A lecture by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple at the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney, 25 February, 2008. (Subsequently published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in June 2008, Vol. 19, Part 1.)
A person has many teachers but only one rebbe. More than merely a teacher, a rebbe is mentor, role model and lifetime influence. A rebbe does not have to be Chassidic, though my non-Chassidic rebbe became increasingly at home with Chabad Chassidim in his last years whilst remaining a product and exemplar of German Jewry and the embodiment of the symbiosis of Jewish and European culture.
My rebbe was Dr Samuel Billigheimer, born in Mannheim, south-western Germany, in August, 1889. He arrived in Melbourne on 1 May, 1939, knowing that the German Jewish tradition was unlikely to survive unless transplanted or adopted. Leaving Germany in March, 1939, the Billigheimer family, like others, sought a new home as far away as possible from the impending tornado. There was a chance of permits for the United States, thanks to the philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965), but the permits for Australia, sponsored by Rabbi Dr Harry Freedman of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, were more certain. The United States might have proved a more hospitable academic environment, but that is conjecture. In the event, Australia was good to the family, but Dr Billigheimer had to become a school teacher again. In the anti-cultural Jewish community of the time he was never properly appreciated; it was probably only in his final years, when he was in his 80s and 90s, that young adults discovered the elderly philosopher and poet and he became the rebbe of a new generation.
The Jewish sages ask (Talmud Shabbat 21b), “What is Chanukah?” Did they not know what Chanukah was? But their question is not about the simple facts but the nature and characterisation of the festival. Ahad Ha-Am asks (“Moses” in Selected Essays of Ahad Ha-Am, ed. Leon Simon, 1962, pp. 306-28), “What was Moses?” Did Ahad Ha-Am not know? His question means, however, “What was the essence of Moses?” Following the tradition of the sages and of Ahad Ha-Am, let me ask, “What was the essential Billigheimer?” The answer is actually made harder by looking at his portrait painted by Louis Kahan in 1964. It lacks, to use his own words about Rembrandt, “his unusual unity of an intensive feeling, of a comprehensive and essential seeing and of a powerful ability of expression”.
The real Billigheimer was essentially a civilised human being: in knowledge a polymath, in intellect a penetrating mind, in culture a man of broad accomplishment, in piety a believer who practised and a practising Jew who thought. His was no proste frumkeit, behaviourism without spirituality. He was no tzaddik in pelz who wanted to be warm without sharing the warmth. Nor did he erect a partition between religion and life; Goethe and Rembrandt were in his ken as were Isaiah and the Psalmist.
His family’s arrival in Melbourne brought the usual problems of resettlement, physical, psychological, economic and professional, but, as I have said, Australians, including Jewish Australians, were not mentally disposed to receive a cadre of cultured intellectuals. There were some brave spirits, poets, musicians, historians, even a few philosophers, but it was still a largely frontier society even in the midst of the cities.
Though Jews had contributed greatly to Australian drama, music, literature and art, the interests of the Australian Jewish community were highly limited. Some read race cards and playing cards, but nothing serious. Some scanned the Jewish press only for the hatches-matches-and-dispatches. A German Jewish intellectual did not fit in.
There were secularists, mostly Bundists and Zionists, who established Yiddish literature, journalism and theatre, but this was not the Torah-im-derech-eretz of a Billigheimer (“Torah with general culture” is a phrase from Mishnah Avot 2:2, promoted by Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-88). Australian Yiddishists had derech eretz without Torah. On the other hand some of the strictly Orthodox had Torah without derech eretz and no time for Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Jewish sources. Both groups were suspicious of the German Jews, the yekkes, who returned the compliment.
In his essay, “The Last Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Germany”, Rabbi Dr Alfred Fabian quotes Milton Himmelfarb, who wrote: “All modern Jews – insofar as they are modern, or even post-modern – walk in the footsteps of German-speaking Jewry, the pioneers of Jewish modernity” (“The Condition of Jewish Belief”, A Symposium Compiled by the Editors of Commentary Magazine, 1966, page 3). Rabbi Fabian points out that the movements that have shaped modern Jewish life – neo-Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform; neo-Chassidism; Zionism and others – all focus on how to be a Jew in the modern world, and all arose under the influence of German-speaking Jewry (An Australian Ministry, 1980, pages 107-117). To be fair we should acknowledge that Billigheimer represented an ethos without which Australian Jewry would have sunk into irrelevancy.
