Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Was the Gaon a Genius?

Eliyahu Stern’s new biography makes an ambitious case for Elijah of Vilna as the Jewish Beethoven

Lawrence Kaplan
April 03, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Wikimedia Commons)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Wikimedia Commons)

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’sauthority. 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.

Stern suggestively links the move from study of codes to study of the Talmud to the decline of the kehilah, the Jewish community, and rise of more privatized forms of traditional Judaism. As long as a kehilah possessed the power, granted to it by the local non-Jewish authorities, to govern itself by Jewish law, study of the codes, which served as guides to practical communal legal decision-making, occupied center stage. With the kehilah’s decline, study of the Talmud for its own sake emerged as the highest form of religious worship. Thus, Stern notes, the Yeshiva of Volozhin (founded in 1803 by the Gaon’s leading disciple, R. Hayyim of Volozhin), which served as the primary center of Talmud study in Eastern Europe through the 19th century, was a new type of yeshiva that “functioned completely independently of a communal governing structure, and … recruited students and funds from across European Jewry.” Moreover, this detaching of Talmudic study “from practical code-oriented learning” encouraged “an ethos of innovation, originality, and brilliance,” where intellectual battles were won by “pedagogic persuasion and not coercion.”

This perception of the Volozhin Yeshiva as exemplifying the rise of a more privatized and democratic form of religion thus connects directly with Stern’s broader thesis that the modern condition manifested itself in both “enlightened” and “traditional” forms of 19th-century Judaism, despite their apparent opposition. Stern’s point is unexceptionable, but he underplays the difference it makes whether that privatization and democratization are harnessed in the service of greater acculturation and individual autonomy, as in the case of the Haskalah, or greater insularity and ideological intolerance, as in the case of many Lithuanian yeshivas. It is striking that while in the book’s text Stern lauds “the freedom and individuation” of Talmudic study in the yeshivas, in a lengthy end note he concedes that “for all the lively debate … bouncing off the [yeshiva] walls, these walls were soundproof, blocking out those with radically different and conflicting opinions.”

Stern’s thesis that the Gaon’s activity and image contributed to the privatization of Judaism and the democratization of rabbinic knowledge leads him to skew his portrait of the Gaon, exaggerating both his radicalism and his modernity. The best example comes in a comparison with one of the Gaon’s contemporaries, the German-Jewish enlightenment figure Moses Mendelssohn, who is often asserted as the founder of modern Judaism, while the Gaon is depicted as the arch-defender of traditional rabbinic Judaism. Stern, however, argues that in certain respects the Gaon was a more radical figure than Mendelssohn.

Stern offers two examples in support of this daring and counter-intuitive claim. First, he notes that while Mendelssohn maintained that rabbinic interpretations of the legal passages in scripture were to be identified with the plain-sense meaning of the text, the Gaon interpreted the plain-sense meaning of the text independently of rabbinic interpretations, which were seen as belonging to another level of scripture. This point by itself is well taken, but the conclusion Stern draws from it is wrong. He asserts that the Gaon, by driving a wedge between the Bible and the Talmudic sages, thereby “called into question the canons of rabbinic authority” and “challenged the rabbinic tradition.” This assertion lacks any foundation. True, for the Gaon the rabbinic interpretations of the legal passages of biblical text are to be distinguished from their plain-sense meaning; but, as he clearly states on many occasions, their authority is based on their being divinely revealed, and after the fact they can all be derived, via the principle of scriptural omni-significance, from seemingly minor and trivial superfluities or gaps in the biblical text. Given this clearly stated view, Stern’s further contention that for the Gaon “rabbinic authority is not derived from the rabbis’ connection to the biblical text itself, but rather is based on the fact that the Torah was given to human beings to interpret” must be rejected.

The second example Stern advances in favor of his revisionist reversal seems similarly problematic to me. He claims that while “Elijah believed that Judaism and Jewish texts expressed universal values, Mendelsohn, Leibniz’s best known Jewish follower … highlighted the social and political limitations of idealism.” One would never know from this that in the Gaon’s view Jew and Gentile do not share the same deity and that Jewish and non-Jewish souls, as Judah Halevi and the Kabbalah maintain, differ from one another in their essence. Nor would one know that Mendelssohn’s criticisms of German idealism flowed from its being in his view not universal enough—still retaining the traces, as in Leibniz’s affirmation of eternal damnation, of its Christian theological origins. One might also cite the Gaon’s ready use of the ban to suppress the nascent Hasidic movement, as contrasted with Mendelssohn’s call upon both Church (including Synagogue) and State to renounce coercion in matters of religious belief.

Stern’s The Genius is a pioneering work about an intellectual titan, but I don’t find its main theses about the modernity of the Gaon’s thought especially convincing. Stern repeatedly and rightly stresses the Gaon’s exegetical originality and incisiveness, but the all too few examples he brings do not, at least in my view, substantiate his claim. There is never any “a-ha” moment where readers of the book will exclaim, “Wow! This is brilliant; this is true genius.” In discussing the Gaon’s famed emendations of rabbinic texts, Stern points to the Gaon’s deletion of a passage from a classic rabbinic text on the grounds of its superfluity. But while it may take daring to deem a passage inauthentic because it is redundant, it does not require any particular genius to do so. There are many not overly technical examples that Stern could or should have cited where the Gaon brings light and clarity to what had previously appeared to be a textual and conceptual muddle. Above all, while I am certain that anyone who finishes reading The Gaon with, say, the “Appassionata Sonata” or “Eroica Symphony” playing in the background will understand and appreciate Beethoven’s genius, I am not at all certain that, for all Stern’s learning and insight, she will understand and appreciate in what way the Gaon was a genius.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Lawrence Kaplan is an associate professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

Lawrence Kaplan is an associate professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal.