Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Prof. Lawrence Kaplan's review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius

Seforim Blog      Yet, as the book’s subtitle, Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, indicates, Stern has an even bolder agenda. For in addition to limning the Gaon’s life, thought, and personality, Stern in his book’s Introduction and Conclusion advances a novel thesis regarding the nature of modern Judaism and the role of the Gaon in its making, seeking to unsettle the binary opposition generally drawn between tradition and modernity.

            For Stern, modernity is not “just a movement based on… liberal philosophical principles,” but “a condition characterized [among other things] by democratization of knowledge and privatization of religion… that restructured all aspects of European thought and life in diverse and often contradictory ways,” (8) and that in the case of Judaism “gave rise to [both] the Haskalah and institutions such as the Yeshiva” (8).  It is in this light Stern maintains that we should understand the historical significance of Gaon’s great work on Jewish law, his Bi’ur or commentary on Joseph Karo’s sixteenth century code of law, the Shulhan Arukh. Here, to sharpen Stern’s analysis, we may point to an instructive paradox. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, thanks to the primacy of the Shulhan Arukh, the study of the Talmud was neglected and scholars focused their attention on codes of law. The Bi’ur might seem to fit into that pattern, but in actuality it served to subvert the Shulhan Arukh’s authority. For by tracing in great and unprecedented detail the source of the Shulhan Arukh’s rulings back the Talmud and its classic commentaries and then by often challenging those rulings in light of those sources the Bi’ur spurred a return to Talmudic study. [...]
More problematic, Stern’s thesis that the Gaon’s activity and image contributed  to the privatization of Judaism and the democratization of rabbinic knowledge leads him to skew his portrait  of the Gaon, exaggerating both his radicalism and modernity. Thus, for example, the reader never gets a full sense from Stern of the depth of the Gaon’s involvement in Kabbalah nor learns, except in passing, of the sheer number of major commentaries he authored on Kabbalistic literature. Perhaps Stern deemed such a discussion too technical for the general reader,[14] but one inevitably gets the feeling that this minimizing of the Gaon’s Kabbalistic side fits into the modern picture Stern is drawing.   [...]

Chapter 3, “Elijah and the Enlightenment,” advances the book’s most startling and revisionist claim. Generally, Stern notes, the Gaon’s contemporary, Moses Mendelssohn is portrayed as the founder of modern Judaism, while the Gaon is depicted as the defender of rabbinic or traditional Judaism. Stern, however, as part of his effort to unsettle the binary opposition between tradition and modernity, argues that in certain respects the Gaon was a more radical figure than Mendelssohn. Thus, while Mendelssohn maintained that rabbinic interpretations of the legal passages in Scripture were to be identified with the plain-sense meaning of the text, the Gaon interpreted the plain-sense meaning of the text independently of rabbinic interpretations, which were seen as belonging to another level of Scripture. Stern argues that this difference reflects a greater level of self-confidence on the Gaon’s part, as “the intellectual leader of a majority Jewish culture” (71) than on Mendelssohn’s, living as he did in “Berlin, a cosmopolitan city with a tiny Jewish minority” (64), where rabbinic Judaism and particularly rabbinic law were under attack in Christian academic quarters. Stern, I believe, accords too much weight here to matters to matters of demography. Rather, contra Stern, I support the regnant view that this hermeneutical difference reflects, in large measure, the Gaon’s insularity from as opposed to Mendelssohn’s greater openness and sensitivity to their respective surrounding cultures, deriving, in turn, from the presence of a “beckoning bourgeoisie,” to use Gershon Hundert’s phrase, in Berlin and the absence of one in Vilna. [...].


  1. Reb Aharon Kotler said that regarding the Shaagas Aryeh and the Vilnia Gaon, known as the Gro, the Gro said, "He and I in the revealed law (Talmud) and I and he in Kabbala." That is, the Shaagas Aryeh was a generation older than the Gro, and was the one who crowned the Gro as a Gaon. But the two were different. The Shaagas Aryeh was greater in Talmud than Kabbala,and the Gro greater in Kabbala.
    The Baal HaTanyo the founder of Chabad said of the Gro, "I don't fear his niglo Talmudic learning, but I do fear his Kabbala."
    My rebbe the Jerusalem Kabbala geniuis Reb Shmuel Toledano zt"l achieved greatness by explaining page after page of the hardest Kabbala books, the Gro's explanations on various Kabbala classics. Reb Kaduro honored him with an endorsement that said "surely Ruach HaKodesh rested upon him to write these books." But none of this fits into the picture of some people, and someone remarked that everyone can love the Rambam, for utterly different reasons, as if the Rambam was many people. And the same was true of the Gro. In rare moments he displayed his genius to secular people and they trembled at his brilliance. But the Gro was a Torah person, and without Torah, there is no Gro.

