Ish Yehudi: The Life and the Legacy of a Torah Great, Rav Joseph Tzvi Carlebach

Ish Yehudi: The Life and the Legacy of a Torah Great, Rav Joseph Tzvi Carlebach
By Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Shearith Joseph Publications
New York, 2008
316 pages

Rabbi Joseph Carlebach: Authenticity and Heroism in Cataclysmic Times

The legendary three communities Kehillot AHU (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck) boasted authors, rabbis and scholars of storied fame in the annals of Jewish history. A very different aura surrounds the personality of a Hamburg writer of Jewish birth, Heinrich Heine. Perhaps the greatest German lyric poet, Heine was an individual whose tragically flawed understanding and appreciation of Judaism made it possible for him to yield to pragmatic considerations and become an apostate, even if only to obtain what he termed a ticket of admission to European culture and even if, as he later claimed, he was baptized, but did not convert.

Noted for his satiric and ironic portrayal of German politics, Heine was assuredly prescient in his forebodings about German militarism:

Watch out! . . . . I tell you the bitter truth. . . . A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll . . . savagery will rise again . . . .

The German thunder rolls slowly at first but it will come. And when you hear it roar, as it has never roared before in the history of the world, know that the German thunder has reached its target.1

Heine’s feelings regarding his own people reflect the pathos of a generation of Jewishly ignorant and alienated intellectuals. On the occasion of the endowment of a Jewish hospital by his uncle, he wrote:

A hospital for sick and needy Jews
For those poor mortals who are triply
With three great maladies afflicted:
With poverty and pain and
The worst of these evils is the last one
The thousand-year-old family
affliction . . .
Incurable deep-seated hurt! No
By vapor bath or douche can help to
heal it,
No surgery, nor all the medications
This hospital can offer to its patients.2

It was 1941 on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the founding of this hospital that the then chief rabbi of Hamburg composed a poem in response to Heine’s woeful ode. Writing in the dark days of the Hitler regime, the rabbi extols the one hundred years of loving kindness practiced in the hospital and asserts that it is their faith that enables Jews to persevere despite all of life’s travails. Indeed, “To be a Jew,” the chief rabbi affirms, “is the ultimate, the highest bliss–ein Jude sein ist letztes höchstes Glück!” 3

Who was the rabbi who proudly penned these words at one of the most chilling and terrifying moments of our people’s existence? The last chief rabbi of Hamburg before the cataclysmic destruction of the kehillah was Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, a towering spiritual leader, orator, writer and educator, chief rabbi first of Altona and later of Hamburg, who refused to abandon hiscommunity in its time of need and went to his death, together with his wife and three young daughters, al Kiddush Hashem. In Ish Yehudi: The Life and the Legacy of a Torah Great, Rav Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, his son, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, recounts the life of his extraordinary father.

Perusal of this volume quickly becomes an intriguing reading experience. The somewhat Germanic stolidity of style and lack of idiomatic flair is balanced by the enormous care with which every word is weighed and measured. The result is a narrative written by a rabbinic scholar conscious of the import of verbal nuance who strives for precision and exactitude. Yet this is by no means a dry, bloodless account. Again and again, there is an unexpected sudden overflowing of suppressed emotion and, like rays of sunshine on a gray day, lyrical passages enliven the prose. A rich selection of photographs and extensive facsimiles of documents and archival letters enhances the text and brings the subject matter to life. The work makes a significant contribution in highlighting and elucidating a number of topics often glossed over and inadequately explored elsewhere: the ideal of authentic Torah im Derech Eretz as implemented by individuals of genuine commitment to Torah who made use of secular accomplishments leshem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven); the personalities of pioneers of German Orthodoxy in the modern age such as Chacham Bernays;4 and especiallythe relationship between Eastern and Western Orthodoxy in the wake of the First World War.

A scion of a venerable rabbinic family, 5 Joseph Carlebach was a graduate of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. Although he remained a proud follower of the Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and a devoted adherent of its staunch practitioners,6 while yet a young man of twenty-two his personality was indelibly impressed by his contact with Rabbi Shmuel Salant of Jerusalem7 and later by his encounters with Torah luminaries in Poland and Lithuania.

A familiar theme in descriptions of early twentieth-century European Orthodoxy is the tension that existed within the Jewish community between East and West. In sharp contrast, Ish Yehudi presents a significant account of fruitful confluence in the personality and mission of Rabbi Joseph Carlebach. The enduring impact on Lithuanian and German Orthodoxy of this remarkable instance of cultural cross-fertilization is ably analyzed in Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s incisive review essay on Ish Yehudi published in The Jewish Observer [vol. XLI, no. 9, December 2008, 33-37]. There were two separate periods in Rabbi Carlebach’s life in which this development is dramatically portrayed: the first period encompasses the rabbi’s activities in Lithuania during World War I and its aftermath; the second is the period in which he served as the leader of Agudath Israel’s Keren Hatorah study tour.

