"Der Aufstieg": Dr. Nathan Birnbaum ZT"L, Ascent and Agudah

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

     Nathan Birnbaum is not a Ba'al Teshuva. He is like Avrohom Avinu in that he came to recognize his Creator. - Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt"lSee footnote 1 1

    We generally define a Ba'al Teshuva either as one who was held captive by a yetzer hara and then overcame it, or as one who was ignorant of Judaism who then came to appreciate its ideals and their relevance. By these definitions, the most famous Ba'al Teshuva of our century, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum zt"l, was never a Ba'al Teshuva at all! Dr. Birnbaum never succumbed to yetzarim. At every step along his way to Emunah he sought the truth of Yahadus.See footnote 2 2 He shaped the ideology and accomplishments - and experienced the shortcomings and frustrations - of each of the various movements that vied for the soul of our nation. Like Avrohom Avinu, by process of elimination - and no small measure of Divine Providence - he came to realize the Emes of Torah- true Judaism.
    This Pesach was his sixtieth yahrzeit. This year also marks the eightieth anniversary of a remarkable movement he founded within the Agudah: "Ha'Olim," "The Ascenders."
    Nathan Birnbaum was born in 1864, to observant parents from Galicia and Hungary, in Vienna. Although he distanced himself from Orthodoxy, he did not do so to assimilate, but to pursue Jewish national renewal. In 1885, he founded a Jewish nationalistic movement - a movement which he himself named - Zionism. By 1897, he served as chief secretary of the central Zionist office.
    Over time, he recognized the Zionist movement as bereft of true Jewish culture. He came to the realization that the struggle for land could not supplant the struggle for cultural advancement. Dr. Birnbaum broke with the Zionist movement to seek an authentic Jewish modality that would transcend the narrow quest for a homeland. He thought he found it - in Eastern European Jewish culture. He became an ardent Yiddishist. From 1906 until 1911, he published Yiddish periodicals that promoted an autonomous Jewish culture focusing on the Yiddish language.
    This second phase of his career brought him into intimate contact with Eastern European Jewry. The vibrancy of both Polish Chassidus and Lithuanian Mussar made a profound impact upon him. An "erlebnis" (religious experience) while at sea on a ship to America pushed him along. He came to recognize the yad Hashem. Dr. Birnbaum came to see the role of Am Yisroel in Creation as a religious destiny. By 1919, Nathan Birnbaum was a fervent Agudist, and the first general secretary of the Agudath Israel World Organization.
    Personal, even professional, fulfillment never satisfied him. Like Avrohom Avinu, his quest was never personal salvation or achievement, but the renaissance and growth of the entirety of Klal Yisroel. Thus, after returning to Torah and Mitzvos, Dr. Birnbaum felt compelled to publicize and promote what he had found.
    But not to his estranged brethren! To Dr. Birnbaum, the great challenge was to energize Torah true Jewry! His "return" spurred him to new ambitions: Ambitions to rise and uplift his fellow Ma'aminim with him, that we might all live lives that befit scions of a holy nation, of G-d's nation. Already in 1917 he published works in Yiddish and Hebrew that were challenges to us:
You complain about the traitors to Toras Hashem and about our period that produces such traitors. You are angry with these traitors, that have distanced themeselves from Torah for the sake of an easy life. But you who cling to the Torah - do you not also seek comfort? Can't their pursuit of affluence be attributed to your attitude?
Why are you not angry with yourselves?
Every day you take pride in that Hashem chose you and gave you His Torah. Didn't he also command you? "Be holy unto me?" How can you take pride in that He chose you, yet not pursue holiness as He has commanded?
It can only be because it is easier for you thus.