Critics condemn German Jewry for attempting a symbiosis. Many say it could never have worked. Billigheimer argued the opposite. It is telling that when he was taken to Dachau after Kristallnacht in 1938, someone called out, “What now of your Goethe and Schiller?” and Billigheimer replied, “They will be back!” For him as for all of us, Nazism was horror incarnate – after the war he would not go to Germany to receive an official award, saying, “They threw me out once; it will not happen again” – but he never ceased believing that western culture could live with Judaism. In a letter in December, 1982, he told me that his lecture on Goethe’s influence on his pedagogical experience “seems to be far from Jewish concerns, but you will come to another conclusion”.
Jews had lived in Mannheim, where he was born in 1889, from about the 11th century. Originally a fishing village on the Rhine, the city had given Jews the opportunity to contribute to its industry, commerce and administration. There were good relations between Jews and gentiles, and when the Nazis came to power the local population tried to delay or deflect the implementation of Nazi policies. After the war the municipality bought up the city block where the synagogue had stood and gave it to the small Jewish community, which erected there a synagogue and community centre. Local churches assisted with the glass dome and leadlight panels.
Billigheimer’s father was a learned minister trained in Hochberg and Wurzburg. Samuel Billigheimer himself became an educator. His Heidelberg doctoral thesis was on the religious philosophy of the French thinker-poet, Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907). His wife Gertrud had been one of his teacher-trainee students; supportive but never self-effacing, she won his release from Dachau on condition that he left Germany. In the new environment Mrs Billigheimer created a cultured home for him and their two sons Ludwig (Lutz) and Claude. Claude was dux of Caulfield Grammar School, studied at Melbourne University, lectured in mathematics at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and at the Australian National University, gained a doctorate at Toronto University and became a professor of mathematics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he also established Maimonides College, a Jewish tertiary institution. Claude’s wife Rachel gained a doctorate in English literature and taught at McMaster University and Maimonides College.
There was a civilised air about their home. Billigheimer had a fine singing voice and the family musical ensemble was highly skilled. His piano took up an alcove in the front room which was his study (though when he sat at the piano and sang, his accompaniment seemed too large for the room). There was art on the wall, double rows of books on the shelves, and ideas in the atmosphere. That front room and the dining room with its hanging Sabbath lamp saw many gatherings of choice friends who came for high-minded discourse. Mrs Billigheimer’s hospitality was generous and civilised; in the early years they could not easily afford it, but I was too young to think on those lines. The conversation was often above my head, but I knew I was in the presence of a great mind.
Billigheimer was close to Rabbi Freedman and certain other rabbis, and to professors and teachers in various disciplines. From time to time he gave guest lectures for them. My own introduction to the University campus was for one of his lectures, I think on Rembrandt and the Bible. He introduced his devotees to the great names of Jewish philosophy. The Jewish community as a whole was, however, indifferent. With vision it could have created an adult college for him (for five years in the 1930s he had headed the Lehrhaus in Mannheim) but, as he said, quoting his father, “Jewish bread is hard bread”.
It was left to the Jewish student community to make him a sage and mentor. Well into old age, when like Moses “his eye was not dim or his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7), he gathered them around him, lectured and wrote for them, and introduced them to great themes and thinkers. His English was still not always easy or colloquial, but his followers were awestruck like me decades before. His schoolboy pupils at Caulfield Grammar School presumably thought back to him when they were middle-aged and wondered why they had not always seen that examinations were important but encountering a great intellectual was far more influential in forming one’s personality.
As I have said, his career in Germany had been in education and teacher-training. He studied at Heidelberg, Geneva and Freiburg Universities and was influenced by Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915) of the South-West German school of philosophy. His doctoral degree was reconfirmed by Heidelberg University 50 years later and he was re-acknowledged as a professor, the title stripped from him by the Nazis.
