Interview with Eliyahu Stern author of The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism

This month Eliyahu Stern published his book The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism (Yale University Press). Stern has an appointment at Yale. Stern received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008. From 2009-2010 he was a fellow at University of Oxford. He may be first YU graduate in Jewish Studies to break the glass ceiling of the ivys for his first position. (Yerushalmi was long gone from his YU upbringing by the time he was appointed.)

Stern’s emphasis on religion as an operative factor in socio- intellectual history was already shown in his op-ed on Jewish peoplehood.

What is needed instead is a return to the original Jewish model, where peoplehood was embraced as an outcome of a shared destiny and values, where group attachment was the powerful end result of an engagement with a compelling tradition and spiritual practice. As the past fifty years have demonstrated, peoplehood without the spiritual, ethical, or religious infrastructure of Judaism will not survive.

For those who do not know very much about the Vilna Gaon, here are the basics on the GRA at My Jewish Learning. The wiki is unfortunately filled with folktales and misinformation. A decade ago Immanuel Etkes wrote The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image (University of California Press, 2002), which spends much of its time evaluating who the Gaon was as a person and to refuting many of the folktales and false images of the popular press. For example, Etkes rejects the claim by modern historians that Eliyahu was a harbinger of the Haskalah which become axiomatic among modern historians. As a third book on the Gaon, you shoudd look at Arie Morgenstern, The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision (August, 2012)on the messianism of the Gaon and his students.

Stern approach is to ask the big question of where the Gaon fits into the broader narrative of history. He shows why the Gaon’s approach to text creates a certain type of society; one turned to book knowledge over community. Stern also wants to show why that is modern in its breakdown of the community and rejection of prior understandings. To understand Stern argument, the reader may need to catch up on the last 90 years of social theory and reach the writings of Ulrich Beck. (This blog dealt with one of his books here and here; also see our discussion of Oliver Roy.) Older Jewish Studies followed Karl Manheim’s 1929 discussion of ideology as the force that holds society together and Max Weber’s assumption that tradition breaks down into rationality, liberalism and routine. If it did not, then it was a throwback to the pre-modern. For Ulrich Beck, the breakdown led to a negotiation of how the individual accepts the new institutions. For those who want to catch up, see this great short summary of Beck.

Finally, I get the pleasure that this book started as a seminar paper for my graduate class on the Vilna Gaon.

Vilna Gaon

1) What’s your theory of modernity and how does it relate to Elijah of Vilna?

When I first started writing I thought about modernity as a movement, as something based on ideas such as individualism, democracy, and civil rights. Most Jewish histories have been written from the perspective of seeing modernity as one movement that started with Mendelssohn and ended with Reform, Emancipation and Acculturation. The problem with that perspective is that it ultimately ends up excluding, opposing or misinterpreting large swaths of western life and contemporary Jewry. American Jews never went through a process of emancipation, and ultra-Orthodoxy has remerged as force in Jewish life.

In my book I argue that it is more productive to see modernity as a condition that transformed all groups and institutions in Europe from the mid eighteenth century onward. My theory of modernity is based on the rise of the State, the division of public and private spheres, and the privatization of religion.

Elijah is often depicted as an anti-modernist, yet he remains one of the most celebrated figures in the modern Jewish experience.

Most scholars who write about Elijah usually focus on the few words he wrote in his lifetime about the Hasidic movement. His position vis-à-vis the Hasidim is radically anti-democratic, anti-individual, and anti-modern in both senses of the term (modernity as a movement or as a condition). Elijah failed to stem the tide of Hasidism because he thought he could use pre-modern structures (the coercive mechanism afforded by the kehilah) to prevent the growth of the movement. As I argue at-length in my book there is nothing remotely democratic or modern about Elijah’s excommunications of Vilna Hasidim.

However, I also found that Elijah was wildly successful in promoting the ritualization of study as the locus of religious life. The reason why his legacy of study succeeded but his opposition to Hasidism failed was precisely because of the rise of the State and the privatization of religious expressions. The privatization of religion allowed for the emergence of Hasidism, Reform Judaism and the Yeshiva movement. All these movements were created out of the breakdown of corporate structures and the privatization of religion. Its not that one group is “modern” and the other is “anti-modern” all of them exist in the rubric of privatization and have been shaped and crafted by the management and boundaries separating public and private spheres.
(AB- I find many of the undereducated hockers force everything into modern or anti modern rather than understanding how both sides are mediating a contemporary situation.)

