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PINCHAS KOHN (1867-1941) The Village of Kleinerdlingen is located in a fertile valley in the northern corner of Swabia, a province of Germany. The houses in Kleinerdlingen are of relatively recent origin, for about 150 years ago entire village, except for the synagogue and the home of the Jewish (rest of word illegible) was destroyed in a fire. Of a total population of roughly 400, there were about 30 Jewish householders, most of whom earned their livelihood in business; some of them even became moderately prosperous. Among the more affluent Jews in the village was Itzig Loeb Kohn. Unlike most of the fairly prosperous householders who, impressed with the opportunities held out by the emancipation and the new freedom of trade extended to the Jews, wanted their children to enter the family busineness and, if possible, to expand it, Itzig Loeb Kohn's fondest hope was that his only son, Mordecai Michael,would devote all his time to the study of Torah. To this end, Itzig Loeb sent his son to a yeshiva in Hungary. After receiving his semikhah [rabbinical diploma], Mordecai Michael returned to Kleinerdlingen and, to his father's great joy, studied Torah day and night. At about that time, by happy coincidence, a young talmid hakham by the name of Zalman Ettenheim, from the nearby hamlet of Ederheim, married and settled in Kleinerdlingen. Living on the income from his wife's dowry and on the earnings from a grocery store, Ettenheim, like Mordecai Michael Kohn, was in a position to devote all his time to the study of Torah. Since the two young men held the same ideals in common, their friendship became a fine example of ahavah she'eno teluyah be-davor [a love that did not depend on material concerns.]. About an hour's journey from Kleinerdlingen is the little town of Wallerstein, the birthplace of R. Yomtov Lipman Heller, author of the classic Tosefoth Yomtov. The rabbi of that Jewish community and its environs was the well known Talmudic scholar R. David Weiskopf. His eldest daughter, Judith, was an exceptionally intelligent and pious young woman. Itzig Loeb Kohn sought her hand in marriage for his Mordecai Michael. The marriage took place in due time and the young couple established their home in Kleinerdlingen. It is typical of R. Mordecai Michoel Kohn that, on the day after his wedding, he returned his dowry (which had been agreed upon by the two fathers) to his father-in-law, R. David Weiskopf, explaining that he could not accept a material gift when it had been his, R.Mordecai Michael's, good fortune to marry the daughter of a talmid hakham. Judith, a supportive and understanding wife, bore her husband one son and four daughters; then, after a pause of several years, she gave birth [in 1867] to another son, whom his parents named Pinchas. This son proved worthy of the special love and attention he received from his parents as "the child of their old age." He was a precocious youngster gifted with unusual intelligence. When Pinchas was four, his maternal grandfather, R. David Weiskopf, took him to Wallerstein and taught him the fundamentals of Jewish knowledge. R. David Weiskopf allowed his grandson hardly any time for childish pleasures. Another grandson recalled that if young Pinchas ever sat down to play in the sandpile outside R. David's house, the old man would sternly summon him back indoors to his studies. In order to understand
the personality of R. Pinchas Kohn, it is necessary to learn a little about the character of the two men who were the dominant influences in his personal and intellectual development. Pinchas' maternal grandfather, R. David Weiskopf, a humble, selfless man, was extremely strict in his personal religious observances and expected the same rigorous consistency also from his followers. His was a kindly, caring nature concealed beneath what seemed a rough outer shell when he attended to his rabbinical duties. Pinchas' father, R. Mordecai Michael Kohn, on the other hand, impressed all those who knew him, indeed, anyone who had contact with him, as an angelic nature, gentle and mild toward everyone, tempering his criticisms with compassion, and with a constant charming-smile that won him the trust of his friends and disarmed his adversaries. If we can bring ourselves to judge R. Pinchas Kohn in ordinary, human terms, we could venture to say that R' Pinchas inherited from his grandfather the stern demands he made upon himself in matters of religious observance but emulated his father in his dealings with his fellow men. When he became six years old, Pinchas had to return to the home of his parents in Kleinerdlingen since, under German law, every child from the age of six had to attend public school. Rabbi Mordecai Michael Kohn, however, was reluctant to have his sensitive, gifted son study together with the rough boys of the village; he did not want his son exposed to the vulgar language and behavior of the village mud-larks. He therefore sought and obtained, permission from the authorities to have Pinchas taught by a private tutor. And so Pinchas