    1. In rare moments he displayed his genius to secular people and they trembled at his brilliance

      I'm really curious if there is any evidence of this brilliance. Ayil Meshulash, a geometry book that Gro wrote, is a basic introduction and everything in it had been known 2000 years before him. Also I heard from a couple of people way back that the Gro discovered the Kramer rule, since supposedly Gro's last name is Kramer. Well, unfortunately that major advance in 18th century math was made by a whole other non-Jewish Kramer.

    2. Regardless of the Kramer rule and to who credit is due, here is the story. In the University of Vilna, the Professor of mathematics presented an equation to his students, but was unable to solve it, and couldn't understand why it doesn't work or how to go about it. Someone recommended to call on the Gro, and he will be able to resolve it. When the Gro came down, the Professor had some long mathematical equation on the Board and presented it in front of all the students explaining that for some months no one was able to solve it. The Gro glanced over it quickly and pointed with the ruler, plug this value here, and the other value over there etc. etc. and wallah, problem solved. It was beyond belief the intuition of his Genius, and was a great Kidush hashem. kach shamati

    3. Mikey-
      The Ayil Meshulash was not authored by the Gra, but independently by one of his disciples, Shmuel Lukenik, after the Gra's passing. It was authored not to present anything remotely revolutionary, but as an educational supplement for bnei Torah, with an imputed posthumous haskama of the Gra, who was recorded by another talmid, R' Barukh Shick of Shklov, as positing that "To the degree that a man is lacking in the wisdom of mathematics he will lack one hundred-fold in the wisdom of the Torah."

      Kach Shamati-
      If you haven't enough good sense to recognize a totally apocryphal story (that's also totally unsupportable by any historical sources) when you hear it, then there just isn't much more to say, except to note that there is no historical or textual evidence anywhere that the Gra was familiar with any mathematics beyond the Euclidean rudiments. Of that, one would think, from contemporary accounts of both his intellectual powers & his admiration for the subject, his grasp to be superb.

      It should be noted that a great number of Rishonim saw fit to author Hebrew seforim on math and to take much time to delve into the subject, among them the Seforno, the ibn Ezra, & the Ralbag.

  2. It would take much more than kach shamati to take this story seriously. Until then the safe assumption is that the only kuddush Hashem that happened was in the imagination of the person who invented this story.

    There are stories about how the last Lubavitch Rebbe dazzled professors at Sorbonne with his brilliance. But a recent biography turned up his transcript and apparently he was a B and C student at an obscure technical college.

  3. My remark is based on a famous story of a maskil who wanted to see the Gro. When he found out he could not get in, he invented a story that he was an Italian rabbi who had to answer questions about philosophy to the authorities for some reason. The Gro let him in, did not shake his hand and heard his questions, I think it was over a hundred questions. The maskil wrote a story of his meeting with the Gro, as I recall.. He said that the Gro told him he did not have over a hundred questions, and reduced the number drastically, as they all fell into a few categories. The Maskil finally understood and accepted it. The Gro then asked him a question in dikduk, as the Maskil claimed to be an expert in dikduk. When the maskil answered a question of the Gro he left out Rashi, and the Gro asked him why he did that. The Maskil then said something insulting about Rashi adn the Gro turned his back on him. For this the Maskil was brought to the city Beth Din and publicly humiliated. All of this was in the story published by the Maskil himself. But he concluded. It was worth it to see the Gro, because there is nobody like him. I believe that the story is accepted, at least, that is what I recall. It is not big deal if the story is true or not, but I heard it in my youth from my rebbes, and I think I saw it in the history book of someone who is not Orthodox, but all of this was a very long time ago and I may be wrong.

    1. I read a version of this story in an orthodox novel about the ger tsedek. However even if this story is true, impressing a maskil with knowledge of Hebrew grammar doesn't sound like such a big deal. In contrast, solving that equation for the math professor would have been a very big deal. And the skeptic that I am, I don't believe even in that maskil story, since apparently it's not in any of his biographies.

  4. dear mickey of November 22, 2013 at 3:36 AM

    vehashtiyo kados ein oines. We can survive without your belief, and still the 'GRO' was worldly re known as the GAON, without spelling out to whom it refers, ask any bnei dardekei. Sheyamutu hakanaim. The Ayil Hamshulosh was a translation as a tool to understand the geometry in Shas, e.g. Klayim, Eruvin etc. belashon hakodesh. AL achat kama vekama, kuddush rofl and Shamayin can do away with or without your haskamas, with or without your imagination.
    So much for your Theorems and assumptions. I apologize for not being there at the time, and be able to say b'enai rasisi, kindly forgive.

    I haven't been around in times of Einstein either, it is only 'kach shamaati', but his marks in School was nothing to write home about, let alone what they thought of his potential. So much for your brilliance. What is your opinion about Albert, huh? Did you hear? I can't hear you. Outside of that, I can safely assume that for sure, you can outdo them both with your pinky.

    1. Dear beoznay,

      I didn't mean to upset you. Sorry for disturbing your peace.

    2. Not at all, my friend. And I apologize for bursting your bubble.


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