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NEWS
Dr. Nosson Birnbaum: The First Prominent Modern Baal Teshuvah

By C. Eliav


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This year marks the eighty-fifth yahrtzeit of Dr. Nosson Birnbaum. One of the secular founders of the Zionist movement, and 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.

For Part 4 of this series click here.

Part III

We have learned of Nathan Birnbaum, a leading secular Jewish intellectual in Europe of the late nineteenth century, and one of the popularizers of the secular Zionist ideal. He was one of the original founders of the modern Zionist movement, but then became a complete and sincere baal teshuvah.

VI. With Greater Genius, With Greater Enthusiasm

We cannot deal at length with how chareidi Jewry itself received Nosson Birnbaum's teshuva. The fact that the "Acher" of yesterday was now a sincere and fervent ma'amin, doing mitzvos, and even developing shits of his own (for example, his ideas about "da'as, rachamim vetiferes, for hiskadshus in avodas Hashem and for elevation in yiras shomayim), was hard to accept and there were many who did not believe him.

This hurt Birnbaum terribly. When a certain great Rav in the course of a speech expressed his hope that Birnbaum would remain in the chareidi camp permanently, Birnbaum became excited and called out, "When one leaves avoda zara and arrives at the truth, there is no way back!"

HaRav Meir Dan Plotsky, author of the Kli Chemdah, was once asked how it could be possible that Birnbaum had done teshuva when Chazal say that a chotei umachtie, one who sins and also leads others to sin, is prevented from doing teshuva. HaRav Meir Dan answered that this only referred to teshuva miyirah, but Birnbaum's was a case of teshuva mei'ahava. He added that even though Birnbaum was not a talmid chochom, he was given the inspiration that all his ideas were in conformity with da'as Chazal.

HaRav Tuvia Horowitz tried to delve deeper, in search of the true roots of the teshuva of the one-time "Mattisyohu Acher."

"After our first talk, we became very friendly. Once I returned home though, as a faithful Jew I was disturbed by doubts as to whether "Mattisyohu Acher" had indeed become a true ma'amin. In chodesh Adar therefore, I wrote him a letter containing ten questions which more or less covered the Rambam's thirteen principles. I would then see whether his reply was that of a believing Jew.

"Birnbaum answered each of the ten questions like a true ma'amin, but with greater genius and greater enthusiasm than one ordinarily finds. In his first reply to me it was clear that he felt that through me, he would be able to come close to authentic Jewry: `Perhaps Hashem has brought you to me so that with your help, I will fulfill my plan of drawing near to those groups I have to enter, and of going on the way I feel I need to go..' " (from On The Border Between Two Worlds— The Memoirs Of Rav T.Horowitz)

The Hinge On Which History Turns

by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum

I stood excited and amazed — almost breathless — before the greatness and uniqueness of Yahadus. I was pulled towards it with great power. I came to feel that hope for the whole world lay within my own people, who sowed seeds for the future across the earth. I felt that the value and the importance of the Jewish people's religious approach to life, was way beyond any historical assessment. Before my own eyes was revealed the pivot around which world events have been revolving for thousands of years. ("From Denial To Faith")

Strong And Happy

by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum

I think I can find no better way to end my essay than by informing my friends and my opponents that I have never felt stronger or happier than I do at present. Since I have rejoined the great Congregation of Yahadus, spanning past, present and future, with its faithful heritage and Jewish way of life, and since I am again active in its ranks, as a family member, I am well aware of the greatness and the joy of Jewish life. Precisely because I spent so long eating the bread of exile, I am gathering new strength now that I have returned to my own home.

Golus Hashechinah In Eretz Yisroel

by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum

To whatever extent the hopes which the Jewish people have for the future of Eretz Yisroel will be realized, there is one big question that is troubling me, and to my mind it is the most burning of all the questions about Eretz Yisroel. It is: Can we have any certainty whatsoever that those who go up to the land of our fathers will take the kedusha of the land into themselves, or maybe there is a danger of the opposite, they will profane the land's kedusha?

I am a believer in the land. By this I mean that it is easier for a man who has a connection with the land through farming, to shield his neshamah from worldly troubles. Even in the turbulence of economic and technical changes, the land continues to direct its gaze heavenward, in silent communion with Hashem yisborach. I have come to realize however that this effect cannot be relied on. European culture has long since ceased taking any inspiration from the "land." The influence of the land on man is decreasing and that of business, profits, cheap ideas and pleasures is daily on the increase. I can also see that European civilization is preparing to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel together with the Jews.

I believe in "Jewish land." This is the land next to whose borders Moshe Rabbenu stood and gazed just before his death. It is the land about which the nevi'im expressed their burning, eternal desire for the days of moshiach, and from which the best of our nation departed with a deep conviction that we were one day to return, as a holy nation, a purified people. I believe that we have the full right to call this land, "the land of Israel" but I also know that twice in the past we behaved incorrectly there, and I see that we are quite prepared to behave improperly there a third time. When we go there, we are in danger of flooding the land with the spirit of secular Europe, which is the most dangerous, most cruel enemy of authentic Judaism.

Yes, I believe in "land" and also in "Jewish land," and precisely for this reason I tremble whenever I think of Eretz Yisroel under a deluge of the fire and brimstone of the European-American world: then the same empty desolation will be there as well, and Jews will be proud of it. I shudder to think that there too, the race for financial gain, the swindling of the poor and the workers, the unchecked assimilation, business in the disguise of lewdness and lewdness in the guise of freedom, beauty and art, the shameful lawlessness which appears as glory, the alphabets which appear as world outlooks, the tyrannical rule of empty, corrupt, cruel, hypocritical flatterers will take hold. I tremble to think of Yerushalayim ir hakodesh replanned as a suburb of New York, London or Berlin — to the point that the Shechina will be in exile there too, for the Yerushalayim they plan for the future stands to be even more corrupt than the one which the nevi'im saw, and today there is no novi.

