secular ex-partners. Just as in the past he had espoused several different ideologies when they seemed to him to offer promise for the Jewish people, when he realized the role of klal Yisroel as the am Hashem, his powers of intellect and depth of thought led him to a vision of a nation whose ambitions were spiritual, and to a proposal of how to bring this vision about.

The "official" date of his chazara b'teshuva is around the beginning of the year 5671 (1910) in St. Petersburg. He later wrote, "Only in Russia, in St. Petersburg, after one of the lectures, did it become clear to me, all of a sudden, that I had to stand up and testify to the existence of the Creator. I arose and delivered an enthusiastic address, in which I expressed everything I had been thinking about, about which until then there had only been rumors circulating. Only then did I understand that a new task awaited me." (from A Survey Of My Life—People Of Hashem, Netzach Publishing, pg.19)

This is only a formal date though, the occasion that Nosson Birnbaum made a public declaration about his return to Hashem and His Torah. The process which led up to this moment (which was not yet accompanied by practical observance) started years before. It was a long and difficult journey, involving much suffering. Years after this episode took place, Birnbaum described a turning point in his spiritual development which happened while he was at sea.

"Even before I left for America, doubts arose inside me about the materialistic world outlook which I had believed in for so long. My first true religious feelings though, when I recognized my Creator for the first time, were awakened only when I was at sea. I didn't know myself, and afterwards it all seemed like a dream. The questions I had about materialistic ideology continued to gnaw away at me until eventually I triumphed. I began to understand the role of religion in the world."

That trip to America in 1907, when Hashem was revealed to him at sea, was made with the purpose of furthering an idea which attracted him at that time; the restoration of the Yiddish language to its central place in Jewish life and the strengthening of Jewish identity which would result. On this trip, Birnbaum proposed the calling of a world conference on Yiddish.

The conference actually took place in Czernovitz in 1908, with the participation of the leading Yiddish writers of the time. This conference, of which Birnbaum was President as well as one of the main speakers, attracted much attention and was attacked by the Zionists who preferred a revived Hebrew as the national language, rather than Yiddish, the so-called language of the diaspora. While Birnbaum gave no indication of what was taking place inside himself during this conference, and none of the participants could sense the stirring of emunah he was undergoing, he himself felt uneasy with the tone of the arguments, the radical proposals which were made and the general atmosphere. The beginnings of emunah were already influencing his outlook.

For Birnbaum, the implications of emunah were profound and broad. Years later, as an old man and a fully orthodox Jew, when he lived in Holland, Birnbaum once interrupted a young doctor who was holding forth with his outlook on global problems, with: "Herr Doktor, you do not believe in G-d properly. This is why you relate to the problems of the Jewish people with such superficiality and small-mindedness."

Dr Birnbaum in his earlier years

II. Vienna: "Israelites" Or Jews?

As a youth of eighteen, Birnbaum already differed from most of his young Jewish contemporaries in his rejection of assimilation. While he was a law student at Vienna University, he published his first pamphlet: "The Disease Of Assimilation: On The Subject Of The Would-be Germans, Slavs, Magyars etc. Of The Mosaic Religion, by A Student Who Is A Son Of The Jewish Nation."

The Vienna in which Birnbaum was born in 1864 was one of the typical centers of European culture, a quiet, tranquil city sunk deep in materialism and vice. There were very few Jews, but many "Israelites" i.e. Jews who were ashamed of their origins and wished to conceal them. Assimilation into the Austro-German society was close to complete.

Although Birnbaum could trace his Rabbinic ancestry back to the middle ages, he received little Jewish instruction in the home of his parents, who had come from Galicia. At school he became totally estranged from Judaism, and together with his friends was swept up in the excitement of the materialistic and atheistic ideas which were then so appealing and full of promise to modern European society.

He tended towards radical Socialism, then in vogue amongst the intelligentsia. His attitude to religion was understandably negative in the extreme. In spite of his intellectual gifts and his being one of the leaders of student circles in the city, he never felt comfortable in the atmosphere of assimilation which was at the core of the lives of his fellow "Israelites." With all his distance from Yiddishkeit, he felt himself a Jew.

The publication of his pamphlet was a daring step. To brand assimilation an illness among the assimilated Jews of Vienna took a lot of courage. In effect he had thrown a stone into the calm, untroubled waters of cultured Viennese Jewish society, by challenging the ideological foundations of his own social circles. Here, though, is the first time we find Birnbaum taking a strong — if unpopular — stand, and this is characteristic of his dealings with all the movements whose causes he took up throughout his life.

He maintained his position with firmness and ideological purity even — and especially — when it was not what people wanted to hear. He was unbending, uncompromising. When he arrived at a certain conclusion he did not hesitate to speak his mind in public. He was unconcerned by negative public opinion. The lifelong loneliness which was to be his reward for propounding unpalatable truths could not silence the voice of conviction and the fire of emes which burned away inside him.

