Rav Yitzhak Breuer
Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Breuer (1883-1946), grandson of Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, ztz’l, was a philosopher, an intellectual, and a leader ahead of his time.
He perceived the scope of the historical, spiritual and cultural changes and challenges facing the Jewish People, and was troubled by the state of the Torah world, which did not fully understand the spirit of the times and was not prepared for the new reality of Jewish existence in the mid-20th century. To the ideal of “Torah with derekh eretz [‘the way of the world’]”, bequeathed by his great teachers, he added “Torah with the way of Eretz Yisrael”, thereby expressing the historical turning point of his era, which remains part of our reality today.
From the perspective of today’s generation, it is sometimes difficult to understand how Rabbi Dr. Breuer personified a firm and unwavering ultra-Orthodox world view along with intimate engagement with modern European culture. The combination of his political leadership of Agudat Yisrael and intensive occupation with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant appears to us altogether paradoxical, but for Breuer it was unremarkable and, indeed, almost self-evident.
It becomes easier to understand the coexistence of opposites embodied in Rav Breuer’s approach if we bear in mind his understanding of the concept of “Torah with derekh eretz”. For him, this was not an ideology. He was not calling for a synthesis of Judaism and modern values that would lead to a new type of modern Jew. On the contrary, for Breuer the eternity of the Torah and its transcendental Source allow no possibility of integrating it with the transient values of any culture.
For him, the principle of “Torah with derekh eretz” pertained not so much to the substance of the Torah, but rather to its implementation within our reality. As he saw it, fulfillment of the Torah requires an awareness of the religious challenges posed by the period in which we live. We must be attentive to the problems that concern Jews and mankind, in order to be able to seek solutions in the Torah. His extraordinary combination of ultra-Orthodoxy and profound engagement with the problems of modern culture can only be understood against the background of his firm belief that all the solutions to man’s problems are to be found in the Torah. An intimate familiarity with modern culture is the prerequisite for an accurate and comprehensive formulation of the questions for which the Torah is required to provide solutions.
“Bina la-Itim” Institute
Rabbi Dr. Breuer introduced the idea of establishing a beit midrash that would provide Torah scholars with the training to grapple, halakhically and spiritually, with the problems facing modern society. The name he gave to this future beit midrash was ‘Bina la-Itim’, and he wrote:
In the Holy Land, all-embracing Jewish life is currently developing, on the basis of an extensive Jewish economy. However, the connection between this environment and the law of the Torah is weak. There are not enough great Torah scholars whose hearts are open to this environment and who understand its manifestations in all their scope and their depth, who feel an inner urge to draw these developments closer to Torah and to mold them through Torah. There is a need for unmediated contact between the institutions of Torah study and this living reality. The ‘Bina la-Itim’ institute comes to fill this critical need… The institution aims to train leaders with the ability to act in the realm of conflicts between Torah law and the real aspects of economic and cultural life developing in the Land of Israel… The institution will accept elite scholars with comprehensive knowledge of Torah, who are exceedingly God-fearing, and who have demonstrated an openness to the reality of life…
The ‘Bina la-Itim’ Institute, which today goes by the name “Tzerufim”, is a realization of Rabbi Dr. Breuer’s vision. It aims to fulfill his aspiration ‘to train leaders with the ability to act in the realm of conflicts between Torah law and the real aspects of economic and cultural life developing in the Land of Israel.’ Like the man who inspired it, the institute is a rare combination of faith, fear of Heaven and commitment to Torah, in the full and authentic sense, with an openness to the reality of life in our reborn state.
The quest to apply and strengthen Torah in a world of changing values is no less relevant today as it was then. As in Rabbi Dr. Breuer’s time, Torah study today is often severed and separate from the new spirit that God has introduced into the world. Our aim is to draw the positive and holy essence from their shells in current social and cultural trends. Not every new idea is positive, and not every transient fashion has a place in the beit midrash. There must be a distinction between a genuine openness that seeks to enrich reality with holiness, and anarchy and debauchery that impoverish it. Still, we cannot avoid this work of differentiation and separation, so as to propose a solid Torah-based response to the questions of our time.
May Rabbi Dr. Breuer’s memory be blessed.