Rabbi Isaac Breuer on Rabbi SR Hirsch

In the discussion of Rabbi Grunfeld in a prior post, the contrasts with Rabbi Isaac Breuer were not immediately obvious to my readers. To further discussion, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote a 15 page essay on the importance of his grandfather Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  (Jewish Leaders ed. Leo Jung, pp 163-177). The essay does not claim to be Breuer’s views but those of Hirsch.

Breuer paints Hirsch as a revolutionary great man directing history to move forward.  In fact, Breuer declares every great historical personality is a revolutionary figure. True Jewish revolutionaries do not rebel against God’s law but against the material social conditions, which have to be overthrown to change. The revolutionary masters the new conditions – and then break the mold in advance of the rest of his generation.  Other nations may rebel against their religion or law but the Jewish revolution keeps the law as eternal. The law is Divine, not the will of the people. Just as one cannot rebel against the laws of nature we cannot rebel against the Divine law.

Breuer reminds us that at the close of 18th century and start of 19th century there was a change in society with astonishing new modes of living. There was a Renaissance of individualism and granting of rights to the individual. Liberalism, capitalism, and science were each a challenge to the old order.

Mendelssohn was only a puny evolutionary and not a revolutionary who overthrew the system. The old rabbis denounced enlightenment and Emancipation which was futile before the change in the material culture and Reform was an illegitimate incorrect revolution.

According to Breuer, revolutionaries are never theoreticians; they work with facts and proceed with actions. Therefore, Hirsch does not set out a presentation of his views or a justification. He did not even have to articulate or develop his views. And he did not need “far-fetched” halakhic justification.

Breuer removes the conjunctive from Hirsch’s legacy – there was no combining of Torah and Western culture. Hirsch did not try for balance, synthesis or the richness of a fuller education.  According to Breuer,  Hirsch wanted absolute domination of the divine precept over the new tendencies of civilization. There can be no collateral rule, and no tolerance of anything else after the revolution Hirsch took liberalism, capitalism, and science and led them to flames of Torah.

Only his epigones, his second rate imitators turned Torah and Derekh Eretz into byword or motto. There is no time when derekh eretz was not the province of Torah- it is prerequisite for Torah, so there is no need for coordination or synthesis.  (In our contemporary language, everyone is embedded in culture , in the manifestations of that civilization).

What was revolutionary about Rabbi Hirsch was the incomparable courage he displayed in detecting the dwindling of one civilization (derekh eretz), and in grasping the need for a new one…” and then judging it by Torah. He was revolutionary in that he prevailed over centuries old custom which thought of Torah as part of a different derekh eretz. He is to be judged therefore not by his relationship to externals like secular studies or socio-politcal realities but by his revolution.

Hirsch  was not bound to a new derekh eretz or a definite derekh eretz. Hirsch’s new derekh eretz meant a new way of life. His achievement was the “re-conducting” the Jewish people into its own history- the aim of which is no other than the establishment of the Divine state.”

For Breuer, Hirsch was the first national Jew of modern times- before Herzl. The middle ages was a civilization of wailing and suffering- absolute passivity.  Only a small part of human life was used.Hirsch saw the need to create scientists and physicians and businessmen for the operation of the state.  To most people looking at his work with a naked eye, his work in the diaspora (galut) had no connection to Jewish national history. In reality, it was working toward the establishment of a divine state based on divine law on Zion. The spread of Torah over all of life can only exist in a divine state. Hirsch’s vision is a renewal of the ancient proclamation of the Divine sovereignty over Jerusalem and new Jewish individual  with a new many sided derekh eretz under the sole rule of divine precept for the coming divine state.

Breuer acknowledges that what he says does not appear in the vast Hirschian corpus. He finds a hint in one in 19 letters of a restored Torah government.  Breuer sees Hirsch’s Commentary on the Pentateuch as a blueprint is for the coming divine state. It has a history that shows modern decadence stemming from the  Falls of Adam in the misuse of his free choice, Noah’s story shows on cultural decadence, and the story of Babel shows usurped state sovereignty by a collective.-It shows the dangers of universal history without divine precept.  Hirsch’s  explanations of sacrifice, purity, and social law are as blueprint for the state. (AB-On this one he would have to cite examples because the simple reading of these explanation is for the ideal bourgeois life of education, work, and family life. Also notice how much Schopenhauer weltschmertz pessimism Breuer accepts, compared to Grunfeld’s liberalism).

