The Gaon of Modernity

Eliyahu Stern’s The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism asks a big question about the very nature of Jewish modernity and offers a provocative answer, taking on more than one conventional academic narrative in the process. Most other works on Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, focus primarily on his leadership, his rabbinic learning, his stature as a hero of Lithuanian Orthodoxy, and his polemic against Hasidism. Stern presents him primarily as a metaphysician and unwitting architect of an alternative version of Jewish modernity that has its roots in the traditionalism of Eastern European Judaism.

There are few instances in the annals of Jewish history where an individual is so identified with his residence and where a city is so identified with one of its inhabitants. Elijah was born in Vilna to Shlomo Zalman and Trainia Kremer of Slutzk on the first day of Passover 1720. At the time, Vilna was known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” perhaps the greatest center of Jewish learning in the diaspora, but it was also in a terrible state of disrepair. Numerous wars and natural disasters had decimated the Jewish community, which numbered only about one thousand in the early 1720s. Elijah quickly earned a reputation as a child prodigy and, as was the custom, studied privately with some of the most respected rabbis in the city. He never attended any traditional yeshiva. In adolescence, he studied either by himself or with a few peers. He married when he was 18 and afterward, leaving his wife, spent time travelling around Eastern Europe visiting many centers of Jewish learning. On those trips he began collecting books and manuscripts for what would later become his massive library in Vilna. He led a severely ascetic and largely solitary life, limiting his social interactions to a small circle of students.

The Gaon is one of those Jewish figures for whom myth and person are inextricably intertwined. While he was widely known in his time, he was almost never seen in public, his work was rarely read, and his reputation was that of a mythical “genius” who had the entire canon of classical Jewish literature at his fingertips and had mastered mathematics and the sciences on his own. After the founding of the Etz Chaim yeshiva by his disciple Chaim of Volozhin, he became even more celebrated. This institution trained tens of thousands of young men in the study of Torah and created not only a major center of learning but an entire culture of Lithuanian “yeshivish” Orthodoxy that still exists to this day. The Gaon never saw the Etz Chaim yeshiva, but he has always been understood to be its symbolic leader.

The Gaon wrote a tremendous amount, and, except for a few letters, all of it was published after his death. He was devoted to the genre of the textual gloss and commentary to classical Jewish literature, talmudic and kabbalistic. His most expository text may be his commentary to Proverbs where he lays out his kabbalistic worldview in broad strokes. Most of his glosses, particularly his Biur to the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), point the reader back to rabbinic references, many of which contest or at least offer alternatives to the Shulchan Arukh‘s position. In general, the Gaon’s works attempted to locate the correct rendering of the rabbinic text, which he often thought was in need of emendation. He directed his reader to venture back and examine the original sources in order to fully understand any text.

Stern quotes Chaim of Volozhin as describing the terse words of the Gaon’s glosses as “stars that seem small from our perspective, yet the whole world stands beneath them.” While his focus on the study of talmudic literature became the backbone of Lithuanian Orthodoxy and his published works on the classical canon were studied in yeshivas throughout Europe, his particular method of textual emendation, which Stern deems his most radical, modernizing contribution, had little impact among many who considered themselves his disciples. 

Stern’s book is an innovative project. The great Jewish historians of the past half century—Jacob Katz being the most celebrated and influential—adapted Max Weber’s paradigm in which “modernity” and “tradition” were viewed as incompatible categories. According to that narrative, modernity—in its economic, political, and social manifestations—inexorably undermined the structures of tradition in Europe. Weber argued that secularized modernity could not have come about without what he called the “disenchantment” of traditionalist conceptions of the world. In short, “tradition” for Weber embodies a societal stability that is undermined by a process of “rationalization.” This binary model of “tradition” and “modernity” informed the work of generations of scholars in several fields, including Jewish studies.

While historians such as Katz are not as rigid as Stern claims, the binaries of tradition and modernity do basically hold true in their work. Jewish historians such as Michael Silber and Gershon Hundert offer more Eastern European perspectives of Jewish modernity, but for the most part they have stayed close to Katz’s Weberian paradigm. Silber, following Katz, has shown that what is often termed “ultra-Orthodoxy” was itself a product of modernity.

Drawing upon recent social theorists, including Ulrich Beck and José Casanova, Stern challenges this entire paradigm by suggesting something akin to Shmuel Eisenstadt’s theory of multiple modernities, arguing that Eastern European traditionalists were not simply fighting a rearguard action against “modernity” but in fact constructing the building blocks of an alternative vision of the modern—one that was no less and sometimes even more radical than the Western European Enlightened version inaugurated by Moses Mendelssohn.