He had been a senior educator at the Lessing Realgymnasium in Mannheim from 1920-33. When removed by the Nazis he had to receive a pension because he had given more than five years’ service. He specialised in German literature and philosophy, especially the link between philosophy and the general curriculum. His methods included the use of “speech choirs”, with voices creating a symphony of speech, though he admitted that this method could be abused as a propaganda tool. From June, 1933, he played his part in German Jewry’s spiritual resistance as principal of the Mannheim Lehrhaus, a mini-university founded in 1929 where five to six hundred adult students were taught by some 25 teachers. The Lehrhaus movement, headed by Martin Buber (1886-1965), followed the Franz Rosenzweig principle, “Move from life into Judaism”.
In Mannheim he was a board member of the United Synagogue, president of the Jewish Religious Association and a member of the Jewish Country Synod. Though these were not strictly Orthodox organisations, his personal practice was totally halachic.
Once he left Europe he refused to return, but in the postwar period he maintained an extensive correspondence with Germany and sent his writings there for publication. Eventually the German government awarded him the Commander Cross of the Federal Order of Merit for promoting good relations between countries.
Rabbi Freedman introduced him to Sir John Medley, vice-chancellor of Melbourne University. Professors AR Chisholm (French) and A Boyce Gibson (Philosophy) recommended him for a university post, but without success. Nonetheless the German Department published teaching aids developed by him, and he had close links with the Semitic Studies Department opened in the 1940s with Maurice D Goldman as professor, and he was a member of the Hebrew Standing Committee.
His home at 69 Westbury Street, St. Kilda, was rented for a number of years until he was able to purchase it and also to buy a car which Mrs Billigheimer drove (previously she rode a bicycle to go shopping). Holidays were at a house in Hepburn Springs, near a local minyan where holiday-makers davened. He never left Australia; when I urged him to come to Sydney for my induction in February, 1973, he said he was too old to travel.
He wanted his son to lein the whole Torah portion on his Bar-Mitzvah, but when the St. Kilda Synagogue objected he transferred his affiliation to the Toorak Road Synagogue despite the long walk; Mrs Billigheimer went to Elwood. In the 1940s Rabbi Freedman appointed him to take senior classes for the United Jewish Education Board, on Sunday mornings at Toorak and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at North Caulfield Central School. Billigheimer became headmaster at both centres, though he did not always agree with Rabbi LM Goldman, who succeeded Rabbi Freedman as principal. For a time he conducted children’s services (in Hebrew and Singer-Prayer-Book English) at the Caulfield Jewish Centre in Inkerman Road. He taught Bar-Mitzvah boys; perhaps it was beneath him, but he needed the parnasah (the income).
He conducted High Holyday services in 1939 and 1940 in the tiny Launceston Synagogue, and when Claude and Rachel lived in Canberra he officiated there from 1956-61. Neither Launceston nor Canberra completely understood his sermons; Canberra veterans speak of him dominating his son.
He taught languages from 1940-63 at Caulfield Grammar School, an Anglican school whose principal, Mr H Archer, encouraged him to introduce the school to great musicians and writers. When he lectured to the school about JS Bach, he used illustrative slides made by the Visual Aids Department of Melbourne University headed by Newman H Rosenthal. In 1959 his pupils marked Schiller’s bicentenary by reciting and then singing “Ode to Joy”. He naturally took a special interest in the school’s musical life and even in the sports competitions. As one of two Barnett House sports masters he attended Saturday sports matches, walking from his home because of Shabbat. Even after he officially retired, he continued with matriculation teaching in German and Hebrew, sitting at the round table in his study with his students. He introduced studious non-Jewish adults to Hebrew, making them, like his other student followers, part of the family.
His home was always an extension of his classroom. Even when working for the Jewish Education Board he was not always paid for advanced teaching, but the students never knew this. He was not a conventional teacher, satisfied to teach grammar, texts and history; he applied the Proverbs, Psalms and Prophets to universal human situations. For me this was a remarkable support when my mother died just before my examinations.