I am indebted to ideas put forth by social theorists Urlich Beck, Jose Casanova and Jürgen Habermas. Specifically, Beck reveals that Western liberal life is threatened not by from outside groups or remnants of pre-modern belief systems, but rather from internal structural risks that are built into the Secular-liberal State. I argue that instead of seeing religious radicalism as standing in opposition to modern western life or a throw back to a different age, it is in large measure the result of the privatization of religion built into the liberal State. Casanova has shown it is a fallacy that religious privatization necessarily creates a liberal society. In fact, often times the more private faith is the more segregated it remains and the more anti-pluralistic and dogmatic it becomes. On the other hand, sometimes the more engagement with a broader public it has, the more it adopts universal ideals to promote its message.

2) How did the Gaon rupture the traditional canons of Jewish learning?

Elijah’s glosses (Biur) to Joseph Karo’s definitive code of Jewish law, Shulchan Arukh, encouraged nineteenth-century Jews to move away from a code-based learning culture. Elijah’s Biur brought Yeshiva students to focus their studies on the Talmud—a text known for being open-ended and not directly giving legal conclusions. The Talmud replaced legal code as the central text studied in the nineteenth-century modern Yeshiva founded in Volozhin. This paradigm shift—from code to commentary came alongside a lager social shift in Jewish life from kehilah to yeshiva (from a corporate governing structure to an educational and persuasive institution as the center of religious life). These shifts restructured the hierarchy of authority in rabbinic Judaism.

3) What is unique in his approach to Talmud and halakhah?

To understand the significance of Elijah’s approach to the Talmud it is productive to remember that late medieval and early modern eastern European Jewish identity was in large measure shaped by local customs and practices. Though early modern Jews were literate, texts played a very minor role in the way they understood their lives and even in the adjudication of law -custom reigned supreme.

Elijah emphasized the importance of Talmudic texts over codes or responsa. In so doing he undermined the lynchpin keeping legal rulings in line with folk and popular behavior, namely the notion that legal rulings should build on the positions articulated by the last interpreter (hilchata ke-batrai). This legal principle ensured that rulings issued by rabbinic authorities always favored the last adjudicator thereby creating a parallel legal track that matched the organic transformation of customs. Elijah’s commentary to Karo’s code (where his legal writings appear) overrode medieval authorities and nearly totally disregarded rabbinic rulings issued after the mid-seventeenth century. Elijah himself stated that he did not want to practically apply his approach because “the Heavens were not prepared.”

The truth of the matter was that neither were eastern European Jews prepared to adopt his rulings. While the masses celebrated his genius and intellectuals adopted his ethos of study, it would only be in the United States and in the Holy Land that Elijah’s positions would ever be legally implemented among the Ultra-Orthodox.

4) Is it legitimate to situate the Gaon with modernist protestant theologians as you do in your book?

What I try to show in my book is that Elijah, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, and G.W Leibniz were working with an overlapping set of kabbalistic and philosophical texts, ideas, and questions that pervaded eighteenth-century European intellectual life. Still, there is no point in comparisons without some payoff. I argue that Elijah’s emendation project answers some very important questions regarding the relationship between critique and philosophical Idealism. Yet, it is doubtful that Elijah read Leibniz’s work. He also never cites any non-Jewish philosophical text.

5) What was his relationship to Mendelssohn’s Torah Commentary, the Biur?

Directly? None. But it seems his student Zalman (Hayyim of Volozhin’s brother) found parts of it to be compelling. Also his son Abraham was in touch with Shlomo Dubno Mendelssohn’s co-editor of the Biur. More interesting is comparing Mendelssohn’s Biur and Elijah’s commentary to Aderet Eliyahu. It seems that in many respects Elijah exegetical approach was far more radical than Mendelssohn’s.

6) If kabbalah is so important for his thought then how come you did not give it more emphasis?

As you (Alan Brill) have shown the Gaon used both kabbalah and philosophy interchangeably, mixing Aristotelian concepts with mystical and kabbalistic terms and structures. In general, I try to write in a way that is accessible for those untrained in mystical and even philosophic literature. I think its important that scholars do the dirty work in the footnotes and present a clean and accessible book that can be read by people from multiple fields and with various levels of knowledge.

7) If he was not read, then aren’t you overstating his influence?

