Nathan Birnbaum and the search for authenticity

Birnbaum, who as a student in Vienna in the 1880s coined the word "Zionism," searched for an authentic expression of Jewish life.

Nathan Birnbaum 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Nathan Birnbaum 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As we approach the Hebrew month of Elul – a time for introspection and soul-searching in advance of the New Year and the Day of Atonement – I would like to reconsider the spiritual odyssey of Nathan Birnbaum.
As a Jewish student in Vienna in the 1880s, Birnbaum coined the word “Zionism.” That has been his claim to fame ever since, particularly in Zionist circles. Birnbaum’s abandonment of Political Zionism toward the end of the 19th century for Yiddishism and his later embrace of ultra-Orthodox Judaism did not endear him to the followers of either Ben-Gurion or Jabotinsky. Today, Birnbaum is viewed as unstable and erratic by most Jews who know of him. He remains a footnote.
Yet, there is more to Nathan Birnbaum’s transformations than just confusion and betrayal. Birnbaum’s life was the search for an authentic expression of Jewish life. His early involvement in the Zionist movement was cultural. His was a personal journey to fight the rampant assimilation of central European Jews and to modernize the Jews of the Russian Pale of Settlement. Only a cultural renaissance, complete with a revival of the Hebrew language, could accomplish this task.
Although allied with Herzl, Birnbaum quickly became disenchanted with Political Zionism and staunchly opposed the idea that the Zionist movement was solely a solution to rampant anti-Semitism. Birnbaum parted ways with Herzl after the Second Zionist Congress – the renegade could not accept the idea that Zionism was simply another European movement for national liberation that lacked deep Jewish roots.
Birnbaum now embraced Yiddishism.
Following the lead of celebrated Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, Birnbaum believed the future of the Jewish people was embodied in an autonomous Yiddish-speaking entity in Eastern Europe. While this idea today may seem preposterous, misguided and tragic, the reality is that 100 years ago more than 90 percent of Jews throughout the world spoke Yiddish. The Yiddish Jewish civilization lasted over a millennium.
Zionism and the Jewish Bund were competing for the allegiance of millions of Jews in Poland and Russia.
Hebrew and Yiddish were engaged in a serious battle, and Yiddish was winning. Birnbaum advocated for a Yiddish-based civilization, encompassing culture and politics. His greatest success was leading a conference in 1908 that declared that both Yiddish and Hebrew were the legitimate languages of the Jewish people.
Eventually, however, Birnbaum took yet another turn. Disillusioned with secular Yiddishism and Territorialism, he joined forces with the ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist Agudas Yisrael. Around the time of the First World War, Birnbaum embraced Jewish Orthodoxy with a vengeance. He now advocated that Judaism alone would save the Jewish people. Zionism and Yiddishism were devoid of any inherent Jewish authenticity.
Birnbaum declared himself “a convinced believer in the absolute idea of Judaism.” There were to be no alternatives to pious Jewish faith. He held to this conviction until his death in 1937. Again, as in Birnbaum’s Yiddishist phase, we are right to question why Birnbaum sought the Jewish future in the world of ultra-Orthodoxy. The Zionists were the true prophets of European Jewry’s fate. Still, 100 years ago, haredi life was a dynamic and prolific part of the Jewish demographic in Europe, especially in Poland and Russia.
Rather than dismissing Birnbaum for what seems to be an erratic and confusing ideological life, I think we have much to learn from him. His abandonment of Political Zionism, while shortsighted and wrongheaded, was a legitimate protest against the movement’s failure to solve the problem of Judaism and not just the problem of the Jews.
Today, Israel suffers because the reality of the state is rooted in a modern European nationalism; very shallow roots. The desire to “be like the nations” is not enough to sustain a unifying ideology that can take the place of a failing Labor Zionist ethos. And although Yiddish has gone through a precipitous decline for many reasons, Birnbaum’s instincts regarding Yiddish territorialism were on the mark. Although this Yiddishism was secular, it was rooted in a unique Jewish culture and history.
While Hebrew has made great strides as a vehicle for culture and enlightenment, it still has yet to achieve the greatness of a “jargon” that most Israelis have dismissed as simply an ugly vestige of Exile.
As a religious Zionist, I am most troubled by Birnbaum’s last phase as a leader of Agudas Yisroel. The idea that Jewish authenticity can only be found in the world of fundamentalism is disturbing. In this case, I think that most Israelis – most Jews in the world – buy in to the idea that the world of ultra-Orthodoxy is the only genuine expression of true Jewish faith and piety.
Ben-Gurion made a terrible mistake in underestimating the power of Jewish faith and the resilience of Jewish Orthodoxy. My guess is that even Ben-Gurion should have taken more seriously Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and religious Zionism.
Religious Jews who integrated Zionism into their theology and way of life were not compromising their Jewish authenticity. Jews who embrace the concepts of democracy and basic freedoms are not choosing Athens and dismissing Jerusalem.
Authenticity is not just a matter of “the old-time religion.”
Nathan Birnbaum’s journey was flawed – but it can teach us much about where we have been and where we are headed.
The author is the rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.