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1 Tammuz, 5782 - June 30, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Dr. Nosson Birnbaum: The Man Who Stemmed The Tide

By C. Eliav


Part IV

The next 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. We also include an important essay by Dr. Birnbaum.

For Part 3 of this series click here.

For Part 5 of this series click here.

VII. Emissary To Klal Yisroel

News of Birnbaum's teshuva spread around the Jewish world: the modern Jewish Nationalist was now laying tefillin and keeping Shabbos and kashrus just like an old-time yid. Not only that; he was pouring fire and brimstone on the "idolatrous Jews," his one-time cronies.

Everywhere people wanted to hear what the "new" Birnbaum had to say. For his part, Birnbaum travelled among the centers of Jewish population, lecturing, speaking and trying to persuade his beloved people to go on the one and only path which could save them.

Dr. Ben Zion Pessler relates: "It was in GrossVarden, in Hungary, in 1918, that I met him for the first time. A group of young people of varying outlooks invited him to lecture. A banquet was held after the lecture, as was customary, and, as is usual on such occasions, there were a number of short addresses in his honor.

"When it was his turn to rise and say a few words in reply, something quite extraordinary happened. Despite his having sat calmly until then, listening to the speeches in his honor, smiling, wearing an alert and somewhat skeptical look, he suddenly became excited when he was about to deliver his message. Suddenly, the words left his lips like thunderbolts. His eyes were burning and his face was pale. He spoke about "Am Hashem" (the title of his work dealing with the special mission of klal Yisroel) and his voice trembled with strong, genuine emotion. Suddenly, at the climax of his speech, he opened his clenched fist and beat his breast. His face became even paler and a cry escaped him, `Chotosi, ovisi, posh'ati!!.'

"My lips trembled," continues Dr. Pessler, "and my heart almost stopped beating; I felt close to collapse. The other participants felt the same way. They remained rooted to their seats, like statues. Surely we were witnessing greatness equal to that of the earlier generations, supernatural greatness even — could such a fire burn in the heart of an ordinary man?

"Birnbaum carried on speaking. It seemed to me that a current flowed from a battery inside him, which was electrifying all of us." (From Misnaged To Chossid — Memories Of Birnbaum)

A letter in Yiddish written by Dr. Birnbaum

This is just one of the many examples of Birnbaum's restless personality, which was captivated by the truth which filled his heart. Whenever the emes burst from his lips, not one of his listeners could remain unmoved. It is no wonder that chareidi youth flocked after him during those years of confusion. He was like a compass or beacon, enabling thousands to chart their course through the stormy waters of the times, by providing them with the answers to the difficult questions posed by the Zionist and Socialist movements, and the entire materialistic-atheistic outlook which underlay them and which was gaining ground the world over.

Jewish communities all over Europe awaited his arrival, from Polish chassidim to Litvishe lamdonim. Here is a report of his visit to Kovno, by M. Ben-Shraga, taken from the pages of HaNe'eman, the newspaper of Lithuanian chareidim, published in Telshe and sponsored by the Telshe Yeshiva.

"Now, the great Jewish thinker stands before us. He speaks softly, but with great strength and feeling. His radiant face is expressive of deep wisdom. His sharp, penetrating glance strikes awe in the hearts of his audience. He has a long white beard and a high forehead. The spectacle is most impressive, and arouses deep respect and appreciation of this great yid.

An advertisment for a lecture by Dr. Birnbaum

"He speaks with genius. He is not embarrassed to uncover the truth, although it causes some wonderment. He is able to do this because he arrived at the truth after a long and difficult spiritual journey. The truth has therefore become his personal acquisition, and it fills his whole being.

"He speaks and one's heart is full of agitation — before us stands a creator who fashioned himself after recognizing his Maker, a man of enormous abilities, of noble bearing. ... He is speaking about "the value of the practical commandments" in Judaism. Every word is a wonderful blend of emotion and intellect. Every word has been cast in the mold of his rich nefesh and his renewed neshamah, illuminated by a new light, Hashem's light. ... Although he is not saying much that is new to Torah scholars, the chidush lies in the very fact that it is him who is saying it — he and no other.

