Isaac Breuer: “Legitimate Revolutionary”


By Dr. Mordechai Breuer

A recently-discovered personal diary sheds new light on the confrontation of a profound Orthodox thinker with the reality of the New Yishuv in the 1930s.

As a historian, I am supposed to adopt a professionally critical attitude and strive for utmost objectivity.  As a son and pupil whose vivid memories of his father and teacher have not faded since he passed away 50 years ago, I am still under the impact of an everyday encounter with the towering personality of a great man, a great Jew and a loving father.  My difficulty is not a supposed incompatibility or incongruence of history and memory.  In fact, memory is a component part of history. However, what stands out in the memory of a son may be trivial for the historical record and vice versa.  I have no choice but to assume my habitual stance of historian, to draw upon my filial memories for a deeper grasp of personal and biographical points involved in the historical process, and to hope that my presentation will not overstep the limits of filial love and obligation.

RECENTLY, while searching family archives, I discovered a diary which my father had recorded during a visit to Eretz Yisrael in the winter months of 1933/34, prior to his aliyah in March 1936.  This diary, a very personal document, is not for publication.  However, some passages are essential for an in-depth understanding of the message which my father brought before the Orthodox public as a result of the impact of his confrontation with the New Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael in the years prior to the Shoah and prior to the establishment of the Jewish state.

This was not his first visit to the Holy Land.  In 1926, he had spent two weeks in Jerusalem as the representative of the Agudat Israel executive.  At that time the comprehensive and officially recognized Jewish Community was taking shape under the name of Knesset Israel, with the Va’ad Le’umi, the National Council of the Jews of Palestine, as its executive body and the Chief Rabbinate, whose Ashkenazic head was Rav Kook, as its supreme religious authority.  In Jerusalem and several other towns with sections of the Old Yishuv, a small, separate Orthodox community had formed whose members demanded that it be given equal rights and standing with the Knesset Israel.  It was on behalf of these secessionists that my father was commissioned to negotiate with officials of the Government of Palestine, headed by the British High Commissioner, on the terms under which the Mandate government was prepared to recognize this Orthodox group as a Religious Community separate from Knesset Israel.

A year previously my father had published a treatise in German and in English, entitled “The Jewish National Home,” in which he set forth the religious, legal and political grounds making communal secession in Palestine, i.e. the setting up of a separate Orthodox community, appear as an unquestionably justified cause.  As the ideologist of communal secession and the Agudat Israel movement, as well as being a practicing lawyer, my father was obviously qualified to conduct these negotiations.  During those days in Jerusalem which my father spent mainly within the walls of the Old City and in close collaboration with the rabbinical head of the Orthodox separatists, Rabbi Joseph Chaim Sonnenfeld, he employed his considerable legal talents and emotional commitment to further the cause of Rabbi Sonnenfeld and his flock.  At his final meeting with the British officials, the Attorney General Norman Bentwich told him that the government would consent to legalizing secession, but was prepared to recognize his clients as a separate Orthodox community only if they could show a list of at least 20,000 registered members.  And there the matter rested.

“Frankfurt is, perhaps, no more; Yerushalayim is not yet. Where do I go?”

MY father’s second visit, which he made with my mother, lasted three months.  He stayed in Jerusalem outside the Old City, Tel Aviv and Haifa and made extended excursions throughout the country.  The diary contains detailed accounts of what he saw, with whom he talked and what problems were discussed.  He met with many new settlers from Germany, belonging to different shades of Orthodoxy.  He paid visits to leading rabbis of divers trends, from Rav Kook to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Dushinsky, Rav Sonnenfeld’s successor with whom he had many meetings.  The Orthodox persons he met in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the colonies were all non-secessionist members of Knesset Israel, since in those places there  existed no separate Orthodox community.  Daily confrontation with the realities of the New Yishuv deeply affected my father, as witnessed by many pages of the diary.

