Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Righting A Wrong- Thoughts on Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer on his 70th yahrtzeit


I write the following with two connected goals in mind. The first is to give thanks and acknowledge a debt to a thinker who has greatly contributed to my understanding of Judaism, philosophy, and theology. The second, and more important reason, is to right a wrong. To whatever degree possible I wish to bring a great thinker to the attention of many in the Jewish world who can gain so much from his writings. As the 70th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer zt”l is today, the 13th of Av, it is time that he and his writings get the attention they deserve.


When I went through a major crisis of faith, I reached out to many people who I hoped could help me. One way in which they did so was by recommending books and articles for me to read. Among those whose writings were suggested were Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It goes without saying that all of them were great thinkers and deserved to be on the list. It was only several years later, as my reading and search continue, that by chance I read a footnote which led me to the writings of Rabbi Breuer. How could it be, I wondered, that the thought of such a great thinker was not better known, and that nobody among those scholars and rabbis from whom I sought guidance thought to recommend any of his works for me to study.


Having read two of his biographies (this being the more important of the two) , as well as a number of his short essays, there seems to be certain reasons that kept from Rabbi Breuer from being better known. Although a good deal of his writings have been translated into Hebrew and English, much of what he wrote was in German. It was only later in his life, when he had already moved to Israel that he wrote several books in Hebrew. Additionally, as with many great thinkers, he was not so successful in the public arena. As one reads about his attempt to steer the Agudas Yisroel in a more moderate direction, one which, later in his life would have included joining up with the Mizrachi, it is hard not to wonder with some sadness about what might  have been had he been more politically astute. Indeed, as Shmuel Pappenheim writes a fascinating post today on Facebook, to the degree that Breuer is remembered it is done outside of the world of the very Agudah which he helped build. Furthermore, while he had a deep love for the land and people of Israel, his views on Zionism were complex and nuanced, and thus, not in line with any of the usual pro or anti-Zionist camps. Finally, in some ways, it seems to me, he disappeared in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, especially as his grandfather’s legacy was steered away from the path of moderation which he and his grandson espoused. This is is particularly disappointing as Breuer was uniquely qualified to take what he learned from his grandfather and bring it to later generations with some important philosophical and theological developments.


It is said that Breuer had two photographs on the wall of his house. One was of his grandfather, and the second was of Immanuel Kant. Breuer was able to combine the thought of Rav Hirsch, Kant and other German philosophers, including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as a deep understanding of Kabbalah into a philosophical and theological approach which addressed many of the questions that plagued the younger generations of Hirsch’s Frankfurt community. Among them, are many issues which continue to challenge many observant Jews of today including issues of biblical criticism, morality and autonomy, and religious belief in a world which grows increasingly hostile to such faith.


Every Shabbos I dedicate some of my time to going through Rav Breuer’s masterful work Nachliel. I have heard it described as an update of his grandfather’s Chorev, itself an important work which explains the reasons for the mitzvot, both individually and as a whole. While this description is true enough as far as it goes, it does a disservice to Breuer. While Nachliel does build upon many of the ideas of his grandfather, it also includes a plethora of thought based on the varied philosophical and theological texts that Breuer studied. Additionally, whereas Rav Hirsch’s system was built on being part of a separate Jewish community in Germany, Rabbi Breuer wrote for those who had returned to Israel, and saw the potential for Israel to be the place of the true messianic redemption. To cite just one example, Rabbi Breuer develops the idea of Shabbos, in connection with the shemitah year, Yovel, and the messianic age, and talks of how God wishes for us to act politically, economically and socially.

As an educator who deals with both adolescents and adults who are looking for a deep, sophisticated and meaningful system of belief, I constantly find trenchant ideas in Nachliel, ideas which might not only be potentially beneficial to my students. I find ideas which help me in my continued attempt to develop as a thinking Jew. If this short essay can help bring this great thinker to those like myself who can benefit from his writings, I will be most gratified.

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