"Another important angle is that he lives up to what he says. ... He lives according to the emes which suffuses his soul. His actions serve as a looking glass through which to view and appreciate the ideal which has settled in his heart. His is a personality which glows with true, authentic shleimus.

"Precisely because he is the man who has travelled by way of every movement or ideal propounded since the Renaissance, by way of all the learning and philosophy of European culture, through all of it, right back to the ancient, original Yahadus — for this reason, a proportion of Jewish youth who had been smitten with the plague of idolatry, imagining that they could reach Hashem that way, instead follow him. Those who at present are still far away, will yet draw near at some time in the future, says Birnbaum. We can see for ourselves that it is so, for it is Dr. Nathan Birnbaum who is speaking."

These examples give some impression of the effects of Birnbaum's teshuva at the time.

VIII. The Inexhaustible Fountain

From the day of his return to the ranks of observant Jewry until his death, he put himself at the service of organized Torah Jewry, in the shape of Agudas Yisroel. His appearance at the first Knessia Gedolah was most impressive. All eyes were upon him and every ear strained to hear his speech. He was appointed first general secretary of the Agudas Yisroel World Organization upon its refounding in 1919, a position he held for some time, but which he later left. Directly after the war, when revolution and pogroms shattered what remained of organized Jewish life, he devoted much effort towards trying to regulate and organize the mass departure of the large number of Jews who were leaving Eastern Europe.

His speeches and writings centered around the theme of teshuva and renewed dedication to mitzvos in order to ascend spiritually along the path which would bring moshiach, in whose arrival Birnbaum believed as fully and as tangibly as any great ma'amin.

He left his post as secretary of the Aguda so that he could devote himself to forming his movement of "Olim." This was to be an elite group of Yidden who were dedicated to aliya ruchnis, and who would be a nucleus from which a mass renewal and rededication to the spiritual goals of klal Yisroel would spread to all levels of the nation, in anticipation of the geula hasheleima.

He felt that the job of preparing the nation to fulfill its spiritual task of living as the people chosen by Hashem was not being effectively tackled. He suggested that the work of organized Orthodoxy be directed at forming the material preconditions to facilitate the fundamental changes he was proposing. No far-reaching changes in the spiritual life of the masses of am Yisroel could come about without a change in their living conditions and he felt that a life based mainly on agriculture was suited to this. In the essay "Golus HaShechina in Eretz Yisroel" it is apparent that he felt that working the land could protect and nurture spiritual values. Chazal attached the label "emunas" to seder Zeraim for dependence on the land brings with it the awareness of our complete reliance on Hashem. He remained a friend of the Aguda until his death. "Der Aufsteig" was the title of the newspaper he published (most of which was written by Birnbaum himself) which was devoted to these plans.

* * *

Concerning The Olim

"And you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation..." (Shemos 19:6)

by Dr. Nosson Birnbaum


HaKodosh Boruch Hu chose Bnei Yisroel, gave them His Torah and commanded them to be His holy nation. At some time in the future, He will raise His moshiach from their midst (as the posuk says: "And a shoot shall come out from the stock of Yishai, an offspring will blossom from his roots,") who will redeem them from exile, uproot evil and falsehood from the world, and place "new hearts" in mankind ("And I will give them a new heart, I will place a new spirit inside them").

HaKodosh Boruch Hu, in His great mercy, is able to send moshiach any day, and will certainly do so when Yisroel merit it by virtue of their deeds and at such time as they reach the highest level of attachment to Torah shebiksav veshebe'al peh, and aspire to the highest level of kedusha which flesh and blood is capable of achieving. (In the Zohar hakodosh we learn that the future redemption will come about through "an awakening from below," by virtue of our own efforts, in contrast to the redemption from Egypt which was brought about through "an awakening from above.")

No progress in reaching a higher level of kedusha is possible without increased faithfulness to Torah, and no progress whatsoever can be made without the intention to bring moshiach. We therefore band together to work at raising our level, in order to work (i.e. prepare the ground) for moshiach's coming. We call our brothers and sisters to join us in action, to rise higher and ascend in madreigah, together with us.


There are three categories of kedusha with which the Torah sanctifies a person: kedushas hada'as, kedushas rachamim and kedushas tiferes.

