Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lawrence Kaplan's review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius


Eliyahu Stern's recent book on the Vilna Gaon has generated a lot of discussion. The Seforim Blog is happy to present Lawrence Kaplan's review of the work which will be followed up by a three-part post by Marc Shapiro
Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism. New Haven: Yale University Press 2013, pp. xiv+322.*

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, he 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. As Eliyahu Stern states at the beginning of his important and ambitious study, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism:  

For two centuries Elijah has been known simply by the name “Genius,” or “Gaon.” 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. (1)

Not surprisingly, not very long after the Gaon’s death traditionalist scholars began writing biographies extolling his piety and, even more so, his brilliance, an enterprise that continues until today.  Despite their hagiographic nature and often strongly ideological bent, these biographies are often serious attempts, granted from within a traditional perspective, to document the Gaon’s life and works and paint his personality, and, if used selectively and critically, they can be of great value to academic historians. Thus, to take a very recent example, R. Dov Eliakh’s 1300 (!) page, three volume biography from 2002, Ha-Gaon[1]  clearly has a Haredi ideological agenda, doing its best to distance the Gaon from, heaven forbid, any “enlightenment” tendencies, and further waging a fierce campaign against all the ”distortions” that the dastardly “enlighteners” perpetrated on the Gaon and his disciples.[2] Yet this biography, ironically enough, has been condemned in certain extremist Haredi  circles for displaying its own enlightenment tendencies, perhaps alluding to its very full (and useful) documentation and its ”sin” of every now and then referencing academic articles and even worse identifying their authors![3]

            Primarily, however, traditionalist scholars undertook to preserve and disseminate the Gaon’s vast intellectual legacy by transcribing, editing, publishing, and commenting on his works.  Here one must state that while no one will deny the Gaon’s “originality [and] command of sources,” for Stern to speak of his “clarity of thought” is misleading.  While a few of his works, like his Commentary on Proverbs, are full and clear, most of his  writings, as scholars have noted and Stern himself concedes, are exceptionally concise and concentrated, often consisting entirely of learned but obscure allusions and references, the relevance of which can be  deciphered  only by exceptionally knowledgeable readers.[4] Indeed, many of his “commentaries” are, in truth, nothing of the sort, but simply glosses and annotations entered by the Gaon into the margins of the texts in his rabbinic library. Most of his works were not prepared for publication; many were dictated in oral form to his students and exist in varying recensions. At times the Gaon’s original manuscripts are missing, and the accuracy of the printed texts prepared from them is not certain.  The magnitude of this on-going effort cannot be overstated, and even today the job is far from completed.[5]

            In contrast to traditionalist scholars, academic scholars until fairly recently focused, by and large, only on selected aspects of the Gaon’s personality and legacy. They examined the famous and exceptionally fierce  campaign which 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 the Torah, and asked to what extent he could be seen as a forerunner of the East European Haskalah (Jewish 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-nineteenth 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.[6]

            Over the past two decades, however, scholars have sought to extend these rather limited horizons and 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; show how, despite his presumed anti-philosophical stance,  he drew upon the medieval Jewish philosophy in forming his world view; 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 more strictly Talmudic legacy, looking at his many innovative and unconventional legal rulings and interpretations of rabbinic texts.[7]      

            Stern’s The Genius both synthesizes and builds upon this recent scholarship, and 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 wide ranging and varied intellectual and literary activity. Of particular interest is the colourful, warts and all, personal portrait that Stern paints of the Gaon, examining the connections between the Gaon’s eccentric, highly reclusive and ascetic lifestyle—for example, he limited his sleep to two hours a day and almost 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[8] when speaking of the slightly later Beethoven, a genius’ admirers expect him to be unlike ordinary men and wholly devoted his calling—music for Beethoven, rabbinic learning for the Gaon. 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.

