Jewish Journal


Q&A: How the Gaon of Vilna Changed the Jewish World

by Shmuel Rosner

February 22, 2013 | 5:00 am

Professor Eliyahu Stern

Eliyahu Stern is assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University. He researches the transformation and development of traditional and religious worldviews in Western life and thought. In particular, he focuses on modern Eastern European Jewry, Zionism, secularism, and religious radicalism.

His recent book- 'The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism' (Yale University Press, 2012)- examines the special place of the the Gaon of Vilna in modern Jewish history.


In the book, you repeatedly highlight the fact that the Gaon was very critical of the Hasidut, but didn't bother to pick any fight with the powerful forces of that Haskala which began flourishing at about the same time. Why was he battling with one reformist movement but not with the other?

Most probably the Gaon’s knowledge of the Berlin Enlightenment was funneled through eastern European rabbinic figures like Baruch Schick of Shklov (who translated the Greek mathematical work Euclid into Hebrew at the Gaon’s behest) who spent time with Mendelssohn and saw the Berlin intellectual as a perfectly observant and enlightened Jew.

Conversely, perhaps Elijah’s radically different treatment of both groups (Hasidism and Enlightenment) tells us about the processes that lead to something being deemed “heretical.” The Gaon was an eastern European Jew. His intellectual points of reference were not Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz and Mendelssohn. Rather local Hasidim, who challenged his belief in the centrality of torah study, most immediately threatened him.

You also insist that the Mitnagdim - those who opposed, at times vehemently, the new Hasidic trend - were not mere "traditionalists". That is, according to your book, the Gaon and his students were not fighting to keep things as they were, but had an agenda as revolutionary as that of the Hasidic movement. What was this new agenda all about?

Elijah inspired his student Hayyim of Volozhin to establish the first modern Yeshiva and put into circulation the idea that Talmudic study was the central religious practice for all sectors of Jewry.  Pre-modern Jewish life largely revolved around the corporate institution of the kehilah (local Jewish governing bodies). Jewish study houses were comprised of usually 20 young men who were paid by kehilot. As Shaul Stampfer has shown, Hayyim of Volozhin established the nineteenth-century Volozhin yeshiva without the help of the local Volozhin kehilah. Instead, Hayyim directly appealed to private individuals and groups across Europe for the Yeshiva’s operating funds. By the 1840’s there were 200-300 students studying in Volozhin. This shift from religious life revolving around local communal-political institutions (the kehila) to educational and spiritual institutions (the Yeshiva) continues to have a profound effect on the makeup of contemporary Jewish life.

The book's subtitle indeed mentions "the making of modern Judaism"- In what current Jewish battles do we still see the shadow of the 18th century battles you describe?

Elijah of Vilna loomed larger than any other figure in the nineteenth-century Jewish imagination. While Mendelssohn was more popular with those who identified with the western and even with some eastern European Jewish Enlighteners, already by the mid-century, proto-Zionist’s like Peretz Smolenskin held up the Gaon (over Mendelssohn) as the forerunner to their brand of enlightenment and Zionism. Smolenskin went so far as to claim (incorrectly) that it was Elijah who influenced Mendelssohn’s mathematical intellectual interests! While Smolenskin’s claims were historically inaccurate they reveal the deep investment nineteenth-century Jewry had with the Gaon’s legacy.  

Today, the Gaon’s legacy has once again been at the center of the most pressing debates within world Jewry, most notably the debate over the origins of Zionism.  In recent years Israeli historians, Israel Bartal and Arie Morgenstern have argued over Elijah of Vilna’s messianic worldview and the emergence of Zionism. Morgenstern has maintained that Elijah’s worldview was reflected in his students’ immigration to the Holy Land at the turn of the century in preparation for the Messiah’s supposed arrival in 1840. Bartal has countered that such ideas cannot be traced back to Elijah himself. In the background of their dispute is the high stakes debate over whether these messianic expressions have anything at-all to do with modern secular Zionism. I hope to address these issues in my next book on the Judaism and the origins of Zionism. 

Your narrative takes issue with many widely held perceptions about Jewish history. What are the 2-3 main beliefs that we need to revise, and how would revising them change our understanding of today's Judaism? 

We need to reconsider the emphasis we place on the Jewish denominations that emerged in Western Europe in the nineteenth-century.  In contemporary Jewish life, these movements, Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative and Reform Judaism have largely given way to religious and political Jewish expressions that have an Eastern European provenance. For example, movements such as Ultra-Orthodoxy, Hasidism, Zionism, Secularism, institutions like the beit-midrash and smaller intimate prayer service experiences featuring “traditional” forms of liturgy in “non-traditional” settings are becoming viable spiritual options to larger-scale denominational synagogues. Finally, the public spirituality of Chabad and Hebrew charter schools have become more viable entry points for less engaged Jews than the privatized Conservative and Reform Synagogues.  To be sure, these new developments have much more to do with twentieth and twenty first-century American culture than they do with eighteenth and nineteenth-century eastern European Jewry. But the eastern European model seems to be a more productive historical backdrop (than western European Jewish history) to understand these happenings. 

From your book it seems that the change in Judaism was mainly due to changes in political realities on which the Jews had no influence - a reaction to geo-strategic changes and new social trends in the gentile world. But those "modern" institutions that were built two centuries ago are still very much present in our Jewish lives, though they might not necessarily fit 21st century realities. So where should we go from here?

In my work I argue that modernity begins with the rise of the State and the privatization of religion. Elijah failed to stem the tide of Hasidism because he thought he could use pre-modern structures (the coercive mechanism afforded by the kehilah) to prevent the growth of the movement. Conversely, he was wildly successful in promoting the ritualization of study as the locus of religious life because the Yeshiva was an institution that benefited from the privatization of religion. The separation of public and private spheres continues to be the most important feature for understanding the way Judaism appears in Israel and the Diaspora. More generally, scholars, communal leaders and politicians often make the mistake of identifying different groups in Western life in terms of strictly ideological categories, Liberal versus Conservative, Traditional versus Modern, Tribal versus Cosmopolitan, Reform versus Orthodox. While these ideological categories are important, they tend to overemphasize the immovability and absoluteness of these worldviews; its more productive to see these groups in terms of their relationship to the Western state and the extent to which the dividing line between public and private spheres has created not only Reform Judaism but also the yeshiva and Hasidism.

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