Here is a selection from the diary, translated into English by myself, as are all the subsequent quotations.  None of these is yet available in English and only very few in Hebrew.

     I ponder the question, whether secession, as such, has any sense over here.  Can one secede from — life?… The British government refused to organize the Jews on a national basis.  That is how the religious community came into being [under the Mandate, but it has] hardly any institutions…of religious significance.  Its basic component, the Va’ad Le’umi, is in its capacity a national representative body.  Secession from the national life is both unthinkable and unnecessary.  To be sure, Jerusalem [of the Old Yishuv] has seceded even from the national life.  However, this precisely is the source of Jerusalem’s weakness.  The struggle over secession [previously, in 1926] was in its time absolutely necessary:  it was a protest against the assumption by the Va’ad Le’umi of authority in the sphere of religion.  Had this struggle led simultaneously to an energetic drive of founding [organized, religious] communities on the lines of those in the Golah, the Va’ad Le’umi would have persisted as a purely national representation with which there would be no difficulty of achieving accommodation.  But as things are today, all is vague… 

     Independent Orthodoxy, great in Frankfurt, is great even in fading out.  But over here, independent Orthodoxy is totally negative.  Where is my homeland now?… Frankfurt is, perhaps, no more; Yerushalayim is not yet.  Where do I go?

     …There is no community.  Only life.  Old and new life.  Only facts.  Everything in motion. If only one could go on board and participate in shaping it.

     …The totality of Jewish life — this is what a local community is composed of.  The synagogue, the houses of study, shechitah etc. are all woven into the texture of life.  Who, then, shall be the addressee of a declaration of secession? …Wouldn’t it, perhaps, be more sensible to fight the Va’ad Le’umi within the Kehillah? …With all I have I wish to devote myself to the upbuilding of the land.

     So far as hashkafah is concerned, apart from the subject of communal separatism, Rav Kook’s position is definitely close to mine.  At the very least I share with him an aversion to [the politics of the public leaders of the Old Yishuv].  Likewise there is a sense of urgency to win the life in Eretz Yisrael for Torah.

I think these words speak for themselves.  The protagonist of communal secession, face to face with the realities of life in the new Eretz Yisrael, was alive to changing conditions and to the need for adaptation, while never revising his fundamental ideology.  As perhaps never before, he realized the polarity of life beyond the synagogue.  He had always recognized that the claim of representing the “totality of Torah” as put forward with such pride by Frankfurt Orthodoxy was hardly warranted in Eretz Yisrael.

BACK in Germany, my father gave much thought to what he had experienced in Eretz Yisrael.  In quick succession he published two papers dealing with the relationship between the static principles of Orthodox Judaism and the dynamic changes of the realities of life to which these principles were to be applied.  First he published an address he had given on the anniversary of his grandfather’s passing away, entitled “Samson Raphael Hirsch — a guide to Jewish History” (Nachalath Zvi 5 [1934/35], pp.69-84). He wrote:

     A great historical personage is a revolutionary phenomenon.  By dint of his or her historic mission a clash with contemporaries is inevitable.  This is true also in Jewish history, but while all revolutions among the other nations contain an element of law-breaking, Jewish law is divine law and hence inviolable.  If so, how can there appear revolutionaries in the Jewish people loyal to Jewish God-given law?  There have, of course, been revolutionaries of the common kind, from Jeroboam I to Ludwig Philippson and Abraham Geiger.  In Jewish history they are remembered as rebels against the law, as sinners who misled the people into sinning.  Does Jewish history recognize law-abiding or “legitimate” revolutionaries?  It does.

     Common revolutionaries take action when social conditions change and human law becomes obsolete.  They turn against existing legislation, violate it and mold it to suit the changed realities. In contrast to them the great personalities among the Jewish people do not turn against divine law but turn their attention to conditions and realities.  If these are found to have changed to such an extent that they are in danger of slipping out of the all-embracing rule of Torah, then a “legitimate revolution” sets in and the insufferable tension that had evolved between Torah and social realities is solved — not through violating and transforming the law but through molding and re-forming the realities.  These realities are not being ignored, which would create an ever growing gap between them and the law, but they are seized upon and processed until they become subservient to the rule of the eternal divine law.