            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 in his book’s Introduction and Conclusion advances a novel thesis regarding the nature of modern Judaism and the role of the Gaon in its making, seeking to unsettle the binary opposition 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,” (8) and that in the case of Judaism “gave rise to [both] the Haskalah and institutions such as the Yeshiva” (8).  It is in this light Stern maintains that we should understand the historical significance of Gaon’s great work on Jewish law, his Bi’ur or commentary on Joseph Karo’s sixteenth century code of law, the Shulhan Arukh. Here, to sharpen Stern’s analysis, we may point to an instructive paradox. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, thanks to the primacy of the Shulhan 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 Shulhan Arukh’s authority. For by tracing in great and unprecedented detail the source of the Shulhan Arukh’s rulings back 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, if perhaps a bit mechanically, links the move, sparked by the Gaon, from study of Codes to study of the Talmud to the decline of the kehilah, the Jewish community, and the 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 and pushed the study of the codes to the margins.  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 nineteenth century, was a new type of Yeshiva that “functioned independently of any communal governing structure, and …recruited students and funds from across European Jewry” (138). Moreover, this detaching of Talmudic study “from practical code-oriented learning” encouraged “an ethos of innovation, originality, and brilliance” (139) where intellectual battles were won by “pedagogic persuasion and not coercion” (140).
            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 nineteenth century Judaism, despite their apparent opposition. This analysis is very suggestive, but open to two objections. 

            First, while the Gaon certainly played an important role in the move from the study of Codes to study of the Talmud, Stern exaggerates the extent of that role.  It would appear that Stern rather uncritically relies on the understandably hyperbolic claims made by the Gaon’s students, who credited him with almost singlehandedly reviving the study of Talmud in traditional circles. In truth, however, the Gaon’s approach appears to be a part of a broader return to Talmudic study in the eighteenth century, which occurred for reasons we cannot enter into here, as exemplified by, among others, his slightly older central European rabbinic contemporary Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk (1680-1755) and, in particular, by his Lithuanian contemporary R. Aryeh Leib Ginzburg (1695-1785), both of whom, unlike the Gaon, actually wrote full scale commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed, as Yisrael Ta-Shma has noted, Falk’s commentary, the famed Pnei Yehoshua, with its penetrating questions but often not entirely satisfactory answers, spurred a whole spate of commentaries on the Talmud, seeking to provide their own answers to Falk’s questions.[9] And, as Ta-Shma has further noted, Ginzburg’s equally famed writings, the Turei Even, Gevurot ha-Ari, and, in particular, the Sha‘agat Aryeh, with their rejection of pilpul, independent approach, amazing control of the far-flung reaches of classic halakhic literature, and very close attention to the peshat of the Talmudic text, resemble in many ways the Gaon’s approach to the Talmud.[10]

            Indeed, Stern admits that “it is puzzling that Elijah composed a commentary on the Shulhan ‘Arukh but not on the Talmud itself” (131). His suggestion “that in the eighteenth century it was much easier to purchase a set of Karo’s code than to acquire a full set of Talmud” (131) is painfully weak, as Stern himself appears to realize. After all, if such a consideration did not deter Rabbis Falk and Ginzberg from writing their commentaries, it is hard to imagine it deterring the even more independent minded Gaon. Moreover, the Gaon wrote full scale commentaries on recondite sections of the relatively neglected Palestinian Talmud and on other obscure works of rabbinic literature despite their relative inaccessibility.