Senior pupils came to his home every Shabbat afternoon, not for formal lessons but to learn to daven Minchah and to sit at his table for what I later learned was called Se’udah Sh’lishit. When he davened we were supposed to do likewise, but I for one looked at him out of the corner of my eye and saw true piety. In fact sometimes when I arrived early at Toorak on a Sunday morning I would find him in the darkened shule, absorbed in his prayers: the philosopher was a believer. He was not a Chassid, but his poetic soul appreciated Lubavitch Chassidism, and when he could not walk to Toorak he attended the Yeshivah in Hotham Street where Rabbi Groner and he had a warm mutual respect.
He retired from Caulfield Grammar at 74. He retired from UJEB in 1954, returned to duty in 1956, and retired again in 1964. As headmaster he had an office at the Arnold Street entrance of the Toorak Road Synagogue; the highly loyal staff, the veteran of whom was Miss Minnie Kierson, had to make do with an odd assortment of classrooms. The enrolment in 1958 was over 100. Visitors to our classes in my time ranged from Chief Rabbi Brodie, who grilled me on Hebrew grammar, to the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin.
Billigheimer was a stern but fair disciplinarian. Probably few of his pupils knew why this teacher was different. Yet those who responded to him became disciples for life. If they visited him on Friday afternoon they would even share a pre-Shabbat cigar.
Adult education had always been a major concern of his career. Long before the Mannheim Lehrhaus, he had been involved in adult education activity both Jewish and general. He was a delegate to an adult education conference in Cambridge in the 1920s, and during his stay visited Chief Rabbi JH Hertz at his home in St. John’s Wood. They discussed Biblical exegesis and the Chief Rabbi told him that unlike German Jews, “English people expect a short and concise (commentary)”.
In Melbourne, Jewish adult education was not yet known, though various organisations arranged occasional lectures, and in the Orthodox enclaves of Carlton there were even regular shi’urim. But not until Abraham Feiglin, later principal of Mount Scopus College, was appointed as the first education officer of the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board (later the Board of Deputies), was there any attempt at co-ordinated community-wide adult courses, and Billigheimer was one of the team of lecturers who spoke at venues in both the south and the north of the Yarra. The initiative petered out, but Billigheimer continued with his study circles at home, earning praise from the Jewish press for his persistence in the face of apathy. It was still a largely anti-cultural community, though the Mizrachi organisation administered by Dr Hans Ruskin attempted to roll away the rebuke.
Billigheimer lectured widely – for the University of Melbourne Extension Committee and various university departments, for the Goethe Institute, the Existentialist Society, the Australian National Society for the Study of the History of Religions, and Jewish student bodies, which publicly acknowledged his “warmth and wisdom”. Every aspect of culture formed his subject matter, not only books but art, music, religion, and theatre. Often he addressed himself to the correlation between forms of culture. Thus in the French Department at Melbourne University he spoke not only on Pascal and Rousseau but on French art.
For the Semitic Studies Department he lectured at the Victorian Conservatorium on “Highlights of Sacred Music in Biblical Religions”, giving musical illustrations ranging through the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant liturgies. His Jewish material ranged from Biblical cantillation to Chassidic melody, especially the “Dudele” (“You, You, always You, everywhere You”) with what he called its “fascinating lively panentheism” (panentheism – “all is in God” – contrasts with pantheism, which identifies God and the universe). The head of the German Department arranged for him to address the Goethe Institute on Goethe’s Weimar, Kant and Goethe, and Goethe’s “Faust” in German music. He was constantly exercised about the link between language and human thought and even the connection between education and drama. He had an insight into physics and mathematics and encompassed them in his thinking.
He wrote no books, though I for one urged him to collect his essays and allow his pupils to publish them in one or two volumes. His academic papers focussed on thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant, Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber and Nathan Rotenstreich. Weaving a path through their various approaches, he wrote an essay, “From the Religion of Reason to Existentialism”. He reflected in some of his essays on the philosophical influences on his pedagogic career. He wrote on Psalm translations, Bible translations, liturgical history, and various theological concepts such as Revelation and love. His English style was rather ponderous, but if the book or books had transpired some of us would have offered our assistance in editing.
