Here is his picture:
R. Moshe Kunitz was not entirely "traditional," for lack of a better term. However, we might take his book as a defense of the traditional opinion about the Zohar, and R. Yaakov Emden's book מטפחת ספרים as championing the non-traditional view. Along these lines, there is a statement attributed to the Chasam Sofer by his son R. Shimon, to the effect that his father had wished that the authorship of these two books were reversed, to which Dan Rabinowitz called attention. I'm not entirely convinced that the meaning of this statement, assuming it's true, can be understood. I see it as having two possible meanings.
1) The Chasam Sofer felt that Ben Yochai was the stronger and better book, only he wished that it could have had the authority it would have received by being written by a stronger and better rabbi. Conversely, Mitpachas Sefarim would have been taken considerably less seriously if it had been written by someone like R. Moshe Kunitz.
2) The Chasam Sofer felt that Mitpachas Sefarim was the stronger and better book, but attacks on the Zohar were harmful to the traditionalist cause, while defenses were helpful. Therefore even though the stronger book was the one attacking the Zohar, it would have been more helpful to the traditionalist cause if it had not been written by an authority such as R. Yaakov Emden, but only a R. Moshe Kunitz. Conversely the defense of the Zohar would have been better for the traditionalists had it been written by the greater authority, Emden.
Here is the statement mentioned before, and after this I digress:
In Hamatzref, R. Kunitz responds to many queries over a broad range of topics. Many of the questions are from famous Maskilim. Here are some:
#3 some rabbis prefer that Jews call the city Lvov by that name, rather than "Lemberg," (its German name). Why is that, considering that Lvov is not a name in Hebrew? R. Kunitz answers that we can see in rabbinic literature "הר שומרון" is sometimes referred to by its Roman name "סבסטי." If it was not important for our ancestors who used the Hebrew language in their own land, to refer to a certain place by its Hebrew name, all the more so is it unimportant to prefer one gentile name for a place over another. He adds the caveat that his comment is not intended to give any ruling about writing a get in Lvov/ Lemberg.
#14 Herz Homberg asks, when did the Jews begin counting in writing using Hebrew letters?
#19. Judah Leib Benzeev asks, with regard to 1 Kings 17:19, when Elijah resurrected a boy from the dead, how was this permitted in light of Chazal who taught that Elijah was a kohen, and thus contact with the dead not permitted?
#23 is from - you cannot make this up - Dr. Frankenstein of Vienna (מו"ה יצחק אייזק פראנקענשטיין רופא אומן בווין הבירה), who asks regarding if it is preferable for a mohel to also be a physician.
#41 is from Moses Israel Landau, who asks why precisely the age of 13 and a day is when the obligation for mitzvos commences.
#56 is from a Christian scholar (מופלג בתורה) named Ferdinandus Bonadi [? sic] of Klausenberg, who asks to explain a passage in Eruvin 21b concerning Solomon's 3000 proverbs for every word of the Torah and 5 reasons for every word of the Sofrim.
#63 is from Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio. At the time this was printed (1820) Reggio was still a staunch believer in Kabbalah, and his questions concern Ben Yochai, which he was much taken by. He even writes that had Mendelssohn read Kunitz's Ben Yochai then perhaps he would not have written in Ohr Le-netiva (his introduction to the Torah) that the Zohar did not enjoy the sanction of all Jews once it was revealed!
Here is as good a place as any to point out that Mendelssohn believed in the authenticity of Kabbalah, or at least did not disbelieve in it. The context of Reggio's remark concerns a passage in the Ohr Le-netiva about the nekkudot and te'amim (see here). Mendelssohn mentions the view of R. Eliyahu Bachur that the signs and accents were invented after the Talmud. Mendelssohn writes that R. Azariah de Rossi refuted his view using the writings of the Zohar, Bahir, etc. and - writes Mendelssohn - these preceded not only the Talmud, but even the Mishnah's composition.
He then mentions a defense one might offer for Levita's (Bachur's) opinion, that the books of the Mekubalim were not yet printed and widely circulated in his day. However, had he lived now (i.e., 1770 or so) he surely would have admitted his mistake! However, admits Mendelssohn, the reality is that the proofs from the Zohar and related works are problematic because 1) the books of Kabbalah do not have the same authority as the Mishnah and Talmud and 2) they undoubtedly include later additions, as proved by R. Yaakov Emden in Mitpachas Soferim. However, ultimately R. Eliyahu's view has been refuted and rejected by later authors, and the passages cited by R. Azariah de Rossi from the Zohar and such works is sufficient to defeat his view.
Contrast this with Rabbi Dov Eliach's tendentious view expressed here, to show that of Mendelssohn's circle Solomon Dubno alone was righteous:
It is known that all the individual members of the Berlin haskalah were tainted with either false ideas, Bible criticism, reform-style demands for change, or a combination of these. Reb Shlomo Dubno however, has never been accused of harboring any such ideas. His sole occupation was with Torah, either in explaining the pesukim according to the rishonim or studying their grammar and the traditions for reading them. Throughout his life, he was scrupulous in his mitzvah observance. A list of the volumes and manuscripts in Dubno's library, which was published prior to the library's sale in Amsterdam in 5574 (1875), contains the names of many works on kabolo, which their owner studied during his lifetime. This is further evidence of his dissimilarity from his former colleagues, who denied the authenticity of the kabolo to a man. (This was pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky.)