Breuer writes that only fools cold think that those who freed us to perform the divine precepts are could fetter us with German derekh eretz. Hirsch did not accept German culture alongside Torah. If Torah ve derekh eretz was Torah and Western civilization, then if the later fell in WWI there would be a revolt against the combination. Hirsch’s derekh erets is now further revealed in the derekh eretz of the land of Israel. If you view the tragic events of WWI Germany as marking the collapse of Hirsch’s thought – then you don’t know Hirsch. Hirsch was a call for a return to Zion long before our people were ready.

Now the only choice is the materialism of the Zionists, including the Religious Zionism who only look at the material causality or the meta-Historic Divine state. There is no third way. It is either a Divine state as envisioned  by Hirsch’s meta-historic identity or if the materialists win we will need Divine grace.

As one can see from the opening of this essay, Breuer owes a debt to his reading of Marxist texts and theory.  He was so enamored of Marx that he called him the Kant for economic/social theory. Breuer uses direct quotes from the Manifesto and other famous works.  (In contrast, Dayan Grunfeld thought that all a Jew needed was Kant ). He is somewhat of a Leninists in expecting the leaders to be in the vanguard of the nation.  Elsewhere in his writings Breuer writes that the revolution will come from the workers, hence his concern with the Ost-Juden. For Breuer, Marxism as just materialistic- whereas we have a divine service when the revolution comes. At this same time, the Frankfort School was meeting regularly in Frankfort. Leading Orthodox rabbis such as Nechimias Nobel and S B Rabinkow preach a Jewish socialism.

Breuer’s Divine state is a bit more indigestible if it had come to be. On one hand, it is Spengler meets TS Elliot’s Christian culture, but on the other hand Sayyed Qutb uses similar Marxist arguments to bolster an Islamicist revolution against the West.  For more on Breuer’s Marxist background, see Matthias Morgenstern, From Frankfurt to Jerusalem Isaac Breuer and the History of the Secession Dispute in Modern Jewish Orthodoxy; On the warm personal relationship of Breuer and Franz Rosenzweig, both of whom believed in an eternal Israel, were ahistoric, and anti-Zionist , see Rivka Horowitz,  “Exile and Redemption in the Thought of Isaac Breuer,” Tradition 26 (1992)

Breuer’s son became mainstream Mizrachi, albeit of a more Torani variety, teaching German Jewish History at Bar Ilan after a stint teaching in the Horev school in Jerusalem. But Breuer’s thought was continued in the literature department of Bar Ilan by his disciple Barukh Kurzweil who characterized his mentor as abounding in “paradoxes and contradictions.”

Barukh Kurzweil studied at Solomon Breuer’s yeshiva in Frankfurt and the University of Frankfurt. He founded and headed Bar Ilan University’s Department of Hebrew Literature until his death.

Kurzweil saw secular modernity (including secular Zionism) as representing a tragic, fundamental break from the premodern world. Where before the belief in God provided a fundamental absolute of human existence, in the modern world this pillar of human life has disappeared, leaving a “void” that moderns futilely attempt to fill by exalting the individual ego. This discontinuity is reflected in modern Hebrew literature, which lacks the religious foundation of traditional Jewish literature: “The secularism of modern Hebrew literature is a given in that it is for the most part the outgrowth of a spiritual world divested of the primordial certainty in a sacral foundation that envelops all the events of life and measures their value.”  Kurzweil wanted a society grounded in religious values.

One response to “Rabbi Isaac Breuer on Rabbi SR Hirsch

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    It’s been a while since I read the essay, but my impression always was that it was directed mainly against Scholem’s recent very harsh and rather nasty review of Breuer’s Neue Kusari. I believe that there is one pretty clear allusion in the essay to the review. That is, “Say whatever you want about my book, but don’t rmess with my great and sainted grandfther!”

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