Birnbaum, Nathan

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BIRNBAUM, NATHAN (1864–1937), writer (early pen name: Mathias Acher ), philosopher, one of the originators of Zionist ideology, later a leader of religious Judaism. Born in Vienna of parents of Galician and Hungarian origin, his rabbinical ancestry can be traced back to the Middle Ages. At school he became estranged from observant Judaism. He did not, however, follow the assimilationist path of that period, but conceived the idea that the Jews were an ethnic entity, a people, and propagated his ideas among his schoolmates. In his first year at the Vienna university studying law he founded, together with Reuben *Bierer and Moritz *Schnirer, Kadimah, the first Jewish nationalist students' organization (1882) with the aim of criticizing assimilation and setting up a Jewish nationalist consciousness. In 1884 his first publication appeared, a pamphlet called Die Assimilationssucht, Ein Wort an die sogenannten Deutschen, Slaven, Magyaren etc. mosaischer Confession von einem Studenten juedischer Nationalitaet. In 1885 he founded and edited the first Jewish nationalist journal in German, Selbstemanzipation (later entitled Juedische Volkszeitung), where he coined the terms "Zionist" and "Zionism." The policy and name of the journal came from Leo *Pinsker's pamphlet "Autoemanzipation." Birnbaum was, during the decade 1885–1895, "the most distinguished intellectual personality in Jewish national circles in Austria and Germany" (Bein). In 1893 he published Die nationale Wiedergeburt des juedischen Volkes als Mittel zur Loesung der Judenfrage, Ein Appell an die Guten und Edlen aller Nationen, a summing up of his first Zionist phase. He now gradually passed to a cultural conception of Zionism, as evidenced by his publication Die juedische Moderne (1896) and his official address, Zionism as a Cultural Movement, at the First Zionist Congress (1897).

After a short period of service as chief secretary of the central Zionist office run by *Herzl, ideological disagreements broke out between the two. After the Second Zionist Congress (1898) Birnbaum made a fundamental turn in his political thinking: He became a spokesman for "diaspora nationalism," publishing articles in which he severely criticized Herzl's "diplomatism," the "inorganic" nature of the Zionist movement, and the Zionist "negation of the Diaspora," its culture and language (Yiddish). He gradually withdrew from Zionism, affirming that "Israel comes before Zion," i.e., that the striving for Ereẓ Israel must not entail neglect of the Jewish People itself. His concept was now that of an interterritorial nation, comprising and integrating all existing Jewish groups which had a cultural life of their own. The most important group in his eyes was the Yiddish-speaking one in Eastern Europe. The political aspect of these ideas found expression in a demand for the cultural autonomy of the Jews, in conformity with the autonomy principle for the various peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was then gaining ground. One of its cornerstones was language. In the case of the Jews this was Yiddish. Birnbaum set about working for its recognition as a language in its own right and an important cultural value, mainly through articles in his weekly Neue Zeitung (1906–1907). He learned Yiddish himself and used it as a literary medium. In 1907 he ran in Buczacz, Galicia, for the Austrian Reichsrat as a Jewish Nationalist but was fraudulently defeated by the Polish candidate. In 1908, while on a visit to America, he proposed that a world conference on behalf of Yiddish should be called. This took place in Czernowitz in 1908 with the participation of the leading Yiddish writers. A resolution was passed there declaring Yiddish to be a (not the) national language of the Jewish people. From 1908 to 1911 Birnbaum lived in Czernowitz, publishing the newspapers Dos Folk and Vokhen-Blat.

