Move Over, Mendelssohn – By Daniel B. Schwartz

Daniel B. Schwartz on Eliyahu Stern’s The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism

Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, Yale University Press, 2013, 336pp., $45.00

Biography has long figured prominently in scholarly and popular thinking about the origins of Jewish modernity. If we could tally the number of times a historical figure has been held up as a paradigm or progenitor of the modern Jew, the Amsterdam heretic Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and the German and Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) would easily lead the pack. Yet the two thinkers were strikingly different. Spinoza broke with Judaism, personally and philosophically, even as he defied pre-modern norms by refusing to convert to the majority religion. Mendelssohn remained an observant Jew. Still, both sides of the Spinoza-versus-Mendelssohn debate tend to concur that the liberal challenge to traditional values and institutions was the paramount factor in the shaping of Jewish modernity.

Eliyahu Stern is too judicious a scholar to grant anyone the questionable title of first modern Jew. Nor is his bold, absorbing new biography of the rabbinic luminary Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna (1720-1797), popularly known as the Vilna Gaon (“Genius of Vilna”), an argument for the latter’s initiation of Jewish modernity as a self-conscious identity or project. Yet The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, Stern’s first book, is certainly a fresh take on modern Judaism’s intellectual pioneers. Contrary to his reputation as a stalwart defender of rabbinic authority, Elijah emerges in Stern’s account not simply as a bona fide modern but as a source of a distinctive modern Jewish tradition rooted in the East European Jewish experience. The goal of the book is nothing less than a double revision that will transform our understanding of the life and thought of the Gaon and the making of modern Judaism more generally.

Elijah is one of the towering personalities of Jewish history; he is also one of the most elusive. “By the time of his death at the age of seventy-seven in 1797,” Stern notes, “he [the Gaon] had written commentaries on a wider range of Jewish literature than any writer in history,” bequeathing a vast and challenging corpus that left “hardly a major rabbinic or kabbalistic text untouched.” As prolific as the Gaon was in composing commentaries, he left little in the way of a paper trail regarding his personal experience, and since he held no official rabbinic position in Jewish Vilna, the communal archives are not much help in fleshing out his biography. What we know of the Gaon’s personal history comes mostly from posthumous hagiographic testimonies by family members and disciples. Some of the most central facts about the Gaon’s life are not in dispute today — most notably, his spiritual leadership in the struggle against eighteenth-century East European Hasidism, whose popular mysticism and elevation of prayer over study he deplored. Discovering the man behind the legend, however, remains a tall order.

Yet Elijah eludes his biographers for reasons that go beyond the difficulty of his own writings and the dubiousness of those about him. The fault, Stern would have us believe, is not primarily in the evidence but in the schemas that filter our evaluation of it. To grasp the true significance of the Gaon’s life and legacy, we need to get the story of Jewish modernity right. “In the common narrative,” Stern writes, “modern Jews exchanged their belief in messianic redemption for citizenship in the nation-state, leaving the ghetto walls of the kehilah (the pre-modern Jewish governing structure) for the freedom of the coffee houses, and abandoning rabbinic study halls for universities.” For Stern, describing Jewish modernity as the road “out of the ghetto” may adequately represent the Jewish experience in Western and Central Europe, but it hardly does justice to Eastern Europe, where the demographics of Jewish life were substantially different. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in the eighteenth century had the largest concentration of Jews in the world. Moreover, roughly half its urban population was Jewish, and many Jews lived in towns and cities where there was a Jewish majority. This was true among places other than Vilna, which, in the course of the Gaon’s life, evolved from a “burned-down Lithuanian town” with a small, beleaguered Jewish community into a vibrant, densely populated “Jewish capital.” Living within a majority culture, East European Jews were for the most part spared the central dilemma of their western counterparts: the challenge of refashioning Judaism in order to integrate, as a religious minority, into the broader society.

Stern is not the first to question the exemplary status accorded Western European Jews in standard accounts of modern Jewish history. Ten years ago, Gershon Hundert published a landmark book, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (2004), which laid out many of the essential arguments of Stern’s revision. Yet Hundert believed that for East European Jews to gain their rightful place in the understanding of the modern Jewish experience, the term “modernity” itself had to be reduced to a period designating approximately the past two centuries. Only then could the “first the West, then the rest” narrative of Jewish modernity be overthrown. Stern’s solution to this conundrum is more sophisticated. Echoing Hundert, he rejects identifying modernity with a “movement based on liberal philosophical principles”; unlike Hundert, he refuses to empty modernity of conceptual content altogether. For Stern, modernity was primarily a “condition that restructured all aspects of European life and thought, in diverse and often contradictory ways.” It was not that modernity for Jews moved from west to east in the train of liberal ideology. Rather, the same basic changes — from the rise of the state to the separation of the private and public spheres — spawned different outcomes depending in part on where one lived, whether as a minority in Western Europe or as part of a majority culture in Eastern Europe.

