By Marc B. Shapiro
Professsor Mordechai Breuer passed away on the twelfth of Sivan, 5767. It is a great loss for the world of Jewish scholarship as well as that of Orthodox Jewry. Breuer, born in Frankfurt in 1918, was the great-grandson of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the grandson of R. Shlomo Zalman Breuer, who succeeded Hirsch as Rav of the Frankfurt separatist community, and the son of Dr. Isaac Breuer, the leading theoretician of the Agudah (although the latter’s philosophy would later diverge from what came to be known as the Agudah Daas Torah).
Breuer came to the world of academic Jewish studies rather late, earning his PhD in 1967 for a study of the Ashkenazic yeshiva in the late Middle Ages. (He had previously earned an MA at the Hebrew University, writing on David Gans.) At that time, he was principal of the Horeb school in Jerusalem. He later became professor of Jewish history at Bar Ilan. It is more than a little ironic that a great-grandson of Hirsch would devote himself academic Jewish studies.
Returning to Prof. Breuer, it is hard to do justice to such a productive scholar in a short post. One can be sure that the next issue of Ha-Maayan, with which Breuer was associated since its founding, will have an important obituary.
As one who has worked a great deal in the field of German Orthodoxy, I can state that my work would be much the poorer if not for Breuer’s many writings. His classic Modernity Within Tradition is a marvelous study of the German Orthodox community and a model for how to write the history of American Orthodoxy. For those who read German, I recommend the original version, published by the Leo Baeck Institute. While containing the same text as the English, the German version has additional information in the footnotes.
For those interested in the full range of his scholarship (up until eight years ago) the volume Asif (Jerusalem, 1999) contains a number of his best articles, including his classic study of Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz principle. (This article was translated into English and published as a booklet, but has been out of print for many years.) The volume also contains a bibliography of his many writings.
Of particular interest to readers of this blog is his final work, Oholei Torah, on the history of the yeshivot. The only criticism I can give of this work is that it tries to do too much, and throws too much information at the reader. Yet it is an enormously helpful volume. I leave aside for now his contributions in a number of other areas of Jewish studies, as well as in general German Jewish history.
As I was in touch with him for many years, allow me to offer some personal comments, and excerpts from letters and e-mails I received, as I think they will be of interest to the readers.
My first contact with Breuer was actually not the most pleasant for me. I was a graduate student and had just published an article in Ha-Maayan (Tishrei, 5754), in which I included a strong attack on R. Esriel Hildesheimer’s Eisenstadt yeshiva by an anonymous nineteenth-century critic. Breuer wrote to me expressing his unhappiness that I had chosen to publicize what, in his mind, were the ignorant ravings of a benighted yeshiva bachur. I thought then, and still think, that — to paraphrase someone else — while ignorant ravings remain ignorant ravings, the history they illuminate is scholarship. The editor, the late, lamented Yonah Emanuel, took my side in this dispute, and I was happy to have his support when confronted by the man who had become one of my idols in scholarship. (Emanuel actually censored my article, taking out a reference to an attack on the Ketav Sofer, an attack that was already in print and which I found helpful in illuminating the dispute taking place in Hungary. The Ketav Sofer was actually a great friend of Hildesheimer, and even invited him to come to Pressburg to serve with him in the rabbinate.)
Following this, our relationship improved, and I often turned to him with my questions. This became much easier when he too acquired e-mail access. Two months ago, in what was one of my last e-mails to him, I wrote:
I take this opportunity to encourage you to think about writing your autobiography. Your great father did so, and all of kelal Yisrael benefited from it. The same would apply to you.
A couple of months ago, someone contacted me and wanted information about Hirsch’s visits to the opera. I looked around the internet a bit, and apparently it is “common knowledge” that Hirsch attended the opera. There have even been online discussions about what the halakhic justification of this was. Despite my extensive reading in German Orthodox literature, I had never heard that Hirsch went to the opera. Therefore, I was very skeptical of this piece of "common knowledge." I was also aware that very often "common knowledge" turns out to be incorrect. But rather than offer my opinion, I did what I always did at times like this. I turned to Professor Breuer, the man who had read everything written by and about Hirsch, and who had painstakingly gone through every page of the German Orthodox newspapers and magazines of the nineteenth century. I also asked him about the general German Orthodox practice of going to the opera.
