Thanks are due to Mr. Sidney Gruenwald for his help in preparing the translation.

A Project of the Education Department of the
General editor: Rabbi Joseph Elias

Published by the
dedicated to the advancement of traditional Judaism through the publication and distribution of Jewish classics, educational literature, and allied purposeful philanthropic activities.

[Note: Presented here is the full text of an abridged translation -published in 1946- of Dr. Birnbaum's Gottesvolk, published in 1917. The above information has been copied from the prefatory pages of the translation.]


On rare occasions men emerge in history whose lives mirror their entire age, all its ideals and errors, achievements and failures.  Rarer still are those who are chosen, at the end of their pilgrimage through life, to rise above their world and to attain that ultimate wisdom which is above time and circumstance.  Hence the greatness of Nathan Birnbaum, among the builders of modern Judaism.

Birnbaum helped create the major Jewish movements of our time, Zionism, Autonomism, Yiddishism.  He gave to all of them of his profound humanity and understanding of life.  But he passed from one to the other, a modern Odysseus in the search for truth, driven by his inexorably logical mind and incorruptible honesty, until he found his way home, to the simple yet sublime teachings of Jewish tradition.  It was at the end of his road that he came to write Gottesvolk, his great manifesto to the Jewish people, of which Confession is a somewhat abridged translation.  Today we see in it a deeply moving personal document –one of the great historical pieces of contemporary Jewish literature– and, above all, a message to the modern Jew, of vital significance for him.

Birnbaum was only nineteen years of age when he founded the first Jewish students' association, with a national program.  That was in the Vienna of 1883, a full decade before Theodor Herzl appeared on the Jewish scene.  In 1884, the first issue of Selbstemanzipation (Self-Emancipation) appeared, a journal of which Birnbaum was publisher, editor, bookkeeper, typist and office boy, all in one.  Through heartbreaking toil he finally gained a hearing for his ideals, for the trumpet-call of a resurgent Jewish nationalism.  In time, the rising wave of European anti-Semitism seemed to put victory within the grasp of the young Zionist movement: Palestine alone held out hope of peace for the Jew.

Nathan Birnbaum (1864 - 1937) in his prime.Yet, it was at this moment that Birnbaum broke with the political Zionism of Herzl.  To him, the Jewish nation was not merely a group of people held together by a common enemy (Herzl's definition); and its survival could not be secured by political concessions in Palestine.  The vitality of a people, Birnbaum felt, depended upon its culture; and upon this, Jewish nationalism had to be founded.  He did not belittle the importance of Palestine, but he maintained that Jewish nationhood could be sustained in the diaspora too, in centers of Jewish settlement, enjoying cultural autonomy.  Such a center he saw in Eastern European Jewry, as the truest representative of Jewish vitality, spirit, culture.  Hence his efforts in behalf of the Yiddish world.  Der Weg (The Way), founded in 1903, served as the mouthpiece of Autonomism.  A few years later, Birnbaum called a conference of the outstanding Yiddish writers of the time, which marked the full emergence of a proud Yiddishism.

Once more, however, Birnbaum turned away from the ideal he himself had helped to launch.  Jewish nationalism must be founded upon Jewish culture, he had recognized; and now, penetrating behind its manifold expressions, he came to realize that its innermost source was the religion of the Jew:  his G-d-consciousness, expressing itself in the sanctification of life.  That, Birnbaum felt, distinguished the Jew from the heathen; the good life in the Divine world from the brutality and self-seeking of paganism, ancient or modern.  To Birnbaum, this discovery came as a sudden overwhelming experience, which forever changed the course of his life.  It revealed to him the true meaning of world history:  the struggle of divine goodness to conquer the heathen world; and he recognized the purpose of Jewish existence:  to keep the divine light burning, to whose service the Jew had dedicated himself at the beginning of his history.

Thus Birnbaum rediscovered the teachings of Judaism, as they had been cherished, defended, and died for, through the ages.  Thus, also, he declared war against the desecration of the divine world by modern paganism.  But Gottesvolk, when it appeared in 1917, did not only present a challenge to the "heathen rebels"; it also addressed itself to the loyal Jews.  Do they realize, Birnbaum asked, that Judaism is a revolutionary creed and program, aiming to make over our world?  Do they keep before their eyes the messianic vision of a world prepared for the kingdom of G-d?

Birnbaum saw the most fundamental, and dangerous, aspects of the Jewish problem in the weakening of messianic fervor among the religious Jewish masses; and in the resulting threat of sterility, stagnation and death, Gottesvolk was written, above all, to bring home to the pious Jew the greatness of his messianic mission.  A time has come, Birnbaum proclaimed, which demands a penitent return to our divine task:  the sanctification of both individual and world . . . leading to final redemption.  The tragic history of twentieth-century Jewry has led many others of our leaders to join in the impassioned call for "repentance and redemption" which Birnbaum issued in 1917.

His inspired insight into the problem of Jewish life also revealed itself in his insistence that the discharge of the Jewish task demands organized communal cooperation, in behalf of the spiritual interests and material position of the Jewish people.  It was to this end, in fact, that the outstanding spiritual leaders of pious Jewry had organized Agudath Israel.  Shortly after writing Gottesvolk Bimbaum joined Agudath Israel and became its General Secretary –a remarkable ending to his long political Odyssey.

Nathan Birnbaum, portrait in old age.There was a third point in the program which Birnbaum outlined in Gottesvolk:  he felt that the survival of the various centers of Jewish settlement depended upon the isolation of Jewish communal life from the vices and aberrations of modern pagan life.  Hence he called for the establishment of an order of Olim (Ascenders), living outside the big cities, devoted to agriculture and handicrafts, immersed in Jewish spirituality and preserving the distinctive Jewish language and attire.  This project never came to fruition.  The Jewish community in Eastern Europe, to which Birnbaum looked above all, was destroyed in terrible fashion.  Today Jewish life is centered on Palestine and America; there is little prospect that the "community of the ascenders" will come into existence in these countries1 –and we may feel that Jewry may, in fact, survive in the modern world without the adoption of Birnbaum's project.

Yet Birnbaum's insistence upon the unbridgeable gulf between Judaism and modern paganism, and his call to arm ourselves against the pagan influences, are of immense significance for American and Palestinian Jewry, upon whom the burden of Jewish survival is now put.  Birnbaum's challenge rings in our ears with an urgency greater than ever before.  Wherever Providence has led the Jew, in Palestine or the diaspora, his fate is ultimately governed by the one supreme fact of his loyalty to the divine teachings of Judaism:  "The righteous liveth by his faith."  

1) For this reason the present translation of Gottesvolk omits the details of Birnbaum's plan as given in the German text and the appendix to it.

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