By Yaakov Zur
The Institute for Advanced Torah Studies, Bar-Ilan University.
Jerusalem, Israel, 1999
318 pages (Hebrew)
141 pages (English)
Written in Hebrew with major themes translated into English
Reviewed by Simcha Krauss
We are enjoined, Vehayu einecha ro’ot et morecha1 (Your eyes shall see your teachers). The command to see one’s teachers does not exhaust itself in physical sight alone. To properly observe this command, one must see, understand and then learn from one’s rebbe.
We are therefore indebted to Dr. Yaakov Zur, professor of contemporary Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, for writing this biography of Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Hoffman. In this excellent work, Rav Hoffman’s ideology, struggles and unique rabbinic style are all woven together. Zur takes us along with Rav Hoffman in his odyssey over three continents and enables us to peek into the rabbi’s inner life.2
Biographies, however, are not developed in a vacuum. They emerge out of the confrontation between the actors and their milieu. Hence, good biographies present us with a picture of the actor and his environment and how they interacted and influenced each other. This book is about Rav Hoffman as well as his era.
Who was Rav Hoffman?
Born in Papa, Hungary, in 1881, Rav Hoffman studied in traditional Hungarian yeshivot and was ordained by, among others, Rav Simcha Bunem Sofer, who headed the yeshiva in Pressburg (Bratislava) founded by the Chasam Sofer. In Pressburg, where the phrase chadash asur min haTorah (the new is forbidden by the Torah) originated as a contra-modernist slogan, the pursuit of secular studies was discouraged. Yet, Rav Hoffman, always an original thinker, exhibited his individualism at an early age. As a yeshivah student, he did not participate in the institution of “days,” the practice whereby students were hosted for daily meals by different baalei batim. He studied privately and received his matriculation diploma, which enabled him to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna. His doctoral dissertation, on a fascinating topic, was entitled “Halachic Elements in the Koran.” He expressed his independence in other ways as well. While still in Pressburg, he joined the Zionist movement even though most yeshivot, including the Pressburg yeshivah, were anti-Zionist. In 1904, as the news of Theodore Herzl’s death reached the community, he delivered a public eulogy. This fiercely rugged individualism would mark Rav Hoffman’s entire rabbinic career.
Rav Hoffman’s life spanned a period in which the Jewish community experienced cataclysmic changes. The Shoah and the establishment of Medinat Yisrael were the most obvious. Yet beginning with Emancipation, the Jewish community in Europe was buffeted by beliefs and ideologies that questioned the very foundation of the traditional Jewish world. If, as noted sociologist Peter Berger says, modernity means having options, then we can say that the pre-Shoah Jewish community was given a wide array of choices–many of which involved the rejection of religious observance and traditional values. The breakdown of the ghetto walls threatened the spiritual safety of the past insular society. Socialism, Bundism, and an increasingly aggressive secularism questioned the behavioral norms and values of traditional Judaism. Zionism, in all its manifestations, challenged the passivity of the Jewish community. Finally, as society became more open, schools and universities challenged the educational foundations of the Jewish community.
The points of conflict that were the “live” issues within Orthodoxy at that time have yet to be resolved. We have yet to come to terms with our relationship to contemporary culture, political Zionism, and the heterodox movements.
As we will see, in the early years of his rabbinate, Rav Hoffman was concerned with these issues as well. After ascending to the chief rabbinate of Radauti (in 1912), Rav Hoffman began reaching out to the secular and even anti-religious communities. As Zur writes, a group of Hashomer Hatzair students were accused by the authorities of subversive activities. Rav Hoffman left no stone unturned to help the students. His defense of “even” the non-religious left a lasting impression on all who knew him.
This caused a rift within German Orthodoxy, for while many within the Orthodox community aligned themselves with Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy, many others did not.
The acid test of Rav Hoffman’s tenacity and independence came in 1923 when he was invited to serve as rabbi of the Jewish community (Judische Gemeinde) in Frankfurt am Main. There he succeeded the late Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel (the teacher of Franz Rosenzweig) in the position previously held by the illustrious Rabbi Marcus Horovitz, the talmid muvhak of Rav Esriel Hildesheimer. In this position, Rav Hoffman presided over a kehillah with a vast array of community services including kashrut, mikvaot, etc. Additionally, he served as the av beit din of the community and rosh yeshivah of the Hoffmansche Yeshiva.
Rav Hoffman’s kehillah existed alongside another Orthodox community of Frankfurt am Main, Adas Yeshurun, founded by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. During Rav Hoffman’s tenure, Rabbi Shlomo Breuer, the son-in-law of Rabbi Hirsch, served as the rabbi of Adas Yeshurun.
