Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rabbi Dr. Shimon Yisroel Pozen - a Doctor, a Zealot

Before the first world war, the culture and lifestyle of the east European Jewry were largely unknown to the German (Yekkish) Jews. But along came the war, and many fine young German Jews were drafted into the German army, and when they saw the Jewish life in eastern Europe many of them were attracted. For some, it was the Hasidic warmth and fervor they saw. For others it was the simple piety. Whatever it was, it managed to change the attitude western European Jews had towards their brothers on the east for the better. And it also caused many Yekkish boys to 'frum out' and abandoned their previous lifestyle.

A striking example of the above is R. Shimon Yisroel Posen, Rav of Shopron. R. Shimon Yisroel was known as a fierce zealot with extreme opinions, which he picked up from his mentor in zealotry R. Hayim Elazar Shapira. That is also the legacy R. Posen left to this world, both by his disciples and in his multi-volumed "Torat Aleph". But amazingly, this person started out as no less then a doctor of philosophy!

From a reliable source, I heard that when someone told R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg about R. Shimon Yisroel and his zealousness, R Weinberg replied, "I saw R. Pozen's doctorate in Giessen, and it was full of apikorsus!" While I was quite sure R. Weinberg didn't intend it in its literal sense and probably meant it as a sarcastic snark (that is, if the story is true), it piqued my interest, and I decided to find the dissertation. With the help of the great S. from the great On The Main Line blog, I found R. Posen's doctoral dissertation online. Here is the title page:

In English: "About Scientific Truth, An attempt to contribute to the logical doctrine of truth in general andof scientific truth in particular". As you can see, this was published in Giessen in 1921, which is the time-period when R. Weinberg studied there, so it makes perfect sense that R. Weinberg saw it and read it.

An interesting page (if you're not interested in reading through the 75 pages of the dissertation itself, which you can do here) is the bibliography page where he records such books as Immanuel Kant's magnum opus "Critique of Pure Reason" and his "Logic", as well as the works of Bernard Bulzano, Paul Natorp, the apostate Edmund HusserlHeinrich Rickert, Christoph von Sigwart, Wilhelm Schuppe, Johann Erdmann, and his professor August Messer.

Also of interest is the two pages of autobiography in the back entitled "Lebenslauf".

According to this autobiography, R. Shimon Yisroel was born in July 20 1894 to his father R. Gershon Posen who was served as dayan in Frankfurt for almost fifty years. R. Gershon was a strong adherent of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and his Torah Umadda philosophy. His grandson, R. Dr. Raphael Posen recounts that while his grandfather considered himself a disciple of R. Hirsch, surprisingly all R. Hirsch taught him was the writings of German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. 

True to his mentor's teachings, R. Gershon sent his children to gymnasium and to university so that they should get an advanced secular education. R. Shimon Yisroel attended Wöhler Realgymnasium in Frankfurt am Main from 1909 until his graduation in 1912. After that R. Shimon Yisroel attended R. Dr. Solomon Breuer's "Thora Lehranstalt" high-school. (It is interesting to note that R. Breuer made just the opposite journey R. Posen made - from Hungarian yeshivot to university studies and eventually getting a doctorate in Germany, read it all in the Wikipedia entry.) In 1914 he went on to pursue his secular studies at Frankfurt University. And in 1920 he went to Giessen to complete his doctorate in philosophy under Prof. August Messer. He studied several subjects like philosophy (specifically logic and epistemology on which he wrote his dissertation), history, and mathematics.

An interesting piece of hagiography has R. Posen destroying his dissertation after WW I, when he made the final decision to travel to Hungary. Obviously this is not true as copies of his dissertation are held in libraries around the world, and even got digitized by Google Books for posterity. But what is true is that not a trace of his former life is evident in his Torat Aleph, which goes to show you that one can always change.


  1. here's an older picture of him (to better your imagination of what he looked like in his "younger, more left-wing years", though not that young)

    Interesting to note, this academic lishe'avar had close ties with the Divrei Yoel (not so much the academic type) later on.

    [As a side note] not to be confused with the shu"t Raba"z, who was Romanian and carried the last name Safrin (Sopron). Indeed, both families had close ties with the Divrei Yoel (back in Hungary).

  2. So he wasn't in the army? In any event, greater influences were:

    1. German young men going to study in the big yeshivot of Eastern Europe and feeling that their form of Judaism was inferior.

    2. Eastern European refugees in Germany during and after World War I.

  3. Nachum, he writes that from 1915 until 1920 he served as a hussar in the German army. But you are right that there were other influences as well.

  4. Apart for a medical exemption, I doubt there was any way for someone born in 1894 to have avoided the army during WWI.

    Nachum, when and why do you think German young men were going to study in the yeshivot of Eastern Europe? This was largely an interwar phenomenon (although I'm sure there are isolated examples even earlier).

  5. "From a reliable source, I heard that when someone told R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg about R. Shimon Yisroel and his zealousness, R Weinberg replied, "I saw R. Pozen's doctorate in Giessen, and it was full of apikorsus!"

    That comment reminds me of my BT's wife's mother, who loves to comment on her daughters childhood enjoyment of treif food.

    Not very complimentary to RYYW!