Was the Gaon a Genius?
Eliyahu Stern’s new biography makes an ambitious case for Elijah of Vilna as the Jewish Beethoven
My father, of blessed memory, was an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian descent, a “Litvak.” Though he was a businessman all his life, he, like many traditional Litvaks, always kept up his study of classical Jewish texts, both biblical and rabbinic. I remember how often on a Sabbath, whether during a lull in the services or at one of the Sabbath meals, my father would introduce an observation on the scriptural portion of week with “The Gaon says,” literally, “the Genius says.” What followed was always a very acute and original textual insight. Of course, we all knew, without his having to tell us, to whom he was referring. Given my father’s Lithuanian background, he could have had in mind only one Gaon, one Genius: Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (1720-1797), better known as the Vilna Gaon.
In this regard my father was not unique. For two centuries Elijah has been known simply by the name “Genius,” or “Gaon,” Eliyahu Stern states at the beginning of his important and ambitious study, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism. “His biographers claim that ‘one like him appears every thousand years.’ … By the time of his death … he had written commentaries on a wider range of Jewish literature than any writer in history. … His originality, command of sources, and clarity of thought … establish him as the equal of … religious and intellectual giants such as Aquinas and Averroes.”
Stern’s The Genius is the first attempt to undertake an intellectual biography and cultural profile of the Gaon, placing him firmly within the concrete social and political reality of the Vilna of his day—and taking into full account his dizzyingly varied intellectual and literary activity. Of particular interest to the general reader is the colorful, warts-and-all, personal portrait that Stern paints of the Gaon, examining the connections between the Gaon’s eccentric, extraordinary, and highly antisocial lifestyle—for example, he limited his sleep to two hours a day and ruthlessly cut all emotional ties with his immediate family—and his genius, or to be more precise the connections drawn between these two facets of his personality by his disciples. As Edmund Morris notes when speaking of the slightly later Beethoven, a genius’s admirers expect him to be unlike ordinary men and wholly devoted to his calling. If Beethoven’s admiring patrons viewed him, to cite Morris, as an “undisciplined freak”—and all the greater for that—the Gaon’s admiring students appeared to have viewed him as a highly disciplined, indeed, over-disciplined, one—and, again, all the greater for that.
Until fairly recently, academic scholars, by and large, focused only on selected aspects of the Gaon’s personality and legacy. They examined the exceptionally fierce campaign that he, together with the Vilna community leaders, waged against the new spiritual pietistic Hasidic movement; took note of his interest in a broad range of secular disciplines (to be sure, only as ancillaries to the study of Torah); asked if and how he could be seen as a forerunner of the East European Haskalah, or enlightenment; and finally posed the question as to what extent his views regarding the interplay between piety (yirah) and study of the Torah anticipated those of the mid-19th-century ethical-pietistic Mussar movement. In all these instances the scholarly interest was not so much in the Gaon per se, but in his relationship to either contemporaneous or subsequent religious movements.
Over the past two decades, however, scholars have further sought to take stock of the broader contours of the Gaon’s intellectual legacy. Important attempts have been made to probe the Gaon’s original Kabbalistic thought; to determine how, despite his presumed anti-philosophical stance, he drew upon medieval Jewish philosophy; to examine his hermeneutics and the connected issue of how he conceived of the relationship between the plain-sense meaning of the biblical text and its rabbinic interpretation; and finally assess his immense Talmudic legacy, looking at his many innovative and unconventional legal rulings on and interpretations of rabbinic texts.
Yet, as the book’s subtitle, Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, indicates, Stern has an even bolder agenda. For in addition to limning the Gaon’s life, thought, and personality, Stern advances a novel thesis in his book’s Introduction and Conclusion regarding the nature of modern Judaism and the role of the Gaon in its making. His goal is to unsettle the binary opposition that is generally drawn between tradition and modernity.
For Stern, modernity is not “just a movement based on … liberal philosophical principles” but “a condition characterized [among other things] by democratization of knowledge and privatization of religion … that restructured all aspects of European thought and life in diverse and often contradictory ways” and that in the case of Judaism “gave rise to [both] the Haskalah and institutions such as the Yeshiva.” It is in this light, Stern maintains, that we should understand the historical significance of the Gaon’s great work on Jewish law, his Bi’ur or commentary on Joseph Karo’s 16th-century code of law, the Shulhan Arukh. Here, to sharpen Stern’s analysis, we may point to an instructive paradox. From the 16th to the 18th century, thanks to the primacy of the Shulchan Arukh, the study of the Talmud was neglected and scholars focused their attention on codes of law. The Bi’ur might seem to fit into that pattern, but in actuality it served to subvert the Shulchan Arukh’s authority. For by tracing in great and unprecedented detail the source of the Shulchan Arukh’s rulings back to the Talmud and its classic commentaries and then by often challenging those rulings in light of those sources, the Bi’ur spurred a return to Talmudic study.
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