     A “legitimate revolution” of this sort took place when Chassidism began to spread among the Jewish shtetlach [villages] in Eastern Europe.  In Western Europe, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was the legitimate revolutionary who adapted the changed social circumstances to be governed by the ancient, unreformed Jewish law.

This was the gist of my father’s address on the historic mission of his grandfather.  The term which he coined — “legitimate revolution” — accurately reflected the interplay of statics and dynamics which was at the core of the ideal relationship between law and life in Torah Judaism.

In his address he did not specify what he meant by legitimate revolution.  For clarity’s sake, I will give one example out of the list of innovations initiated by Rabbi Hirsch:  The school which he opened in Frankfurt in 1853 deviated from traditional institutions, mainly in including within its curriculum, beside Jewish subjects, general arts and sciences and aiming at a standard of instruction not inferior to that required in non-Jewish high schools.  In former times, when Frankfurt Jews were still confined to their ghetto, a daring enterprise of such a kind would have been denounced and banned without delay by many authoritative rabbis.  Yet in his time Hirsch knew, and this was recognized by most of his contemporaries, that he was pursuing the old and unchanged aims of Jewish education by novel means.  An educational revolution?  Certainly, but no rebellion against ancient Jewish laws and principles, rather an attempt to fortify those laws and principles by means adapted to the changed circumstances.  Hence, a “legitimate revolution.”

“Our ancient, eternally unchanging Torah has something new in store for the new epoch.”

     IN an article which he published in the Israelit (April, 1935) he advocated the application of the concept of legitimate revolution with a view to solving the tension that had developed between separatist Orthodoxy on the one hand and the changed and changing realities of the Jewish Homeland on the other.  The article, entitled “Problems of Eretz Yisrael,” again dealt with the question of the lack of harmony between law and life.  However, this time the approach was not historical but logical.

The basis of the claim that the obligation to secede from a non-Orthodox community in Germany or Hungary does not necessarily apply to the communal situation as existing in Eretz Yisrael can be found in these excerpts from the article:

     The events of our time have brought the Jewish people, including the organized People of the Torah [i.e. Agudat Israel], into a close relationship with the Land of the Torah, closer than ever before.  The historical development proceeds unrelentingly.  Ours is the duty of recognizing the special tasks incumbent upon us in view of this development and of striving to find the solutions to the problems entailed by them.  Our ancient, eternally unchanging Torah has something new in store for the new epoch… Unflinching loyalty to Torah is certainly not tantamount to a privilege for mental inertia or the cult of custom… Loyalty to Torah implies constant preparedness for breaking out of routine, if the signal given by the Torah bids us to do so.

     The essence of communal secession is the fundamental principle that the Jewish people is a nation only through Torah.  Being a cell of the national organism, a Jewish community which is not governed by Torah has no claim to being a genuine Jewish community.  Not everywhere has this principle been equally applied in practice.  Orthodox Jews in Poland and Lithuania, in Hungary and Germany have responded in different ways to the demands made upon them by this principle.  The question confronting us now is, how shall this principle be applied in Eretz Yisrael?  Considering this question we must first of all avoid the danger of treating Eretz Yisrael as a colonial power treats one of its colonies, mostly concerned with its own interests rather than with the interests of the colony.  All the steps we undertake in Eretz Yisrael should be dictated not by Orthodox interests in the Golah but solely by asking ourselves what can and what should be done to strengthen the rule of Torah in Eretz Yisrael.  This implies that all the decisions we make in relation to Eretz Yisrael must contain a full realization of the special conditions prevailing there.

