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Modern Judaism 20.2 (2000) 129-146

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Isaac Breuer:
Zionist Against His Will?

Asher D. Biemann

Orthodox Apostasy

That Isaac Breuer, one of the leading minds of a generally anti-Zionist German Jewish neo-Orthodoxy, could have been a Zionist in disguise was suspected by Friedrich Thieberger. 1 Thieberger, reviewing two of Breuer's polemical pamphlets of 1918, Judenproblem and Messiasspuren, for Martin Buber's pan-Zionist mouthpiece Der Jude, concluded that it was Breuer's inherent tendency of renewal [Erneuerungstendenz] that had moved him--"against his will"--onto Zionist soil. 2

In his Judenproblem, however, which had an immediate impact on both religious and secular Jewish intellectuals shaken by World War I, Breuer took to task what he considered the enemies of Orthodoxy in the understanding of Samson Raphael Hirsch's Torah-true Judaism: Zionism (secular or religious), Reform, and Orthodoxy allied with Reform (the so-called Gemeindeorthodoxie). Against all three Breuer devised a rhetorical paradox, in which Judaism could be reduced neither to "religion" [Religionsgemeinschaft] nor a religious Erlebnis (Reform), but could only be defined as "aktive Nationalgeschichte" beginning with Yeziat Mizrayim and sealed with the communal will to accept the Torah. Reinforcing his paradox, Breuer continuously referred to himself as a "Nationaljude," 3 while at the same time labeling Zionismthe "archenemy of the Jewish nation." "Zionism kills the nation," he wrote in the Judenproblem, "and lifts its corpse onto a throne." 4

This idea of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) threatening the Jewish nation puzzled Thieberger, who, like Breuer the son of a rabbi, frequently contributed articles on religious issues to Der Jude. In the tradition of the Wissenschaft des Judentum, Thieberger fostered an evolutionary understanding of religion--and by extension Judaism--based on the creative struggle between unsettlement [Erschütterung] and stabilization [Beruhigung]; in other words, between Reform and Orthodoxy. 5 In every religious reform he saw a renewal of the unsettling Urerlebnis and thus a return to "belief"; in all Orthodoxy, on the other hand, he saw an increasing supersession of this original unsettlement ultimately degenerating into codified apostasy. "The danger of apostasy," [End Page 129] he wrote in Der Jude, "is inherent in all Orthodoxy, as it is inherent in every codification of the constant evolution." 6

To be sure, Thieberger recognized the attempts at reform within Orthodoxy, from Maimonides to Hirsch, but he found in them only a renewal of reason, the logic of enlightenment, which inevitably led to yet another, if more sophisticated, stabilization of the Urerlebnis. He went so far as to call Hirsch, the alleged founder of neo-Orthodoxy, a "fanatic of stability" [Fanatiker der Sicherheit] paralyzed by the same "rationalist powerlessness" [rationalistische Ohnmacht] that had already betrayed Maimonides and Mendelssohn. 7

True reform of Orthodoxy, on the other hand, a reform of religious Erlebnis, Thieberger thought to be embodied in Hasidism--sharing, of course, Buber's discovery of emotional and supposedly authentic Judaism--as well as in Zionism's return to Jewish culture and religiosity. Hasidism's "liberation of feeling" and Zionism's liberation of action seemed to Thieberger more fit to resist the powers of apostasy than even "reformed Orthodoxy." 8 He wrote in his review, "Apostasy" [Abfall im Glauben], that "for the first time it seemed the task of Zionism . . . to stir up the deepest--not doctrinal, but religious--foundations of Orthodoxy." 9

Thieberger responded to Breuer's paradox with a paradox of his own: that Zionism alone could save Orthodoxy from apostasy. Notwithstanding Breuer's fiercely anti-Zionist rhetoric, Thieberger was convinced that Breuer himself, perhaps subconsciously or against his will, supported the latter paradox and that his struggle, therefore, was in truth a struggle of "Zionism against Zionism." 10

What brought Thieberger to this belief? It was mainly the formal appearance of Breuer's Judenproblem and Messiasspuren--their national, activist, and revolutionary aesthetic, which was in no way inferior to the programmatic vocabulary of Zionism. Such familiar terms as Tat, Tatkraft, Verwirklichung, Aktualisierung, Nationaler Wille, Handeln, Revolutionär, aktive Nationalgeschichte, Wirken, and Werden seemed to appear quite naturally in Breuer's postwar language, so it is no surprise that Thieberger...


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