Birnbaum's acquaintance with East European Jewry was now deepening and he "arrived at the religious core of the nation." His basic attitude underwent another fundamental change. The atheism of his materialist philosophy as well as his secular nationalism were gradually replaced by the conviction that the vocation and destiny of the Jewish People was a religious one. Finally, "God entered into his consciousness." The turning point seems to have been an intimate religious experience in 1908. He later wrote that he had not "sought" God but that God had "sought" him. During the next few years before World War i his writings and lectures dealt with problems of religion. He gradually accepted the Jewish tradition and way of life, and finally joined the ranks of religious Jewry as a practicing Jew. However, he did not feel satisfied with the state of affairs he met with there. He maintained that religious Jewry was not making a serious attempt at fulfilling its world mission as an exemplary people living on the basis of God's Word. He outlined a program toward effecting a change. Those things in the environments, occupations and habits of the Jews which were barring the way to spiritual advancement must be altered. The highest authority of the Jewish nation was to be vested in a body of Guardians of the Faith. The first step would be the founding of a small community of "Those Who (want to) Ascend" (Ḥever Olim), who would act as a nucleus, and for whom he laid down a scheme for disciplined living. These ideas were embodied in Et La'asot ("The Time Has Come for Action") and Divrei ha-Olim ("The Words of Those Who (want to) Ascend," both in 1917, Heb. and Yid.).He repudiated his own former "pagan-Jewish" life in Gottes Volk (1917), with further editions in 1918 and 1921 (translated into English under the title Confession, 1946). In Vom Freigeist zum Glaeubigen (1919) he described his spiritual development. Upon the refounding of the *Agudat Israel World Organization (1919) he became its first general secretary. At that time, after the war, revolution, and pogroms in Eastern Europe, he devoted much effort to the problem of emigration and endeavored to enlist general Jewish cooperation toward regulating on a big scale what amounted to an unorganized, panic mass flight. His book Im Dienste der Verheissung (1927) contains a critical analysis of the "activism" of the Orthodox as a grafting of fashionable ideologies onto an organism that was inherently of a different nature and suggested to the "activists" a more fruitful field – the gigantic task of creating the necessary material preconditions toward effecting a metamorphosis. Nearness to God can only result from a complete inner transformation of the masses through their sociological restratification in favor of a life based mainly on agriculture, and this is to be achieved by the large-scale colonization of sparsely populated or practically uninhabited territories. The anarchy in the life of the Jewish community can be remedied by the establishment not of an interterritorial, state-like organization but of an interterritorial "All Israel Congregation," under authoritative spiritual leadership. The next publication devoted to these ideas was the journal Der Aufstieg (1930–1933), many of whose pages were written by himself.

At the advent of Hitler (1933) he left Berlin where he had lived most of the time since 1911, and settled in the Hague-Scheveningen, where he published a journal Der Ruf (1934–1937). A series of articles were republished in a booklet, Rufe (1936), published in Antwerp, his "testament to the Jewish People." "The great ideal is to create the new Jew, based in the Torah, near to nature and to God, creative, harmonious, happy." There are three books of selections from his writings: from his secular period the important collection, Ausgewaehlte Schriften zur juedischen Frage (2 vols, 1910), from his early religious phase, Um die Ewigkeit (1920) and from the later one, Et La'asot (1938, in Yid.). His son, Solomon *Birnbaum edited a short selection of his religious works, The Bridge (1956). His other sons were Menachem *Birnbaum and Uriel *Birnbaum.


S. Birnbaum, in: L. Jung (ed.), Men of the Spirit (1964), 519–49; J. Fraenkel, in: jsos, 16 (1954), 115–34; A.E. Kaplan and M. Landau (eds.), Vom Sinn des Judentums (1925); Die Frei statt (May and June 1914); A. Boehm, Die zionistische Bewegung, 1 (1935), 135–8; L. Hermann, Nathan Birnbaum (1914); Davar, Literary Supplement (May 7, 1937); J. Fraenkel, in: Shivat Ẓiyyon, 2–3 (1953), 275–99; Kressel, ibid., 4 (1956), 55–99; L.S. Dawidowicz (ed.), The Golden Tradition (1967), index. add. bibliography: J.A. Fishman, Ideology, Society & Language – The Odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum (1987); "The Metamorphosis of Nathan Birnbaum," in: R. Wistrich, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (1989); J. Fraenkel, "Mathias Archer's Fight for the Crown of Zion," in: Jewish Studies, 16/2 (1954); J.A. Fishman, "Nathan Birnbaum's View of American Jewry," in: Yiddish, Turning to Life (1991); Kuehntopf-Gentz, "Nathan Birnbaum" (Diss. Tuebingen, 1990); M. Gelber, Melancholy Pride (2000).