Kedusha of understanding (intellect): This is achieved through the recognition and knowledge of Hashem. Then inspiration and humility before Him gradually grow. Without inspiration and humility, there can be no understanding. Fervor and humbleness are a direct result of understanding, and are a sure sign of its presence.

A man who humbles himself before HaKodosh Boruch Hu will also be humble with respect to others who submit themselves to Him. Conversely, he will never humble himself before those who do not submit to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, i.e. scoffers and the haughty.

Kedusha of mercy (feeling): This can be realized through attachment to His characteristic of mercy, by behaving mercifully towards our fellow men. Mercy and consideration for others can be expressed either actively or by refraining from acting. It can take the form of consideration of their physical or spiritual pain, sympathy for past pain and empathy to ensure the prevention of future pain, or sharing an individual's present pain, or that of a whole community.

Kedusha of glory (the physical conditions of life): This can be brought about by borrowing one's share in His glory and enveloping oneself in it. We use the term "borrowing" and not "acquiring" for it is only by playing one's role in the entirety of creation, and not as an individual, isolated person, that one can have a share in His glory.

It can be no more than a part of His glory, so as not to infringe on the areas of da'as and rachamim. We therefore aspire to be constantly rising in each of these three kedushas.


To increase understanding of Hashem, enthusiasm and humility, we must direct our thoughts towards Him, strengthening them with: limud Torah, tefillah, holy song and G-dly construction, while at the same time keeping our distance from the noise and tumult of the world and its affairs.

Holy song and G-dly building mean the composition of elevated poems and the construction of edifices; these must be produced by servants of Hashem, with the intention of serving Him.

There are three types of worldly panic which interfere with the development of kedushas hada'as. These are: first, hastening after pleasures. The antidote to this is contentment with one's portion. Second, the rush for financial gain. The opposite of this is earning a living in a calm and tranquil fashion. Third, the desire for (i.e. secular, superficial) intellectual attainments. This should rather be channeled into cultivating wisdom and depth of character.

In order to develop our sense for kedushas rachamim, we have to take it upon ourselves to widen the sphere of our relationships with other people. Our new obligations should take the form of both mitzvos aseh and lo sa'ase; they should involve both the action itself and the manner in which we do it. The rationale for "widening our obligations" is that it is well known that Hashem yisborach's instructions to us in the areas we are talking about are only the lower limit of what He wants from us, not the upper limit and our recognition of this should lead us to extend our undertakings.

Similarly, in matters which are neither obligatory nor forbidden, if something should nevertheless become apparent as a contradiction to Hashem's wishes for His world (for example, certain forms of livelihood), we rule it out. This is another way in which we extend our spiritual obligations.

To make progress in kedushas tiferes, we strive to find favor and grace, to be clean and orderly and that both we and our possessions should be so. That we should be so, implies everything pertaining to our physical cleanliness. "Our possessions" refers to our clothing, utensils, homes, villages and towns.

People who are consumed by the desire for money, who are awash with all kinds of luxuries, who play at dice, cards and the like, and who speak obscenities are incapable of moving higher, neither in da'as, rachamim nor tiferes.


If the present surroundings, occupations and behavior of Bnei Yisroel are such that they pose a danger of distancing us from Toras Hashem, from kedusha and from our work towards bringing moshiach then we are consequently obligated to do away with, or to change those surroundings, occupations and behavior to enable us to fulfill Hashem's word, which is of paramount importance. If the above conditions of our lives are such as to make it questionable whether they could stand up to the scrutiny of Hashem, or would be tolerated by our enemies, then we must change them all, in order to set Hashem's nation on a strong, firm footing.

Doing away with them or changing them can be achieved through the introduction of "fences." In the same way that an individual protects himself from aveiros by erecting fences, so can the nation employ such fences to keep temptations and dangers at a distance.

We must therefore set up these fences in those areas which affect where we live, our sources of livelihood, our holy land, our dress, our speech, our children's education and wherever else outside influences act upon us. In practice this means living only in places which have a Jewish population, not settling in big cities unless it is for the benefit of the community, training our own agricultural workers and settling them on our own privately or publicly owned lands, forming companies and opening factories for our workers and founding settlements in Eretz Yisroel.