Every day you await the moment when Hashem in His great mercy and love for you will send you Moshiach. Why do you expect a gift, a grant, a favor? Why don't you improve your deeds, to merit Moshiach's coming by your own righteousness? Indeed, the only way to merit such a reward is by travelling the road that ascends toward the most lofty holiness that man can attain. But this road appears to you too difficult to travel. You seek only that which is easy.
You know the Torah's words well. You also know which road leads to holiness. Why is it that you have not walked along that road?See footnote 3 3
    A generation earlier, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt"l had toiled to introduce the idea of ongoing self critique and development. Dr. Birnbaum undertook a similar task. The main difference, perhaps, lay in that Reb Yisroel focused on individual Avoda, while Dr. Birnbaum stressed the elevation of society.See footnote 4 4 Dr. Birnbaum strove to mobilize Klal Yisroel's energies in pursuit of shleymus as an Am Hashem.
    It followed that the organization that unified Orthodox Jewry under the banner of Torah true principles should serve as the vehicle for that elevation. This was Dr. Birnbaum's perspective on Agudas Yisroel. He saw the Agudah as the ideal forum in which to promote constant striving for his'alus and shleymus. He persistently lobbied the Agudah's leaders and members to join in his great push for mass refinement.See footnote 5 5
    Dr. Birnbaum organized small groups of individuals that would devote themselves even more intensely to the cause of his'alus. Known as Ha'Olim," these groups were to be the vanguard of a great movement toward heightened Avodas Hashem.
    Ha'Olim groups were extant from the 1910's until the 1930's. It was with the solidification of the Agudah after the second Kenessia Gedola (in 1927), however, that Dr. Birnbaum first mounted a major effort to expand the movement.See footnote 6 6 [See Box]. He publicized a signed call to join his fledgling movement. Most of the signators were well-known ideologues and activists of the early Agudah. The Kol Koreh was printed simultaneously in the newsletter of Agudas Yisroel in Germany and in the Telzer HaNe'eman (in Hebrew).See footnote 7 7

For Box

Kol-Koreh (Free Translation)
    "And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation." G-d commanded Israel to sanctify itself and raise up that sanctity as an example and a banner. This is the task of the Jewish nation. It has not yet completed this task. It is still distant from the pathway that leads to this sanctity. It is still far from true awareness and service of Hashem; far from compassion and extra care in matters bein adam l'chaveiro; far from arranging itself in a modest way amid the world's grandeur, a way that would reflect the majesty of G-d Himself. Even worse, a part of the level that the nation had already achieved has eroded. Our bein adam laMakom is frigid and has become flippant; our bein adam l'chaveiro has become artificial or political. Our lives are either patterned after foreign, empty ideals, or bereft of all esthetics and order, not sacred unto Hashem.
    Will this decline continue? Is it permissible to gaze with equanimity on this destruction? Has the time not come to turn the evil back? Hasn't the moment arrived for Am Yisroel to strive for that ascent for which it was chosen? Who [but us] is responsible for fortifying themselves and calling out to Yisroel: Become more than you presently are! Be more than true to Hashem and His Torah. Take on the mighty responsibility for the life force of the Jewish nation!
    One thing gives us hope, the fact that Charedim have recently organized themselves and become productive. Through these efforts they have gained much in distinction, in confidence and in the quest to act. This gives us hope, that soon they will come to realize their capacity for the greatest task of all.
    To fulfill this hope, the undersigned committee has decided to found
The Society of Olim
Based on the ideas expressed by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum in his book "In the Work of Promise."
    This society, as part of the framework of Agudas Yisroel, will not be a political party or entity aspiring to rally masses under its flag. It will not compete with independent Orthodox organizations. On the contrary - it yearns to be an army of pioneers upon which others can rely.
    The purpose of the society is: To promote the idea that Agudas Yisroel must create the necessary conditions to refine the entire Jewish nation... Then, under the leadership of the Rabbonim of the Mo'etzes Gedolei HaTorah, the nation will be enhanced. It will become a true "Kenesses Yisroel," one that embraces the entire nation of an Israel that is chared l'dvar Hashem with strong and tight knit bonds, as opposed to the state of anarchy that currently reigns.
    Before all else, however, the society must ensure that it itself will be an example and role model. Not just in a return to agriculture (in that it will found a model colony now, and, subsequently, various colonies in Eretz Yisroel and other lands). Primarily, rather, by proving that courage of spirit and self education will have enabled the society to achieve significant ascent despite the current less than ideal situation. The society is obliged to build groups of those who yearn for sanctity within the body of Am Yisroel.
    To attain its goal the society will use special techniques and regulations whose fundamentals have already been formulated, but whose details must still be resolved. With no shred of politics the society will educate all those who accompany it:
*To the capacity to withstand the modern rebellions against both Emuna in Hashem and Mesorah and against the laws of Tzeniyus and Kavod Chachomim.
*To strengthened Emuna and diligent Torah study.
*To imbue their hearts with true love and awareness of Hashem.
*To habituate themselves to the midda of Rachamim: empathy, assistance and good will in matters bein adam l'chaveiro.
*To arouse themselves to thoughts of Kiddush Hashem and to pattern their public lives in a splendid and majestic authentic Jewish manner.
    Anyone who yearns to see Yisroel ascend to its proper level as a nation of destiny and example, and knows that he has the capacity to toil with his entire personality for the benefit of this purpose - should come and identify himself to us!
    We must mention an individual that to our sorrow has already passed from among us: Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan z"l was among those who began to gather under the idea of "Ha'Olim." He signed this Kol Koreh some years ago. Were he still alive, he certainly would have had his name signed on the Kol Koreh as it is now being publicized. He surely would have participated and helped us now in our work.
    Friends who want to support our ambitions in some specific area, even if they do not wish to enter the "society" - are of interest to us.