Much of Rabbi Carlebach’s life was devoted to education, not merely as an abstract theoretician but as a teacher and principal. He taught in Berlin while yet a student, then in Jerusalem and later in Kovno; during his early years in the rabbinate he founded a yeshivah in Lübeck and for five years served as director of the Talmud Torah Realschule in Hamburg. Finally, as chief rabbi of Altona and subsequently of Hamburg, supervision and improvement of the education of children and adults remained a primary focus of his rabbinate.

Of particular interest is the story of Rabbi Carlebach’s experience as an educator in Kovno. Early in the First World War, subsequent to defeating Czarist forces in the East, the German High Command sought to enlist the support of the Jewish population in the occupied territories. At that time, other than the yeshivot that served only a small, elite segment of the populace, the Jewish communities in those areas had only an informal and disorganized elementary school system and no high schools whatsoever. At the recommendation of his brotherin- law, Rabbi Dr. Leopold Rosenak, an army chaplain and advisor on Jewish affairs to the German occupation authority in Lithuania, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach,8 who had been conscripted into the German army and commissioned as an officer, was appointed advisor on educational affairs with a mandate to establish a high school in Kovno, the capital of Lithuania. The gymnasium Rabbi Carlebach founded had separate divisions for boys and girls and offered a curriculum combining limudei kodesh and secular subjects. Colloquially referred to as the Carlebach Gymnasium, within a brief span of time the school developed into an exemplary institution and served as the model for the Lithuanian Yavneh educational system endorsed by Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch of Telz.9 While concentrating his energies on the Gymnasium, Rabbi Carlebach was also a tireless advocate on behalf of the struggling Lithuanian yeshivot in interceding with the German authorities in order to facilitate transmission of funds from Western Europe to the yeshivot, despite strict wartime restraints upon currency transactions.

In the aftermath of the war, Lithuanian Jewry profited enormously from the introduction of the Torah im Derech Eretz methodology. But there was also a reciprocal benefit. Rabbi Carlebach was extremely impressed with the caliber of Torah study in the Eastern yeshivot and was inspired to strive to transmit that heritage to the West. When he returned to Germany in 1919 as rabbi of Lübeck, he brought back with him a young Talmudic prodigy, an outstanding student of Slabodka, Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Rabinow, and appointed Rabbi Rabinow head of the fledgling yeshivah he established in Lübeck.10

The account of Rabbi Carlebach’s experiences in his subsequent encounter with the Torah communities of the East presents a window into Rabbi Joseph’s own soul and constitutes the high point of the volume. The Keren Hatorah initiative of Agudath Israel directed by Dr. Leo Deutschlander (who later was to play a prominent role in the growth of the Beth Jacob movement) fostered the growth of Torah centers throughout Europe. In 1931 the board of Keren Hatorah commissioned a study tour to evaluate Keren Hatorah activities over the previous decade and to create an opportunity for dialogue with leading Torah personalities in the East. As the spokesman at the helm of a group of twenty delegates and the author of the definitive report of their tour, Rabbi Carlebach details the delegation’s travels to forty destinations in seventeen cities in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary. He describes the joy of being privileged “to rediscover the pure and undefiled beauty and unpretentious greatness of Jewish life” and the feelings of awe and humility evoked in the visitors, but also celebrates how “those who came to see and recognize were themselves seen and recognized; who came only to listen were listened to and understood . . . the discoverers became the discovery” and notes that there ensued “an exalted dialogue between East and West, separated for a long time, alienated by geography and prejudice.” 11

During a Shabbat the group spent as guests of Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, Rabbi Carlebach was fascinated to behold a Chassidic leader hailing from a circumscribed environment who “projects a Judaism that is universal . . . . [who serves as] a Sejm deputy with intimate participation in all governmental and economic challenges of the present, without abandoning for a moment his identity as Rav.”12 If he was entranced by the Lubliner Rav, Rabbi Carlebach was simply overawed at his meetings with the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky.13 For the Western Orthodox members of the delegation, the encounter with the intense all-consuming Torah study of the yeshivah world (“learning constantly, totally immersed, living and breathing the Torah, . . . drinking from the sources, not from the distilled and bottled excerpts and essences which we spoon-feed our youth”14) was transformative in nature:

