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

By Joshua Teplitsky

Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797), the “Gaon” of Vilna, has given historians no shortage of material with which to work.  Hardly a text of rabbinic literature exists that Elijah did not comment upon, and he has been the subject of a number of studies even within the last decade.  Some of these have examined the content of Elijah’s thought vis-à-vis other Jewish movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Enlightenment and Hasidism, or considered the fashioning of his formidable reputation and authority despite the fact that he held no communal post.  In contrast to these enterprises, Eliyahu Stern’s new study of Elijah of Vilna—The Genius—reads as an exercise in counter-history.  Formulated most concisely by David Biale in his work on Gershom Scholem, “counter-history is a type of revisionist historiography, but where the revisionist proposes a new theory or finds new facts, the counter-historian transvalues old ones.”[1]  Although Stern never uses this term to describe his project, his arguments provocatively transvalue several dominant historiographical strains, reorienting our understanding of Jewish life in eastern Europe and challenging the very concept of modernity.  With Elijah as his fulcrum, Stern reorients both conceptual and geographic understandings of modernity.  In the first case he assails the binary of “tradition” versus “modernity.”  In the second case he challenges the tendency to identify (north)western Europe as modern and Europe’s east (and the rest of the globe) as laboring to conform to that paradigm.  Instead, Stern argues that the modern experience was expressed not as a movement within Judaism, but rather as a condition.

Placing Elijah—who avoided the realm of the social and political—at the center of his narrative necessarily emphasizes the importance of intellect to modern Jewish life in eastern Europe, rather than legal rights, Emancipation, the military, or the mass politics of socialism, liberalism, or Zionism.  Following an introductory chapter on of Elijah’s place in the city of Vilna, the book proceeds to explore the man’s religious and philosophical worldview.  Stern treats Elijah’s conceptions of epistemology, theodicy, and human agency by situating him within eighteenth-century modes of Idealist thought, especially that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1713) of Hanover.  Stern acknowledges that “it would have been historically impossible for him [Elijah] to have read many of Leibniz’s and his students’ most important works” (62), and thus forges this otherwise unattributable linkage phenomenologically, by noting the use of mathematical tropes common to both Leibnizian Idealism and Elijah’s apprehension of the cosmos.  Rather than fret over the absence of textual evidence for this shared philosophical orientation between Leibniz and Elijah, Stern transvalues the paucity of contact into an argument for Elijah’s near-spontaneous genius.  In Stern’s reading, mathematics—a departure from the dominant strain of Jewish mystical writing that focused on emanations of the Godhead—offered an expression of the underlying “original harmony” of the divine order, a preoccupation of Leibniz as well as Elijah.  This quest for harmony through mathematical precision is shown by Stern to have liberating consequences: the intelligibility of all of creation to the human mind and the pre-historicist hermeneutic that held of an eternality of concepts authorizes the reader to emend a text to cohere with its expected, ideal state (55), or rather, to make the content of a text conform to its purported subject.  Elijah’s “hermeneutic category of emendation” (38) became a favored pattern of his textual approach.

Stern creatively uses a comparative approach, contrasting Elijah’s thought to other eighteenth-century figures, not to establish actual ties but to assert the uniqueness of his subject.  True to the counter-historical impulse, Stern makes the absence of evidence for intellectual exchange into a virtue, liberating Elijah’s intellectual profile from an antiquarian search for direct antecedents to his thought and considering instead a larger, less tangible, context for his thinking.  In chapter 3 Stern uses his comparative method to revise the relationship between Elijah and his Berlin contemporary Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) by considering the impact of demography on culture and intellect.  Whereas Mendelssohn’s writings were forged in the crucible of the scrutiny of Berlin Protestantism and were forced to defend minority rights, the demographic majority of Vilna’s Jews enabled Elijah to innovate without the threats posed by Christian critics or Jewish confessional boundary guards.  Stern thus shifts the discussion away from questions of influence or intellectual transit, inquiring instead after contextualized significance.  Not all readers may be swayed by Stern’s transvaluation of which eighteenth century “genius”—Mendelssohn or Elijah of Vilna—is more innovative, but his method of arriving at this assessment should surely be studied as a model of considering intellect in its fullest context.