In The Genius, Stern examines the Gaon of Vilna as someone whose vision reached far beyond the circle of Torah scholars who have viewed him as their leader. He argues that the Gaon—viewed today, somewhat mythically, as the quintessential traditionalist and defender of normative Judaism—was, in several ways, a radical thinker. Not only did he seem to have more sympathy for the Enlightenment than is commonly assumed, he employed exegetical methods and metaphysical principles that would eventually become a part of the modern Jewish project. In his conclusion, Stern pits Moses Mendelssohn (the “Socrates of Berlin”) against Rabbi Elijah (the “Genius of Vilna”):

Many have already described the path that leads from Mendelssohn to Jewish emancipation, acculturation, and religious reform. It is now becoming increasingly clear that such a story represents at most only half of the modern Jewish experience . . . In particular it cannot render intelligible the religious and political proclivities of the fastest growing religious group, the Orthodox Jewish community; the breakdown of denominational Judaism; the phenomenon of gentiles converting to Judaism in order to marry desirable Jewish partners; the establishment in majority Jewish neighborhoods of charter schools that teach Hebrew to Christians; and the strong national element in Israeli politics.

One could add to this ambitious, even extraordinary list—the Vilna Gaon as patron saint of Bridget Loves Bernie?—several other phenomena, including the return of liberal Judaism to the study of sacred texts, ritual innovation, and the ongoing disassimilation of Jews in Israel and the diaspora.

Some might argue that this new religiosity or return to tradition is a result of multiculturalism or what Peter Berger has recently called the “desecularization” of the world. Stern suggests it can also be seen as the activation of an alternative modernity, forged by the Vilna Gaon, that had lain dormant until social conditions made it a plausible alternative to assimilationism. “The Genius of Vilna,” Stern writes, “is embodied in those residents of Tel Aviv and New York who live as though they are majorities.” Before one gets too carried away with the originality of this claim or, alternatively, dismisses it as unfounded, it’s valuable to work through Stern’s historical argument.

Earlier historians have tended to focus on the Gaon’s rejection of Hasidism, but Stern persuasively argues that, though historically important, his opposition was only a small part of his life. This focus has tended to overshadow more significant dimensions of his work. Stern follows several other scholars in suggesting that the Gaon opposed Hasidism largely because he regarded it as a variety of Sabbateanism, the open or covert continued adherence to the failed 17th-century messiah Shabbtai Zevi, whose followers perpetuated a subterranean heretical movement that lasted from his conversion to Islam in 1666 into the 19th century.

Stern suggests that Sabbateanism created a Jewish catastrophe of “biblical proportions.” This may be an exaggeration, but that the Gaon suspected Sabbateanism is likely. As Yehuda Liebes has shown, the Gaon and his disciples contested Sabbatean Kabbalah while surreptitiously adopting its basic conceptual rubrics. On Liebes’ ingenious if somewhat speculative argument, the Gaon and his kabbalistic disciples experienced a kind of “anxiety of influence”—Liebes called it “ambivalence”—toward Sabbateanism that may have contributed to their polemic against Hasidism. According to Liebes, the Gaon’s circle portrayed him as a redemptive figure—”the second serpent,” since “serpent” (nachash) and “messiah” (moshiach) are numerically equivalent—who would rectify the sins of Shabbtai Zevi.

It is curious that the Gaon’s anti-Hasidic campaign never grew historical legs. Among traditionalists, the campaign largely petered out after a generation or two. The reasons for this remain a matter of scholarly debate. Perhaps once it became clear Hasidism was not, in fact, Sabbateanism, the act of mystical rectification was no longer necessary. While it is true, as Stern recognizes, that many factors contributed to the failure of the campaign against Hasidism—including the collapse of the kehillot, the privatization of Jewish communities, and the unraveling of hegemonic Jewish authority in Eastern Europe—one should not discount the possibility that when the Gaon’s arguments proved to be unfounded, the anti-Hasidic campaign simply deflated.

The privatization of religion in late 18th-century Eastern Europe and its effect on many areas of Jewish life is a central part of Stern’s thesis on many fronts. The slow separation of religion from the state in the geographical areas under examination undermined any central Jewish authority to effectually confront Hasidism at the same time it enabled Chaim of Volozhin to open his yeshiva with the kind of autonomy he desired. While this is an important observation, Stern does not adequately note that this “privatization” was neither smooth nor consistent. For example—though it extends beyond the  subject of Stern’s book—the eventual demise of the Volozhin yeshiva in 1892 was due to the demand of the Russian authorities to make a place for certain secular studies in the curriculum, including the Russian language. To some degree at least this undermines the privatization theory Stern suggests enabled the yeshiva to be established in the first place.

