Dr. Eliyahu Stern to keynote evening devoted to Gaon of Vilna

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Eliyahu Stern is assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University. He is author of the 2013 biography, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism, winner of the 2012 Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication and a finalist for the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Stern will be keynote speaker at “An Evening Devoted to the Gaon of Vilna and Vilna, Lithuania,” hosted by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Hartford on Thursday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.

Stern’s book offers a new narrative of Jewish modernity based on the life and influence of Elijah ben Solomon – the Vilna Gaon (Genius of Vilna) – who was perhaps the best-known and most under-studied figure in modern Jewish history. While the experience of Jews in modernity has often been described as a process of Western European secularization–with Jews becoming citizens of Western nation-states, congregants of reformed synagogues, and assimilated members of society – Stern uses Elijah’s story to highlight a different theory of modernization for European life. Religious movements such as Chasidism and anti-secular institutions such as the yeshiva emerged from the same democratization of knowledge and privatization of religion that gave rise to secular and universal movements and institutions. Claimed by traditionalists, enlighteners, Zionists, and the Orthodox, