Dei'ah Vedibur - Information &

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Sivan, 5782 - June 16, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










Produced and housed by











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, 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 1 of this series click here.

For Part 3 of this series click here.

Part II

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.

III. "I Dedicate Myself To My People"

His long involvement in communal affairs, together with his deep desire to benefit his people, led him to leave his work as a lawyer and devote himself to other spheres of activity. From the day he took this step until his death, he knew only poverty and want.

On visiting him in Vienna, one of the Zionist leaders asked him where the office of his influential newspaper was located. Birnbaum opened a drawer in the table and said, "Here."

After taking in the impoverished appearance of Birnbaum's home, his visitor asked why he left his solid career in law, which would have provided for him comfortably. The reply to this question was, "I leave the career, the money and the honor for others. I have decided to dedicate myself totally to my people."

It is no wonder that one who loved klal Yisroel to such a degree, would eventually find his way to E-lokai Yisroel and His Torah.

In the meantime, as we have noted, Birnbaum's nationalism had nothing to do with Torah and mitzvos, to which he was seemingly actively opposed. His consistency is once again apparent in the following anecdote related by the Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin.

"I first met him [Birnbaum] in 1889 when I happened to be passing through Vienna and spent a day there. At that time the one and only person for a Zionist to turn to in Vienna was Dr. Nathan Birnbaum. He was the only one who kept up contact with our committee in Odessa. He gathered together a number of youngsters and ran communal activities. This group was the nucleus from which Viennese Zionism developed. Birnbaum was a true, enthusiastic Zionist while at the same time, a Social Democrat of the Austrian school. He demonstated the depth of his Socialist beliefs in the middle of that day of our first meeting.

"When lunchtime arrived, I told him I was hungry and that I would be grateful to him if he would show me where there was a kosher restaurant, since I was particular to observe kashrus. Birnbaum acceeded to my rquest and we went out together. When we reached one of the alleys of the "Second Quarter," he stopped in the middle of the pavement and said, `Over here, just opposite, is a kosher restaurant.'

"`Fine,' I replied `let's go inside.'

"`No,' Birnbaum said to me. `I can take you there but I can't go inside.'

"`What's the matter? Why ever not?'

"`For ideological reasons. As a matter of principle I do not step over the threshold of a kosher restaurant.' "

This then, was Nosson Birnbaum as a young man: a Zionist leader whose star was rising, a man who commanded the attention of the Jewish intelligentsia of Austria, Germany and Galicia and whose influence was growing, and who saw in traditional Judaism only a stumbling block which he opposed for ideological reasons.

Dr Birnbaum in his earlier years

IV. Between Herzl And Birnbaum

Birnbaum called for all the various forces in the Zionist camp to form a single political group. With the arrival on the scene of Theodore Herzl, this hope became a reality. Herzl gave the whole idea a push forward and convened the First Zionist Congress, held in Basle in 1897. For Birnbaum, the Congress represented the fulfillment of a dream.

Herzl saw to it however, that Birnbaum would not enjoy the fruits of his success. Despite the fact that Birnbaum delivered one of the most outstanding and the deepest addresses, Herzl was at work behind the scenes to neutralize any influence Birnbaum would have in the fledgling movement. One of his tactics was to appoint Birnbaum Chief Secretary of the central Zionist office, a post that, practically speaking, had no authority or powers.

Put simply, there was no room for two leaders. It was the charismatic Herzl, whose approach was lighter and whose personal appearance and public relations were spellbinding, who gained the upper hand over the originator of the idea of a Jewish State: the profound thinker, onerous in appearance and totally dedicated to his people. The major difference perhaps was that Birnbaum's words were always perfectly consistent with his convictions — he was not built to be a rank-and-file politician, let alone the leader of a political movement.

Birnbaum never spoke of his relations with Herzl, despite the fact that he had much against the man. More than once he realized that Herzl was using ideas he had taken from him but passing them off as his own. In his old age (after he had become religious), Birnbaum commented that the Chofetz Chaim had taken away any pleasure he would have had in revealing the truth about his one-time friends, the founders of the Zionist Movement, for the Chofetz Chaim had forbidden loshon hara.

The site of the first Zionist Congress in Basle

Indeed, after Birnbaum's departure when he became religious, the Zionists deliberately played down his image, and his role in the movement's founding. Dr. Ezriel Carlebach wrote: "Solitude was a shadow which dogged him all his life and because of this legends grew up about him in all quarters, even in official Zionist history. They said (or rather wrote) about him for example, that he was Herzl's student, "one of his first disciples," they wrote.

There is no truth in this. Birnbaum was in fact Herzl's mentor. He formulated the platform of practical Zionism and published the first Zionist journal, a full ten years before Herzl even became a Zionist.