He was read in different ways by all elites in nineteenth-century eastern European Jewry.
Shmuel Verses’ work on the 19th century maskilic reception of Elijah highlights the extent to which every major debate in maskilic circles involved Elijah’s legacy. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the third Lubavitch rebbe, cites him dozens of times in his responsa “Tzemach Tzedek.” Every major student of Hayyim of Volozhin’s claims that their learning method was based on what they gleaned from Elijah’s critique of Karo’s code.

But my argument goes well beyond the elites who read his works. It’s also about pictures and middle-brow hagiographies that circulated throughout eastern Europe. The Gaon is well known because his face decorated Jewish homes across Lita. The Gaon was the most popular picture in 19th century eastern European Jewish life. The original picture (from which most others were copied) has him writing in one hand and holding a book in the other, with a caption that claims him to be a master of the seven sciences. Simply put, it was the image of his “genius” and the idea of intellectual achievement as a means toward upward social mobility that has made him so revered among the masses.
One of the most popular nineteenth-century Yiddish sayings that parents would tell their children was “Vil-nor Goen” (playing on the Yiddish vocalization of the Gaon’s name); “if you will it, you too can become a Gaon [genius]” like Elijah.

8) When a reviewer ignorant of the topic such as on JID reviews the book, what are some of the mistakes he makes?

I wrote my book for both professional scholars (Academics and Rabbis) as well as, what we might today call, Amacha, the “every day Joe,” who is interested in Jewish history. We need to encourage more “every day joe’s” to take Judaism intellectually seriously. It’s a credit to people like Lawrence Grossman that they are passionate about Jewish learning and that they are interested in Jewish subjects. In his leisure reading he seems to have come to the strange conclusion that Elijah did not influence Lithuanian Jewry. While I don’t expect him to read in the original Hayyim of Volozhin, David Tevle, Ya’akov of Karlin, Moshe Katzenlenbogen, Yehuda Epstein, all of whom quote Gra extensively and talk about how influential the Biur was in Volozhin itself, still he should have read my footnotes, or at-least Chapter Five before writing a review.

I am sure he tried his best, but he probably was on unfamiliar terrain and just got terribly lost. The book is still nearly a month away from its official publication date and serious scholars, academics, and rabbis have yet to read it (those who have read it have given it very positive reviews). I am greatly looking forward to a large-scale serious conversation about the place of the Gaon in our understanding of contemporary Jewry and modern western life and thought. When that begins I will be glad to respond.

9) What is the topic of your next book?

My next work will elucidate the lively religious landscape of Russian Jewry in the nineteenth-century. Specifically, it explores the relationship between Jewish Nationalism and Hasidism, Mitnagdim and the Enlightenment. I hope to explore the way Jewish Nationalism emerged not simply as a response to anti-Semitism but on the Achilles heel of these various nineteenth-century eastern European Jewish religious movements.

10) Where do you see American modern Orthodoxy today?

As I see it the issues and challenges in front of the community have radically shifted from confronting the intellectual challenges to economic challenges. Economic sustainability has become incredibly pressing. Simply put, one rarely meets poor Modern Orthodox Jews. Living a Modern Orthodox life (private schools, Shabbat, sushi, stylish clothing, shul membership and camps, homes in costly Tri-state suburbs) requires a family to earn over 200,000 per year. You cant run a religious movement that requires everyone to be rich. The Haredim have a slightly different relationship to materiality, allowing the movement to grow even with serious economic hardships. Modern Orthodoxy needs to rethink its lifestyle model and material values so that it can appeal to all economic sectors of Jewish society.

11 responses to “Interview with Eliyahu Stern author of The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism

  1. thanks to you, Allen, and to Eli, whom I just met at the AJS. i’m looking forward to reading Eli’s book. i’m especially interested in the comments re: authority and textualization. but my guard remains up. i’m having a hard time understanding how the Gaon stands out as an ideological modern, or what it means to say that “American Jews never went through the process of Emancipation,” since in a sense, they were always, already emancipated (sort of). what i’m looking forward to is the way i think Eli’s work promises to throw the study of modern Jewish thought off its western and central European axis. my only concern is that it’s going to yield a modernity and modernism that no one is really going to want, something a little “too orthodox.” that said, there seems to be a lot of room here for a robust theory of counter-modernities.