We will eagerly provide more information to anyone corresponding to the address of:
Samuel Ostersetzer, Duisburg (Germany) Charlottenstrasse 62.
From Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, to the address of:
Advocate Dr. Ben-Zion Fessler, Kolomea (Poland) Sobieckiego 8.

In the month of Kislev 5688:
Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk, Ansbach
Mordechai Knoblewitsch, Dortmund
Samuel Ostersetzer, Duisburg
Lawyer Isaac Rosenheim, Frankfurt
Dr. Gershon Schnerb, Frankfurt.
Dr. Solomon Birnbaum, Hamburg
Wolf S. Jacobson, Hamburg
Moshe Elzas, Kassel
David Ullmann, Kassel
Dr. Ben-Zion Fessler, Kolomea
Henry van Leeuwen, Rotterdam
Rabbi Tuvia Horowitz, Rzeszow
Binyomin Mintz, Tel Aviv
Dr. Leo Deutschlander, Vienna
Alfred Stroh, Vienna
Yehuda Leib Orlean, Warsaw

    Few records of their activities remain.See footnote 8 8 But the Ha'Olim literature and Dr. Birnbaum's writings, affords a glimpse of Ha'Olim's program and activities.
    Dr. Birnbaum identified three areas in which we must sanctify ourselves: Da'as, Rachamim and Tiferes.
By Da'as he meant awareness and knowledge of Hashem. He did not mean that one should study the evidence of G-d's existence and the like. Dr. Birnbaum meant that we should be intimately acquainted with Hashem. This intimacy would be manifest in fervor (hislahavus) in Hashem and submission (hachna'ah) before Him. Awareness and knowledge that do not lead to fervor and submission are imperfect. Submission before Hashem leads one to submit to others that submit to G-d's will as well, but not to those who do not, i.e., evildoers, scoffers and the haughty.
    By Rachamim he meant that we should cling to Hashem's middas harachamim and have mercy upon our fellow beings. Such rachamim must be aroused when one perceives either physical or spiritual anguish

in another; it must concern itself both with remediation of extant pain and with prevention of potential pain; and it must address communities and individuals equally.
    By Tiferes he meant that we must consciously borrow a part of the ultimate glory that is Hashem's and adorn ourselves with it. The stress here is on "borrow" - as opposed to "acquire." We must see ourselves as a part of the glory that is the Creation, not as independent sources of splendor. The danger of the latter attitude is haughtiness and self centeredness. Kedushas HaTiferes requires us to identify, define and pursue a Torah esthetic - in our dress, our abodes, our art and our music - one that reflects the values of an Am Segula.See footnote 9 9
    This was not abstract idealism. Dr. Birnbaum created a detailed plan for ascent in holiness. A 1927 address to the Agudah's Central Committee captures the essence of the Ha'Olim's program:See footnote 10 10
It is the greatest demand placed by Judaism itself on the Jewish people: "And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation." If Charedim seek to be true activists, then they must consider how they will fulfill this lofty demand that Judaism makes. They must place this demand at the center of their activism.
I know that many - and not necessarily the most base among us - respond to such demands with a smile on their lips. They perceive this as exaggerated temimus, as a naivete that refuses to recognize the nature of humanity and its inescapable frailties. In truth, even I am far from believing that all human beings possess an equal capacity and ambition for a life of Mussar...
What I think, what I hope to achieve, what I demand from Charedi activists who recall G-d's ancient charge to the Jewish people, is a society that attains a lofty character, so that each member of the society ascends discernibly, whether to a great or small degree, even if that individual does not end as the outstanding Ba'al Middos...
How can the ideal of sanctity and character refinement become the new driving force within Am Yisroel? It seems to me, without doubt, that this ideal can only serve as a driving force if we can find suitable individuals to accept upon themselves to enunciate and declare this ideal in all its breadth and depth. They must do so incessantly, without slavishness, with the full weight of the idea. Furthermore, there must arise a small force of pioneers in self sanctification to serve as an example and role model for Am Yisroel...
[Organized Orthodoxy] is obliged to come together and create societal tools that will teach: 1. How to deepen our awareness of Hashem out of love for Him [Da'as]. 2. How to dedicate ourselves to love our fellow human beings [Rachamim]. 3. How to pursue modesty [hatznei'a leches] as a manifestation of the glory of our Hashem [Tiferes]...
We must admit that cold intellectualism has penetrated our relationship with Hashem. Following through with that metaphor, Ha'Olim cannot remain at ease with this frigidity. They must toil until within their societies, within each of their groupings and within each of their members there arise divine hislahavus and inner spiritual feeling.
To achieve aliya in Da'as Hashem there float before my eyes [the following ideas]:
1. Torah study in a more profound manner: Every "Oleh" is required to expand and deepen his knowledge of Torah and Chochmas Yisroel. Before all else, if he does not possess basic knowledge, he must acquire it upon entering the society. The society must constantly

