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

Eliyahu Stern
  • From the Publisher
October 3, 2013

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.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Final­ist Eliyahu Stern

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My mind was on my grandfather’s books when I decid­ed to write about Eli­jah of Vil­na (known as The Genius or Gaon”). I remem­bered my Zadie, a child of Lithuan­ian yeshiv­ot, sit­ting at his desk in Bal­ti­more squint­ing his eyes over dozens of over­sized tomes that had become repos­i­to­ries of a van­ished world. Lit­tle did I imag­ine that I would even­tu­al­ly see in these works the first chap­ter to the sto­ry of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jewry.

When Eli­jah of Vil­na passed away in 1797 he had penned more com­men­taries to clas­si­cal Jew­ish works than any­one in Jew­ish his­to­ry. His com­men­taries exem­pli­fied a belief in study as the apex of Jew­ish life, inspired the found­ing of the famous Volozhin yeshi­va, and indeed, the mod­ern yeshi­va move­ment that thrives to this day. I myself spent time study­ing Elijah’s cryp­tic com­men­taries in yeshi­va but decid­ed to pur­sue grad­u­ate work in Jew­ish his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. There, I real­ized that Elijah’s influ­ence extend­ed well beyond the walls of Jew­ish study hous­es. Eli­jah was an inspi­ra­tion to the founder of sec­u­lar Zion­ism, Moses Lilien­blum; the edi­tor of the Yid­dish For­ward, Abra­ham Cahan, and to the mass­es Moses Gertz referred to when claim­ing that by the late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry every home in Lithua­nia was dec­o­rat­ed with the pic­ture of the Gaon.” Obser­vant Jews hung por­traits of him with a prayer shawl; sec­u­lar Jews left him in Pol­ish garb. 

Elijah’s pop­u­lar­i­ty ran counter to the com­mon nar­ra­tives of Jew­ish moder­ni­ty. His life and lega­cy shared very lit­tle in com­mon with the expe­ri­ence of accul­tur­a­tion, eman­cipation, and reli­gious reform, the emer­gence of mod­ern denom­i­na­tions (Reform, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Ortho­dox), and the influ­ence of sci­en­tif­ic thought and enlight­en­ment. If Eli­jah was not involved in these move­ments and devel­op­ments, what made him a hero to so many dif­fer­ent kinds of nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jews? 

I filed these ques­tions in the back of my mind until one evening, while sit­ting at High Table in the wood-pan­eled din­ing hall of Brasenose Col­lege, one of my col­leagues leaned over to inquire about the dif­fi­cul­ty” of tran­si­tion­ing from yeshi­va to Berke­ley. Instead of serv­ing him a poor man’s ver­sion of Chaim Potok’s The Cho­sen, I replied that it was not half as chal­leng­ing as trav­el­ling from Berke­ley to Oxford. This is the first time in my life that I feel like…,” I hes­i­tat­ed, a minor­i­ty.” Of course Jews are, tech­ni­cal­ly, a minor­i­ty group in the U.S., even in New York, but on a dai­ly basis, I explained that I nev­er felt estranged or dif­fer­ent from oth­er Cal­i­for­ni­ans or New York­ers or Amer­i­cans. I nev­er felt threat­ened by an out­side cul­tur­al force that impinged upon my abil­i­ty to be Jew­ish or iden­ti­fy as such.

The next morn­ing I sat down at my desk at the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute, where Jew­ish Stud­ies is housed at Oxford, and began answer­ing my ques­tion. Eli­jah was not the least bit con­nect­ed to any of the so-called mod­ern move­ments.” How could he? Eli­jah lived in the East­ern Euro­pean city of Vil­na, where Jews com­prised forty per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. With the excep­tion of Hasidim, he nev­er exhib­it­ed any signs of being threat­ened by an out­side cul­tur­al force that impinged upon his abil­i­ty to be Jew­ish or iden­ti­fy as such. The themes of accul­tur­a­tion, eman­ci­pa­tion, and reli­gious reform all derived from the expe­ri­ences of Jews who lived as minori­ties in West­ern Euro­pean coun­tries. I stopped ask­ing if Eli­jah was influ­enced by Moses Mendelssohn, Ger­man phi­los­o­phy, and sci­en­tif­ic inno­va­tions and instead focused on why the East­ern Euro­pean Zion­ist Peretz Smolen­skin main­tained that Eli­jah had influ­enced Mendelssohn. 