When Birnbaum waved the banner of "Jewishness," it had an effect even in Vienna. Young students were influenced by his pamphlet, as well as by outside events and a strengthening of antisemitism in the University. Together they founded "Kadimah" in 1882, the first Jewish nationalist student's union in Western Europe. While this was not yet chazara b'teshuva, it pointed the way. Even at this stage, we can discern the pintele in his neshamah from which his full teshuva later blossomed.

Despite his conviction that Jews were fundamentally different from their neighbors, he rejected Torah and mitzvos. He embarked on a prolific literary career taking the pen name, "Mattisyohu Acheir" which expressed his identification with Elisha Ben Avuya. He was a gifted writer and expressed his many ideas in a clear and polished style.

In 1885 he began publishing the newspaper Selbstemanzipation, the title and policy of the paper coming from the pamphlet "Auto-emancipation" by Leo Pinsker. It was the first Jewish nationalist newspaper in German and the first of several journals he was to publish, doing much of the writing himself. Here the term "Zionism" appeared for the first time and many see in Birnbaum and his newspaper the origin of the Zionist ideal and program which called for the founding of an international Zionist movement which would undertake political objectives.

Birnbaum's writing made a big impact, and he was described as being, during the decade 1885-1895, "the most distinguished intellectual personality in Jewish national circles in Austria and Germany."

In His Own Words

Not All At Once

I did not manage to make my actions conform to my recognition of the truth [of Torah] all at once. Neither should I have expected otherwise. I had to overcome strong inner opposition and various outside hindrances as well. A man who, for dozens of years — since reaching intellectual maturity — admired and served the material ideal of "individualism," cannot shake off all the influences, tendencies and habits which are part of that outlook, and which stand in contradiction to Judaism's entire way of thought and its powerful ambitions, in the same way that one slips off a garment one put on a moment before.

Perhaps some remnant of those alien transgressions will stay forever in the soul's blood, the soul which spent so much time in a foreign environment, a remnant which, I am allowed to hope, HaKodosh Boruch Hu will forgive and cleanse, in His great kindness, and which Klal Yisroel with its great strength, will understand. (from "From Denial To Faith")

At Sea: Crucial Memories And Reflections

It was over thirteen years ago, on a winter's night, also at sea, en route from Europe to America. The passengers had retired to their berths long ago. I stood alone on deck, watching the sea and the churning waves. I looked up at the sky and saw it sown with tens of thousands of glimmering stars. I looked at the silvery moon and listened to the tumultuous noise of the water and the sightings of the boat. These sights and sounds awakened in my heart a yearning for something. I felt as though I lacked something. The wonderful sea air surrounded me, but my neshamah couldn't breathe. The moonlight shone on the water, but my neshamah could not see. My fur coat warmed my body, but my neshamah trembled with cold.

Then, out of my longing arose a fear. After all, my situation was no small matter. The boat was moving across the ocean, far away from any coast. Beneath it, the depths trembled. Above it, the heavens moved. A musical sound was audible. Not just the whistling of the winds, the crashing of the waves and the creaking of the boat, but real music, the silent melody of the very world itself. Oi ...and the world doesn't make its melody all by itself. Oi...Ribbono Shel Olom, and again: Ribono Shel Olom...

But what was the matter with the moon? Its face expressed both derision and anger, threatening me for some reason, looking at me with empty eyes, hungry eyes, it will get up and swallow me alive. I feel that my limbs are frozen. I am beginning to forget myself.

Again I don't remember how long this went on, but I do remember that when I woke up, the moon was looking on me benevolently, as though nothing had happened. I didn't look or listen any more, I didn't feel or think about anything, but went down to my berth exhausted to get some sleep. The next day I began to wonder at myself, and I shook my head as if to say, "the things that can happen to a person!" I didn't laugh to myself however.

Once again I stood alone on the deck. Again it was nighttime, but not winter. It was after Pesach and once more I was watching, listening and thinking. I thought about then and about today. Then, my yearning broke out from a frozen inner world, lifeless and empty. Today my neshamah thirstily imbibes G-d's air, is bathed in His radiance, and is suffused with His warmth. It craves His further closeness, to cleave more to Him, to rise to higher levels of knowledge of Him, and of correction.

Then, when I looked and listened from afar at the wonderful briah and I suddenly felt the existence of the Creator Himself, I was terrified. My neshamah was not used to the magnitude of His dimension. Today, I am no longer terrified of Him, after all He is a merciful Father. Today I approach Him in awe: "Father, with Your forgiveness."

From then until today, praises and thanks to You!! Blessed is He who changes the times!

Up to here we have quoted Birnbaum's own words. Rav Yosef Lev, who wrote memoirs of Birnbaum, describes Birnbaum's association with the sea. The blue of the sea reminded him of the blue of shomayim, which in turn reminded him of the kisei hakovod: "I remember that when we were in New York, we accompanied one of the delegation's members, Rav Meir Hildesheimer (who was returning prematurely to Europe) to his boat.

As we waited on the shore, I noticed the tears streaming from Dr. Birnbaum's eyes. When I asked him "Herr Doktor, what happened?"

He answered, "When I see the sea, I can't suppress my tears. At sea one sees HaKodosh Boruch Hu...and it was while I was at sea that I received my first motivation to be chozer beteshuva".

End of Part 1


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