Where Did the Gaon Go?
Although the Jewish encounter with modernity emerged out of a complex interplay of social, economic, and intellectual currents, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) is acknowledged as its godfather. The small-town Jewish boy who became a leading Enlightenment philosopher in Berlin not only embodied the synthesis of observant Jew and European intellectual; he also advocated equal rights for Jews in an overwhelmingly Christian society and produced a German Bible translation and commentary to help his fellow Jews acculturate. The subsequent development of the religiously neutral state (in principle if not in fact) whose de-ghettoized Jewish citizens identify with national values may be traced back directly to Mendelssohn.
Historians have long recognized, however, that this model of modernization, while accurate for Germany and points west, including the United States, does not fit Eastern Europe, where the great bulk of the world’s Jews lived until World War II. Governmental authorities there did not consider Jews part of the nation; and the Jews, for their part, rarely identified with Polish, Russian, or Romanian culture.
How, then, shall we conceptualize the modernization of East European Jews?
Enter Eliyahu Stern, assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale. In his new book The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, Stern identifies an East European contemporary of Mendelssohn who, though different from Mendelssohn in every imaginable way, performed a functionally equivalent role in symbolizing modernity to the Jews beyond the Elbe. The man was Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon (1720-97), better known as the Vilna Gaon, the latter word meaning “pride or “splendor” in biblical Hebrew and, since the 19th century, “genius” in modern Hebrew. He was the genius of Vilna—the Polish city annexed by Russia in his lifetime that is today Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.
The Gaon would hardly appear to be a candidate for leadership of any kind. He was a reclusive, primarily self-taught scholar who held no communal position. One of his few public campaigns was to denounce and urge the excommunication of the newly formed group called Hasidim. Though revered by the Jews of his city and its environs, he conducted no classes and issued no publications or responsa. Occasionally he imparted his views to visiting students; and the notes he scribbled in the margins of books, often cryptic and hard to decipher, were published after his death. Members of his family said he almost never took time off from study to socialize with them or anyone else.
Stern makes his case for the Gaon by setting up unique criteria of modernity for regions heavily populated by Jews. Mendelssohn, he argues, spoke for and to a Jewish minority; hence, making Judaism modern meant reformulating it as rational and unthreatening to Christians and urging the Jews to westernize so that they might fit into the body politic. In Vilna, however, Jews constituted a majority of the population, and neither Rabbi Elijah nor other Jews cared very much what the locals thought of them. In East Europe generally, the Jews remained separate and apart. Their modernization would not come via rapprochement with the neighbors.
Stern claims that East European Jews developed a modern consciousness through an intertwined series of social changes: “the differentiation between public and private spheres, the weakening of religious governing structures, and the democratization of knowledge in Jewish society.” Coming soon after the Polish government’s dissolution of the Council of Four Lands, which had functioned as the coordinating body for Jewish life in Poland for close to two centuries, the Gaon’s legendary life of solitary, unstinting pursuit of knowledge, unconnected to any communal institution, was an embodiment of this new social reality and, as such, was indelibly etched on the cultural consciousness of East European Jews as an ideal for emulation.
Stern believes that all subsequent innovative Jewish trends emanating from Eastern Europe ultimately flow from the Gaon’s individualistic and nonconformist persona. Such trends include the new-style yeshiva that one of his students set up in Volozhin in 1804, which became the prototype for the “Lithuanian” yeshivot today; the Mussar pietistic-ethical movement; Zionism; and Jewish socialism and radicalism. Stretching hyperbole to its limit, Stern even credits the Gaon for the lifestyle of “those residents of Tel Aviv and New York who live as if they are majorities.”
There are substantial problems with Stern’s thesis. Can the Vilna Gaon, who wholeheartedly backed the persecution of Hasidim, seriously be associated with individualism and democratization? Can he be designated the source of the modernization of East European Jews when a majority of them—those same Hasidim—justifiably viewed him as their nemesis? Even for the opponents of Hasidism who shared the Gaon’s insatiable thirst for Talmud study, his long-term impact has been questioned by historians Shaul Stampfer and Immanuel Etkes, the two leading authorities on the subject.
Stern’s arguments for the Gaon’s influence, meant to designate him as the Mendelssohn of Eastern Europe, are not necessarily dispositive or even reliable. For example, Stern claims that students in Lithuanian yeshivot were “engrossed” in the Gaon’s glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, the code of Jewish law, when in fact it was the Talmud, not the Shulhan Arukh, that was studied in yeshivot. Stern also cites Michael Stanislawski’s Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews to the effect that students in the Russian government-sponsored Jewish school in mid-19th-century Vilna “read the Gaon’s commentary to the Bible.” What Stanislawski actually wrote is that they studied the Bible with Mendelssohn’s commentary, in an edition that also included a digest of other interpretations, one of which was the Gaon’s.
