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8 Tammuz, 5782 - July 7, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Dr. Nosson Birnbaum: The Man Who Stemmed The Tide

By C. Eliav

Dr. Birnbaum with his son and grandson

Part V

The final installment in the biographical material about Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, seminal figure in turn-of-the-century Jewish life. We have learned of Dr. Birnbaum's selfless dedication to his people, and his eventual recognition of the truth of Torah. Our story picks up here after Dr. Birnbaum's return to Torah ideals and full shemiras mitzvos.

For Part 4 of this series click here.

IX. Final Years

In 1933, when Hitler came to power, Birnbaum left Berlin (where he had spent most of the time since 1911) and settled in Scheveningen, Holland. There he continued to cultivate his movement of "Olim" while also writing and publishing a new journal. His wife, who had faithfully accompanied him all through what had been a complicated and difficult life from a material point of view, passed away in 1935. He left instructions that any future reprint of his work be dedicated to her.

His health now began to fail but he carried on his work almost until his last day. It is impossible to detect that the work he produced at this time was written by an old, sick man. After a protracted and difficult final illness, he was niftar on leil shemini shel Pesach 5697 (1937).

The entire Jewish world mourned his petiroh, religious and secular alike. Despite his political solitude and his distance from all the Jewish movements that been founded over the years on the basis of his ideas, all felt that they owed him their respects, at least after his death.

One of the secular Jewish newspapers wrote: "It is no exaggeration to say that at present, there is not a single religious stream, political shade, party or group of Jews who have not been decisively influenced by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum. There is almost no group that he didn't belong to, always at its head and always looking far ahead into the future."

The chareidi press in Lithuania, Poland and elsewhere was deeply grieved on receiving the news of his petiroh. Hundreds of articles were written in his memory. The Beis Yaakov journal of Lodz, in Poland, brought out a moving special issue, with contributions from the country's leading chareidi writers. They mourned the loss of a great man who had smashed all the idols of modernity and found his way back to faith.

Dr. Birnbaum in 1921 with the delegation to America for Agudah

X. In Retrospect

Birnbaum was a solitary figure during his life and also in death. Perhaps it is not hard to see why. His deep desire to find a solution to the problems which klal Yisroel faces in the modern world eventually led him to recognition of the Ribono Shel Olom and thus, to the single, inescapable conclusion that our mission is a spiritual one. His one-time secularist colleagues would not and could not appreciate this, or him.

On the other hand, he felt that organized Orthodoxy was also not going about the realization of this mission in the best way. He claimed that in the political arena, the Aguda merely adopted tactics similar to those of the Zionists and assumed an essentially defensive stance. Thus, he said, they had themselves largely to blame for the Zionist takeover.

He felt that the Aguda's true work lay in taking active steps to prepare the nation for its role as the am Hashem. While he was honored by the frum world, his admonitions do not seem to have been heeded and neither perhaps is it difficult to see why. He did not come out of the beis hamedrash; of course, he could not have. Only with the unique combination of his background, and a neshamah literally overflowing with emunah, was it possible for him to see things the way he did.

Today, in retrospect, we have a much clearer picture of Dr. Birnbaum and his upward climb, his "Aufsteig." Neither financial hardship, persecution or failures diverted him from his path; a path which many saw as tortuous, but can now be recognized as a long, straight, uninterrupted aliya.

Perhaps too, we are in a better position to take his message to heart. Its urgency is, if anything, even greater.

Just before he died, he requested, "Use my death to spread the idea of teshuva in the world." Indeed, though he himself has been largely forgotten, eighty-five years after his petiroh, a vibrant teshuva movement is an integral part of klal Yisroel. This movement, albeit unknowingly, is his spiritual heir for he was the first to make his way back, thus preparing the ground for what awaits us in the future. As such, he fully deserves to be considered the father of the modern teshuva movement.


(Note: Throughout this article, Dr. Birnbaum's first name has generally been given as "Nosson." In the interests of accuracy, it should be pointed out that his Jewish name was "Nochum" while he also had a "gentile" name: "Nathan." In Birnbaum's own words: "They [his parents] called me by two names: one Jewish and one German. The Jewish name — Nochum, after my father's father; the German name — Nathan (apparently after Lessing's `Nathan the wise'). Since the German name was also a Jewish name (Nathan-Nosson), I adopted it in literary work." (from "A Survey Of My Life — by the author", Am Hashem, Netzach Publishing)

Hebrew references to Dr. Birnbaum obviously spell his name as "Nosson," thus further blurring the distinction between "Nathan" and "Nosson.")


In The Jewish Exile

By Dr. Nosson Birnbaum

(This article, which was originally published in 1919 under the title In Gulya Bai Yiddin, brought about a revolution in the thinking of an entire generation and has lost none of its relevance during the intervening years. A previous translation of it was published in the Sefer HaYovel commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Agudas Yisroel in 5702. We are grateful to the Orthodox Jewish Archives of Agudas Yisroel of America for bringing that earlier translation to our attention.)