  2. Or, one can see complex and clearly non-reactionary developments, like the Gaon and his legacy, in terms of what Shmuel N. Eisenstadt characterized as “multiple modernities.” You can read his influential essay introducing the concept here:

  3. Fascinating discussion. Prima facile, though, the presentation seems a bit imbalanced. The GRA”s activity is equally a function of a long term Ashkenazic dynamic the trends back to the eleventh century (eg rejection of codes ). In addition, the characterization of Halakha ke batrai seems to deviate from the contemporary understanding of the way the rule developed a,nod was used, as per Ta Shma, Yuval, Rafeld, Fram and myself.

  4. – The gr”a went into galus for a number of years to gather old minhagim which he felt were disapearing so it would be absurd to say that he was the progenitor of an attitude where text wins out over custom.

    – The intention of the gr”a seems to have been to determine the kavanah rishonah of the Torah which is why for example both Brisk who emphasise study of the Rishonim and the Mussar movement which stresses the holistic view of balancing observance of ‘G-d centric’ mitzvos with the observance of inter-personal mitzvos stem from the gr”a. This is because both of these movements sought to determine the kavanah rishonah of the Torah, one in Torah study and the other in the area of personal growth.

    – The gr”a’s brother in Maalos ha’Torah says that it is impossible that the purpose of man is intellectual Torah accomplishment because then man would be better off never being born since more Torah is available in the womb / olam habah than is available in our worldly state. Similarly the gr”a in Shir ha’Shirim says that the ultimate reward for Torah observance is not in olam habah but is rather to perceive Hashem through the beauty of this world (which is why the Torah does not mention olam habah as a reward). It is therefore unlikely that the gr”a championed being absorbed in Torah study alone (however scintilatingly brilliant or prodigial) without translating this into an uplifting of everyday life.

    • These are the unsourced and out of context presentist statements that scholars avoid. Read the books and then come back. Start with Etkes then Stern. You may also want to read Dov Eliach. You have a busy week ahead. See you after you are done with the basics.

  5. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    One of the many things done well over at Alan Brill’s blog are the interviews. This one is with Eli Stern about his just published book about the modernity of the Vilna Gaon. I’m not sure I’m going to be persuaded, but it’s all going to depend on what one means by “modernity” and what a CentralEuro centric like myself ends up learning about the Vilna Gaon. I’m already beginning to think that Stern is onto something. Will report back later.

  6. Maharal’s strong anti-codification comments in Beer Hagolah suggest that the Gra’s attitude on this point cannot be all that revolutionary.

  7. In perusing Stern’s book, I stumbled across the following gem (the likes of which this book is no doubt full). In discussing the brevity of the Biur ha-gra, Stern refers to one comment of the Gaon:
    “For example, when Karo interprets the biblical injunction against sacrificing an animal with its child as referring to specific animals, Elijah comments: ‘See there [Chullin] 79b and in the Midrashic work Torat Kohanim [Emor, section 8, chapter 7]. But Rabbi Isaac Alfasi [Chullin 27b] and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel [Chullin chapter 4, topic 3] say it also refers to a bull and not a non-domesticated animal, a sheep nor chickens.”
    Reading this, I was puzzled: how could Rabbi Isaac Alfasi say that the injunction does not apply to sheep, does it not say explicitly ושור או שה אותו ואת בנו לא תשחטו ביום אחד?
    Looking up the original comment of the Gaon, I found the following: The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 16:7) says אין איסור אותו ואת בנו אלא בבהמה טהורה בלבד, שנאמר: ושור או שה אותו ואת בנו לא תשחטו ביום אחד. On this, the Gaon comments: אין איסור כו’. שם ע”ט ב’ ובת”כ והביאו הרי”ף והרא”ש שור ולא חיה שה ולא עופות. (To translate: “Ibid. 79b and in Torat Kohanim, cited by R. Alfasi and R. Asher, ‘An ox and non a non-domesticated animal, a sheep and not birds’.”) Stern’s interpretation, which is infinitely more creative, sees here not a reference, but a dispute about the parameters of the mitzvah, with the majority of the opinions on which the Shulhan arukh is based siding against a pasuk. I think this is the only example Stern gives of a halakhic comment of the Gaon. Anyone can write a book on the Gaon, but only Stern could have written “The Genius.”

  8. Anyone else uncomfortable with Stern calling the Gaon, ‘Elijah’? I mean, I know he’s an academic, but….some kavod, please…

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