Here and there you can find hints in German printed sermons disapproving going to the opera. When I went to the opera as a boy of 13-14 years my father did not express his dissatisfaction. I don't know if Hirsch was an opera lover, but I know that he went to concerts when he was at a holiday resort.
In another e-mail he wrote similarly:
I know of no Orthodox rabbi in Germany who regularly visited the opera. This applies also to Rav S.R. Hirsch. Very musical as he was, he sometimes visited a concert, especially while on holidays, but never, to the best of my knowledge, the opera.
None of the pupils covered their heads all day. I know there were nominally orthodox homes where heads were covered only for prayers and the like. One such case is documented not in Frankfurt, but in Munich. See Adolph Fraenkel’s biography of his father Sigmund Fraenkel, one of the leading members of Bavarian Orthodoxy.
I told Breuer that some people understand Hoffmann’s teshuvah as referring to him taking off his hat when he went into Hirsch’s office, but still having a kippah underneath. He replied that Hoffmann
is obviously dealing with cases which, when the hat was removed, left the head without any cover. Carrying a kippah underneath the hat was very unusual in Germany. If that had been the case, Hoffmann would certainly have mentioned it. By the way, I remember that the principal of the school had his head always covered with a kippah, as did other teachers who carried the title of rabbi.
I left the Hirsch school in Frankfurt in 1934. The rule of uncovered heads while studying “secular” subjects (a concept which should not have actually been used at a school adhering to the principle of Torah im Derech Eretz) was enforced without exception (it was not enforced upon teachers who served as rabbis in one of the local synagogues). However, during the last years of the school’s functioning, when the impact of the Nazi regime became increasingly palpable, pupils and teachers reacted by covering their heads in “secular” subjects as well.
In Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger’s new biography of Rabbi Merzbach, pp. 17-18, he says that German rabbis were obligated by law to receive a university degree. As a blanket statement this is false. Yet I believe that there were some times and places when the government did require this. Do you know any particulars about this, i.e., where and when this was required? Also, was Hirsch’s school co-educational (i.e., boys and girls). If so, were the classes mixed or only the school?
There was certainly no German law requiring rabbis to have a university degree. In mattters of religion the many German states (“Laender”) were autonomous. At the beginning of emancipation there were states which passed administrative rules concerning the qualifications of rabbis. There were no such regulations anywhere in the Weimar period.
There were no mixed classes in S.R. Hirsch’s school except in the very first years when enrol which is present [!] and also in the very last years when students and teachers were continually disappearing. However, throughout its existence the girls’ school (“Lyceum”) and the boys’ school were in separate wings under one roof and one principal and adminstration. Co-education was very rare in Germany before WWI.
There was some congregational singing in Orthodox synagogues, but usually the choir sang those portions, with the congregation singing or humming with the choir.
My father z.l. had two semichot morenu. In Germany no one was titled “Rabbi” unless he was an officiating rabbi, which my father was not. Here in Israel the title of rabbi, gaon, etc. has undergone a process of inflation and my father is regularly referred to as rabbi, which in his case is more justified than in many others.
I cannot vouch that my grandfather never accidentally found himself in the presence of Rabbi Horovitz. He certainly tried hard to avoid this. The social rift in Frankfurt between the two orthodox congregations was proverbial. It existed even between different branches of the same family. There were quite a few members of the IRG, even such that were not also members of the other community, who transgressed the tabu [against entering the Gemeinde synagogue] and their number probably increased after World War I. There was no Austritt indoctrination in the IRG school, probably out of consideration for the students whose parents were non-members. There were also members of the faculty who were less than enthusiastic Austritt fanatics.
Leaving aside your study a certain affinity occurred to me between Rav Weinberg and R. Jacob Emden.