Jewish life to the fullest extent was the very element which we were lacking and yearning to embrace . . . the rabbanim (Torah scholars) for whose presence we are aching, and stand at the look-out . . . . Our hearts had been touched by the magic rod of transformation, as if we were all yeshivah bachurim, or Gerrer Chassidim, or youngsters in the Lublin or Pressburg circle . . . . We were not parting, only journeying on. To those who had found each other, it was as if their souls were bonded, an eternal possession.15

It is not surprising that as Rabbi Carlebach gained recognition as a talented and energetic rabbi with literary and oratorical accomplishments, he was much sought after in different venues. While he was serving as rabbi of Altona, the governing board of the Berlin Jewish community invited Rabbi Carlebach to become chief rabbi of Berlin, then probably the most prestigious rabbinic position in Germany. The account of his negotiations with the Berlin community affords the reader a glimpse into Rabbi Carlebach’s principled posture as Orthodox rav and halachic arbiter faced with far-reaching decisions at a time of Reform-Orthodox antagonism and conflict. 16

Clearly, there are situations in which the halachah is unambiguous and no compromise is possible and there are other situations in which a measure of flexibility may be entertained, but the final decision in the latter instances depends upon the specific circumstances of the particular case and a variety of attendant factors and considerations. As Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky of Vilna remarked with regard to the question of communal secession, an issue of such a nature affects fundamental questions of Torah but “is not resolved on the basis of Talmudic sources but according to sound judgment and experience. It devolves solely upon the beit din of that place to analyze this matter in depth . . . for not all countries and not all locales and times are identical with regard to this.”17

The issue of the location of the bimah in the synagogue was viewed by many rabbinic authorities as emblematic of the struggle against Reform and any attempt to move the bimah from the center of the synagogue was resisted by them regardless of consequences. Yet a number of halachic decisors viewed placement of the bimah in the center of the synagogue as desirable rather than mandatory and consequently ruled that failure to position the bimah in the center does not mar the sanctity of a synagogue as a place of prayer.18

When the Berlin delegation approached Rabbi Carlebach they offered him a position as chief rabbi of the entire community in the anticipation that his authority would be recognized by all factions from Reform to Orthodox and even by the separatist and secessionist Adas Yisroel community. 19 There was, however, a major problem. The governing board had determined to erect a new strictly Orthodox synagogue but one in which the bimah would be placed directly in front of the aron kodesh rather than in the center. In declining to accept the position, Rabbi Carlebach noted that the Berlin leaders had cited as precedent the example of Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger in whose synagogue in Würzburg the bimah was not in the center. 20 Rabbi Carlebach countered that Rabbi Bamberger had consented to deviation with regard to location of the bimah in Würzburg in order to preserve the unity of that community and repel the encroachment of Reform. Explaining his own stance vis-àvis the Berlin board of directors, Rabbi Carlebach wrote:

Ah, that you were willing to abolish the organ and to retain the traditional prayerbook; to have one united Jewish community that is completely loyal to tradition, with only the one stipulation that the reading desk be situated in front of the congregation instead of in its midst–then, I would be the first to preach from the pulpit of the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue [the premier Berlin Reform temple]. Then, when the time comes, I would confess before G-d that I have indeed violated one of the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch, but, by so doing, I have united all the brethren of the Jewish people under the banner of Torah, and prevented them from being divided into two kinds of Judaism. Bamberger achieved such unity as a result of his one concession, and the official Jewish community of Würzburg has remained Orthodox to this day. But as for those who have destroyed the unity of Judaism by the introduction of outright reforms in worship, they have acted contrary to the spirit of Rabbi Bamberger. They add insult to injury in their dealings with Orthodoxy by denying in its own houses of worship that which it regards as sacred principle.21

For Rabbi Carlebach there followed years of continued rabbinic service to the communities of Altona and Hamburg and of prolific scholarship and literary activity. It was in the last years of his life that Rabbi Joseph Carlebach rose to heroic stature. As his fellow Jews fled to safety in droves and rabbis and colleagues escaped to freedom, Rabbi Carlebach remained behind, responding ever more sacrificially to the desperate needs of his coreligionists. Although he received an emergency certificate for immigration to England, Rabbi Carlebach relinquished it in favor of an endangered colleague. On Kristallnacht, Rabbi Carlebach entered the “Big Shul” on Bornplatz while it was still on fire and fearlessly confronted the leader of the Nazi storm troopers who were destroying the building and seizing the Torah scrolls. The rabbi implored him to spare “the Holy Bible scrolls. Isn’t the Bible sacred to all people on earth?” 22 The Nazi’s response was a brutal beating of the rabbi, from which he barely escaped with his life. In the ensuing weeks and months Rabbi Carlebach strove to strengthen the spirit of the members of the embattled community and assumed the full brunt of the responsibility devolving upon him as the only remaining rav in Germany capable of rendering halachic decisions.