supervise its members to ensure that they are fulfilling this obligation. It must provide the opportunity to learn and grow through shiurim that it will conduct within its circle. The society shall campaign among its members, their children and their students to convince them to embark upon a term of study in a yeshiva or under a renowned talmid chacham for one to three years.See footnote 11 11
2. Festive gatherings of Charedim, for spiritual purposes (such as the introduction of the Eastern European Shalosh Seudos, etc.).
3. Special instruction in the history and development of Hislahavus and Dveykus in Israel and its practice.
4. Great emphasis must be placed upon a stipulation that every Oleh to refrain from any excesses or immodesty in speech, clothing, deed and from any competitive sport or gambling.
5. The development of a pure esthetic that will free the architecture of our Shuls and the nature of our music from the influence of other religions...
To achieve aliya in bein adam l'chaveiro I consider:
1. Instruction in the issues of bein adam l'chaveiro and guidance in expanded practical applications. Both modern and classic texts should be employed, with a particular stress on current situations. To develop a greater sense of belonging to Orthodox society as a whole. 2. The obligation of every Oleh to engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh at least once a week, to ascertain if, and to what extent, he has fulfilled mitzvos and refrained from aveiros according to the instruction and guidance provided to him.
3. An outright ban on certain material pursuits.
4. Substantive and apolitical common counsel to resolve Jewish societal problems in the spirit of Torah and Mesorah.
Even if the manner in which we display the public image of our lives does not currently convey our glory as the Chosen Nation, even if we are uncertain how to properly become the glory [pe'er] of the world, Ha'Olim cannot allow the status quo to continue. They must attempt to rectify as much as possible.
To achieve aliya in the manners of creating public lives, I depict to myself:
1. Instruction in issues concerning glory [Tiferes] and its correlation to religion and MussarSee footnote 12 12 ... [and] practical guidance in the application of these principles to the creation of appropriate public lives.
2. The development of an independent Jewish social structure following Judaism and Mussar.
3. The development of arts, especially architecture, music and poetry, rooted in the spirit of true Jewish Mesorah, and the establishment of competitions in these areas.
4. The previously mentioned (in the section on Da'as Hashem) ban on excesses.

As a means of ascent in all three aforementioned areas I consider:
Involvement in the education of young men and young women according to the demands of Ha'Olim - an involvement that will become especially substantial when it will be possible to arrange such education among large groups of Ha'Olim or in their respective communitiies...
There is no room to doubt the importance of Ha'Olim to the entirety of Agudas Yisroel... Not only will they carry the pressure of Yahadus in to the world of treason thereto; more so, they, through their Avodah in the ideals of Mussar and Middos (a labor unto itself) can be a special force for the Agudah, if only the Agudah realizes how to take advantage of this opportunity.
For although the Agudah's strngths are mostly organizational and political, it cannot derive its life force from those strengths... It must focus on those inherent strengths of Yahadus itself, its eternal ideas and ancient yearnings as well. In the final analysis, stength of will is contingent on those ideas and yearnings...
Please do not allow your hearts to persuade you that all there is here is the foundation of yet another redundant new society. That which we will found here is a Kiddush Hashem that will and unite the driving forces of Chassidus, of the Mussar Movement, of the Talmudic Masters and of the ambition for loftier Derech Eretz... This will be a Kiddush Hashem to an extent never before attempted. A Kiddush Hashem that will be the first step toward the blossoming of the ancient Torah, a debt that we owe Hashem in return for the chesed He has granted us in choosing our nation. It is the first step toward fulfilling the task, for which Hashem has chosen us.
    Unfortuantely for us all, Hitler's rise to power put an end to the activities of those groups of Ha'Olim which had begun to form in various places. The unsettled conditions which prevailed in Europe doomed this attempt to create a nucleus of enthusiastic young Jews dedicated to the spiritual regeneration of their people.See footnote 13 13
    Forseeing the danger posed by Hitler yemach shemo v'zichro, Dr. Birnbaum fled Berlin (where he had lived since 1911) with his family in 1933. He moved promptly to The Hague in Holland. He continued there to publish yet another periodical, "Der Rufe." The upheavals, however, took their toll. Dr. Birnbaum's death in 1937, along with the Holocaust, decimated the Ha'Olim movement.
    We have certainly not done Dr. Nathan Birnbaum or "Ha'Olim" justice! What we have attempted here, rather, is to replace upon the table of Judaism an array of essential ideas. The challenge that Dr. Birnbaum placed before the Agudah's central committee seventy years ago, is still relevant. The Holocaust led to essential, "distractions": the rebuilding of Orthodoxy and the Yeshiva world; the solidification of our socio-economic and political foundations; the popularization of large scale Torah study projects.
    But isn't it now time for determined, structured, ascent?

