Exploring the Vilna Gaon’s Legacy

Revel Talk Sketches Complex Portrait of the Vilna Gaon

More than 70 people gathered in Furst Hall on a frigid Thursday evening to hear Bar-Ilan University professor Dr. Raphael Shuchat present a lecture, titled “The Vilna Gaon: Halakhist, Moderate Maskil or Kabbalist?” The event was organized by Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

Bar-Ilan University professor Dr. Raphael Shuchat
Bar-Ilan University professor Dr. Raphael Shuchat

Shuchat, a noted scholar and teacher of Jewish philosophy and thought whose research focuses on the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer—known by his Hebrew acronym, the Gra—and his followers and the relationship between Judaism and science, has written three books on the Vilna Gaon. In his talk he presented a conflicting portrait of the Vilna Gaon based on the Gra’s grandson’s and students’ descriptions of him in introductions to books they compiled based on the teachings of the Vilna Gaon after his death.

Shuchat discussed the Gra’s outstanding intellect as a child prodigy whose brilliance continued and grew, and that he wrote commentaries on the Bible and other classical Jewish works but did not publish any of them during his lifetime. Ayil Meshulash, a separate book on algebra and trigonometry, was his only work not written as a commentary. Shuchat also noted that the Land of Israel played a major role in the Gra’s thought to the point where he made an attempt to emigrate to Israel, though he only got as far as Koenigsburg and finally returned to Vilna.

Shuchat described the Gra as a very private person, who barely slept, studied constantly, wore tefillin [phylacteries] much of the day and lived a very meager lifestyle. Aside from a small group of students, the Gra was only well known by his family—his three sons and four daughters.

Though the Gra’s primary focus was on his Torah study, he was well versed in the secular subjects of geometry, algebra, trigonometry, physiology, astronomy and music, and indicated their importance for the enhancement and understanding of Torah.

Shuchat highlighted the conflict at the time between the hasidim and the mitnagdim [opponents to Hasidism] and noted that the Gra was well versed in mystical texts as well as all other Jewish texts so the assertion could be made that he had the same mystical abilities as the hasidic rabbis but refused to use them. In his later writings, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, one of the Gra’s students and founder of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, focused more on the mysticism of the Gra, said Shuchat, theorizing that “the only way to fight the hasidic movement was to say we have the same abilities but refuse to use them.” At the same time, Rabbi Chaim stressed differences in what was to be emphasized and taught.

Shuchat pointed out that after the Gra’s death, up to 70 books based on his teachings are estimated to have been published, with possibly 30 written on mysticism.

Overall, summed up Shuchat, through the introductions of his students and their underlying arguments in the texts, the Gra is portrayed differently, as a mystic, a great Torah scholar or one who had great insights in general wisdom; he has a multifaceted, complicated image of a scholar in Israel.

“Revel was pleased to host Dr. Raphael Shuchat, a distinguished world scholar of modern Jewish thought,” said Mordechai Z. Cohen, professor of Bible and associate dean at Revel. “His illuminating presentation on the conflicting portraits of the Vilna Gaon’s attitude toward secular learning is especially relevant to the challenges we face at YU in balancing the values of Torah and madda (secular learning). The audience this lecture drew—from a wide spectrum of students, alumni, and members of the community at large—attests to the reputation Yeshiva University has earned as a premier center of advanced Jewish scholarship.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Esther Manischewitz Community Education Fund.