In those places where Jews have an authentic, customary mode of dress, it must be upheld, strengthened and respected. Wherever Jews speak their own language, we must accord it honor and continue to use it. Limud Torah: Tanach, mishnayos and gemora, must be the main foundation of the education of our sons and daughters. They must learn loshon hakodesh and everything else a Jew must know, and have the possibility of learning other subjects and worldly wisdom in a faithful Jewish environment, in line with a Jewish approach that is completely based on untainted emunah. We must also be concerned with strengthening and refreshing our own bodies and those of our children (but not in a brazen or immodest fashion).


It is impossible for men to climb spiritually, even using fences, if each individual is active only on his own. We must operate public institutions to strengthen and encourage the community and each of its members in the struggle to ascend. At the head of all of these must be one body whose job it is to encompass and unite all our keepers of the faith, positioning each at his own level. This body will place each of its members in a position where he can interact with his people; each where he is suited, as the leader of a community, reprover, instructor and advisor to those coming under his care. This body will issue directives, make decrees, enact bans, and also have the power to erect fences and later remove them.

We must undertake the founding and maintaining of such institutions and submit to the authority of the all-encompassing, uniting body which we are placing over ourselves, to raise us, with wisdom and faith, to the highest levels of adherence to Torah, and of kedusha which are humanly possible, thus making us fit to receive moshiach.

These are the principle lines along which our institutions will operate. Different departments will deal with the following areas. Included in the sphere of bein odom laMokom are the upkeep and smooth running of batei knesses, batei medrash and other mekomos hakedoshim. To research, clarify, organize and arrange matters connected with the habitation, jobs and livelihoods of the olim. To look after the settlements of the olim in Eretz Yisroel. Overseeing progress in the avodas of rachamim and tiferes amongst the people as regards their property and their clothing (especially the particularly Jewish ways of dressing). They must keep watch on the general conduct of the population, most importantly with regard to avodas haborei. They must look into the speech of the Jews, and govern all areas of education.

Each separate department should have committees for large towns and for the localities. Over these will be national committees and the supreme governing body will coordinate all of them. The committees will arrange an administrative network to assist them in their work. Any oleh can be elected to a committee and appointed to a managerial position. Some of the administrative positions will be suited for being filled by olos. All the committees will be under the supervision of the supreme body whose job it will be to unite all the shomrei emunah.


Our appeal to our brothers and sisters consists not only of words but of our own deeds and lives. We therefore ask them to respond with their deeds and lives. We fervently hope that they will turn to us in ever increasing numbers, until all of knesses Yisroel becomes one group of olim, under the care of its guardians, one group of Torah faithful, of Jews who aspire and yearn for justice and holiness, and whose intention it is to bring moshiach.

"And it will be in the end of days, the mountain of Hashem's house will be established on the chief mountain, and it will rise higher than the hills, and all the nations will flow to it." (Yeshaya 2:2)

* * *

A Flash In The Darkness

By Elimelech Shteier

(Written in memory of Dr. Birnbaum in a special issue of the Journal "Beis Yaakov" published in Lodz, Poland)

The black border of this page jumps up at me, stirring memories of years gone by. Nosson Birnbaumz'l, the ba'al teshuva, did not return alone to Judaism. He drew many young people who had been heading in the opposite direction after him. Birnbaum demonstrated to a wide group how to do teshuva. He demonstrated without knowing that he was doing so: with his unique personality, his position, with his name alone and with the authority which he radiated.

At that time, the tempest tore us away from our open gemoras. We were youngsters and our youthfulness suddenly had to absorb the stench of war. We drifted, roaming the towns of Galicia in carts, stopping at places we didn't know.

Afterwards we returned to our own town which we found destroyed and desolate. Armed soldiers still walked the streets and it was they whom we imitated in our games which, as youngsters, we put all our hearts into. Our gemoras were forgotten. They lay there torn, waiting for the arrival of the shochet Reb Wolf and the Dayan. If it happened that a bochur did open a gemora, there would be a newspaper spread out on it.

In the pages of the newspaper we found the whole wide world; a world which winked and beckoned to us. The shells which had laid the world waste had also destroyed our own inner worlds, reducing to mere theory an entire value system and outlook. Very slowly the war also came to an end. A small number of the soldiers who had gone out to fight returned home but even they were lame, had lost limbs and displayed other evidence of the wars devastation.

