Joseph Breuer (1882–1980) was a rabbi and community leader in Germany and the United States. He was a Rabbi of one of the large Jewish synagogues founded by German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression that had settled in Washington Heights, New York.
Joseph Breuer was born in 1882 in Pápa, Hungary to the local Rabbi Solomon Breuer and Sophie Breuer née Hirsch, who was the youngest daughter of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. After the passing of Hirsch in 1888, Solomon Breuer was elected his successor as rabbi of the Austrittsgemeinde (seceded community) of Orthodox Jews known as Khal Adath Jeshurun. Here, Breuer Sr. founded a yeshiva (Talmud college) called the Torah Lehranstalt and became its first rosh yeshiva (head).
Joseph studied at the Torah Lehranstalt until 1903, when he was awarded semicha (rabbinic ordination), and in 1905 he completed university studies at the University of Strasbourg with a PhD on the work of legal scholar Anselm von Feuerbach. He became a teacher at the Realschule (secondary school) and lecturer at the Torah Lehranstalt. He married Rika Eisenmann of Antwerp in 1911. In 1919 he was also appointed rabbi of the Klaus synagogue of Frankfurt.
Upon Solomon Breuer's death in 1928, Joseph Breuer lost the election to succeed his father as rabbi of the community, but he did succeed him as rosh yeshiva. In 1933, with the rise of Nazism, he briefly moved the yeshiva to Fiume, Italy, where he had assumed the rabbinate, but this arrangement lasted only until the next year and the family and the yeshiva returned to Frankfurt. It was formally dissolved by the Nazis in 1935, but continued to function unofficially. On the day after Kristallnacht (10 November 1938), rabbi Breuer was arrested but subsequently released. The family left Germany, initially to Antwerp. A former pupil was then, with the assistance of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, able to procure an affidavit of support, which enabled Dr. Breuer and his family to relocate to New York in 1939. Dr. Bernard Revel offered Joseph Breuer a teaching position in his institution, which he brusquely turned down. He reportedly said that he would rather "clean the streets".
In New York, Breuer took the initiative to start a congregation with the numerous German refugees in Washington Heights, which would closely follow the morale and customs of its "spiritual ancestor" in Frankfurt. The congregation came to be called Khal Adath Yeshurun (KAJ), but is colloquially called "Breuer's" after its founder. In addition, he founded Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a yeshiva elementary school and high school named after his illustrious grandfather.It was the first such school in the area that used the vernacular. He also founded a teachers' seminary for women that would be renamed the Rika Breuer Teachers' Seminary after his wife's death. All institutions purported to follow the teachings and ideology of Rabbi Breuer's grandfather, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In the 1960s, the community invited Frankfurt-born Rabbi Shimon Schwab, then of Baltimore, to assist with rabbinical duties.
Towards the end of his life, the name Levi was added to his own name as a blessing to recover from an illness. He died in 1980, survived by his children Marc, Jacob, Samson, Rosy Bondi, Edith Silverman, Sophie Gutmann, Hanna Schwalbe and Meta Bechoffer.
Views and philosophy
Breuer was very well known for his involvement in setting up an Orthodox Jewish infrastructure in post-World War II America. He wrote several books, including translations of and commentaries on the Biblical books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel; English translations of these appeared after his death.
Breuer can be considered the main post-war representative of the Torah im Derech Eretz movement in the United States. Apart from the abovementioned books, he limited his written work to contributions to the community organ (Mitteilungen); some appeared in book form after his death. His influence was mainly due to his public speeches and his indefatigable work on the community's services. A number of important ideas can be distinguished:
- Independent Orthodoxy: Rabbi Breuer drew on his grandfather's work of Austritt - the principle that Jewish communities can only truly claim to be Jewish if they are ideologically and otherwise independent from organisations that represent ideals contrary to halakha (Jewish law). In America, where the community organisation was not enforced by local law, this became in Breuer's mind an even stronger issue than in Europe. This stance also led to his involvement with Agudath Israel of America. He was stridently opposed to a Zionist state, and refrained from visiting Israel.
- Torah im Derech Eretz: Rabbi Breuer saw the risk of misinterpretation of his grandfather's ideas on how Judaism could be harmonised within limits with general culture of the outside world. He repeatedly stated that compromising on Jewishness and halakha was at variance with Torah im Derech Eretz. With the rise of the yeshiva movement, he also remarked that Torah im Derech Eretz was by no means a unique temporary measure - as was often claimed by protagonists of the "Torah " view.
- Kosher we-Yosher: Although one of the phenomena of post-World War II Orthodoxy has become the (re)introduction of stringencies in halakha, Rabbi Breuer held that these should not be limited to the ceremonial sphere but also to the many financial and social laws of Judaism. He would, for example, refuse a hechsher (certification of kosher products) to companies with bad financial records.
- Dovid Landesman, David Kranzler (1998). Rav Breuer: His Life and His Legacy. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers. ISBN 1-58330-163-1.
- Joseph Breuer (translation by Gertrude Hirschler) (1988). The book of Jeremiah. Jerusalem: P. Feldheim. ISBN 0-87306-983-8.
- Joseph Breuer (translation by Gertrude Hirschler) (1993). The book of Yechezkel. Jerusalem: P. Feldheim. ISBN 0-87306-956-0.
- Breuer, Joseph (1995). 'Et li-venot = A time to build. New York: Published for the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Publications Society by Philipp Feldheim, Inc. ISBN 0-87306-734-7.. His Talmudic novellae and related writings appeared as Divrei Yosef (the Words of Joseph) in 1990, edited by his sons. Full additional bibliography in Landesman & Kranzler.
- Bodenheimer, Ernst Rabbi Joseph Breuer: The Rav of Frankfurt, U.S.A., Jewish Observer
- Frankel, Pinchas On the Breuer Kehilla, ou.org
- Hirsch / Breuer genealogy (GIF file)