"Again, they said that, to begin with, his Zionism was all illusion and dreams, disorganized and lacking political bite. This too is untrue. It was Birnbaum who laid the foundations which made possible the later erection of the whole Zionist edifice! He was the first to form a connection between the Chovevei Tzion in Eastern Europe and the Central European Zionists. He was the first one who devoted years of his life to a Zionist organization on an international scale.

"They claimed that he broke off with Herzl immediately after the First Zionist Congress because of some slight, almost personal disagreement. It's not true. His speech to the First Congress was one of the most important. It made an incredible impression on all present, including Herzl himself. He only resigned when it became clear to him — to his great disappointment — that Zionism was only for Zionists, not for all Jews, not for the wonderful, all encompassing "Jewish Existence."

"They said that, after leaving the Congress, he disappeared from the Jewish national scene. There is no truth in this either. Galician Jewry still remember him as the candidate for the Jewish National bloc in the electoral campaign for the Austrian Parliament in 1907. In that hopeless battle of Jewish-National ambitions against Jewish assimilationists and electoral frauds, Birnbaum clearly served the interests of secular Jewish Nationalism, despite his no longer being a Zionist." (Dr. Ezriel Carlebach, A Book Of Portraits)

Why Birnbaum's teshuva should have been such a sensation is clearly evident. It is not every day that a famous writer and politician, an excellent speaker, a deep thinker and man of ideas returns, in full view of the public, to the old beis hamedrash, to tzisis, tefillin and Shabbos.

Also evident is why the Zionist movement inaugurated a bitter battle against him, and why East and west European chareidi youth flocked after him, enchanted by his articles and bursting with pride that a Jew of Birnbaum's stature had finally come to recognize, after an extended ideological journey, the absolute truth of Yiddishkeit.

After the Second Zionist Congress, Birnbaum became a spokesman for "diaspora nationalism," and asserted that "Israel (i.e. the Jewish people itself) comes before Zion." His concept was one of a nation which resided in several countries and included all Jewish groups which had a culture of their own, the most important of these being the East European Yiddish-speaking group. Defining Jewish identity in terms of culture, he demanded cultural autonomy for Jews, in line with the autonomy principle for the various peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was then gaining ground.

In this context he strove to have Yiddish recognized as a language in its own right. He learned Yiddish himself and wrote Yiddish articles in his weekly newspaper "Neue Zeitung." In 1907, he was defeated in his bid to enter the Austrian Parliament and in 1908 he made the trip to America during which he felt the yad Hashem while at sea. The conference he called on behalf of the Yiddish language was held in Czernovitz in 1908, where Birnbaum himself took up residence until 1911.

Birnbaum now came to know Eastern European Jewry from close up. As he put it, he "arrived at the religious core of the nation," and his attitudes began to change. His materialistic, atheistic philosophy began to be replaced by the conviction that the mission of the Jewish people was a religious one, and his writings in the years leading up to World War I dealt with problems of religion. The seeds of his teshuva were germinating and would gradually sprout over the next few years.

V. The Dread Of Worldly Emptiness

"And then the war broke out," wrote Birnbaum, "and its tragedies which increasingly overcame people. I was forced to give over my three sons (Shlomo, Menachem and Uriel) to the army. Two of them were stationed on the most terrible battlefronts, and one of my sons paid with an amputated leg. In 1915 we settled in Vienna ... There I continued to delve into the problems of faith and I arrived at the conclusion that Judaism and the Jews are nourished from a single Divine source, and they can have no separate existence..."

The war proved to him where mankind was capable of leading itself when it forgot the existence of Hashem. When emunah took hold in his heart, he did not keep it to himself but characteristically publicized it, calling to others to follow him. He published his book From Denial To Faith in 1919, in which he repudiated the materialistic philosophy he had adhered to until then and sang the praises of Toras Yisroel.

"The great revelation came over me at the moment I became free from the dread (which is part) of worldly emptiness which recoils from any contact with religion. I suddenly found myself face to face with an enormous and totally convincing spiritual phenomenon. How could I, an ignoramus, let it pass unnoticed? I feel disgusted when I bring to mind the materialistic view of religion ... and this time I had met, at long last the sole spiritual revolution, the true one; the revolution whose task it was to remove a man from the path which led to the world of idols, and to guide him instead onto the path which would lead him to G-d, and then from G-d, to the world...

"Thus I stood in wonderment before Judaism, the mother of faith. It was a shattering experience for me, the feeling of a higher moral system which no historical framework could contain ... To get to know the religious plan of life of Judaism ... At once my spirit saw the principle hinge around which all the worlds events revolve ...

