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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

They Will Revere His Glory in the East (Isaiah 59:19)

A review essay by Peter Haas

The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism by Eliyahu Stern
New Haven: Yale University Press

In 1947, David ben Gurion sent his famous letter to the leadership of Agudat Yisrael guaranteeing the religious “status quo” in the Jewish yishuv that was about to become the State of Israel. His concession to the ultra-Orthodox grew largely out of his need to have as much unity as possible in the face of the coming national struggle. At the same time, however, he regarded Jewish (ultra-) Orthodoxy as a traditionalist movement that was at any rate destined to wither away, and so concessions given now would not have major long term consequences. This second conviction did not come out of nowhere. It was simply taken for granted by Western intellectuals, Jewish and not, that in the great struggle between modernity and tradition, modernity would inevitably and decisively triumph.

We now know of course that Jewish orthodoxy along with other traditional religions, far from fading away, have become powerful force in the modern world. Clearly the sharp dichotomy that was once drawn between “modernity” and “orthodoxy” was misconceived. In his book, Eliyahu Stern addresses this false dichotomy head on by showing us is that one of the persons most associated with Orthodox Jewish anti-modernism, namely the Vilna Gaon, can in fact be read as quite modern in his own way. What we come away learning from this book is that there are many ways to be modern, and that the modernity of Western European Jews, symbolized often by Moses Mendelssohn, is not the only possibility. Stern notes in his introduction that maybe it is better to see modernity not as a (somewhat monolithic) movement but rather as a condition that all religions have had to face and make accommodation to in one way or another. In this view, the great shapers of modern Jewish traditionalisms (such as the Vilna Gaon, the Hatam Sofer, and even mutando mutandis the Hassidic Rebbes) were not so much anti-Modern as they were modern in different sorts of ways. What these different ways were, and why Elijah of Vilna’s approach was so prominent, constitute the intellectual exploration on which this book embarks.

The story of Elijah of Vilna begins inauspiciously enough. At the time of his birth (1720), Vilna itself was in a small town in serious decline due to war, famine, fires and plagues. Nor did Elijah, although clearly brilliant (he is supposed to have mastered the Talmud by age nine), seem to be destined for a great career. He was, as Stern describes him, something of an introvert and a loner who had little interest or regard for his struggling town, its Jewish community or even his family. To be sure, he did duly marry at age 18, but he seemed always to have been much more devoted to his books than to his wife and children. He had no great teacher or mentor and his writings, while erudite, were scattered and episodic and so of very diffuse impact. From Stern’s perspective, then, neither Vilna nor its Gaon showed much promise up to the middle of the 1700’s.

But all that changed. After an unsuccessful attempt apparently to travel to the Land of Israel, Elijah returned in 1748 to a Vilna that had recovered from the ravages of the previous half century and to a Jewish community which was enjoying renewed growth and vigor. Elijah was still, however, not really a part of the life of the city. He continued to hole himself up in his study and to devote every spare moment to the study texts, mostly Kabbalistic. Stern even argues that he reputedly was reluctant to give up study time even for such mundane duties as eating and sleeping. He had minimal contact with the outside world and still published little (there is no response literature from him, for example). Nonetheless in this awakened and energetic town, Elijah slowly gained a certain renown and following. It is not clear as to whether Elijah’s repute contributed to the growing status of Vilna, or whether it was the other way around. In any case, the stature of both grew in the following years, just as the phenomenon of Hassidism was starting its sweep across Central and Eastern Europe.

As noted, reconstructing the life of Elijah turns out to be remarkably difficult. There is of course the problem of the opacity of his early life when he was, the use Stern’s language, an “obscure recluse”. Student notes, as well as his own writings, reveal a remarkably wide-ranging thinker but it is hard to collate all these documents to adduce a coherent personal or intellectual biography of the man. What is clear is that as his renown as a teacher grew, he displayed a remarkable breadth of knowledge from Talmud to midrash to halachah to Kabbalah to apparently even some of the science and philosophy of his day; he supported the translation the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid into Hebrew, for example. Despite these difficulties, Stern nonetheless makes in Chapter Two a valiant, and compelling, attempt to capture Elijah’s mature worldview in line of the great debates and thinkers of his day — creation and theodicy on the one hand, the philosophies of Nicolas de Malebranche, Leibniz and Christian Wolff on the other. Elijah’s own conviction, very much reminiscent of Leibniz’s version of modernity, was that rationality was the key to knowledge and even redemption. Part of his obsession with emending rabbinic texts was precisely to bring these texts back into line with the Grand Idea they were articulating. As Stern puts it, if the Idea is the subject, then the texts have to be the perfect predicates. Like his contemporary Mendelssohn further west, Elijah brought rational focus to understanding the texts of Judaism, only for Elijah it was not Tanakh, but the Talmudic and kabbalistic literatures that wanted attention.

This comparison of Elijah to Moses Mendelssohn turns out to be heuristically laden for Stern. On the surface we might regard the two thinkers as virtual polar opposites (modern versus traditional). But for Stern, they in fact inhabit remarkably similar worlds. Both, Stern seems to want to say, are influenced by the enlightenment and both returned to the traditional texts to tease out the foundational elements for a Judaism proper to their time. The big difference, for Stern, is that Mendelssohn came out of a minority religious group in Berlin and needed to speak to an audience that consisted of both assimilating Jews and powerful non-Jews. So for him, the rational exposition of the commonly shared Bible took a prominent position. Elijah, on the other hand, was a leading authority in a vibrant traditional community that virtually dominated his city. His writings, for Stern, reflect the confidence of a distinguished Jewish scholar in a self-assured Jewish community, virtually the inverse of Mendelssohn’s situation. So for Elijah it was the rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions that demanded a renewed rational exposition. What this lead to ironically, in Stern’s reading of matters, is that Mendelssohn was at the end of the day more conservative in some sense, having to press the authenticity and coherence of Judaism while Elijah was more free to challenge the Judaism of his day and chart out a reform that took issue with his predecessors and contemporaries. But in either case, both were influenced by the same dawning modernity that demanded a rational analysis of the received religious tradition.