The very existence of two kehillot side by side, each with its own system of kashrut, for example, can lead to rivalry and conflict. In this particular case, however, there was another element that institutionalized the conflict–the issue of Austritt (secession).3 When, some 50-60 years earlier, Rav Hirsch began rejuvenating Orthodoxy in Germany, he believed that success would only come by starting anew. That meant seceding from the larger Jewish community–which included Reform Jews–and creating a totally independent community. This independent community, Rabbi Hirsch insisted, should represent pure and authentic Orthodoxy and be recognized by the government for doing so. To Rabbi Hirsch, any Orthodox community that belonged to an umbrella organization with heterodox groups had no right to represent authentic Torah Judaism. This caused a rift within German Orthodoxy, for while many within the Orthodox community aligned themselves with Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy, many others did not. Rabbi Hoffman’s kehillah, in particular, did not separate itself from the general community, and therefore, in the eyes of those in Adas Yeshurun, did not represent authentic Orthodoxy.
Those in the Adas Yeshurun community constantly attempted to delegitimize Rav Hoffman. Zur writes how they often referred to Rav Hoffman as “Dr.” and refused to use the title rabbi. In 1931, Rabbi Yonah Horovitz, the successor to Rav Shlomo Breuer in Adas Yeshurun announced–without any warning or previous discussion with Rav Hoffman–that the eruv under Rav Hoffman’s supervision was invalid. Rav Hoffman’s response was two-fold. He pointed to the previous halachic decisors who approved the eruv and along with his beit din, he declared that the eruv, which was originally established by Rabbi Nobel, was valid ab initio. Realizing that the eruv issue was but another attempt to delegitimize his model of Orthodoxy, Rav Hoffman, in a moving sermon, articulated his rationale for not seceding from the larger community:
We who represent traditional Judaism have no right to demand from the individual all or nothing….We have…to [accept] with gladness every meaningful Jewish act…every tendency to Jewishness….Neither do we have a right to turn to a Jew and state…‘You have no part in our community….’Every Jew who recognizes one God is part of our community. Every Jew who seeks any affiliation to Judaism will be accepted with joy.4
Rav Hoffman’s lifelong espousal of the philosophy of Jewish peoplehood also explains his deep involvement with the Zionist and Religious Zionist movements (Mizrachi), which were not popular with German Orthodoxy. In fact, Rav Hoffman’s predecessor, Rav Nobel, though an ardent Zionist, was quite low-key about his Zionist activities. Rav Hoffman, however, publicly immersed himself in Zionist activity. So much so, that when the Mizrachi movement marked an important anniversary, they chose Rav Hoffman to deliver the keynote address. Moreover, he provided the movement with ideological direction. When Dr. Benno Jacob, a noted Bible scholar and leader of Reform Jewry, published an article questioning the religious significance of settling in Israel and arguing that the leadership of the yishuv was not interested in restoring religious life in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Hoffman responded:
The life of religion in Eretz Yisrael will not be formed by Zionist leaders. It will be formed by throngs of Jews settling there. The enrichment of Jewish values will occur when a society of Jews will entrench themselves and be rooted with their emotions and thoughts on the holy land of Eretz Yisrael….To involve one’s self in the settlement of the land of Israel is a religious obligation.
As Rav Hoffman became more active in the Mizrachi movement, he also took on leadership positions. Repeating his theme of Klal Yisrael, Rav Hoffman elucidated the Mizrachi stance. When Rav Avigdor Amiel, the chief rabbi of Antwerp and a leader in the Mizrachi movement, asserted that the differences between Agudah and Mizrachi were not ideological and that Mizrachi’s joining the World Zionist Organization was “an empty formality,” Rav Hoffman responded:
Our joining the Zionist movement is to us more than a formality. It is an inseparable part of Mizrachi ideology to strengthen the idea of Klal Yisrael.
And there is no difference whether the issue is one within the local Jewish community or whether it affects World Jewry. It is not sufficient to propagate an ideology in our own homogenous circles. We believe that it is our duty to be active in various organizations for our goals and to bring out into the public domain the religious cultural values that were created.
As Zur points out, this statement encapsulates Rav Hoffman’s ideology: a strong belief in Zionism and a fervent commitment to remain part of the larger Jewish community.