     Any [halachic] decision in a practical case is arrived at by way of a logical deduction.  The first step is to establish the logical premise by determining the relevant legal institution derived from the essence of the eternal Torah; the second step is a meticulous and conscientious research into the circumstances concerned so as to establish an accurate and logically consistent statement of the facts of the case… The perpetuity of the Torah’s authority lies in its capacity to supply an eternally valid and compelling premise for any arising factual case, and therein also lies its capability of development.  Whoever assumes the changeability of the premise is a heretic.  Whoever assumes the perpetuity of facts is a fool.

In very similar terms was this obligation of relating halachic norms to factual realities stressed by some of the greatest of our sages in early modern history. Rabbi Joshua Falk, commonly known as the Sema’, wrote that a truly just and correct halachic decision is one which takes into full account the contemporary and local situation.  Torah law has to be applied to the facts of each case and should never be administered in all too literal a sense, abstracting it, as it were, from reality. (Drisha Tur Choshen Mishpat 1:2)

Applied to the factual case of secession in Eretz Yisrael, the argument runs like this:  Rabbi Hirsch promulgated the religious duty of secession from a reform-dominated community subject to two factual provisions; one was the existence of legislation making secession a practical option; the other was the existence of an alternative and equivalent Orthodox community.  It never entered  Hirsch’s mind and that of his followers to censure Orthodox members of reform-oriented communities, such as in Bavaria, where secession was not legally permissible, or in places where Orthodox Jews were a tiny minority unable to form a separate congregation.  The Jerusalem leaders of separatist Orthodoxy in Eretz Yisrael propagated secession from Knesset Israel as an end in itself, regardless of whether or not an equivalent and meaningful Orthodox kehillah was in existence, something that even in Jerusalem itself was painfully lacking.  Nowhere in Eretz Yisrael was there a community which merited the description of being reform-oriented or reform-dominated.  The facts of the matter simply did not require, nor did they allow, the application of the secession premise.

THIS turn in my father’s Jewish-political philosophy was obviously brought about by his second visit to Eretz Yisrael where almost daily he was exposed to the feverish process of the building of a nation and a homeland by the New Yishuv.  But there was another evolutionary development not unrelated to this turn whose roots went far back to his student years.  This was his attitude towards secular Zionism and its protagonist, Theodor Herzl.  From the days of his youth my father drew a distinct line between the movement, which he opposed on ideological grounds, and its founder whom he admired.  His first major publication, a historical novel which appeared in the Israelit in installments and which he composed at the age of 19, centered upon a hero who was clearly modeled after Herzl.  The author was fascinated by the majestic and dauntless manner in which Herzl presented the case for a Jewish state to the astonished nations of the world and demanded — not begged — for his own people the full restoration of its rights and its ownership of the Land of Israel.  This fascination, notwithstanding Herzl’s total estrangement from Jewish law and custom, my father shared with two other non-Zionist leading figures in modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan, the great illuy (genius) of Lithuanian yeshivot who became a central figure in the Berlin Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary, and Rabbi Yehiel Ya’acov Weinberg who subsequently was appointed dean of that institution.  However, while admiration for Herzl became a constant in my father’s writings, his attitude towards secular Zionism and the Zionist upbuilding of Eretz Yisrael went through several stages.1

At first, he joined the chorus of Orthodoxy as represented by the Israelit, ridiculing the fantastic and unrealistic schemes of the Zionist organization and denouncing its secularist onslaught on traditional religious values.  However, even at this early stage he recognized and embraced Zionism’s claim that Jewry’s common denominator was its being a nation, albeit a Torah nation, and not merely a religious denomination, a view held by many Jews of all trends in Western Europe.