Interestingly, considering the likely possibility that he might someday find himself a refugee in a foreign country and not wanting to become a burden on others, he engaged a tutor to teach both himself and his younger son the art of bookbinding. When a pianist, a Russian emigree stranded in Hamburg, begged the rabbi to recommend her as a music teacher to members of the community, Rabbi Carlebach, despite his own financial straits, immediately hired her to teach his own children. Together with his wife, Rebbetzin Lotte, he became involved in countless acts of succor on behalf of the stream of refugees who passed through Hamburg. Nor did he ignore the plight of upstanding non-Jews and, it goes without saying, he came to the aid of all Jews regardless of their religious affiliation. A moving letter from their mother to the Carlebach children abroad describes the yeoman efforts of Rabbi Carlebach and his wife over the course of the Pesach holidays and notes, “On Shavuot, the house was again full of visitors, including a group of twenty emigrants from Vienna. They had come to Shul to hear the sermon, and when the Rav suggested they join us for an afternoon’s repast, they eagerly accepted. Not one of them knew how to daven.” 23

When deportation of Hamburg’s remaining Jews to the East began, Rabbi Carlebach accompanied every transport to the train station with words of comfort and reassurance. Finally, on December 6, 1941, he and his family were ordered to board the train for Riga. Heartrending is the author’s personal recollection of the family’s arrival at the absorption camp in Jungfernhof near Riga. The camp director and transport leaders, including the rabbi, had been assigned special accommodations. But Rabbi Carlebach did not accept this arrangement and took one of the berths in the main barracks so that he might share the lot of all the others.24 When the fateful hour came on March 26, 1942, the rabbi, his tefillin in his coat pocket and matzot in his hand, was taken to the Bikernieki Forest and, exhorting his fellow Jews to proclaim the Shema, died al Kiddush Hashem. He exemplified the ideal leader for whose appointment Moshe Rabbeinu prayed: “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who may go out before them and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out and who may bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord not be as sheep which have no shepherd.” 25

With regard to such rare noble leaders, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the last head of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, expressed the wish that there be recorded for posterity
that among the rabbis of Germany there were righteous men, pious and saintly, who in other countries would have been pursued by tens of thousands who wished to benefit from the luster of their Torah and fear of Heaven. The academic attainments they received in German universities they relegated to the status of rakachot ve-tabachot [lit. “perfumers and cooks,” i.e., instrumental skills]. Verily, it is hardly to be believed. Their academic titles they hid from the eyes of all and utilized them solely in their contacts with the authorities and their struggle against assimilationist freethinkers.26

Rabbi Weinberg firmly maintained that the rabbis who were slaughtered al kiddush Hashem must be memorialized. He urged public commemoration of those individuals “not only for the honor of those martyrs but also for the sake of future generations, so that they not forget what has been lost to our people during the time when darkness of murderous villainy covered the countries of Europe.” 27 Fulfilling that mandate–this, too, is one of the not inconsiderable contributions of Ish Yehudi.

1.Heinrich Heine, “Zur Geschichte von Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland,” Sämtliche Schriften, ed. Karl Pornbacher, III, 505 (Munich, 1968), English trans. in Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (New York, 2002),143-144.

2. “Das neue Issraelitische Hospital zu Hamburg” (1842), Heinrich Heines Sämtliche Werke, ed. Ernst Elster, I (Leipzig and Vienna, 1893), 309. The English translation is that of Hal Draper, The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version (Boston, 1982), 398-399. The banker Salomon Heine, the poet’s uncle who established the hospital, had been denied citizenshipand admission to Hamburg’s Chamber of Commerce. Accordingly, he stipulated that the hospital be open to gentiles only upon conferral of civil rights upon the Jews of Hamburg. This did not take place until 1864, twenty years after Salomon Heine’s death. See also Siegbert Salomon Prawer, Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of his Portraits of Jews and Judaism (Oxford, 1983), 433.

3. Ish Yehudi, p. 193. The naming of city streets after Heine in Tel Aviv and later in Jerusalem sparked considerable controversy. See the colorful reports in the Jerusalem Post, October 17, 1993, p. 7 and November 30, 2001, p. 6 and The Jerusalem Report, January 28, 2002, p. 47. Great writer and insightful commentator on many aspects of Jewish life that he was, when all is said and done, whatever his motivation, Heine did convert to Christianity. Naming streets in his memory hardly redounds to the honor of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

4. Note the author’s penetrating comments, Ish Yehudi, pp. 111-112, regarding his father’s affinity for the personality of Chacham Bernays.