              Perhaps the key here is the Gaon’s daring and its limits. Rabbi Falk in his commentary deferred to and simply expounded the interpretations of the Rishonim, the classical medieval Talmudic commentators. Even the more independent minded Rabbi Ginzberg, who often rejected views of the Aharonim, even those of the classical commentators on the Shulhan Arukh, never directly rejected those of the Rishonim. The Gaon, by contrast, felt free to reject the Rishonim’s views, despite their great standing.  Still, it was one thing for him to offer original and unconventional explanations of the Palestinian Talmud, where there was not an authoritative tradition of commentary, or even to reject the Rishonim’s explanations of the Babylonian Talmud and offer explanations of his own in the course of his Commentary on the Shulhan ‘Arukh, where his dissent might not be that visible. But a full scale commentary on the Babylonian Talmud would have required that the Gaon, who was unwilling to compromise “his own understanding,”[11] take issue much more openly with the explanations of the Rishonim and present his own exceptionally bold and innovative interpretations.  That might have been too bold a move even for the Gaon, given the conservatism of the Jewish community of his day. This would also explain why the Gaon, despite his son’s, R. Abraham’s urgings, never wrote his own Code of Law.  Again, it was one thing to undermine the Shulhan ‘Arukh’s rulings in course of a commentary, another to simply set the Shulhan ‘Arukh’s rulings aside and directly offer competing rulings in a new code of law.[12]

            Second, even if we grant Stern’s point that the Volozhin Yeshiva exemplifies the rise of a more privatized and democratic form of religion that manifested itself in both “enlightened” and “traditional” forms of nineteenth century Judaism, 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 endnote 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” (264, n. 80).[13]    

            More problematic, 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 modernity. Thus, for example, the reader never gets a full sense from Stern of the depth of the Gaon’s involvement in Kabbalah nor learns, except in passing, of the sheer number of major commentaries he authored on Kabbalistic literature. Perhaps Stern deemed such a discussion too technical for the general reader,[14] but one inevitably gets the feeling that this minimizing of the Gaon’s Kabbalistic side fits into the modern picture Stern is drawing. 

            A fairly mild example of Stern’s modernizing portrait of the Gaon may be found in Chapter 2, ”Elijah’s Worldview,” the book’s most technical chapter. Here Stern, building on the scholarship of Alan Brill,[15]  seeks to show how the Gaon drew upon Greek and medieval Jewish philosophic sources, Kabbalistic texts, and even, indirectly, the eighteenth century German idealistic tradition in constructing his view of God, creation, and nature. The chapter’s centrepiece is an extended comparison of the worldviews of the Gaon and Leibniz. To be sure, Stern concedes, the Gaon never read any of Leibniz’s works; indeed he most probably did not know any language other than Hebrew. Still, he notes, the Gaon was influenced by the work Tekhunot Ha-Shamayyim, written by Raphael Halevi of Hannover, a leading student of Leibniz, as well as by the writings of Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto “who read and appropriated Leibniz’s ideas on theodicy” (38).  More significant, “Elijah, Luzzatto, and Leibniz were working with an overlapping set of Kabbalistic and philosophical texts, ideas, and questions that pervaded eighteenth century European intellectual life” (38). Stern’s comparison, while suggestive and forcefully argued, is not entirely convincing. He argues that both “Leibniz’s and Elijah’s views converge around the … idea that knowledge can be represented in mathematical terms.”[16]  This contention that the Gaon, like Leibniz, believed “that knowledge can be represented in mathematical terms” rests primarily, however, on Stern’s vocalization of a key word from the Gaon’s commentary on the Sifra de-Tzeniuta (196-198, note 19), a vocalization Stern puts forward in opposition to that of Elliot Wolfson, the leading scholar of Kabbalah in North America. However, R. Bezalel Naor, the noted rabbinic scholar of Kabbalah and editor of the Gaon’s commentary on the Sifra de-Tzeniuta, in a review of The Genius supports Wolfson’s vocalization of the text.[17] This is a highly technical matter, and I do not deem myself qualified to adjudicate this dispute, but at the very least it must be said that Stern is building a very imposing edifice on a very slender base.  