Was he a philosopher of religion, or a religious philosopher? The answer depends on whether the ultimate arbiter of truth is to be found in human reason or Divine Revelation. Isidore Epstein used to say that the distinction constantly haunted religious thinking (The Faith of Judaism, 1954, ch. 5).
It certainly haunted Billigheimer from the age of 16, when he was troubled by “the different attitudes towards the world heard from the teacher of physics and from the teacher of religion” (“On the Conflicts of Jewish Liturgy in the First Decade of our Century”, in Milla wa-Milla: The Australian Bulletin of Comparative Religion, no. 10, 1970, p. 47). Billigheimer said in a presentation on his philosophy of life, “My mind could not rest with the idea that God was only… a methodological idea. I sought for a more natural approach to God and Nature… a more ‘realistic’ relationship to God, to His relations and our fellow men” (On the Philosophy of Life, ed. Shri Vijayadev Yogendra, 1977, p. 89).
Billigheimer’s life as a believer was an answer to the reason/revelation tug of war – however, not a simplistic “yes” or “no”, but an honest endorsement of a verse in Kohelet (7:18) which, significantly, he quoted from a Chabad translation: “It is good that thou shouldest take hold of the one: yea, also from the other withdraw not thy hand, for he that feareth God will go forth with all of them” (Conflicts of Jewish Liturgy, p. 68). Does he mean that the tension will always remain, but the rationalist approach need not be discounted if one realises that reason itself is a gift of God?
Another question: was he a philosopher at all? He certainly worked in and with philosophy. He would probably have said that he was fundamentally a pedagogue who knew and taught philosophy. But he was more than this. The way in which he used philosophy was also a form of philosophy. In an essay which I have mentioned, he describes Goethe’s influence on his pedagogical career. One might say in parenthesis that few Australian or for that matter British teachers are reflective about what they do and why they do it; the English-speaking approach is more pragmatic than reflective.
Billigheimer saw the teacher’s role as, in his words, based on his teacher Windelband, to develop “the true, the historical human being, the bearer of culture”.
To use the verb “haunted” once again, his teaching career was a constant search for ways “to reconcile… different worlds” – a philosophical issue on which countless Jewish philosophers worked, not only Mendelssohn, Cohen, Rosenzweig and Buber, but also Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Kook, Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Soloveitchik and others. In a poem he wrote about Goethe, Billigheimer said, “Don’t men err unless they strive?”
He believed that coming to Australia was no hindrance to the pursuit of his values. Europe had betrayed civilisation, though he was sure that Goethe and Schiller, as he said even in Dachau, would be back: his exact words were, “They will come again”. New countries like Australia were not without promise. He saw Australia as fertile soil for his two ideals – “firstly, the Greek ideal of kalakogathia, the unity of bodily and spiritual perfection, and secondly, the Biblical idea of sanctification”. He had faith in Australia, though Australia was not sure how to respond when he needed someone who could type his writings using English, French, German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.In his final decades he wrote a great deal of poetry, mostly self-published. He produced individual poems and a few small collections. Often or mostly originally in German, some were published in German periodicals both in Australia and in Germany. He had been writing German poetry even before coming to Australia, and decades later translated into English some of the products of this period. It is in the poems that his soul is essentially revealed.
The poetry is sometimes difficult. Part of the problem is that he lacked the easy flow of English of a native speaker. Yet there is something distinctive about this poet. He not only uses language but he speaks to it. Determined, as he said, “to fight against… the terrible abuse of slogans”, he writes a poem called “Language and Poetry”:
When the language springs forth to us
From the pure well of Nature,
She releases from her shining world
Messages of the Spirit:
Enlightening man’s behaviour,
Revealing in Truth
Good and Evil,
Beauty and Ugliness,
Clearing our heart’s entanglement.
Guard the noble character of our language,
Equip us with the guarantee
To secure all human dignity.
He addresses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in a poem, “To Our Hebrew Symbols”, of which these are some of the stanzas:
Strongly you face us
With a consistent look –
“Letter” is your outside
Soul your inner being.