Stern focuses on the fallout from the division between the private and public realms, which he appears to deem the most decisive of the restructurings that modernity wrought, and also the one that provides the key to the modernity of the Gaon. That the Gaon was something of a recluse, who spurned communal office to devote himself almost exclusively to Torah study, is well known. Stern, however, presents this retreat from the public square as a core theological and ideological principle, one that the Gaon actively and consciously promoted. His commitment to intellectual autonomy was revealed in his skepticism of rabbinic codes and commentaries (which he scrutinized and emended fearlessly) and communal institutions and customs, and in his publicly stated belief that all truly devout individuals should emulate him in standing apart from organized Jewish society. In both his life and work, the Gaon embodied a trend toward the privatizing of religious identity that reverberated in eastern as well as western European Jewish culture, indicating by his own example that liberalism was not alone in investing this development with meaning and value.

The revisionist thrust of Stern’s portrait comes through most strongly in his third chapter, entitled “Elijah and the Enlightenment,” where he compares the Gaon to Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s trailblazing image derives from his efforts to model and construct the philosophical basis for a Jewish identity combining scrupulous, albeit voluntary, observance of Jewish religious law with the robust pursuit of acculturation. Traditionally, Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Bible, along with the rationalist Hebrew commentary appended to it known as the Biur (“Clarification”), has been viewed as emblematic of this dual commitment to modernizing and strengthening Judaism. Yet Stern points out that Mendelssohn’s commentary, despite focusing on elements of the biblical text that had long been neglected in rabbinic exegesis (to wit, its moral and aesthetic aspects) was conservative, at least in its hermeneutics. As a rule, Mendelssohn refused to contradict traditional rabbinic Jewish interpretations even when the literal meaning of a verse appeared to vitiate them. The Gaon showed no such deference. On the contrary, he was adamant about emending rabbinic glosses that he found insufficiently grounded in the text, and he felt especially close to medieval exegetes, like the twelfth-century French Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) who had adopted a similarly uncompromising stance.

Why did Mendelssohn submit to the authority of tradition in this case while the Gaon ignored it? Stern finds the answer in the different demographics of their respective locales. As a member of a minority Jewish community in Berlin, Mendelssohn always had to consider how the Christian majority would construe the positions he staked out. Any concession on the validity and primacy of the rabbinic tradition could play right into the hands of those who conditioned political emancipation for Jews on their abandonment of the ceremonial law, a quid pro quo that Mendelssohn explicitly rejected in Jerusalem (1783), his landmark work of modern Jewish thought. Circumstances thus dictated that Mendelssohn adopt an apologetic stance, whatever his private thoughts might have been. The Gaon, by contrast, could afford to openly balk at certain rabbinic interpretations and be less mindful of what Christians might think, precisely because he lived “in the densely populated Jewish locale of Vilna and not as a minority in acculturated Berlin.” If Mendelssohn and the Gaon thus represent opposite types, Stern concludes, it is “not because one is traditional and the other modern, but rather because one embodies the political confidence, intellectual comforts, and creativity of someone who lived as part of a Jewish culture, while the other put forth a pluralistic and acculturated worldview that spoke to the experience of being a minority.”

With this comparison, Stern hints at the true ambition of his book, which is to portray the Gaon not simply as a product of Jewish modernity but as one of its architects. To the extent that earlier historians have viewed the Gaon as a prototype, it has mostly been for placing his stamp on one of the factions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. If not its founder, the Gaon was at least a forerunner of the Lithuanian movement opposing Hasidism known as Mitnagdism. Out of this movement there eventually emerged a distinct strain of orthodoxy, often referred to as Lithuanian orthodoxy, that was characterized by an elitist, highly rationalist, and intellectual rabbinic culture, and a commitment to the centrality of Torah study. Still, as Elijah’s reputation for genius was burnished in the nineteenth century — a development Stern traces with great perspicacity in his final chapter — other groups also vied to be considered his true heirs. The proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Eastern Europe known as the Maskilim seized on the Gaon’s study of the sciences and mathematics to claim him as their own, and early religious Zionists pointed to his failed attempt to migrate to Palestine to do likewise. Elijah thus became a “homegrown icon” for East European Jewry, “a figure who appealed to rationalists, Jewish nationalists, and the religiously observant.” Stern regards these appropriations with a critical eye: the Gaon “was an aloof eighteenth-century rabbinic figure, not a nineteenth-century Maskil, Mitnaged, or Zionist.” Ultimately, however, Stern’s objection appears to be driven less by the sense that the Gaon belongs to none of these groups than that he belongs to them all.

If Mendelssohn was the “archetypal German Jew,” as his biographer Alexander Altmann once described him, the Gaon might be said to have been the archetypal East European Jew. Toward the very end, Stern goes so far as to venture that the majority culture of East European Jewry, and the proud, self-assured Jewishness it inspired, has done more to shape Jewish modernity than the minority tradition associated with Mendelssohn. “From the birth of the State of Israel,” Stern concludes, “to the Jews’ involvement in radical anti-statist modern political movements, to the creation of a robust, vibrant Jewish life in the United States, Jewish modernity derives much of its intellectual dynamism, social confidence, and political assertiveness from an astonishing source: the brilliant writings and untamed personality of Elijah ben Solomon, who first captured the imagination of eastern European Jewry in the eighteenth century.” What begins as an argument for entering the Gaon into the canon of modern Judaism’s framers, alongside thinkers like Mendelssohn, ends, rather astonishingly, in the intimation that he eclipses them all.