spent three days each week in the nearby city of Noerdlingen to study the required secular subjects with officially qualified teachers He continued his studies in this manner through Mittelschule (lower grade secondary school) so that, within a few years, as we were later told, he was ready to enter gymnasium. The subtle strategy employed by R. Mordecai Michael Kohn to prevent his son from overrating the importance of his secular studies and to have him give first place to limmud Torah is typical of the father's sagacity; When Pinchas went to Noerdlingen for his secular studies, his sisters were sent with him to carry his books for him, to make the boy understand that it was beneath the dignity of a gifted Talmudic student to carry textbooks intended for mere secular learning. One incident that took place during his boyhood appears to have made a lasting impression on young Pinchas. It seems that one day Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer[1820-99] visited Kleinerdlingen and inquired whether could pay a call on R. Zalman Ettenheim, the friend of Pinchas' father. Ettenheim let it be known that he would consider it an insult to kevod haTorah if a talmid hakham such as Hildesheimer would have to go through the trouble of seeking him out, and that he himself would go to pay his respects to the visiting scholar. It developed that the two men were in disagreement on the matter of secular education. When Hildesheimer explained to Ettenheim his educational program of Torah im derekh eretz and requested funds for his rabbinical seminary in Berlin, Ettenheim replied,"I will give you 50 thalers for any purpose of your choosing but not for your seminary because I am firmly convinced that with your program, sooner or later, Torah will be relegated to second place."
This criticism from a Landjude who lived far away from the large cities must have struck young Pinchas as apt and far-sighted, for he not only related this incident on many occasions, but the special attention he subsequently gave to rural Jewish communities showed what he expected from this type of Jew. In any event, it is clear that R. Pinchas Kohn's interest in Jewish communal affairs began at an early age and that being raised in an out-of-the-way peasant village such as Kleinerdlingen did not prevent him from learning about the problems of the larger world when he was still quite young. Thus another seven years passed.. Thanks to his own prodigious intellectual capacity, combined with the tireless efforts of his father and R. Zalman Ettenheim to offer him the best in Talmudic studies, Pinchas during that period rose to extraordinary heights in Talmudic scholarship. Among those who attended Pinchas' bar mitzvah was his grandfather, R. David Weiskopf. Though quite elderly by that time, R’ David insisted on making the trip from Wallerstein. This talmid hakham, with his exact standards, was so greatly impressed by his grandson's progress in his Talmudic studies that he happily conferred the title of haver upon him in honor of the occasion. The question of the young man's future education now became acute. In those days formal academic training was considered essential to the image of a rabbi in Germany. Pinchas' parents therefore decided to send him to the yeshiva of Rabbi Selig Auerbach, where he would be able to attend gymnasium as well. Eventually, R. Pinchas Kohn became the rabbi of Ansbach, Bavaria, In this position he gave particular attention to the development and consolidation of rural Jewish communities that still had a remnant of strictly Orthodox Jews with an understanding for the importance of limmud Torah. He arranged lectures and other educational functions for them. Before long he was able to gather from among his audiences devoted disciples to whom emunah was still a serious concern. This group came each week to study in Ansbach, where they were given food and lodging at the rabbi's residence. Some came from quite a distance to these study sessions, which met on Thursday and continued through the night until Friday morning. These weekly sessions continued until the outbreak of World War I. The period immediately preceding the war saw R. Pinchas Kohn's struggle against an amendment to the law that would have altered the legal status of Bavaria's Jewish community. Under the proposed amendment all the Jewish communities in Bavaria, including the Reform congregations, would have united under one leadership. Despite the fact that this change would have brought him a 300 percent salary increase, he strenuously fought against the adoption of the amendment because he feared that its implementation could place Orthodox communities at the mercy of communal boards influenced by Reform elements. World War I broke out before the conflict could be resolved. I will leave it to another writer to relate how, due to his personal strengths and abilities, R. Pinchas Kohn was singled out by fate to cope with difficult problems that faced Orthodox Jewry during the period between the two World Wars.
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