5. See the remarks of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (ibid., pp. 262-263) regarding megillat yuchasin beYisrael and the Carlebach family. Those comments were written in 1959 as introductory divrei berachah to Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach’s biography, Joseph Carlebach and his Generation (New York, 1959). Musical talent as well as intellectual inclinations appear to have been family traits. For the musical aptitude of Rabbi Joseph, see Ish Yehudi, p. 170.

6. As a result of the reinvigoration of German Orthodoxy under the leadership of Rabbis Hirsch and Hildesheimer, a subtle shift took place in the spiritual complexion of the community. A small but growing number of young men became enamored of the yeshivot of the East. Youths from Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig headed to Mir, Slabodka, Telz and Baranovich to study. Many of these looked back upon their Torah im Derech Eretz background and rejected it. See Hermann Schwab, The History of Orthodox Jewry in Germany, trans. Irene R. Birnbaum (London, 1950), 128. In contrast, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, attracted to the Torah study of the East, nevertheless remained firm in his loyalty to the Torah im Derech Eretz tradition.

7. Of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach wrote that the extraordinary unique personality of the Rav of Jerusalem, Reb Shmuel Salant, stands out. In my memory, the Holy City and its Rav are inseparable. . . . I still see him vividly, the small frail stature with the black wide-brimmed velour hat, typical of the “Perushim”; the face, framed by the silvery white beard, marked by age and suffering, bereft of the ornament of eyesight, yet with an expression of boundless nobility and goodness. . . . then and there, it dawned upon me that I had come face to face with genuine aristocracy, so secure within itself that it forgoes any vainglorious trappings, in whose presence the loud bragging of the shallow veneer of our existence must hide its face in shame. Ish Yehudi, pp. 43-44.

8. Rabbi Joseph’s older brother, Ephraim Carlebach, rav of Cologne and chief chaplain of Jews in the Polish sector, worked closely with Polish Jewish communal leaders and together with Rabbi Pinchas Kohn was influential in bringing Gerrer Chassidim into the ambit of the Agudath Israel movement. See ibid., p. 70.

9. Later Rabbi Joseph Carlebach was actively involved in establishing a teachertraining program for the Yavneh schools. See ibid., pp. 76-81.

10. Rabbi Rabinow subsequently accompanied Rabbi Carlebach to Altona and Hamburg and maintained an intimate lifelong collaborative friendship with him.

11. Ish Yehudi, pp. 115-116.

12. Ibid., p. 123.

13. Ibid., pp. 128-129 and 134. See sidebar on page 83 in this issue.

14. Ish Yehudi, p. 119.

15. Ibid., p. 117.

16. Rabbi Carlebach’s essays regarding the bimah, including a narrative regarding Rabbi Shmuel Salant and Rabbi Bamberger as well as his own reply to the Berlin board, are published in Naphtali Carlebach, Joseph Carlebach and his Generation, pp. 225-230 and in the more felicitous translation, accompanied by a valuable discussion and notes, by Shnayer Z. Leiman, “Rabbi Joseph Carlebach–Wuerzburg and Jerusalem: A Conversation between Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger and Rabbi Shmuel Salant,” Tradition, 28:2 (winter 1994): 58-63. The report in Ish Yehudi, pp. 162-168, contains a more detailed account of the negotiations with the Berlin kehillah.

17. Achi’ezer: Kovetz Iggerot, ed. Aaron Soraski (Bnei Brak, 1970), I, 244.

18. See Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim, II (New York, 1963), nos. 41 and 42; see also Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems (New York, 1965), 43-46.

19. See Ish Yehudi, p. 163.

20. Rabbi Carlebach had himself published an article describing Rabbi Bamberger’s synagogue in Würzburg in which he explains the considerations that prompted Rabbi Bamberger’s acquiescence to serve in a synagogue in which the bimah was not positioned properly. See Leiman, Tradition, pp. 58-60 and p. 62, note 8.

21. Ish Yehudi, p. 168.

22. Ibid., p. 225.

23. Ibid., p. 240.

24. Ibid., p. 197.

25. Numbers 27: 16-17.

26. Seridei Eish (Jerusalem, 1962), II, no. 30, p. 53, note.

27. Loc. cit. Rabbi Weinberg also endorsed the institution of a designated memorial day for martyrs of the Holocaust.

Dr. Judith Bleich is professor of Judaic studies at Touro College and has written extensively on modern Jewish history.

This article was featured in the Spring 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at