Elijah of Vilna, Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Elijah of Vilna, Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On a few occasions, Stern highlights “precise and economic language,” enormous erudition, and “originality” as the most outstanding attributes of the Gaon’s oeuvre. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these three qualities aptly describe Stern’s book as well. Even if one somewhat doubts Stern’s thesis about Elijah and Jewish modernity, as I do, the clarity and courage with which he develops this and other arguments that run against the grain is impressive. Consider how he deals with the problem of genius evident in Elijah’s title (the Gaon). To speak of genius in the humanities today is to court suspicion, the sense that one is still beholden to old-fashioned notions of history as the story of great men. We are more comfortable discussing how genius is represented than in allowing that people actually merit the adjective. Stern, to his credit, does both. He describes how Elijah’s biographers carefully constructed and cultivated an image of genius which, like all heroic myths, justified a wide range of ideologies and ideals. He also implies that Elijah’s reputation was fully deserved, rooted in the reality of the Gaon’s writings and personality.

Whether in proposing his own theory of modernity or portraying the Gaon as no less a modern Jewish thinker than Mendelssohn, Stern demonstrates a refreshing willingness to steer right into the thick of potential danger without flinching. While the weight he ascribes to place can seem excessive, as if the differences between eighteenth-century Jewish Berlin and Jewish Vilna can fully explain philosophical disagreements between Mendelssohn and the Gaon, his attention to the interplay between demography and ideas is nonetheless extremely welcome in Jewish intellectual history. Put simply, this is among the most innovative and insightful attempts to rethink the origins of Jewish modernity to appear in the last decade or two, one that guarantees that its author will continue to be a leading voice in this discussion for years to come.

If the ambition of Stern’s book is one of its main strengths, it also accounts for what I consider to be a major weakness. Reading The Genius, I often felt like I was reading two books that had been elegantly, yet not always effectively, stitched together: one aims to revise our understanding of modernity in Jewish history, while the other illuminates the life and legacy of the Gaon. To my mind, Stern tacitly favors the first of the two objectives, which results in a profile that, for all its incisiveness, is somewhat hamstrung by the need to make the case for the Gaon’s modernity. Giving the second of the two storylines precedence would have allowed for a more complex portrait of the different sides of the Gaon, the kind of biography that Stern, with his command of rabbinic literature and eighteenth-century philosophy, is certainly well suited to write.

Stern’s argument for the Gaon’s modernity not only flattens his image but also is simply underdeveloped, conceptually and empirically. For Stern, the key to grasping “the most influential rabbinic figure in modern Jewish history” lies in understanding modernity as a condition characterized by the privatizing of religion — which the Gaon can be connected with — as opposed to a movement based on liberal, secular principles — which he most certainly cannot. Yet there is something tendentious about the framing of this choice, as if these alternatives — movement and condition — are our only two options for classifying modernity. One can agree with Stern that modernity entailed certain objective changes and was not synonymous with a particular ideology or project, and at the same time agree with the historian C.A. Bayly “that an essential part of being modern is thinking you are modern.” Between modernity as a condition and modernity as a movement, there lies what we might call modernity as an attitude or outlook, a sense, however vague, of living in new times. Stern leaves this middle area unexplored, even if his repeated emphasis on the Gaon’s boldness and originality — his critical posture vis-à-vis tradition — suggests that his notion of modernity is more a matter of disposition than perhaps he realizes. But the failure to wrestle with the wider spectrum of subjectivist definitions of modernity, even if only to dispute their relevance, means that Stern ultimately dodges the important question of whether an identity can truly be modern if it is not self-consciously so.

As for Stern’s larger argument about the East European tradition of Jewish modernity and the Gaon’s role in underwriting it, there is enough here to intrigue but not to persuade. In fairness, some of the more outsized claims, like the assertion that “[t]he Genius of Vilna is embodied in those residents of Tel Aviv and New York who live as though they were majorities,” come in or near the conclusion, where an author should be allowed room to speculate beyond the reach of evidence. Still, I finished the book with the sense that Stern’s interpretation of the Gaon as not just a symbol of the “intellectual dynamism, social confidence, and political assertiveness” of Jewish modernity but as one of its principal sources, bore more than a little similarity to the appropriations of the Gaon by Maskilim, Mitnagdim, and Zionists surveyed in the final chapter — the very ones Stern criticized for “selectively adopt[ing] certain elements of the Gaon’s world-view” while remaining “equally distant” from the man himself. Perhaps the same identification with the Gaon that manifests in the book’s wide-ranging scholarship, lucidity, and freshness of perspective also leads the author to go too far in claiming him for “the making of modern Judaism.” That seems a small price to pay for a book this rich, important, and engaging.

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