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The beginnings of this exile can be traced to the day it entered certain Jewish minds that a pristine light was shining outside while our own camp was filled with thick darkness. It was therefore, according to them, imperative to bring some of that light in to dispel our darkness. On that very day, our exile among our Jewish brethren began.

To begin with, their (the light bearers) attitude to us (the unworldly) was one of pity. After some time though, their pity turned into anger and fury: Is it be possible? Here they were, trying to turn us into "decent human beings," to make us doctors, experts of the theater and the movies, the cafes and the drinking houses — and we had the audacity to oppose them!

What can we do though? We must oppose them. Our hearts oppose them, and our ancient religion which does not believe in a happiness which is achieved by making changes and innovations. Even the nations disdain these men of "light" and their obscure, shadowy "illuminations."

These arguments cannot persuade our purveyors of "light" however; they of course, are "enlightened Jews". They sit calmly, and great clouds of pride puff from the pipes they smoke. They have unraveled all the worlds mysteries, they have found answers to all the questions. And we? Who are we? Downtrodden paupers who stand empty-handed next to some throne of glory. They have reached the realization that one has to "march with the times," even to run with them and sin with them. And we? We are backward. We swallow up all of mankind's progress over the generations and assimilate it into our framework of Hashem's commandments. Every day for us is the same as the previous one, and time is no more than a servant of the eternal will of the Creator. They are progressive. They are quite sure that with just one more efficient machine, yet another new pleasure or pastime, more ideologies, ideas and theories — and the world will be saved. We though, who are we? Good for nothings, queer creatures who dedicate ourselves to the strangest problems, such as, how can we progress in Hashem's service?

Do we deserve all the wonderful favors they have bestowed upon us? Not only have they brought us "light" but they have enriched us with other gifts and novelties. First, fairness and justice. Chaos reigns in the world, a new order is needed. So, let all the barriers between man and his fellow, between rich and poor, be torn down. Yours is mine and, it seems, mine is yours.

Were it not for them, apparently, we wouldn't know what justice was. As if the Torah didn't instruct us "Love your friend as yourself," as if there were no commandments between man and his fellow. Apparently, there hadn't been any prophets who rebuked and reproved over matters of injustice and dishonesty, and demanded justice and fairness. As if it hasn't been the aspiration of the nation of Israel, yearning from its earliest days for a renewal of an improved mankind, with elevated feelings and pure actions. Apparently, the Jewish faith that at the end of days moshiach ben Dovid will come, and redeem not only the Jewish nation but all other peoples too, and give a new heart to mankind, does not exist.

II. What Separates Us

What then? If we yearn for the same ideals, where do we differ? They strive for their ideals in some vague, nebulous future, while now they practice the opposite of what they claim to want. We live up to our ideals in the present, whatever the situation. Not only do they omit to check the credentials of their partners in renewing the world, but they don't engage in any introspection at all. They don't see how far they have sunk. For them, in order to wage war on murder, even murder itself is justifiable. They wish to establish their new world on a foundation of lawlessness and wildness, on a childish delusion of the power of mortal man. Instead of helping others out of the mire, they themselves are sinking into it further and further.

We however, do not fool ourselves. We don't forget that we don't enter into partnerships with unworthy governments or individuals in order to carry through some shady deal. We know that violence can't be fought with violence, that the world cannot be improved through abandon, foolishness and delusions of grandeur. Emunah in Hashem yisborach, humility and kedusha are all preconditions for achieving holiness, and there must also be deep aspiration and careful planning in order to reach the goal.

We will continue on our path, keeping faith with our Torah, which has uprooted the murderous instinct from our hearts, and has implanted in us a love of peace and knowledge of G-d. We will remain loyal to the Torah and follow its laws, ascending step by step, until, when Hashem wills it, the world will be filled with knowledge of Him, and justice and fairness will dwell in it.

None of this is acceptable to them. They are annoyed with us, and their annoyance is ever-increasing. The more it grows, the deeper our exile among them becomes.

III. Yisroel Is One Nation

They have given us a third present, a piece of "news": we are a people! Apparently we wouldn't know this if not for them. As if we don't find the terms, "am," "goy," and "le'um" in the Torah. As if we thought of ourselves until today as Tartars, Turks, Germans or Cossacks. What then is the difference here between us and them?

In their view, a nation is defined as a group of individuals, separated from other groups by their own distinctive physical ways and with their own particular history. There is no real difference between one nation and another except in name. For them, "beis Yisroel is like all the nations" and so, like the nations, must act foolishly, must learn from their ways, become accustomed to their brazenness and assimilate their lust for this world.