            Even if we grant Stern his vocalization, nevertheless, as he himself admits, at the heart of Leibniz’s metaphysics are not so much abstract mathematical points, but monads, which are living, self-contained substances. Here Leibniz, as has often been noted, seems to be in large measure inspired, if only negatively, by Spinoza, and his theory of monads appears to be an attempt to adopt Spinozistic premises while avoiding Spinozistic conclusions. Of course, there is no evidence that the Gaon was aware of Spinoza, whose name, indeed, does not appear in Stern’s book. Thus, while it is true that “Elijah … and Leibniz were working with an overlapping set of Kabbalistic and philosophical texts, ideas, and questions that pervaded eighteenth century European intellectual life,” they were also working with non-overlapping sets of “texts, ideas, and questions.” By focusing on the overlapping issues and scanting the broader and differing contexts within which the Gaon and Leibniz worked, Stern, even granting his mathematical comparison, ends up giving a somewhat unbalanced picture of the metaphysical systems of both these thinkers.  Stern concludes his chapter with a bold, if rather speculative, suggestion that one may draw a link between the Gaon’s highly abstract theological ideas and his daring emendations of rabbinic texts, which, in Stern’s view, should be seen as part of “his broader philosophic project of restoring the rational pre-established harmony of a world confused by unnecessary human error and evil” (56-57). Perhaps.

            Chapter 3, “Elijah and the Enlightenment,” advances the book’s most startling and revisionist claim. Generally, Stern notes, the Gaon’s contemporary, Moses Mendelssohn is portrayed as the founder of modern Judaism, while the Gaon is depicted as the defender of rabbinic or traditional Judaism. Stern, however, as part of his effort to unsettle the binary opposition between tradition and modernity, argues that in certain respects the Gaon was a more radical figure than Mendelssohn. Thus, 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. Stern argues that this difference reflects a greater level of self-confidence on the Gaon’s part, as “the intellectual leader of a majority Jewish culture” (71) than on Mendelssohn’s, living as he did in “Berlin, a cosmopolitan city with a tiny Jewish minority” (64), where rabbinic Judaism and particularly rabbinic law were under attack in Christian academic quarters. Stern, I believe, accords too much weight here to matters to matters of demography. Rather, contra Stern, I support the regnant view that this hermeneutical difference reflects, in large measure, the Gaon’s insularity from as opposed to Mendelssohn’s greater openness and sensitivity to their respective surrounding cultures, deriving, in turn, from the presence of a “beckoning bourgeoisie,” to use Gershon Hundert’s phrase,[18] in Berlin and the absence of one in Vilna.

            Even more problematic, Stern’s contrasting portraits of the Gaon and Mendelssohn serve to exaggerate the Gaon’s modernity, while minimizing Mendelssohn’s. Stern begins his chapter, “Elijah and the Enlightenment” with the arresting claim that while ”Elijah  believed that Judaism and Jewish texts expressed universal values, Mendelsohn, Leibnitz’s best known Jewish follower ... highlighted the social and political limitations of idealism” (63). Really? What of the Gaon’s view (to cite Stern himself) that ”Jew and Gentile do not share  the same deity” (109)? And what of his view (something Stern omits to point out) that Jewish souls, as the Kabbalah maintains, differ essentially from non-Jewish souls?[19] Regarding Mendelsohn, Stern himself acknowledges that he believed that philosophy (and we would add Jewish belief) “[are] something universal and cannot contradict natural reason” (79). Furthermore (again something Stern neglects to tell us), Mendelssohn’s criticisms of German idealism flowed from its being in his view not universal enough, still retaining the traces, as in Leibnitz’ affirmation of eternal damnation, of its Christian theological origins. All this is apart from 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 any coercion in matters of religious belief.

            A final example of Stern’s skewed perspective is his depiction of the Gaon’s view about the nature and authority of the rabbinic tradition. Stern on the same page (64) first asserts that the “the Gaon called into question the canons of rabbinic authority” and then that he “challenged the rabbinic tradition.” Both assertions lack 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—and here, incidentally, he is following in Maimonides’ footsteps—their authority is based on their being divinely revealed “laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai,” and after the fact they can all be derived, via the principle of Scriptural omnisignificance, from seemingly minor and trivial superfluities or gaps in the biblical text.  Given this clearly stated view, Stern’s 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” (76) cannot be sustained.[20]  