This fiercely rugged individualism would mark Rav Hoffman’s entire rabbinic career.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, it took time for the Jewish community to understand the implications of this transfer of power. There were many, among them leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community, who believed that “this too shall pass.” (With hindsight, we call this optimism naiveté.) Indeed, some of them wrote letters to Hitler explaining that religious Jews were not Communists or Marxists, and that they shared some of the core values of the German people.5
In 1935, Rabbi Hoffman sensed the impending disaster. While he did not want to cause people to panic, he could not allow his community to be lulled into slumber either. Thus, in his public statements, he was forced to juggle between these poles. Soon, however, it dawned on the German Jewish community that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. With the passing of the Nuremberg laws in 1935, the complacency of the Jewish leadership was shattered.
During this terribly difficult period, Rav Hoffman took on a greater leadership role. Despite the disapproval of the Agudah and the separatists (those who advocated secession), Rav Hoffman was chosen to be the sole representative of Orthodox Jewry in the nine-person ruling body of the Reichvertretung Der Juden in Deutschland (the supreme representative body of German Jewry in its dealings with the Nazi regime). He became involved in hatzalah work (acquiring certificates for his yeshivah students to go to Palestine) and spoke in cities throughout Germany to help raise the morale of the Jewish community. Despite a taxing schedule, he managed to publish a major study, Rambam as Master of Halachah.
In the spring of 1937, Rav Hoffman’s tenure in Frankfurt am Main came to an abrupt end. Without warning, the Gestapo ordered Rav Hoffman expelled from Germany on a trumped-up charge that he had engaged in activities that were bound to upset the civil order. None of the efforts to overturn this decision were successful. On March 27, he was deported to Vienna.
In 1938, Rav Hoffman came to the United States on a mission on behalf of German Jewry. When the Nazi government came to power, one of its first measures was to prohibit shechitah. Inevitably, the price of imported kosher meat skyrocketed. Upon his arrival in the United States, Rav Hoffman hoped to raise funds to provide German Jewish institutions, including hospitals, old-age homes and yeshivot, with kosher meat.
Shortly after arriving in New York, Rav Hoffman became the rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek on Manhattan’s West Side. Although the shul was in an area inhabited by many Hungarian Jewish families, Rav Hoffman did not adjust easily. Already in his late fifties, he had to face a new country and language. Furthermore, the “empire” over which he had presided in Frankfurt could not be recreated. While in Frankfurt, members of the kehillah naturally deferred to the chief rabbi; in the United States, congregants had an entirely different relationship with their rabbi.
In spite of all these difficulties, Rav Hoffman threw himself into his new role. He helped found Manhattan Day School; he became active in hatzalah work; he took on new leadership roles in the Zionist and Mizrachi movements.
With the end of World War II, Rav Hoffman turned to mobilizing American Jewry in the struggle to establish Medinat Yisrael. In 1954, he realized his dream of aliyah. He died in 1956, after serving as a Jewish leader par excellence for over 40 years. Tikvat Yaakov, a Bnei Akiva yeshivah in Israel, is named for him.
By writing this book, Professor Zur has done a great service for the Orthodox world. Rav Hoffman is an exemplary role model for the Orthodox rabbinate which has much to learn from his courage and independence.6
Rabbi Krauss is the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Hillcrest in Flushing, NY. He is on the Talmud faculty of Isaac Breuer College of Yeshiva University. He currently serves as President of Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi/Hapoel Hamizrachi).
- Isaiah 30:20.
- 2. I want to thank Mr. Benjamin Hoffman, the son of Rav Yaakov Hoffman, for his help in clarifying some of the chronological data.
- A fuller exposition of the debate about Austritt is beyond the scope of this essay. The book under review, in particular chapters 3-4, provide a good general background of the issue. For further reading, one may consult Judith Bleich, “Rabbinic Responses to Non-Observance in the Modern Era,” in Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew, edited by Jacob J. Schacter (Montvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992), 37-115 and Ibid., “Between East and West: Modernity and Traditionalism in the Writings of Rabbi Yehiel Yaacov Weinberg,” Engaging Modernity, edited by Moshe Sokol (Montvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997). Both are part of the Orthodox Forum series of Yeshiva University. Also see Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jechiel Jacob Weinberg 1884-1966 (London, Portland, Oregon: the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999).
- All of the quotes of Rav Hoffman are from the book under review, p. 40. All translations from the Hebrew are mine.
- For the full text of the letter, see Shapiro, Between The Yeshiva World, 225-233.
- As this review was prepared for publication, I learned of the recent passing of Mrs. Eva Hoffman Meyer, the daughter of Rav Yaakov Hoffman. May these lines be a tribute to her memory.