"The truth is that the Jewish people are not subject to all the different factors which determine the fates of nations. This is because they alone are the pioneers of emunah in the world's history and we have therefore received the special task of fulfilling Torah and mitzvos. The written Torah and the mesorah are so deeply imprinted with the hallmark of emes, that the arrogant criticism of those who went off the path seems to me to amount to absolutely nothing. Every single word of the Torah has relevance for us...for myself and for my fellow...I therefore have a duty to join the ma'aminim of my people, to live amongst them and go in their ways..." (From Denial To Faith)

These few, fervent lines mark the new direction of Birnbaum's thoughts and feelings after living through the span of a generation as a kofer. The road from realization to practical observance of mitzvos however, was still a long one.

To totally change an entire way of life when nearing the age of fifty, while everyone in close proximity saw such a step as a sign of weakness of mind (or worse), was decidedly no simple matter. This apart, the sheer embarrassment of having to request the help of a frum man in showing him how to, for example, lay tefillin, acted as a further barrier to kiyum mitzvos in the first years of his awareness of the truth.

Nevertheless, "as soon as I overcame the imaginary shame of having to publicly, and consistently, admit to awareness of the Creator, and to keeping Torah and mitzvos, a new, burning shame took its place — which has not released me to this day. The shame of how long I was able to live in the company of those who do not know Him; shame at the fact that what my forefathers saw clearly was not awakened in me for so long; shame that the voice of my people was silent in me for all that time." (People Of Hashem)

During this time, in Vienna, hashgacha brought him in contact with Rav Tuvia Horowitz Hy"d, the Rav of Sanuk, and one of the best thinkers and writers of the Polish Aguda. Rav Horowitz guided him and led him into practical Yiddishkeit.

A Gaon Of Teshuva

By Rav Moshe Sheinfeld

The concept of genius — ge'onus — in Judaism, is multifaceted, and is not confined to knowledge of Torah alone. "Ge'onus" implies achieving perfection in any area. One can be a gaon in yirah, a gaon in mussar, a gaon in mitzvos, or in this or that middah.

Dr. Nosson Birnbaum was a gaon in teshuva. He was originally the spiritual father to all of the secular ideas which overran the Jewish street in our times, and Heaven enabled him to make a complete teshuvah, a teshuvah of love, whose extent paralleled and exceeded the extent of his previous straying.

All his days, he sought the truth, until ultimately, he merited reaching Him whose seal is truth. He set up a number of ideological "idols" with his own hands (Zionism, Yiddishism, Territorialism) but he didn't hesitate to smash them one by one, until the Master looked out at him and announced "I am the Owner of the mansion!! (Ani hu ba'al habirah!!)"

Nowadays there are many baalei teshuva who are full of pious words but don't keep the Torah. They are quite used to having Hashem's name on their lips but this doesn't compel them to accept His heavenly authority. Birnbaum, the man of perfection, could not countenance any duplicity. When he recognized his Creator, he lovingly accepted His mitzvos.

His teshuva did not arise from hopelessness, nor as a result of failing powers or as an escape from reality. He returned to Yiddishkeit while in his prime, and with his teshuvah, he reached the peak of his spiritual creativity.

He didn't keep the truth which he acquired to himself, but disseminated it widely with words which burned with a holy fire. There has never been a man like him who knew how to reprove, persuade and correct his wayward brothers in their own language and in terms that were understandable and acceptable to them. He knew where their weaknesses lay and was right on target every time.

Birnbaum also did not close his eyes to the faults of chareidi Jewry. He also never stopped alerting them to areas needing rectification. His stormy soul knew no rest. From the day he became intellectually mature until the day he died he was continually ascending Hashem's mountain, step by step. He didn't beat out his own narrow, private path but paved the way for the many. He went up and wanted to take others up with him. He was a dreamer, but without indulging in delusions. He was also a fighter, but one who always preserved the purity of his ammunition.

He, who founded mass movements, was a loner throughout his life. Chareidi Jewry gloried in him, but didn't listen to him. His voice remained alone, like that of man calling out in a vast desert. This is the fate of all those who are great of spirit: their generation applauds them, but doesn't appreciate what they are.

The seforim say that it is the way of baalei teshuva mei'ahava (those who repent out of love for Hashem) to be constantly looking out and longing for the arrival of Moshiach. They are the ones who hasten his coming, as the posuk says, "and a redeemer will come to Tzion, and to those among Yaakov who repent from iniquity." The first part of the posuk is dependent on the second: when will a redeemer come to Tzion? When those who repent among Yaakov will multiply.

The mention of Moshiach was constantly on Birnbaum's lips; the light of Moshiach was his beacon. All his plans were arranged with a view to receiving Moshiach and his way of thinking centered around this event. He would shout to the faithful of belief in Moshiach and awakened them to the need for improvement in anticipation. He did not live to see Moshiach's arrival, but he suffered the chevlei Moshiach and accepted them lovingly.

End of Part 2


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.