            Stern seeks support for his view by referring to a justifiably famous comment of the Gaon to Lev. 6:2. He writes:

The Gaon explains how the [literal sense] of the biblical text allows a [high] priest to enter the [Holy of Holies] whenever he pleases. (According to the rabbis of the Talmud the high priest could only enter once a year.) The Gaon makes a simple but critical historical distinction: during the time of Scripture, biblical law permitted Aaron to go in when he pleased; his access to the [holy of holies] was restricted only later in history when the law changed.  (81)
   
This is seriously confused. The distinction the Gaon draws in his comment is not between the literal sense of the biblical text and a differing rabbinic view, but between two units of the biblical text itself. Leviticus 16:1-28, the Gaon maintains basing himself on a rabbinic observation in Leviticus Rabbah 21:7,[21] refers  just to Aaron, who is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies any time he wishes as long as he performs the ritual outlined in that section. Lev. 16:29-34, on the other hand, refers to all high priests subsequent to Aaron, who are allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only if they perform the requisite ritual and only once a year on Yom Kippur. This accounts for the fact that Yom Kippur is not mentioned in verses 1-28 as well as for the emphasis in verses 16:29 and 34 that this law is “for all time” and the otherwise inexplicable emphasis in 16:34 that this ritual is to be performed only “once a year.” Aside from brilliantly illuminating the biblical text, the Gaon’s analysis also allows him to deftly and convincingly resolve some long standing rabbinic conundrums, such as the rabbinic debate over the function of the “ram for a burn offering” and the puzzling rabbinic assertion that Lev.16:23 is out of place.[22]

            That Stern misconstrues the Gaon’s observation is particularly unfortunate, since its proper explication would have offered readers a wonderful example of the Gaon’s exegetical genius. This leads to another weakness of Stern’s book. 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 “aha” moment where readers of the book will exclaim ”Wow! This is brilliant; this true genius.” Stern points to the Gaon’s deletion of a passage from a classic rabbinic text on the grounds of its superfluity (55). 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 and should have brought where the Gaon’s textual emendations bring light and clarity to what had previously appeared to be a textual and conceptual muddle—say his brilliant transposition in Tosefta Terumot, 7:20 of ”outside” (“mi-be-hutz”) and “inside” (mi-bifnim”)[23] Similarly, there are not overly technical examples of the Gaon’s brilliantly original  interpretations of halakhic texts that Stern could and should have brought—say the Gaon’s famous and oft-cited interpretation of Mishnah Berakhot 4:1 regarding the meaning of the word “keva” in the Mishnaic statement that the evening service has no “keva”.[24]

            In a related, if somewhat different vein, Stern’s scanting the Gaon’s Kabbalistic side deprives him of the opportunity to show the reader how the Gaon often uses Kabbalah to brilliantly explain and illuminate a rabbinic Aggadah. From a critical-historical perspective, of course, such explanations cannot be accepted, since the Kabbalistic concepts the Gaon uses are, as established by historical scholarship, much later than the rabbinic material he is explaining; nevertheless, at times his comments (say his famous explanation of the debate in Bava Batra 15a and Menachot 30a regarding who wrote the last eight verses of the Torah[25]) are so ingenious and so elegantly and powerfully resolve multiple problems in the rabbinic text being explicated that even the critical reader, almost against his or her own better judgment, begins to wonder “Perhaps this is the meaning of the rabbinic text after all!” 

