The Vilna Gaon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Vilna Gaon

Renowned scholar led non-Hasidic Jewish world into modernity.

Elijah the Gaon of Vilna was a famed rabbinic scholar (1720-97). Elijah lived for most of his life in the Lithuanian town of Vilna, his renown being such that he was given, even in his lifetime, the title Gaon.

Judaism knows nothing of hermits but Elijah came closest to the hermit ideal, although he did marry at the age of 18 and had a family. Secluded in his study for most of the day and night, he engaged unceasingly in profound investigation into all the classical Jewish texts. He occupied no official rabbinic position but was supported very generously by the Vilna community.

The Gaon believed that it was essential for a Jewish scholar to have sufficient knowledge of secular subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, botany, and zoology, to be able to understand the many Talmudic passages which take such knowledge for granted. Secular learning, however, was for the Gaon only a means to the supreme task of “toiling in the Torah,” as the rabbis call this intense activity.

Elijah was gifted with a keen critical sense. He perceived that many of the difficulties Jewish scholars have to face in their studies are the result of faulty texts which he did not hesitate to emend, many of his emendations later finding support in manuscripts in libraries to which he had no access. The Gaon was a kabbalist and, in his youth, decided to embark on the creation of a semi-human figure, a golem, by white magic, but when he saw a strange shadow hanging over him he understood it as a warning for him to desist.

The Gaon’s many works are largely in the form of notes to the standard Jewish sources. His notes on the Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh are now printed together with the text in most editions. The Gaon allowed a small number of Talmudists, distinguished in their own right, to become his disciples. The most prominent of these, Hayyim of Volozhyn, established the great Yeshivah of Volozhyn at which hundreds of highly gifted young men followed in the Gaon’s footsteps to study the Torah for its own sake.

The Gaon is one of the three key figures belonging to the transitional period from medievalism to modernity in Jewish life and thought (the other two are the Baal Shem Tov and Moses Mendelssohn). The Haskalah movement, founded by Mendelssohn, sought mistakenly to claim the Gaon for themselves.

To be sure, the Gaon was a critical scholar, in the limited sense referred to above, but he was far removed from any attitude of broad tolerance towards views which diverged from the traditional path. It is on record that the Gaon was instrumental in having one of the early Maskilim placed in the pillory for daring to express criticism of a passage in the Midrash and of Rashi. Nor had the Gaon any use for Jewish philosophy. In a note to the Shulhan Arukh, he is very critical of Maimonides for rejecting belief in demons, incantations, and amulets. Maimonides was misled, remarks the Gaon, by his study of the accursed philosophy.

Although the Gaon took little part in communal affairs, he led the opposition to the Hasidic movement, convinced that the Hasidic doctrine of panentheism, that everything is in God, is a heretical doctrine. It is not going too far to say that the Gaon persecuted the Hasidim, placing their leaders under the ban.

Some of the Hasidic masters, nevertheless, revered the Gaon and even acknowledged that were it not for his opposition the movement might have gone astray. Respect for the Gaon in Lithuanian circles was unbounded. Some Lithuanian Rabbis declared that the Gaon really belonged to the generation of the Tannaim whose word was law.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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