The next stage was marked by my father’s growing conviction that Zionism was not a fleeting craze but had come to stay, could not be ignored and should be taken seriously.  Then, within the context of the upheavals of the First World War, came the Balfour Declaration of 1917.  This he considered part of a new world order which created a totally novel situation for the Jewish people.  Confronted with the alternative of either the Declaration being a ruse of Satan to corrupt simple, Zion-loving Jews or a historic opening granted to the Jewish people by Divine Providence, he opted for the latter, thus investing Zionism with the rank of a heavenly challenge.  As a result, he pronounced the need for a redefinition of the aims of Agudat Israel to undertake the necessary preparations for God’s nation and God’s land to be reunited under the sovereignty of God’s law, recognized as the law of the Jewish state.

The norm of my father’s anti-Zionist ideology remained unchanged.  He remained an implacable adversary of secular Zionism, staying away even from religious Zionism for being part of the fundamentally secularist Zionist organization. But he was profoundly aware of the factual transformation of the social and political situation of the Jewish people and the ongoing transformation of the Holy Land into a national homeland for Jews.  Thus his attitude towards practical Zionism became one of increasingly active involvement.

THIS dynamic co-existence of ideology and facts in my father’s thinking was further consolidated with the events transforming Jewish existence in Germany and the simultaneous steep rise of the number of Jews from Germany going on aliyah.  It was under this impact that my father, in his New Kusari, which appeared in Frankfurt in 1934, set forth his program of “Torah Im Derech Eretz Yisrael.”  This was a call to the Jewish people, and specifically to the Agudat Israel Organization, to embrace aliyah and the upbuilding of Eretz Yisrael, leading to the re-establishment of a Jewish commonwealth governed by the law of Torah, as the supreme task which Providence assigned to the Jewish people at that hour.

This was not the first time that Jewish Orthodoxy was challenged by their own adherents to adapt their thinking and acting to changed circumstances.  Chassidism was just such a challenge and so were Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz and Rabbi Israel Salanter’s Mussar movement.  In Germany itself several such challenges had been heard within Orthodoxy since the turn of the century.  There had been calls, among others,2 for a return to mysticism, for intensified Torah study, and for Jewish nationalism.  All of these challenges demonstrated the will and capacity of Orthodoxy for change and adaptation.  However, “Torah Im Derech Eretz Yisrael” was more than a call for a change of orientation, it was a call for a change demanding personal involvement in action hitherto scrupulously avoided.

…Contrary to what some critics claimed, “Am Ha-Torah, Torah Nation” was not a cover name for the Orthodox section of the Jewish People. “Am Ha-Torah” is the entirety of the Jewish nation…

When Rav Hirsch was approached by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer with a view to win him for the pre-Zionist Eretz Yisrael movement, he declared that what to Kalischer appeared as a mitzvah, to him, Hirsch, amounted to nothing less than an aveirah [sin].  The reason for his opinion was that Hirsch considered the famous Three Oaths, one of which enjoined Israel not to try and regain the Jewish homeland by way of a mass movement (shelo ya’alu bachomah), as halachically binding.  My father felt that Rav Hirsch would have agreed with the later Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen that after the Balfour Declaration the injunction “shelo ya’alu bachomah” is no longer binding.  By using the term “Torah Im Derech Eretz Yisrael,” my father implied that he was taking the same positive attitude towards what he called “national emancipation” as his grandfather had taken towards social emancipation.  The norm was the same, the facts had radically changed.

A further dramatic and tragic factual transformation was brought about by the Shoah.  Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the basically religious masses in Eastern Europe were considered as something of a security for the eventual return of the majority of the Jewish people to an Orthodox way of life.  They were looked upon as the Orthodox backbone of the Jewish People, so to speak.  The Holocaust did away with this illusion and the Orthodox leadership had to accommodate itself to the prospect that for generations to come, the overwhelming majority of Jews would oppose the idea of a state to be established in Eretz Yisrael governed by Torah and tradition.  This was a tragic blow to my father’s program,3 a blow which had a distinct impact on his attitude towards the impending establishment of the Jewish State.  Having previously shared the grave reservations of the Aguda leadership regarding a secular state, he now looked forward to a Jewish State which would respect Jewish law and tradition in all matters concerning the state and the public sphere and to a unified front of all religious parties safeguarding the Jewish character of the state.