Then you yearn for the hearts
Who approach you.
You shine to those
Who seek you,
Without serving them.
You demand our active partnership
To us our being,
Even our road
To the Eternal
And to that realm of this creation
Which is awaiting us.
Working signs of the world’s events
Divine, mystery loaded messengers,
On, even widen
The steep and narrow paths
To those sacred heights
Of holy community.
This is not the place for a full analysis of the poetry, but it is significant that as a poet he did not simply feel deeply and give expression to the feelings. This was a poet writing in the context of the difficult 20th century when it seemed that civilisation and the sacred task of the teacher were being betrayed. This civilised thinker and thinking teacher believed that it was necessary to restore “trust in the world”. Not for him the kind of bizarre poetry, art, literature or theatre which can only escalate the beastly tendencies in human life. For him every form of art had a responsibility to God, whom the rabbis called the Supreme Artist. The creative spirit was not and could not be an end in itself. In 1950 in a lecture for the Mizrachi organisation entitled “Art Through Jewish Eyes”, he expressed the hope that Israeli art would subscribe to “the specific Jewish approach, devoted and subordinated to the higher moral and ideological principles of Judaism”. He believed that all culture ought to be an instrument “to transform destructive hatred into the light of constructive love”.
Billigheimer had a remarkable wife. In 63 years of marriage he was the dominant influence, but she was far from self-effacing despite her total and uncomplaining support. The historian cannot describe them together other than through their home. Lessons, meetings, musical evenings, Sabbath and festival meals, Shavu’ot and Hoshana Rabbah sessions, cultured conversation, refinement and warm-hearted human concern – all made 69 Westbury Street a bet va’ad lachachamim (a gathering for the wise). Students and friends were welcomed and accepted with dignity. People brought their problems there; the problems were not always solved, but one emerged feeling better. Since so much of this paper is rather filial, I have to add that when I returned to Australia I was blessed to resume my place as a disciple. On visits to Melbourne from Sydney, a pilgrimage to my teacher was taken for granted. Thanks to a bountiful Providence, his handshake was as firm as thirty years before, his mind as clear, his voice as strong, even his handwriting as strong and legible.
Once when I was a child I called him “Dad”. I quickly corrected myself, but he said I had paid him a great compliment. Later I found that in the Bible av, a father, can have a metaphorical sense: a father, but also a leader. Hillel said that Yochanan ben Zakkai was av l’chochmah, av l’dorot – “a father of wisdom, a father of generations” (Mishnah Nedarim 5:6). Billigheimer as av l’chochmah was a sage; as av l’dorot he was a rebbe.
One thought he would defeat time. The venerable sage and rebbe was living embodiment of the words of the Psalmist: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; planted in the House of the Lord they shall still bring forth fruit in old age: they shall be full of sap and richness” (Psalm 92:13-15). The Psalmist not only speaks of the righteous being old and energetic; he adds that the years do not affect the piety of the tzaddik – “attesting that the Lord is upright, my Rock in whom there is no wrong” (verse 16).
Billigheimer died just before Shavu’ot on 17 May, 1983. He was almost 94. Gertrud Billigheimer survived him by a few years. They enriched countless lives, hearts, minds and souls.
In 1988 in a memorial tribute to Mrs Billigheimer I wrote the following:
“Dr and Mrs Billigheimer were blessed to reach their nineties. To almost the very end, to use the Scriptural phrase, their eye was not dim nor their natural force abated. Both remained intellectually busy to nearly their very last moment; but the rabbis say that the disciples of the wise have no rest either in this world or in the World to Come. So I for one am quite confident that On High he is still sitting at his table, surrounded by piles of books, drawing together thoughts and themes for essays and poems; she is still spreading wisdom and concern; they are still conducting musical evenings, presiding over a large Seder or Shavu’ot or Hoshana Rabbah lernen; they are still lifting people’s spirits out of depression and raising their sights to higher and nobler thoughts.”
Several former students generously provided me with material and insights for this paper. I am particularly grateful for the assistance of Professor Claude E Billigheimer.