The Gaon wrote more on Kabbalah than he did on rabbinics. While scholars such as Yehuda Liebes and, especially, Joseph Avivi have explored the internal dynamics of his kabbalistic thought, they have not compared it with the work of thinkers in other metaphysical traditions, or asked about its wider implications. Stern does so, arguing that the Gaon was a metaphysical modern, comparable in many ways to the great German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It is unlikely that the Gaon read anything by Leibniz directly. He did not have the languages (or probably the interest) to read what was published of Leibniz at the time. Stern does gesture toward possible indirect influence, citing Raphael Levi of Hannover, who knew the Gaon and had been a student of Leibniz, and the work of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who was probably familiar with Leibniz’s ideas and was a strong influence on the Gaon. But these unsubstantiated historical links are beside the point and may in fact weaken or at least distract the reader from the force of Stern’s phenomenological claim.

Stern’s suggestion is that Leibniz’s metaphysics (itself somewhat influenced by kabbalistic ideas) is strikingly similar to the Gaon’s Kabbalah. He points to the ways in which the latter echoes Leibniz’s notion that even evil has a good purpose, as well as his distinction between factual truths and eternal truths.Here Stern should have heeded Gershom Scholem’s remark that even though he doubted that there was any direct connection between Philo and medieval Kabbalah, he was open to structural and phenomenological similarities.

Stern does not go into much detail with regard to the Gaon’s opaque and complex renderings of the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah. But he has certainly read Liebes and Avivi carefully and works with the Gaon’s kabbalistic principles in a generally coherent way. One problem is that all the ideas Stern notes as present in both Leibniz and the Gaon also exist in classical kabbalistic metaphysics, specifically in Luzzatto. Leibniz would be more significant if Stern were able to show how the Gaon deviates from classical Kabbalah in a way that contributes to an alternative modernity. The Gaon’s Kabbalah, however, was fairly conventional, and, moreover, had no real impact on subsequent generations outside of his small circle of disciples in Shklov and Volozhin and in later mystical thinkers such as Shlomo Elyashuv, Abraham Isaac Kook, and some others. So even if Stern were able to make a convincing case for the Gaon’s quasi-Leibnizian kabbalistic originality, it still did not really have much impact on subsequent kabbalistic thought.

However, I think Stern is also making a different and more creative point in comparing Leibniz and the Gaon, one that he could have made more forcefully. He views the Gaon’s metaphysics as underwriting the idea that the foundations of nature and truth are mathematical and argues that this provided the Gaon with the epistemic justification for emending rabbinic texts. Stern writes, “Like Leibnitz, he [the Gaon] sees the world as the expression of the Absolute Idea” determined by mathematical reasoning. In Stern’s estimation, this “Absolute Idea” is manifest in the Gaon as the ideal Torah. One who fully understands how the world is constructed through kabbalistic and mathematical knowledge can use textual interpretation and emendation to discern the ideal Torah. Now this is something that I am not familiar with in either classical Kabbalah or Luzzatto.

The metaphysical, as opposed to historical, foundation for textual emendation is also quite different from the one set down by Enlightenment philologists and historians. It also connects the Gaon’s metaphysics to his textual method in a way that is not the case in Mendelssohn (who was, in fact, a conscious follower of Leibniz and his student Christian Wolff). The Gaon’s metaphysics made textual emendation a new kind of learning Torah, in which correcting the text (at least the rabbinic text) rather than simply interpreting it becomes a redemptive act.

But there is also another explanation for why Mendelssohn did not engage in textual emendation as the Gaon did. As Stern insightfully observes, Mendelssohn, who wrote in Germany under the gaze of Christianity, was adamant in defending the authority and accuracy of rabbinic literature. By contrast, his contemporary the Gaon “was not threatened by the nascent [anti-rabbinic] theories of Michaelis and other Christian exegetes . . . Operating as a leader of a majority culture allowed Elijah to challenge and diverge from rabbinic tradition that Mendelssohn felt compelled to defend at all costs.”

Stern’s repeated comparison of the Gaon with Mendelssohn is largely heuristic rather than substantive, but that doesn’t detract from its impact. While the philosopher from Berlin is often considered the radical and the Talmudist from Vilna the great defender of tradition, Stern asks us to see things in a more complex way: “It was the Gaon’s hermeneutic idealism that called into question the canons of rabbinic authority, while Mendelssohn tirelessly defended the historical legitimacy of the rabbinic tradition to German-speaking audiences.” Ironically, the traditionalists today who perpetuate an apologetic agenda by protecting rabbinic inerrancy in the name of the Gaon may be unwittingly closer to Mendelssohn!

