Monday, May 5, 2008

A basic analysis of Shir's legacy - courtesy of R' S.

My thanks to R' S. for allowing me to post this email that he sent me awhile ago. This is an excellent, very perceptive summation of Shir's complicated legacy.

"My opinion of him is a little mixed, but mostly for personal reasons. I just get the sense that perhaps he really wasn't a very nice person. This shouldn't make a difference, maybe, but I can't say it doesn't.

Putting that aside, he was a very, very interesting person. He is definitely an important figure in the history of Jewish history. Although he didn't originate the genre of the Jewish biography (Zunz, essentially did, with his Toldos Rashi), Shir took it to a new level. It was he who really showed what Zunz had discovered, namely that you can actually get a good picture of who some of the great people of Israel were by carefully studying what they wrote and what others wrote about them. So he's important. As for who claims him, to a certain extent the Conservative movement claims him, particularly the scholarly-historical-JTS wing. Or at least it did, when it used to care about such things (they also, sort of, claim Shadal - Gerson Cohen [former JTS chancellor] pretty much claims Shadal in his foreward to Morris Margolies bio of Shadal). What is interesting is that *Orthodoxy* hasn't completely repudiated Shir, although often he is ridiculed in Orthodox sources. So, for example, in "My Uncle the Netziv" R. Epstein's story that Shir began to dress like a choshuve rov only when he was about to become a rov is repeated. In R. Wein's Triumph of Survival he writes the following: "[Isaac Mayer Wise]* was ordained by Rabbi Solomon Y. Rapaport, a noted rabbinic scholar and maskil, who was the controversial rabbi of Prague in the middle 1800s" - and in a larger treatment: "Even traditional, Talmudic scholars, such as Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rapaport, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, and others, were strongly opposed by the chassidim." - which is a little odd, since Shir was a major misnaged, so of course they opposed him. He called them "mischasedim."

Anyway, Wein's footnote reads:

"Known by his acronym Shir, he was a well-known Talmudic scholar and the son-in-law of the renowned author of Ketzos HaChoshen. His rabbinic career was beset by fierce opposition from chassidim, because he was accused of being a maskil. He was opposed by the German leaders, Rabbi S.B. Baemberger and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, as well, because of his tolerance of Reform." - the last is a strange, well, libel. Since he was pretty kannoisdike against Reform!

In any event, Shir is interesting also because it seems that he had a personal belief that although Jews are permitted free thought, rabbis aren't, but they must maintain the traditional role that they always had, especially because the people expect it of them. That's why he could only oppose rabbis proposing reforms. Not only that, he seems to have practiced what he preached, voluntarily (or prudently, depending if you're cynical) suppressing his critical bent, once he became a rabbi. I think a lot of people looked at him like he was kind of a joke, having been a notorious maskil who suddently reinvented himself as a serious rav, but the point is that for him that was the only way one could be a rav, and when he wanted to be a rav, he stayed true to that vision.

*it might be worth pointing out that there is no evidence that Wise was ordained by Shir, or anyone - and, indeed, this was a matter of controversy in the US. Orthodox Jews claimed that he isn't even a rabbi (or a Dr.), and he never could produce evidence that he was. Conversely, Wise used to attack Isaac Leeser for not being a rabbi, despite the fact that Leeser used to make a point of noting that he wasn't a rabbi" [A"H - See this site - - for a good deal of information about Wise and his contemporaries."]

To be continued


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great info.

MYG said...

Welcome back... :-)

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