THE eventual birth of the State of Israel was, of course, a historic transformation of Jewish life, by far surpassing all the previous changes.  My father was not to witness this transformation taking place, but it is safe to assume that the formation of the state with its ensuing problems — above all those arising through the confrontation of state and religion — would have found him ready for a response in keeping with the norms of his ideology while at the same time taking full account of the facts.

Let me be more specific.  The concept and ideal of the Torah State was pivotal in my father’s religio-political thinking.  It can truly be said to have been the quintessence of his Jewish philosophy.  In his very first publication in this field, a study written in 1910 and aptly entitled “The Law and the Individual” by its English translator (Isaac Breuer, Concepts of Judaism, Jerusalem 1974, pp.37-52), he stated the essence of Judaism to be not its religion, but its Divine Law.  Like every other national law, Torah law does not require the conviction of the individual Jew in order to be observed by him; it is his membership in the Jewish nation which imposes upon him the obligation to respect its national law.  Religious conviction is not a precondition of practicing Torah law, it is its ripe fruit.  Love of God and his Torah grows with continuous and conscientious study and observance of Torah law.

In his later years, my father frequently used the term  Am Ha-Torah (the Torah Nation) to put into a short phrase this special character of the Jewish People, and it is quite evident that, contrary to what some of his critics claimed, Torah Nation was certainly not a cover name for the Orthodox section of the Jewish People.  Torah Nation is the entirety of the Jewish nation all of whose members, whether religious or agnostic, are historically and nationally obliged to observe Torah law.  The term Torah Nation had been used by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and long before him by none other than Nahmanides on Genesis 46:15.4

THE position and function of the rabbinate under the changed circumstances of a modern Jewish state were indeed one of my father’s most earnest concerns during his last ten years.  He planned to found an institute under name of “Bina La’ittim” whose function would be to train rabbinical scholars for the activation of Torah Law within modern Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael.  In a prospectus setting out the need and aims of the institute he wrote:  “Comprehensive Jewish life is developing in the Holy Land on the basis of a Jewish economy branching out in many directions.  However, between this reality and Torah Law there is only the faintest link.  There is a lack of outstanding Torah scholars who fully and deeply comprehend these phenomena and feel an inner urge to bring this reality close to the Torah and to mold it in accordance with the precepts and ideals of the Torah.  What is wanting is a close link and direct relationship between the realities of life and the institutions of Torah study.”  He did not live to see the realization of this project.

Let us hope that the time will come soon when our Torah elite will make the static norms of Torah law respond positively to the dynamics of the national Jewish revival in the Jewish land and state.

A distinguished historian, Dr. Breuer is a former professor of Jewish history at Bar Ilan University.  He is the author of Modernity Within Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1992) and the well-known essay, “The Torah Im Derekh Eretz of Samson Raphael Hirsch.”  He is also one of the translators of Rav Hirsch’s Chumash commentary into Hebrew and author of the definitive edition of the classic Zemach David.


  1. For details see my article in Ha-Ma’ayan, Tammuz 5756, pp.7-16; A.E. Kaplan, Be-Ikvot Ha-Yir’ah, Jerusalem 1960, 85-91; Y.Y. Weinberg, “Herzl Ish Ha-Dat,” Ha-Olam 23 (1935), pp.460-61. For the last-mentioned reference I am indebted to Dr. Marc B. Shapiro.
  2. See my paper in Torah Im Derech Eretz Movement, Bar Ilan University, 1987.
  3. See Rivka Horwitz, in Tradition 15 (1975), Nos. 1-2, p.207.
  4. For this reference I am indebted to my son, Harav Shelomo Breuer. See Ha-Ma’ayan, Tishrei 5757, p.57 n.26.
This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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