This act of transvaluation continues in chapter 4, in Stern’s consideration of Elijah’s campaign against Hasidism, the aspect of his career for which he is most famous.  Challenging those scholars who would identify Hasidism as innovative and its opponents as traditionalist, Stern argues that the controversies over Hasidism represent a clash of two equally new ideologies, one (Hasidism) elevating the charismatic individual and his relationship to the divine, the other (Elijah’s oppositional Mitnagdim) as the apotheosis of text-centeredness.  This is a departure from the common understanding of Elijah’s extreme nomianism as compared to Hasidic charisma, or of patently mistaken contrasts of legalism versus kabbalah—a false dichotomy in Elijah and eighteenth-century Jewish literature in general.  Here Stern joins a chorus of Jewish historians who have applied advances in the history of reading and the complex relationship between oral praxis and textual precept to consider the importance of text-centeredness in various times and places in Jewish history.  Not law, in Stern’s reading, but text is Elijah’s preoccupation.

Elijah’s approach to rabbinic texts forms the subject of chapter 5, in which Stern analyses his most important literary contribution, the Biur (not to be confused with Mendelssohn’s project of the same name), a commentary to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh) by Yosef Karo.  Stern demonstrates Elijah’s rejection of two prior centuries’ method of study in the form of pilpul in favor of a re-emphasis on the Talmud.  This shift in emphasis was promulgated by Elijah’s students in the nineteenth century, chiefly in the Volozhin yeshiva.  The rise of the nineteenth-century yeshiva represented a transfer of power from the autonomous community to the privatization of Jewish institutions.  Stern metonymically links Code to premodern community and Talmud to privatized yeshiva in the  modern Jewish culture.

This emphasis on context for counter-history and focus on Elijah’s intellectual, rather than social, import, occasionally leaves the reader wanting more content about Elijah’s political agency, rather than solely his intellectual force, in order to fully understand the transmission of his ideas and their impact.  For example, although Stern’s first chapter posits a “symbiotic relationship that made both Elijah ‘the Genius of Vilna’ and Vilna ‘the mother of Eastern European Jewry’” (13-14), it remains unclear how this symbiosis operated.  Were settlers attracted to Vilna on account of Elijah?  Did an influx of settlers reshuffle the balance of power within Jewish circles there?  In the absence of a clear answer to these questions based in archival data, it seems, rather, that events ancillary to Elijah’s biography stimulated urban growth, of which Elijah was a beneficiary, not a cause, events which might productively have been given greater consideration.

Elijah’s influence is also difficult to discern.  Stern offers examples of scholars who came to study with Elijah, but notes that his “brilliance was directly experienced by only a select few” (28).  Contrasted with the Hasidic masters, who related holistically to their students, not limiting themselves merely to intellectual encounters, Elijah’s limited contact with his students makes the power of his reputation even more intriguing, and raises interesting questions about the ways in which this reputation was crafted and communicated.  Indeed, Stern reminds us that Elijah stood aloof from kehilla leadership, always predicating his opposition to new developments not on social unrest but theological deviance.  But this serves to further obscure Elijah’s relationship with the levers of power in Vilna, rather than illuminate them.  Stern tells us that Elijah “wielded his power unsparingly” (84)—but what was the source, nature, and efficacy of that power?  While he demonstrates increasing favoritism and patronage of Elijah by the Vilna community (in the form of legal backing and tax exemptions), one wishes that an example of Elijah’s use of this newfound authority on the communal stage was offered as illustration of his power. Stern gestures towards this, by pointing to the noxious struggles of the 1760s between Vilna’s chief rabbi and the members of the community, allowing him to argue that Elijah’s authority was enhanced as a by-product of his non-partisanship in this searing event that imploded the legitimacy of the traditional rabbinate.  He also shows us Elijah’s diffidence when under interrogation by Christian authorities regarding the kidnapping of a would-be convert from Judaism to Catholicism in Vilna, but this stands as a single example of reticence, rather than of Elijah’s engagement with state authority (71).  Even in his treatment of Elijah’s opposition to Hasidism, we learn more about the intellectual underpinnings of this opposition and its polemical expressions than its manifestations in the realm of human relations.  His own retreat into private study, refusing “to go out beyond my own courtyard” (as he wrote in 1781), seems to epitomize political passivity, rather than agency (104).