Then suddenly, out from the ruins, there was a flash which lit up the town's darkened streets. In the beis hamedrash between mincha and ma'ariv, Aharon the shamash clapped on the bimah and announced, "Yidden! Eretz Yisroel is to become "a Yiddishe melucha" ("a Jewish state", apparently referring to the Balfour Declaration).

An Ivrit teacher was soon making the acquaintance of the youngsters, and he invited us to the Union. There we learnt a little militarism from a soldier who had returned from the front. A student from the big city explained to us that we had to release ourselves from everything, from the beis hamedrash, from the gemora, from emunah. It was all old and outdated. These all belonged to the times of the war. From now on, we were going to be a nation! And so, said the student pointing his finger towards the window, through which we saw the Polish shkotzim in uniform and carrying rifles, we had to learn from them, meaning how to plough the land and carry ammunition.

We accepted everything. Our fathers themselves would speak excitedly about Rothschild, Lord Balfour and the Jewish President in Eretz Yisroel (as Chaim Weizman was already nicknamed). The beis hamedrash held no authority for us. The war had made us completely lawless. Only the town's maggid put his glasses up on his forehead in fury and screamed, "It's all apikorsus!!"

We smiled coldly at this and gave wise and understanding looks. The Ivrit teacher, a yeshiva bochur who had gone off the rails, made a big joke of it.

There was another bochur among us. He was the tall son of the melamed who engaged the Zionists in arguments and always tried to draw us into these discussions. He ordered a newspaper from Warsaw and gave it to us to read. It was there, during the arguments between the melamed's son and the Ivrit teacher, that we first came across the name of Dr. Birnbaum.

I don't know why, but this name put some sort of spell on us. We instinctively felt his authority, despite the fact that we knew nothing of his ideas, his writings or his way of life.

All we heard was that he had been chozer beteshuva. He had already experienced all of the culture and wisdom towards which the Ivrit teacher and the student were trying to pull us, and he had rejected them all and gone back to the world of the gemoras, to the world of our town's maggid whom we laughed at endlessly. The implications were not lost on us.

All at once we felt a deep regard for the tall thin figure who gazed at us from the newspaper picture, with his high forehead and fine long beard. The Ivrit teacher and the student from the city lost their importance for us right away, perhaps because whenever Birnbaum's name was mentioned, they had no answers.

The melamed's son was on top of the world. "Nu," he would taunt, victory in his voice, "what about Nosson Birnbaum? Meila, we are all batlonim. We don't understand a thing. But him! Why, he was one of the leaders of the Zionists, he had honor and money — and he still ran away. That's not all, he even says one has to believe in G-d. What do you say to that?"

The argument then went off onto all kinds of irrelevant matters, as is customary.

In time, the Zionists in the town came to realize that the only obstacle in their fight for the souls of the youth was Nosson Birnbaum. We youngsters followed him and swallowed whatever he wrote, like his booklet From Denial To Faith. We delved into the message of his People Of Hashem, and in our minds, the flame was kindled. Inwardly, we returned to ourselves. The town's Zionist faction saw in Birnbaum a competitor, preventing them from conquering our neshamos.

Then the battle began. They decided to take a stand against Nosson Birnbaum. One day, the Ivrit teacher came running up to us clutching one of the Zionist newspapers. There it was, written in black and white that Nosson Birnbaum had gone out of his mind. The proof was that he had become religious, donned tallis and tefillin, and believed in G-d!!

Another Zionist speaker, visiting our town, hinted that Birnbaum had not really been chozer beteshuva. He hadn't really become observant. He was merely a Jew who was a great nationalist, and he thought that keeping mitzvos was in the best interests of the nation, and its survival.

These various attempts at explaining away Birnbaum's return to Torah only served to increase our great respect for him. Just hearing about him was enough to make us keep our distance from their group.

Nosson Birnbaum brought us back to Yiddishkeit. From where he lived, his influence extended to the youth of the far away communities. The mere mention of his name, during that period of terrible confusion, straightened out our nagging doubts about emunah, and returned us to the Judaism of the beis hamedrash. For Birnbaum didn't return alone to Judaism; he drew many others with him.


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