We know that the concept of "am", nation, has a higher meaning. Each am has its own special neshamah, and a distinctive nature to its "nationality." The Jewish nation was chosen because of what it was, and because of the difference between its neshamah and those of the nations. We do not forget that we are praised as being "merciful, bashful, and doing kindness," and that we have to live up to this description. We are proud of our realization that this world is just a passageway to the world to come, and that we have merited being the people of the world to come.

They define nationhood in terms of language. For them, anyone who speaks Hebrew or Yiddish is a Jew, just as they consider someone who speaks Turkish, a Turk. We value Hebrew as a holy language, and view it with admiration and great love.

Loshon hakodesh is the language in which Hashem's word is written, the language in which the nevi'im prophesied and reproved. It is eternal, like the nation of Yisroel. It will never die out and will outlive all other languages, even those which Jews made for themselves to use in their lands of exile. We therefore want this language to retain its holiness and not become defiled.

We love and treasure Yiddish. It is the language of our fathers and mothers, which the Jews of Eastern Europe have been speaking for hundreds of years. It has absorbed some of the warmth of their neshamos and their authentic Yiddishkeit. We love both languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. We have a special love for each of them. While above all we are commanded "and you shall love Hashem your G-d", we also say "and You have raised us over all languages." Hashem has set us above all problems of language.

They see Eretz Yisroel simply as a place of refuge. After their none-too-innocent efforts at exterminating what is dearest to Yahadus elsewhere, they run away to Eretz Yisroel. For them it is another new country, which they declared one fine day as their "birthplace." They want to take possession of the land within its borders and enjoy their abundance of "light." Theaters flooded with "light," brightly-lit dance halls and quarrels between brothers which end in fratricide. All of it without a grain of Yiddishkeit, without any awareness of Hashem and without His Torah.

We don't see Eretz Yisroel as just another country, as somewhere to remember when there is nowhere else to run to. We have never forgotten it, have never stopped loving it and longing for it. We look forward to fulfilling the mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisroel with all our strength and dedication, in complete purity and with the aim of sanctifying the land, not defiling it. They don't understand this. They are angry with us, and the greater their anger grows, the worse our golus with them becomes.

IV. Evidence Of Golus

You may wonder whether this can really be called golus. Is there a better term though, to describe the situation we are in as regards our brethren who are estranged from Torah and mitzvos?

When they want to, they draw near to us, full of smooth talk and blatant lies. With their yetzer hora working at full strength, they try to improve us, in European fashion, and to remodel our image so as to have us be "civilized" people. They search for ways to reach the hearts of our children, to stop them from following us and to remove them from our bounds, from our Torah, and our Yahadus, over to their "Torahs" and their licentious world. Can any harsher or more dangerous golus than this be imagined?

Sometimes they resolve to grant their favors to other nations, to bestow on them some of the "new spirit" and the latest ideas for society, which change every day. From time to time they organize or participate in rebellions and revolutions. We pay the price, when our blood is spilled like water and we, the bulk of Am Yisroel's faithful are swindled, downtrodden and destroyed. What name should we give all this, if not golus?

On other occasions, they decide, or rather feel, that they should do us some kindness. They surround us on all sides, flooding us with their favors and we are unable to raise a hand or open our mouths. If there is anything to be said, they say it. If funds are needed, they are the ones with the money. If something has to be organized, they are in charge. They are the guardians, the benefactors, the philanthropists while we are the beneficiaries, the good-for-nothings. Is there a shadow of doubt that this is hard, bitter golus? If they seek positions of honor, we have to supply them. They represent us before the nations, and force their government on us. Our rabbonim, talmidei chachamim, and Yidden are trapped in their nets, and become their property. Our shuls, batei-medrash, batei-chaim and mekomos hakedoshim, all become their charges. They are the masters and we, the enslaved. We put all the glory of our Yiddishkeit into enhancing their honor. Doesn't all this mean that we are in exile at their hands?

It would seem that we are more prepared to face up to the problems of our golus amongst the nations, than we are to face the up to our golus amongst our estranged brothers. When the nations of the world oppress us, or plot against what we hold dear and holy, and interfere in our affairs, we protest and look for ways to obtain relief, while to the nations we are as insignificant as a grain of dust next to a mountain. When though, our errant brothers, who are fewer in number than us, denigrate us; when they not only interfere but place us under their sole authority; when they not only plot against what we hold precious but talk about completely destroying it, choliloh; then we are silent, not even trying to defend ourselves.

V. But It Is We Who Are Guilty

Why has the situation come to this? If they wish to glory in our shame, why don't we prevent them? If they want us to benefit from their kindness, why don't we simply say, "We want neither your honey nor your sting?" If they want to deal with politics and economics, why do we agree that they speak in our name as well? And most important, if they dare try and ensnare our youth, why don't we just drive them out once and for all?