The argument is that "to a man" the Mendelssohn circle denied the authenticity of kabbalah. On what basis other than a stereotype could Rabbi Eliach say that Dubno's former colleagues denied Kabbalah "to a man?" Instead we see that Mendelssohn accepted the authenticity of the Kabbalah (at least as much as did Yaavetz), and we have even stronger proof of this than the fact that Solomon Dubno owned works on Kabbalah - as did, no doubt, Mendelssohn too.
#96 - 99 concerns the Targum to Amos 6:1 which laments those who name their children with gentile names. Kunitz was asked if this is not a basis for those who are opposed in their own time to Jews using non-Jewish names. Kunitz finds that it is not. #99 in particular justifies such use, giving a laundry list of Talmudic sages who used non-Jewish names. In addition, he shows that 'modern' Yiddish names are German. Kunitz writes that this was the Jewish practice in all ages, and if they are not prophets than they are the sons of prophets.
#119 is an interesting question, concerning the fact that in Poland the rabbis call the laymen "Rabbi." Isn't this מחזי כיהורא, religious haughtiness? R. Kunitz answers rather ingeniously, quoting Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan, that Eve used to call Adam "Rabbi" (i.e., My master). Kunitz points out that this is equivalent to "Adoni," which is Scriptural usage for "Sir." Therefore it is not inappropriate to call laymen in Poland "Rabbi" at all.
In Pt. II (printed by his son in 1857):
#131 Shimshon Bloch asks where certain ma'amarei Chazal concerning how a person is supposed to view forbidden things (with desire, but resolve to abstain for them because God so decreed). I guess this is a graphic reminded that at the time indexes, thesauri and encyclopedias of rabbinic literature were lacking. Today it's very easy to pretend you know everything.
#152 Judah Leib Benzeev asks a very interesting question. The Talmud Berachos 55b says "לקיים מה שנאמר כל החלומות הולכין אחר הפה." Nothing like it is found in Tanach. He paranthetically adds that given his own interests (Bible expert, translator of Ben Sira) you can believe that he searched carefully, including in the Apocrypha. While noting that the Gemara itself in this very spot seems to recognize the problem, what is the real answer?
#167 is from Herz Homberg, who asks when the Jews adopted the month names and why.
#231 Shlomo Pergamenter asks why Mah Nishtana begins with "mah" rather than "lemah." Secondly, how could the son ask about things he hasn't yet seen?
The book includes many, many more interesting things. For example, it includes a written teshuva from R. Nosson Adler, to a question asked by Kunitz (#20); Kunitz includes as well a letter from the Chasam Sofer certifying that it is authentic. It includes (#42) a question on Kunitz's Ben Yochai from R. Yaakov Emden's Mitpachas Sefarim by a student of R. Yaakov Emden, signed from Berlin "ידידיה בנ אבישלום מבית מדרש של יעב"ץ." There are many letters from R. Elazar Fleckeles, R. Bezalel Ranschburg, and many concerning לימוד תורה לעכו"ם. Also, as I said, by far most questions concern his Ben Yochai.
Although this post is about the book, not the man, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Kunitz had the misfortune of having a letter of his included in the Reformist book Nogah Ha-tzedek. Being a somewhat liberal rabbi, it is not surprising that he had some positive things to say in response to some suggestions of reform. Thus, he supported the suggestions of using the organ in prayer, reserving the silent Shemoneh Esrei for recitation at home (this is most interesting, since today there are many Orthodox Jews who have little use for the Reader's repetition. But my guess is they would never have thought of retaining it but omitting the silent Shemoneh Esrei instead.) and for changing the Hebrew pronunciation from Ashkenazic to Sepharadic. On the last point he makes the amazing claim - from our perspective - that 7/8ths of the world's Jews were Sephardim. Although I don't know if anyone in 1818 could have known one way or the other, in actual fact the situation was almost exactly the opposite. He also mentions the fact that R. Nosson Adler prayed using the Sefardic pronunciation, which he personally witnessed. Interestingly in a letter printed directly before R. Kunitz's. R. Aharon Chorin also says that he witnessed R. Adler pray in this fashion many times when he visited Vienna.
When all is said and done Kunitz does not seem to have been remembered by Orthodox history as a Reform rabbi, unlike Choriner (and Reform history). In addition, you can see from many of the rabbinic letters in the second volume of Hamatzref (the letters all date to after the publication of the first volume, and thus after his letter was printed in Eliezer Libermann's Nogah Hatzedek) that he remained in the good graces of his colleagues. Ultimately Kunitz remains one of those rabbis who one can cite if one likes what he has to say, or one can dismiss and condemn if someone else quotes something by him that one doesn't like, after the fashion of certain writers.