The Gaon made a categorical distinction between biblical and rabbinic literature. Since the former is divine and thus inerrant, “the interpretive burden is placed on the reader to discern the writer’s wisdom.” However, for the Gaon “talmudic texts are malleable and susceptible to human error.” Stern’s original contribution is not so much in describing his textual practice as in joining it to his metaphysics. Here he uses Leibnizian language to striking effect:

Elijah’s emendations correspond with his broader philosophic project of restoring the rational pre-established harmony of a world confused by unnecessary human error and evil. To achieve this act of restoration, he addressed those ideas and texts that were unclear, mistaken, and therefore not yet rational or ideal.

Further adopting Leibniz’s nomenclature, Stern claims that rabbinic literature for the Gaon often expressed “factual truths” that could only be made “eternal truths” by having them conform with the ideal Torah, ascertained via human reason. Here one sees the force of regarding textual emendation as a redemptive act within the Gaon’s system. Stern’s claim that the Gaon’s theory of textual emendation was based on his metaphysical principles is key to his argument for his status as a modern, for it shows the way in which he elevated human reason above the textual authority of rabbinic tradition. In effect, as I read Stern, the Gaon offers us a modern textual sensibility without the aid of historicism.

The final part of Stern’s argument for the Gaon as a modernizing figure is in his depiction of his genius as manufactured by his biographers. During the Gaon’s lifetime, he was a recluse who only entered into public affairs on rare occasions. Nonetheless, during his lifetime, and especially after his death, he was widely-known for his “genius.” What is this category of “genius” that was later manufactured to serve as a commodity for parents to say to their children in Yiddish Vil-nor Goen (“if you will it, you too can be a genius”)? On the one hand the portrait of the “genius” is quite similar to the portrait of the “tzaddik” or “rebbe” in the other major model of leadership in Eastern Europe at that time: reclusive, ascetic, otherworldly, highly disciplined, emotionally distant. What distinguishes the Genius of Vilna from Hasidic rebbes, at least in the minds of most of those constructing his posthumous portrait, was that the Gaon rejected supernaturalism. Stern rightly points out that

neither his students nor his biographers saw his genius as something bestowed on him by the accidents of nature . . . Elijah is depicted as being in control of his own intellectual capacities. In taking this approach, Elijah’s biographers were rejecting notions of genius still prevalent in Eastern European Jewish life.

They were, in fact, doing more than that; they were beginning to construct the status of a modern Jewish hero inside traditional Jewish life. Stern does not mention that members of the Gaon’s kabbalistic circle, such as Menachem Mendel of Skhlov and Yitzchak Izik Chaver Waldman, did in fact portray the Gaon as a mythic and mystical messianic figure (which may have been closer to his true personality). Nevertheless, their portrayal was not the one that made it into the homes where the Gaon’s portrait hung proudly for generations. “Genius” was invented as the modern alternative to the sage as divinely inspired, the latter being a category that has much deeper roots in rabbinic tradition and culture.

Stern writes that “by the end of the 19th century, the Gaon’s image and legacy were widely celebrated in modern European Jewish popular literature.” One can also move further into the 20th century and see how the Gaon was the hero of representatives of modern rabbinic elites such as Saul Lieberman, H. L. Ginsberg, and other members of the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, who viewed themselves as inheritors of the Gaon’s prowess and ethos. The same could be said of secular Zionists such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Joseph Hayyim Brenner, among others. Contemporary yeshiva Orthodoxy also absorbed the notion of the sage as a hero who succeeded because of hard work rather than pre-ordained destiny. In this, it is the Gaon and not the Baal Shem Tov who serves as their model. 

In The Genius, Stern argues that there was a modernizing movement at the heart of traditional Judaism, most significantly in the work of the Gaon and his followers. While Enlightenment thinkers such as Mendelssohn were defending Judaism against its Christian critics and adopting much of Western Christianity’s liberal ethos to construct what has become modern Judaism in its various forms (including Modern Orthodoxy), the Gaon and his students created the prototype of an unapologetic Judaism that in many ways is more relevant today than Mendelssohn’s Judaism of accommodation.

Writers such as the Gaon and his disciples were not forthcoming about their agenda. One can even go so far as to suggest that they may not have always been aware of it themselves. As their readers, we must continue to peel away layers, responsibly push back against regnant theories by deploying new approaches and methods in an attempt to decipher and sometimes, yes, even construct, a world obscured by a complex array of factors that we, as products of their struggle, may never fully understand. Eliyahu Stern has made an important contribution to that project. His approach is sometimes speculative but never careless, provocative but not overly audacious. Readers will surely find local errors of fact and interpretation, and disagree with some-perhaps many-of its conclusions. But in offering an alternative view of the complex genealogy of Jewish modernity, The Genius should generate serious conversation. That is a significant accomplishment.


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