            Finally the book is missing a bibliographical chapter, briefly describing the Gaon’s major works, their publishing history, and the problems involved in their editing. Some of this can be found scattered throughout the book, but that is no substitute for a systematic presentation. Such a chapter by detailing the multiple editions of many of the Gaon’s writing and the differences between them would have sensitized the readers to the difficulties in reconstructing his worldview.[26] It would also have driven home the amazing range of the Gaon‘s literary activity. Above all, it might have provided the reader with a deeper understanding of the nature and sheer reach of the Gaon’s literary project. Aside from his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh that, in many ways, is the odd-man out, the Gaon in his writings sought to explicate the totality of biblical and rabbinic literature. But, for him, rabbinic literature includes the liturgy, all of classical rabbinic literature, including the Mishnah, Tosefta, Halakhic and Aggadic midrashim (including Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer), the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, and even such historical rabbinic works as Seder Olam Rabbah, all of which for him constitute the exoteric branch of rabbinic literature, as well as such classic Kabbalistic works as the Zohar, Tikkunei Zohar, Raya MehemnaMidrash ha-Ne‘elam, Sefer Yetzira, Sifra de-Tznuiuta, and Sefer ha-Bahir, all of which for him constitute the esoteric branch of rabbinic literature. In this respect Stern’s speaking of the Gaon’s “mastery of the entire canon of rabbinic and Kabbalistic literature” (20) is, without further explanation, somewhat misleading, for in the Gaon’s view these were two branches of rabbinic literature, and his goal was to show that, if properly explicated, both branches not only were they not contradictory, but, more, formed a unified whole, rooted in and deriving from biblical literature. This explains why the Gaon, as seen above, never hesitated to use Kabbalistic concepts to explicate aggadic texts and, perhaps even more important, why, he maintained that, if understood properly, there was no contradiction between the halakhic rulings found in the Zohar and those found in the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. Again, the ambition and boldness of this project are breath taking, and, if anywhere, it is here that we find “his broader philosophic project of restoring the rational pre-established harmony of a world confused by unnecessary human error and evil.”

            In sum: Stern’s The Gaon is a pioneering work about an intellectual titan that opens up many important avenues for further research, but I remain unconvinced by its modernizing portrait of the Gaon. 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.


