Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rav Breuer: His life and his legacy by Dr. David Kranzler and Dovid Landesman

Anyone familiar with the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights knows the Germany Jewish synagogue community known by its founding rabbi's name: Breuer's.  K'hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) on Bennett Ave is a model "Kehillah", a Jewish community in the old corporate style of pre-enlightened Europe that is comprised of a rabbinate with its own court, kosher supervision service, a mikvah society, a full school system and synagogue. David Kranzler and Dovid Landesman have written an excellent history and record of the community's achievement by highlighting the amazing leadership of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, a grandson of Rabbi Samson. Refoel Hirsch and a trustworthy tradent of his philosophy, Torah im Derech Eretz.

Rav Breuer was a dynamic personality, a fearless individual who strove for truth and defended his grandfather's outlook of the primacy of Torah that subordinates secular studies without negating or ignoring them.  He believed that Torah im Derech Eretz was not just a ad hoc approach to dealing with modernity but rather a long term answer to the challenges of assimilation in the modern world.

One reads about the rav's fearlessness in dealing with the Nazis and his understanding that escape was the only option.  He was one of the few who saw that the true nature of Nazism was not a passing fad.

In coming to America, he had clarity of vision to set up a parallel community that was modeled after Frankfurt retaining all of Nusach Ashkenaz.  He refused to conform to America, and as a result was a towering role model.  With much tact, understanding and sensitivity, he identified with the financial struggles of his congregants, but never wavered in the demand for Torah observance.  He also initially did not identify with the Yeshiva world of negating the outside by creating Kollelim because the philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz incorporated secular studies to gain employment and security. Only until it became clear to him that Orthodoxy needed such an approach of the Yeshivos in America did he lend his support.

His integrity and honesty was made famous by his aphorism: Glatt Kosher implies Glatt Yosher!  He would deplore the outward looking obvious pious Jew who cheated in business but was scrupulous in finding the proper kosher insignia on what he consumed.  He would not associate with any organization that acknowledged anything not Torah observant.  He did not identify with the religious Zionists of Mizrachi since they were in partnership with completely secular Zionists.  He sided with his grandfather to remain independent and secede from the irreligious community. He believed that the future of the Jewish State could only be long lasting if it were centered around Torah.

When I was a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, (a community with the philosophy called "Torah U' Mada" Torah and Science and as some allege an offshoot of Torah im Derech Eretz),  I lived among the Breuer community in the same building as Chazan Frankel who was a superb refined human being with a very pleasant voice.  It became very clear to me that YU was not an offshoot of Torah im Derech Eretz but rather something original and it certainly lacked the consistency and clarity of the Breuer community.  Although secular studies were ensconced, YU was too eclectic to assume a Torah im Derech Eretz label.

I must mention that my experience with Rabbi Shimon Schwab Zt"L, Rav Breuer's successor, although brief had a profound effect on me.  He was an extraordinary role model.  When I frequented the synagogue, he used special crutches and although he seemed in pain as he walked, he demonstrated a lofty spiritual countenance as if accepting his pain out of love for Hashem; there was no grimace, only a faint smile. I would make a Kinyan with him to sell my Chometz and his pleasant smile still reverberates in my mind.  Even though he knew that I was not a permanent member of his community and knew I was studying at YU, I always felt a warm welcome from him.  I heard him tell of his experience with the Chofetz Chaim in a tone anticipating the coming of Mashiach.

This biography is an excellent introduction to the Hirschian philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz and an inspiring read about one of the architects of Torah survival.

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