The silence of Elijah as regards Moses Mendelssohn and the Berlin Maskilim contrasts sharply with Elijah’s vehement attacks, intellectual and physical, on the Hassidim. Stern tries to account for this by noting that Elijah and Mendelssohn both placed great emphasis on the texts and on textual learning. That they deployed different methods, focused on different texts and drew different lessons was for Stern less important than their shared text-centrism. Hasidic teaching, on the other hand, replaced texts with “devekut” as the human-divine nexus. For the Hasidim, people could directly connect with the divine, through prayer for example, and this lead to a corresponding marginalization of textual studies, and maybe to a concomitant antinomianism. It is this displacement of the text, and possibly of the halachah within it, that seems to lie at the heart of Elijah’s profound antagonism to what Hasidism represented. Maybe adding fuel to his vehemence was the memory of that other recent charismatic movement which spread into antinomianism, namely Sabbateanism. Another source of concern that Stern identifies was the changing outside political situation in which saw the dissolution of the Council of Four Lands, itself part of broader changes in both how the Jewish community governed itself internally (the Kehillah system) and how it related to the outside governments of Poland and Tzarist Russia. From Elijah’s point of view there were dangers on all these fronts. On the one hand, he felt the arrogation of Jewish communal authorities by the wealthy and those connected to the kehillah undermined rabbinic (that is textual) authority. On the other hand, he felt the charismatic leadership of the Hassidic rebbes undermined the centrality of rabbinic learning (and of course, again, the texts). He also deeply feared the growing inclinations of mitnaggdim and Hasidim to call on the interventions of non-Jewish governmental authorities. In this changing landscape of Jewish communal organization, Elijah’s battles with Hasidim has to be seen as part of a larger struggle to maintain the purity and autonomy of Jewish (that is, rabbinic) self-governance. In this light, Stern argues, his vehemence rejection of “Sabbatean” Hasidism (whether or not this conjunction was valid) fits into his larger political program.

For Elijah, the heart of the problem, and it solution, lay in yeshivah training. As Stern lays out matters, the core of yeshivah education had become the study of “practical” halachah; that is, the legal codes, most notably the Shulkhan Aruch. While this served the “civil service” needs of the kehilla structure well, it essentially subordinated rabbinic teaching, learning and practice to the bureaucratic political needs of the community as institutionalized in the Kehillas and Vaads (“Councils”). While of course hardly antinomian, the kehilla yeshiva shared the same epistemological problem as did the Hasidic Kloyz, namely an under-emphasis, indeed marginalization, of the rabbinic text par excellence, the Talmud. For Elijah, then, the task was to reestablish what he took to be the only truly authentic and foundational educational program of the Jewish community, namely the intense rabbinic study of the Talmud (and the “Oral Torah” more broadly). Only with a solid foundation in Gemara could students be intellectually prepared to fully understand codes and other later rabbinic genres and so to truly determine halachah. This, in turn, was essential for the survival of Judaism as Elijah understood it. It was not Elijah himself, but one of his students, Hayyim of Volozhin who finally succeeded in establishing the first such “modern yeshiva” (in Stern’s terms) and not in the major center of Vilna, but in the smaller and quieter town of Volozhin. In this Elijah-inspired yeshiva, with its exclusive focus on Talmud, the course of study stood in sharp contrast to both the Hasidic and the Kehillah models. The new Yeshiva also consciously separated rabbis, and their training, from any connection with the government, whether internal (say, the kehilla) or external (the Polish or Russian administration). The yeshiva world was to stand as a world apart, as a place of true and pure study and so true and pure Judaism. As further west in Berlin, religion was hereby being removed from the public sphere into the private sphere. Elijah’s modern Judaism proved to be just as enduring as Mendelssohn’s, a point Ben Gurion failed to grasp.

In the end, Stern invites us to see the Gaon not as the great representative of “tradition” as opposed to its presumed binary opposite “modernity”. Rather, we get a much more complex picture of a “genius” (a term Elijah helped redefine) who like Mendelssohn created a kind of modern Judaism, but one based on traditional texts and confident Jewish self-assertion. Not only is our picture of Elijah made more complex through this lens of analysis, but so is our understanding of concepts like “tradition” and “modernity” as they apply to European Jewry of the early modern period. Even Elijah’s famous battle with Hassidism takes on shadings, in that he both failed to stop Hasidism (because he based his opposition on the mistaken premise that Hasidism was Sabbateanism?) but also succeeded in “re-rabbinizing Hassidism, as Hasidim gradually adopted the some version of the yeshiva model of education.

In his formulation of a modern Jewish way of being that was a powerful alternative to that of Mendelssohn’s, Elijah helped set the basic tension that has animated Jewish religious, intellectual and political discourse down to our own time. One may disagree with this, that or the other claim Stern makes, but it is clear that the legacy of the Vilna Gaon and his vision of what Judaism should be like is still very much a vital force, whatever Ben Gurion thought.

Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, chairs the Department of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

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