*A considerably briefer and more popular version of this review, “Was the Gaon a Genius?” appeared in Tablet Magazine, April 3, 2013.
[1] Dov Eliakh, Ha-Gaon, 3 Volumes. Jerusalem: Moreshet ha-Yeshivot, 2002.
[2] Eliakh, Ha-Gaon, pp. 594-639, 1293-1308.
[3]  See ”The Ban on the Book ‘Ha-Gaon,’” Tradition-Seforim Blog, March 27, 2006, and the references there.
[4] Perhaps, however, one mght distinguish between clarity of thought and clarity of presentation.
[5] See Otzar Sifrei ha-Gra (Thesaurus of the Books of the Vilna Gaon), Yeshayahu Vinograd, Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, 2003. This massive work of over 400 pages, a “detailed and annotated bibliography of books by and about the Gaon and Hasid R. Elijah…of Vilna,” should give the reader some idea of the immensity of the task. For a small but important and illustrative example of what remains  to be done, see Yedidya Ha-Levy Frankel, “The Original Manuscript of the Gaon’s Commentary  to the Palestinian Talmud Zera‘im” (in Hebrew), Ha-Gra u-Veit Midrasho, eds. M. Hallamish, Y. Rivlin, and R. Schuchat (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan, 2003), pp. 29-61.
[7] The most recent and finest example of this approach is Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffery Green, Berkeley: University of California, 2002. (The Hebrew original was published in 1998.)
[7] Representative studies illustrating this new approach may be found in the volume, Ha-Gra u-Veit Midrasho, above, n. 5.
[8]  Edmund Morris, Beethoven: The Universal Composer (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), pp. 130-133.
[9] See Yisrael Ta-Shma, “Some Observations on the Work ‘Pnei Yehoshua’ and its Author” (in Hebrew), Studies on the History of the Jews of Ashkenaz Presented to Eric Zimmer, eds. G. Bacon, D. Sperber, and A. Grossman (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 2008), pp. 277-285.
[10] See Ta-Shma, “The Vilna Gaon and the author of ‘Sha’agat Aryeh,’ the ‘Pnei Yehoshua,’ and the book ‘Tziyon le-Nefesh Chayah’: On the History of New Currents in Rabbinic Literature on the Eve of the Enlightenment” (in Hebrew), Sidra 15 (1999), pp. 181-191. Stern includes this article in his bibliography, but, surprisingly, never refers to Rabbis Falk and Ginzburg.
[11] See R. Abraham b. Elijah’s “Preface” to the Biur ha-Gra on the Shulhan ‘Arukh: Orah Hayyim, cited in Stern, p. 131,
[12] Eliakh, Ha-Gaon, pp. 702-704, cites R. Zvi Hirsch Farber’s suggestion that, to the contrary, the Gaon was convinced that if he wrote a new Shulhan Arukh it would succeed in displacing the old one.  He therefore desisted from writing one “out of his great respect” for Rabbis Karo and Isserles. This suggestion, in my view, is more of a tribute to R. Farber’s piety than to his historical judgment.    
[13] In the same note Stern further states “In the early modern period Eastern European rabbinic Jews had been forced to work within the confines of a Jewish  corporate structure, their internal differences notwithstanding…. While pre-modern Eastern European Jewish life was far from ’tolerant,’ it forced extreme elements of the Jewish community to work with one another…. Though a plethora of different ideological voices could be heard within the yeshiva, the new learning institution severely curtailed the range of acceptable positions and practices tolerated by the lay-led early modern corporate structure.” This is very well said, though undercutting the rather rosy picture of the Yeshiva Stern paints in the body of his book. It must be noted, however, that Stern’s basic point here  was often made by the eminent historian  of modern Judaism, Jacob Katz, contrasting the early modern corporate Jewish community not so much to the Yeshiva but to the more homogeneously Orthodox Jewish communities of the modern period.  It is unfortunate that Stern all too often uses Katz as a foil for his own revisionist views and does not sufficiently acknowledge the debt he owes to Katz’s pioneering and incisive—if, of course, debatable—theories.
[14] See “Interview with Eliyahu Stern,” Alan Brill: The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, Dec. 20, 2012.
[15] Alan Brill, “Auxiliary to Hokhmah: The Writings of the Vilna Gaon and Philosophical Terminology, Ha-Gra u-Veit Midrasho (above, note 5), pp. 9-37.
[16] In a famous passage from Halakhic Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes: “Not for naught did the Gaon of Vilna tell the translator of Euclid’s geometry into Hebrew [R. Barukh of Shklov] that ‘to the degree that a man is lacking in the wisdom of mathematics [hokhmat ha-matematikah], he will lack a hundred fold in the wisdom of the Torah.’ This statement is not just a pretty rhetorical conceit testifying to the Gaon’s broadmindedness, but a firmly established truth of halakhic epistemology.” See R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), p. 57.   In truth, however, R. Soloveitchik’s quote is not exact.  What the Gaon actually said was “to the degree that a man is lacking in the other branches of wisdom [shearei he-hokhmot], he will lack a hundred fold in the wisdom of the Torah,” and consequently his statement, contra R. Soloveitchik, should be seen precisely as “a pretty rhetorical conceit testifying to the Gaon’s broadmindedness.” At the same time, in light of Stern’s demonstration regarding the centrality of mathematics in the  Gaon’s  conception of the universe, R. Soloveitchik’s claim regarding the Gaon’s  overall world–view, if not regarding this particular statement, may not be that far off from the truth!
[17 Bezalel Naor, “Book Review: The Genius,” Orot Blog, March 4, 2013. The review actually just consists of Naor’s posting a letter he wrote to Wolfson the day before, agreeing with and defending the latter’s view on this issue. 
[18] Gershon Hundert, “(Re)defining Modernity in Jewish History,” eds. Jeremy Cohen and Moshe Rosman, Rethinking European Jewish History (Oxford: Littman Library, 2009), pp. 139-140; cited in Stern, p. 69.
[19] See the Gaon’s commentary on Isaiah 8:4. “The root of the souls of the nations of the world differs from root of the souls of the Jewish people, for their [nations of the world’s] souls derive from the [demonic] other side.” See Eliakh,   The Gaon, p.1178, which reproduces two copies of the Horodna-Vilna 1820 edition of the Gaon’s Commentary on Nakh: one with the passage intact; the other where the passage is—understandably!—inked out by the censor.
[20] Stern appears to attribute to the Gaon a view approaching that of Nahmanides, though, as noted in my text, his position is much closer to that of Maimonides. But to discuss this with the fullness it deserves would take us beyond the confines of this review essay.
[21] “Whenever he wishes to enter, he can enter, but only if he performs this ritual.” For further analysis, see Leviticus Rabbah, edited by Mordecai Margulies, Vol.2 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993), p. 484, note 2.
[22]  See Sefer Aderet Eliyahu: Kitzur Torat Kohanim (Tel-Aviv, 1954), p. 38; and Zikhron Eliyahu (Benei Brak, 1991), pp. 12-15 (part two). For a full discussion, see R. Mordecai Breuer, “Seder Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim,” Pirkei Mo‘adot, Vol.2 (Jerusalem: Horev, 1986), pp. 512-516.
[23] For some representative modern discussions of Tosefta Terumot, 7:20 and the conundrums it poses, see R. Prof. Saul Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah, Zer‘aim, Vol.1 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), pp.420-423; the exchange between Prof. Samuel Atlas and R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg in the latter’s Seridei Esh, Vol. 3 (Jerusalem, 1977), #78 (pp. 197-201); David Daube, Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law, Oxford University Press, 1965; Elijah J. Schochet, A Responsum on Surrender: Translation and Analysis, published as an Appendix to The Bach: Rabbi Joel Sirkes, His Life, Works, and Teachings (New York, 2006), pp. 325-413; and Aharon Enker, “Tzorech: Dehiyyat Nefesh Mipnei Nefashot,” in ‘Ikkarim Be-Mishpat ha-Pelili ha-‘Ivri (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 2007), pp. 389-448. I hope to show on another occasion that the Gaon’s brilliant emendation of the Tosefta is thoroughly convincing and justified, despite its rejection by both Professors Lieberman and Atlas.