Would you like to know why? Listen to the groan which escapes us when we contemplate these questions. That groan expresses our helplessness, our hopelessness, our coming to terms with how things are. As if it is a Heavenly decree that cannot be changed. As if fine Jews are unable to organize their own affairs by themselves.

Listen to the sigh and you will know everything. We have forgotten the promise, "and I will bless you in all that you do." We have forgotten that we have to act, out of faith and trust — not just sit and wait to be saved from their control. We have sunk into a kind of religious egocentricity where each one of us is worried only for his own portion in olom haboh. We are abandoning Knesses Yisroel. The Torah hakedoshah is in the hands of sinners. If you try to locate the source of the disintegration of Yiddishkeit in our times, you will be forced to conclude that we have no alternative but to refrain from our religious self-centeredness. We must become men of action.

VI. Our Duty: Agudas Yisroel

Success will not come easily. Egocentricity has ceased being a problem of individuals alone. It now encompasses whole communities. Our public activities are of no lesser importance than those of our kehilla. It would never occur to us that, for all its supreme importance, each kehilla is nonetheless only one of the many bricks which together form the edifice of Knesses Yisroel.

How laughable for everyone to take care of his own brick and to ignore the whole building. How foolish not to be concerned that a wind may come and scatter all the bricks. It never occurs to us, but it is precisely what we have to be careful of. We have to keep watch over Klal Yisroel, over the fate of diaspora Jewry. We have to end the present situation of isolation of G-d fearing Jews in different countries. We have to form a united front of all yirei shomayim to protect our most valuable treasure: Yiddishkeit. We will only be able to stand up to our wayward brothers if we ourselves have a solid, faithful partnership.

But we must be careful; our obligations are manifold. Our ruchniyus must remain as it has always been in spite of our wider duties. Our vigilance against the yetzer hora must not be lowered by an iota. Our battle and ultimate victory over it must be unchanged. The quiet modesty and the kedusha of the beis haknesses and the beis hamedrash are far dearer to us than the emptiness and chaos of party politics. We must continue to strive for perfection and excellence of character.

If however, those who remind us of this duty are themselves people who are sunk to the forty-ninth level of political life, and are as far from tznius and kedusha as East is from West, we will have to redouble our guard lest the nothingness of politics engulf our own men. If not, the spiritual churban, which is already so devastating, will threaten to push kedusha aside altogether, and eradicate it.

What will be if we will not be able to find men acceptable to our gedolim? Let us pray that even while we are involved in politics, the Klal Yisroel on whose behalf we work will protect us from any moral backsliding. All we need is unity amongst yirei-Hashem. Then, even without the strategies and tactics of politics, we will reach our goal, and materialize our aspirations.

The worldwide organization of yirei Hashem is not a dream. It already exists and its name is well known. It is none other than Agudas Yisroel.

Delegates to the First World Zionist Congress in Basle. Dr Birnbaum must be here since he was one of the organizers in those days.


We present here two of Dr. Birnbaum's original essays which deal with major aspects of his outlook on the religious scene of his time. "In The Jewish Exile," with its expose of the ridiculous claims of secular Jews to be the true voice of Judaism, speaks for itself. Its diagnosis of the secular-religious relationship as one of golus has its origins in the Zohar and sadly, its message is still just as applicable today.

The second, "Concerning The Olim," is a concise presentation of Birnbaum's ideas for the spiritual regeneration of the nation as a whole. A look at some of his other writings on this subject reveal more of what he did and did not intend this program to be.

Birnbaum was spurring the chareidim on to assume some direct responsibility for the ruchniyus of the masses of klal Yisroel and to take active steps to influence the deteriorating situation. He harbored no illusions about a mass transformation to become outstanding ethical personalities nor did he intend the olim to be models of perfection. What he did want was for there to be a society of individuals, the olim, who raised aloft the banner of mussar, high ethical standards. Each oleh was to live an elevated life of kedusha.

This "army" would go out among Klal Yisroel, and act to raise the general levels of kedusha in the areas of bein odom lamokom, bein odom lechavero and — just as important a job for the olim — bring cleanliness and orderliness to Klal Yisroel's external environment (these three terms roughly corresponding to what Birnbaum referred to as da'as, rachamim vetiferes).

He also advocated a shift away from the urbanized life of the big cities, with all the attendant dangers to ruchniyus and observance which such a life then entailed and to which so many Jews were attracted at that time. If large numbers of Jews lived on the land, close to Hashem and to nature, he thought it would facilitate the changes which had to be made in order to halt the dreadful downhill slide which was in progress.

The olim, then, should not be seen as Birnbaum's personal definition of Torah Judaism. It was no more than a practical program for action to put klal Yisroel on the path to becoming the goi kodosh they were meant to be.


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