I see only one way out: in one corner of the Jewish world, a great feeling of shame should awaken, shame over the excessive tumah which they have imbibed. They will be ashamed before Hashem yisborach, ashamed before themselves, before the diaspora, and before Eretz Yisroel. This feeling of shame will spread to all its surroundings, and will take control of the people. Not just ideas and words but a program for improvement: the ways of the community are the ways of life. The Jewish soul will be built up and purified in these ways, in faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah. It will build its home through active faith and creative ardor, in the way of Yisroel and according to the wish of the Creator, wherever Jews are to be found, and particularly in Eretz Yisroel.

Hashem though, will help us. The G-d who has chosen us from all other nations and has given us His Torah, sanctified us with His mitzvos and promised us the redemption in the end of days — will help us and we will not be forced to start the work of resettling the land with chilul ho'oretz and chilul Hashem.

HaRav Meir Dan Plotzky ztl is the middle. To his right are HaRav Asher Spitzer and Rabbi Dr. Meir Hildesheimer (standing). To the left are HaRav Yoseph Lev (standing) and Dr. Nathan Birnbaum.
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Dr. N. Birnbaum

By Rav Yosef Lev

(Rav Yosef Lev was a member of a rabbinical delegation which visited America in 1921 to try to organize a branch of Agudas Yisroel in America. Years later, when Dr. Birnbaum reached the age of sixty, a jubilee volume was issued in his honor by several chareidi writers from Warsaw. Rav Lev reached into his memory for an outline of Birnbaum's character and some episodes which took place during this famous trip.)

My trip to England and the United States on behalf of Agudas Yisroel in 1921 was a thrilling one and was rich in experiences. The most interesting experience though, one which is indelibly etched in my memory, never to be forgotten, is that I merited working alongside and getting to know the famous (but not understood by most people) Dr. Nosson Birnbaum. In these lines I would like to portray him primarily not as the deep thinker and talented writer which he undoubtedly was, but as a man and a Jew.

When I first heard about Birnbaum's return to Yahadus, I had an idea that it was inspired by a "mystical feeling" of the kind experienced by many serious writers after they have become disappointed and lost their faith in the various heretical ideologies. When I later read his more recent articles, I recognized a sharp difference between him and the others who had found their way back to emunah. His clear, incisive style, with which he gave expression to the accusations he hurled at the world of falsehood, or the powerful demands he made on Am Yisroel in calling them to be chozer biteshuva, gave me the impression that we were facing something out of the ordinary. We were standing before a man whose heart was filled with Hashem's presence, not some other kind of fabrication which he had to supply to his wretched, starved neshamah.

These then, were my second impressions of Birnbaum's personality, and yet when I got to know him personally, what I found exceeded all my expectations. Our first meeting took place in London, where he had come for a mass meeting organized by the leaders of the London Agudah. The hall was jam packed; there were at least ten thousand people there and the gathering was graced with the presence of London's Rabbonim and lay leaders. Everybody waited tensely to hear Dr. Nosson Birnbaum's "new tidings." The chairman's bell rang, and the hall fell silent. The chairman, Stewart Samuel (brother of the British High Commissioner to Palestine), President of the Board Of Deputies, asked Dr. Birnbaum to deliver his address.

The atmosphere was tense. All eyes were on the dais as Dr. Birnbaum rose. He was thin and tall with a high forehead creased with furrows of deep thought and a large yarmulke on his head. He had deep, piercing eyes, a little like those of an eagle, and a patriarchal grey beard. When he opened his mouth, it was not to lecture as we had expected, but with a roar, as if coming from the heart of a wounded lion.

"Yidden! Do you know who you are, and who you are expected to be?!...Are you aware of the danger which threatens our existence as a people? I, who have come from the camp of the chot'im, know very well what the danger is, and I take the courage to ask you: why have you allowed the reins of leadership to be taken out of your hands, and given over to a lawless crowd?!"

Amazement, even confusion spread across the assemblage. The audience did not know how to react to his shouting. There was silence. Birnbaum was becoming more and more enthusiastic: flashes of anger, a flood of sarcastic criticism poured on the heads of the secular leaders who were leading the Jewish people astray...then suddenly...

A storm broke out in the audience, like a volcano erupting. Voices raged, like waves on the sea. The crowds patience had run out. People felt hurt by Birnbaum's words and were reacting with a growing storm of protest. None of the community leaders, who had called the meeting, were able to calm down the furious gathering...

All this time, Birnbaum stood on the dais, watching the raging audience with a look of silent pain in his eyes. He wanted to continue speaking, he still had more to say...

Birnbaum appeared on that occasion, in his full greatness, and his audience, in their smallmindedness; they didn't have the patience to listen to a word of truth! Strength and pride were visible on his face and I thought to myself, "Are there many more men like that in our generation, who are so unafraid of the truth?" I envied him.

The next day, when they raised the matter with Birnbaum, and pointed out that the angry reaction he had drawn could do damage to Agudas Yisroel, his reply was, "If you don't hide the truth, you will be victorious."

Several days later, I met him again at a dinner given in honor of the Agudas Yisroel delegation. Once again he spoke: "I am without hope as to our future as a people, and to the future of Yahadus. There is one, and only one path open to us, to ask Hashem: "vetaher libeinu le'ovdecha be'emes—and purify our hearts to serve You in truth."

 

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