To what you write about R. Weinberg’s responsum about co-education in the Yeshurun organization, I might add that in the late fifties I wrote to R. Weinberg asking him whether his p’sak was applicable to the Esra movement in Israel in which I was active. He never replied, but sent word by a messenger encouraging me to continue my educational activity without swerving to the right After his death I discovered that he had asked two of his students in Montreux to draft a response to my letter. The drafts are in my possession. They contradict each other. One of the two authors now teaches at a yeshiva in Bene Berak.
The “Frauengitter” mentioned in my note on p. 375 is the common German translation of mechitzah. It signifies some sort of lattice which was put on top of the parapet which surrounded the women’s gallery (or balcony). The parapet was low enough to allow the women to watch what was going on in the men’s hall downstairs. The lattice (“Gitter”) did not quite conceal the women from the men’s eyes; its significance was mainly symbolical. The lack of this lattice was one of the compromises made here and there with the Reform synagogues where women sat on the balcony, yet in full view of the men since there was no lattice.
After gaining so much from Professor Breuer, I was happy that I was able to give him a present — a copy of a manuscript letter from Hirsch. I didn’t even know what it said, as I found it impossible to read the old handwriting. He wrote to me as follows:
The letter is quite important. R. Hirsch was asked about the relative significance of the Sabbath in Jewish law. I guess the question arose through some discussion with German authorities. They compared the Sabbath to the Christian Sunday. R. Hirsch showed by citing biblical and rabbinical sources that in Jewish law and practice the Sabbath ranked much higher than any other day of rest or festival.
Despite his age, Prof. Breuer was always prompt in answering all of my questions, and I will be forever grateful. I am also in his debt for another reason. No doubt realizing that he would not be able to write about everything in his files, he offered to give me unpublished material relating to the controversy over the talmudic commentaries of R. Joseph Zvi Duenner, chief rabbi of Amsterdam. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and I thank my friend, Aharon Wexler, who went to his house, picked up the material, and mailed it to me. I hope to be able to publish it before too long.
For those who don’t know, Duenner’s approach anticipated that of Halivni in some respects, primarily in the assumption that the answers given by the amoraim, while binding for halakhic purposes, are not necessarily the best explanation of the Mishnah. Duenner also pointed to a couple of passages in the Talmud — both of which are in the current daf yomi tractate — which he believed are interpolations from the heretics, intended to mock the rabbis. He claimed that the rabbis would never have discussed the case of one who falls off a roof and while landing on a woman has sex with her (a highly improbable scenario, to put it mildly), or that a holy sage would come into a new town and announce that he was looking for a wife for the night (Yevamot 37b, 54a). According to Duenner, these texts are the product of those intending to mock the rabbis, and were unfortunately taken by later scholars as authentic.
Breuer’s grandfather, Rabbi S. Z. Breuer, was one of the leading opponents of Duenner, going so far as to threaten to place him into herem if he didn’t stop publishing his hiddushim, and put the ones already in print into genizah. Duenner refused, and the threat of a herem was never carried out. His hiddushim were later reprinted by Mossad ha-Rav Kook, and some unpublished material was also included in this new edition.
Dr. Marc B. Shapiro holds the Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Scranton. He is the author of Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 (London: Littman Library, 1999) previous posts at the Seforim blog include “Uncensored Books” and an obituary for Rabbi Yosef Buxbaum zt"l, founder and publisher of Machon Yerushalayim.
 It is even more ironic that the bête noire of Hirsch and S. Z. Breuer, R. Mordechai Horovitz (the Matteh Levi), has a descendant, R. Baruch Horovitz, who runs the fairly haredi Dvar Yerushalayim Yeshiva. In fact, when Rabbi Horovitz reprinted the Matteh Levi in 1979, he received a haskamah from R. Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss, Av Beit Din of the Edah Haredit and a man far removed from the cultured and tolerant Orthodoxy of the Matteh Levi. (Of course, what some would call “tolerant Orthodoxy,” Hirsch and S.Z. Breuer regarded as fraudelent Orthodoxy.)
 See Mordechai Breuer, Oholei Torah: The Yeshiva, Its Structure and History (Merkaz Zalman Shazar 2003)