This example also sheds light on the issue as to whether the Gaon in emending a text believed that he was restoring it to its original historical form which had been effaced as a result of the vagaries and errors of copyists, or to cite Stern, whether he believed that he was “refining the text according to what … the text ideally ought to look like” (55). From Stern’s comment it appears he believes the latter to be the case. But it is one thing to say that the Gaon believed that a superfluous passage, even if it was historically part of the original text, ought to be deleted in the name of an ideal principle of maximum conciseness—a principle dear to the Gaon’s heart, quite another to say that the Gaon believed that a passage that, in his view, made no sense was historically part of the original text.  
[24] For a full discussion of the Gaon’s explanation and the reactions it aroused, see Hannan Gafni, Peshutah shel Mishnah: ‘Iyyunim be-Heker Sifrut Hazal be-‘Et ha-Hadashah (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2012), pp. 70-72. Another well-known and not overly technical example Stern might have brought is the Gaon’s explanation of Mishnah Bava Metsi‘a 1:1, cited and made famous by R. Israel Lipschutz in his Mishnah commentary, Tiferet Yisrael. See Gafni, p. 59, note 2, and the sources he cites there. In truth, if anywhere, it is here that the Gaon, though I tend to doubt it, “called into question the canons of rabbinic authority” and “challenged the rabbinic tradition.”

[25] See Zikhron Eliyahu (above, n. 22), pp. 20-22 (part two). But see Yaakov S. Spiegel, ‘Amudim be-Toldot  ha-Sefer ha-Ivri: Hagahot u-Magihim (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1996), p. 390, n.26.  Stern, p. 223, n.100, appears to allude to this comment of the Gaon, but from his very brief, almost cryptic, remarks it is impossible to discern the point the Gaon is making.
[26 Alan Brill, “Auxiliary to Hokhmah” (above, n. 15).



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