The Genius

The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Genius
    Book Description:

    Elijah ben Solomon, the "Genius of Vilna," was perhaps the best-known and most understudied figure in modern Jewish history. This book offers a new narrative of Jewish modernity based on Elijah's life and influence.

    While the experience of Jews in modernity has often been described as a process of Western European secularization-with Jews becoming citizens of Western nation-states, congregants of reformed synagogues, and assimilated members of society-Stern uses Elijah's story to highlight a different theory of modernization for European life. Religious movements such as Hasidism and anti-secular institutions such as the yeshiva emerged from the same democratization of knowledge and privatization of religion that gave rise to secular and universal movements and institutions. Claimed by traditionalists, enlighteners, Zionists, and the Orthodox, Elijah's genius and its afterlife capture an all-embracing interpretation of the modern Jewish experience. Through the story of the "Vilna Gaon," Stern presents a new model for understanding modern Jewish history and more generally the place of traditionalism and religious radicalism in modern Western life and thought.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18322-1
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. A Note on the Transliteration
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Towering over eighty-eight sages of Israel, Elijah ben Solomon (1720–1797), prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, grips a tome in his left hand while writing one of his seventy works with the other. A white halo encircles his face, highlighting his sacrosanct position among Jewry’s most celebrated masters. Beneath him rest Jewry’s luminaries, among them the stately medieval philosopher Maimonides, regally dressed in a turban, and the learned commentator Isaac Alfasi, cradling his head in his hand while poring over a pile of books. Such is just one of the dozens of pictures featuring Elijah that hung in Jewish...

  6. 1 Elijah and Vilna in Historical Perspective
    (pp. 13-36)

    Elijah ben Solomon’s life and his relationship to the city whose name he would share remain somewhat obscure—especially when compared to what is known about other outstanding figures of his age. Trails of correspondence and memoirs have provided ample material for scholars to document the experience of the “Jewish Socrates” Moses Mendelssohn in eighteenth-century Berlin, for instance, but few have been able to ascertain even the most basic details of Elijah and eighteenth-century Jewish Vilna.¹ That the life of one of the most influential figures in Jewish history remains opaque is the result of both personality and profession. Since...

  7. 2 Elijah’s Worldview
    (pp. 37-62)

    Elijah’s worldview bears the marks of both Jewish and Greek philosophical sources. His ideas took shape in an age typified by an attempt by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1713) to locate a universally valid coherent system that could be justified by and contained within a first and Absolute Idea (that is, God).¹ like Leibniz and early Enlightenment idealist philosophers—including Christian Wolff (1679–1754), Johann Martin Chladenius (1710–1759), Georg Friedrich Meier (1718–1777), and Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786)—Elijah believed that all components of experience emerge from, and can be understood by, our minds.²

    Elijah was certainly influenced by...

  8. 3 Elijah and the Enlightenment
    (pp. 63-82)

    Elijah believed that Judaism and Jewish texts expressed universal and rational principles. In contrast, Moses Mendelssohn, Leibniz’s best-known Jewish follower, attempted to convince Germans that rabbinic Judaism highlights the social and political limitations of idealism.

    This is not the way Elijah and Mendelssohn are commonly represented. Generally, historians have described the men as two poles of eighteenth-century Jewish history, with the Gaon (Elijah of Vilna) described as the defender of rabbinic or “traditional” Judaism,¹ and the “Jewish Socrates” (Mendelssohn) characterized as the founder of “modern” Judaism.² The historian Heinrich Graetz, for instance, went so far as to liken Mendelssohn’s accomplishments,...

  9. 4 The Gaon versus Hasidism
    (pp. 83-114)

    Not once did Elijah denounce Moses Mendelssohn, Naftali Herz Wessely, or any other contemporaries for their Enlightenment sentiments. His silence toward the Berlin Haskalah, however, contrasts sharply with the ire he displayed toward the eighteenth-century eastern European Hasidic movement. As it swept through Podolia and Volhynia, the Hasidic movement challenged local and established Jewish governing structures before meeting stiff opposition from rabbinic authorities in Shklov, Brody, and Vilna. Mendelssohn’s Haskalah posed far less of a threat to Elijah than did the rise of Hasidism. Elijah unequivocally and repeatedly condemned leaders of the Hasidic movement and accused them of Sabbatian tendencies.¹...

  10. 5 The Biur and the Yeshiva
    (pp. 115-142)

    The ineffective bans issued by Elijah and the variouskehiloton the Hasidim reveal the declining strength of public religious institutions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But even though Elijah and his students failed to stem the tide of Hasidism, in 1802 Elijah’s students succeeded in establishing the modern yeshiva.¹ Over the next century, the yeshiva would replace the legal institution of thekehilahas the locus of centralized authority for non-Hasidic rabbinic Jewry. This shift was encouraged by Elijah’s commentary (Biur) to theShulchan Arukh, the sixteenth-century Jewish legal code. Indeed this pathbreaking commentary, Elijah’s magnum...

  11. 6 The Genius
    (pp. 143-165)

    Jewish history’s greatest intellectual figures are immortalized by their masterpieces: Rashi by hisCommentaries, Maimonides hisMishneh TorahandGuide of the Perplexed, Mendelssohn hisJerusalem, Freud hisInterpretation of Dreams, Einstein his theory of relativity. Some rabbinic figures became known by the very name of their magnum opus, as Moses Sofer did after writing theHatam Sofer.

    Elijah of Vilna wrote perhaps with greater breadth and variation than any other figure in Jewish history. There is hardly a biblical, rabbinic, or kabbalistic text on which he did not comment. Yet in popular lore, the legend of Elijah’s genius eclipses...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 166-172)

    The experience of Jewish modernity tends to be seen as a process of secularization—an arc starting with Jews living under static corporate governing structures and ending with their becoming citizens of nation-states, congregants of reformed synagogues, and acculturated members of civil society.¹ In the familiar narrative, this transformation was inaugurated by Moses Mendelssohn and his Berlin circle and eventually spread to Jews living in various Protestant lands. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this wave moved eastward toward the Russian Pale of Settlement. But the farther it traveled from Berlin, the more the wave of modernity trailed off,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 173-272)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-308)
  15. Index
    (pp. 309-322)