The counter-historical drive is strongest in Stern’s use of Elijah to reconsider our understanding of modernity.  As he states in his introduction, the book aims to sidestep both the classical narrative of modernity as secularity and more recent images of both secularists and their traditionalist critics as engaged in a quintessentially modern enterprise.  Instead, Stern reaches to understand “the experience of the overwhelming majority of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern European Jews, who did not spend their days either combating the western European secular pursuit of science, philosophy, and mathematics or holding on to the same political and social structures of their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ancestors” (7).  This is a worthy project.  Given his dissatisfaction with earlier historiographical enterprises’ grasp of this overlooked, silent, “overwhelming majority,” one might have expected Stern to depart from a biographical treatment of an individual exemplar in favor of a broader canvas.  Consistent with concerns for a majority, one might also have expected him to locate the engine of modernity not in intellect but elsewhere.  Surprisingly Stern narrates the story of the “condition” of eastern European Jewish modernity as the story of one remarkable life, and places intellectual output at the core of that life’s achievements.  While Stern’s work as an intellectual historian brims with insights about the nature of Elijah’s thought, it may be too heavy a burden to suggest Elijah’s responsibility for major changes undergone by eastern Europe’s Jews which involved major social, political, and economic novelties.

Stern is clearly aware of the pitfalls of using Elijah to represent this alternative understanding of Jewish modernity, and therefore shifts between the man’s achievements in his own context and his image and impact as crafted by his students.  This change between the man and his legacy can be confusing.  In his final chapter, entitled “The Genius,” Stern marshals eighteenth- through twentieth-century conceptions of genius and states that “the Gaon’s celebrity was less the fruit of any particular writings (which were tremendous but little appreciated by the masses) than the result of his reputation for intellectual brilliance” (143), apparently moving away from his own emphasis on Elijah’s thought and writings towards the images wrought by his successors.  Stern convincingly demonstrates that this reputation was the product of a polemical stance vis-à-vis Hasidism and the emerging opportunities for higher education for Jews in eastern Europe (150), thereby acknowledging social and cultural values beyond Elijah’s control that shaped his reception by later generations.  Stern’s initial emphasis on Elijah’s exceptional brilliance thus sits somewhat uncomfortably astride his observations regarding the crucial role of the circles around Elijah as shapers of this incipient modernity and their responses to changing cultural needs.  Despite these observations, in the final sentence of the chapter, Stern returns to his motif of the city of Vilna as representing an idea of genius telling us that “the man most responsible for fashioning it and then burnishing it to high polish was the Gaon” (165).  Rather than allow for the images of Elijah to serve as a barometer of larger social, political, and cultural shifts, this argument maintains a very tight focus on the individual, a focus Stern might have expanded to more fully integrate the role of the circles around Elijah.

Notwithstanding these critiques based in social and political categories of analysis, The Genius is an innovative piece of intellectual history, inviting the reader past the traditional questions of origin, influence, and impact into an assessment of the strength of ideas in their own time and place against varying intellectual contexts.  Wedding close textual analysis to questions about reputation and the social product of the image of genius, the book raises valuable themes about how we consider modern experience and restores the importance of ideas to that consideration.  It forcefully argues against the conventional concepts of tradition versus modernity and East versus West, complicating modernity’s trajectories and boundaries, integrating the rabbinic culture of eastern Europe squarely within the notion of a modernity understood less as project or even ideology and more as a condition.

[1] David Biale, Gershom Scholem : Kabbalah and Counter-history, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 7.


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