Footnote: 1 1 Related by Dr. J. Wolgemuth z"l, in Jeschurun, Berlin, Iyar-Sivan 5684. Quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan (Reb Avrohom Elya's son) in MeMa'ayanei Kedem, p. 330.
Footnote: 2 2 His first pen name was "Mattisyahu Acher," Mattisyahu - a loyal son of his nation; Acher - but also, a heretic who denied his nation's faith (ibid., p. 319; see also Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 4, pp. 1040-1042).
Footnote: 3     3 "Am Hashem" - a collection of Dr. Birnbaum's essays in Hebrew translation, (Netzach, Bnei Braq, 1977), p. 91. The volume's name is taken from one of his major works in German, Gottesvolk, "G-d's Nation." This 1917 essay, "Eis La'Asos" is also printed in Rabbi Moshe Prager z"l's "L'Or HaNetzach" (Research Institute of Religious Jewry, New York, 1962), p. 437. "Divrei Ha'Olim" was published the same year.
Footnote: 4     4 The resemblance was not lost on his contemporaries in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world. Many of his writings were translated and published in HaNe'eman, the Telzer journal that served as the voice of contemporary Mussar. I am grateful to Rabbi Tuvya Lasdun, librarian at the Gottesman Library of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon for providing me with copies of Dr. Birnbaum's essays in HaNe'eman. It would be a great favor to our generation were someone to reprint the HaNe'eman series, which is difficult to obtain.
Footnote: 5     5 A fascinating facet of Dr. Birnbaum program was a firm belief that cosmopolitan lifestyles were detrimental to his'alus. He believed that the intensity and competitiveness of city life and trade were inimical to the contemplative and deliberate personality that is the Torah's ideal. He was, therefore, very vocal in his advocacy of a return to a rural, agrarian lifestyle. See, for example, Am Hashem pp. 106-107.
Footnote: 6     6 Men of Spirit (New York, 1964), Rabbi Leo Jung zt"l, Editor, p. 337 (essay by Dr. Solomon A. Birnbaum z"l on his father, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum).
Footnote: 7     7 The Kol Koreh in HaNe'eman is accompanied by an editorial essay (likely authored by Rabbi Yosef Shmuelevitz Hy"d, editor of HaNe'eman, and a towering figure in his own right), that expresses Eastern European amazement that such a movement might have been conceived in Germany - a country they perceived as bereft of spiritual strivings and Mussar inclinations; and also a heartfelt plea to the Lithuanian Yeshiva world to recognize the compelling necessity to join in these efforts.
Footnote: 8     8 I am grateful to The Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Archives of Toronto, under the auspices of Dr. Birnbaum's grandchildren, Prof. Eleazar and Mr. David Birnbaum, for providing me with the records and protocols that do exist, including the cover page of an issue of Der Aufstieg, a monthly journal published by Dr. Birnbaum in Berlin from 1930-1933, from which the title of this essay and the accompanying illustration are taken. A sad but fascinating sidebar: One of the prominent members of Ha'Olim was Daniel Schindler, father of Reform "Rabbi" Alexander Schindler. Another grandson, Mr. Jacob Birnbaum, informed me that Alexander Schindler's tallis has an atara upon which are embroidered the words: "Da'as, Rachamim, Tiferes.
Footnote: 9     9 The definitions here are taken from Am Hashem p. 109.
Footnote: 10     10 Reprinted in L'Or HaNetzach, p. 439.
Footnote: 11     11 We must be aware of the German Orthodox milieu, in which yiras Shomayim and shemiras hamitzvos were very strong, but Torah knowledge, scholarship and religious fervor were relatively weak. Advanced yeshiva study (except for those who aspired to the rabbinate) was unheard of.
Footnote: 12     12 Dr. Birnbaum references here a work by Reb Yaakov Rosenheim z"l on Aesthetics and Judasim.
Footnote: 13     13 Men of Spirit, ibid.

Converted by Andrew Scriven

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