In Immanuel Etkes’ words, the Vilna Gaon’s reputation rests simply on his “exceptional accomplishment in Torah studies,” for which he became a “symbol and source of inspiration.” Despite Stern’s best efforts to prove otherwise, Rabbi Elijah was no herald of modernity.
Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, edited the American Jewish Year Book from 2000 to 2008.
So East of Prussia.....
“Can the Vilna Gaon, who wholeheartedly backed the persecution of Hasidim, seriously be associated with individualism and democratization?“
Can Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner, seriously be associated with individualism and democratization? Of course. People are complicated and often have conflicting commitments--especially when they’re living during times of cultural upheaval.
“Can he be designated the source of the modernization of East European Jews when a majority of them--those same Hasidim--justifiably viewed him as their nemesis?”
The Genius doesn’t suggest that the Gaon was the source of the modernization of East European Jews or that the Gaon was “a herald of modernity” (as Grossman writes at the end of his review).
Rather the book suggests that the way the Gaon engaged with Judaism was distinctly modern (which, it is important to note, Stern does not identify with secularization), and that his approach--which heavily influenced the institution of the yeshiva--has had a profound impact on Judaism. In addition, the book is not primarily interested in the Gaon’s reputation during his lifetime, so it doesn’t actually matter that the Hasidim (who were almost certainly not a majority of East European Jews at the time) were nemeses of the Gaon.
I genuinely have no idea what to make of this critique: “Stern claims that students in Lithuanian yeshivot were ‘engrossed’ in the Gaon’s glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, the code of Jewish law, when in fact it was the Talmud, not the Shulhan Arukh, that was studied in yeshivot.” Stern devotes an entire section of the book to showing how the Gaon’s glosses on the Shulhan Arukh were specifically designed to shift rabbinic study from codes (which dominated rabbninc learning for the centuries prior to the Gaon) to the Talmud. In other words, the Gaon and his glosses helped establish the primacy of the Talmud in the yeshiva.
Some of Grossman’s other points are oddly petty. Is there anything actually contradictory in Stern stating that students in the Russian government-sponsored Jewish school in mid-19th-century Vilna “read the Gaon’s commentary to the Bible” and Stanislawski’s suggestion that they “studied the Bible with Mendelssohn’s commentary, in an edition that also included a digest of other interpretations, one of which was the Gaon’s”? Stern didn’t say they read the Gaon’s commentary exclusively.
Finally, while Etkes and Stampfer may have viewed the Gaon’s impact in a more limited manner, Haym Soloveitchik does not. In reference to the Gaon’s impact on modes of study, Soloveitchik has written that “the GRA's impact was both swift and massive." Additionally, it is – of course – the role of young academics to present new ways of viewing sources and history even if they conflict with the current experts. Stampfer seems to agree, as his blurb of The Genius suggests.
In Stampfer’s own words: “Stern has made a major contribution to our understanding of East European Jewry.” I can only assume that Stampfer wouldn’t have offered his approbation had he considered the pivotal point of the book misguided.
The Genius is a long book and I’m sure that there are many valid critiques and corrections that could be suggested to help us further understand the Gaon and his time. These, however, are not them.
This kherem, which is still in effect for those who take Torah seriously, was not done out of spite or in a hasty way.
Hasidism then and today was an arrow aimed at the heart of all that is good and authentic in Torah. It encourages ignorance of Torah and worship of the rebbes thus setting up a new religion based on avodah zorah.
"To be sure, each of these movements selectively adopted certain elements of the Gaon’s worldview. They all could claim him precisely because he never affiliated with any movement. He was an aloof eighteenth-century rabbinic figure, not a nineteenth-century maskil, mitnaged, or Zionist. The differences between Elijah and his disciples, even his most dedicated, illustrate perfectly the differences between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jewry. For example, maskilic students at the nineteenth-century state-sponsored school in Vilna read the Gaon’s commentary to the Bible, a text expressing universalistic sentiments. Their counterparts in yeshivot, meanwhile, were engrossed in his more particularistic glosses to Karo’s code. But both groups were equally distant from the Gaon, who learned by himself and spent most of his time focused on the kabbalah, a subject that neither institution expressed much interest in."
There is, by the way, nothing controversial about what Stern is saying here. I am puzzled as to why the reviewer felt compelled to misconstrue Stern's argument in this manner.
His reputation has nothing to do with " accomplishment of Torah study" or "Modernity".
As for his idea that Hasidism "encourages ignorance of Torah," let him open up a volume of Avnei Nezer (by the first rebbe of Sochatchov) or Tzofnas Paaneach (by the Rogatchover Gaon, a Kapuster chassid), and then dare to say that.
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