Where did the Gaon go?

By Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily

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.

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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, or 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 range from 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? 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.

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.

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily www.jewishideasdaily.com and is reprinted with permission.