East­ern Euro­pean Jews resided in towns and cities in which they often totaled 30 or 40 per­cent of the local pop­u­la­tion. Elijah’s exal­ta­tion of Jew­ish texts, bat­tling against the Hasidism, and inspir­ing his stu­dents’ emi­gra­tion to Pales­tine reflect­ed the intel­lec­tu­al and social effects of liv­ing in dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed Jew­ish locales. East­ern Euro­pean Jewry’s vir­tual major­i­ty” liv­ing con­di­tions allowed Jews to devel­op ide­olo­gies that did not revolve around the pol­i­tics of accul­tur­a­tion typ­i­fied by West­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish reli­gious denominations. 

A cou­ple of years lat­er, I returned to the East Coast and soon real­ized that my own intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney bore a strik­ing resem­blance to what was hap­pen­ing to Amer­i­can Jew­ry. Amer­i­can Judaism was under­go­ing a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion away from mod­els and institu­tions built on the West­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish expe­ri­ence to those whose prove­nance ran back to East­ern Europe. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jews immi­grat­ing to the U.S. from War­saw and Vil­na large­ly con­formed to the denomina­tional struc­tures estab­lished by West­ern Euro­pean Jews. The denom­i­na­tions helped make Judaism a respect­ed reli­gion in Amer­i­can pub­lic life. By the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the bless­ings of accul­tur­a­tion, eman­ci­pa­tion, and reli­gious reform had reaped a Jew­ish vice-pres­i­den­tial can­didate, a pre­cip­i­tous decline in anti-Semi­tism, and female rab­bini­cal lead­ers. How­ev­er, there was a cri­sis in the very struc­ture upon which the denom­i­na­tion­al move­ments were established. 

Today the great suc­cess­es of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Judaism are found not in the ideas pro­mot­ed by West­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry, but rather in the move­ments that emerged from the East: Hasidism, Zion­ism, and the Yeshi­va. Syn­a­gogues, both tra­di­tion­al and lib­er­al, are increas­ing­ly adopt­ing neo-Hasidic approach­es to prayer. Organs and can­tors are giv­ing way to gui­tar-strum­ming folk singers. The Amer­i­can Israel Polit­i­cal Action Com­mit­tee (AIPAC) has become not sim­ply a polit­i­cal lob­by group but a form of reli­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for Amer­i­can Jews. Torah study is not only boom­ing in Brook­lyn and Lake­wood, but also prac­ticed in egal­i­tar­i­an and social­ly pro­gres­sive learn­ing insti­tu­tions, as well as com­mu­ni­ty Fed­er­a­tions across the coun­try. Texts, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and Zion­ism have replaced accul­tur­a­tion, eman­ci­pa­tion, and reli­gious reform as the core iden­ti­ty mark­ers of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Judaism. 

Every­thing about my grandfather’s world now appears illu­mi­nat­ed in ways unfore­see­able to Irv­ing Howe when he respect­ful­ly eulo­gized his father’s world. Today, East­ern Euro­pean Jewry’s cul­tur­al and reli­gious lega­cy pro­vides a resource for a more con­fi­dant con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, one not based on sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, over­com­ing anti-Semi­tism, bat­tling against accul­tur­a­tion, or trans­lat­ing Jew­ish tra­di­tion into Protes­tant terms. Instead of eval­u­at­ing Jews in terms of how they engage with the non-Jew­ish world, we would do bet­ter to focus on how they engage with Judaism, through texts, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, or Zion­ism. I only began to appreci­ate the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life when I final­ly under­stood the Genius of East­ern Euro­pean Jewry’s reli­gious legacy.

Discussion Questions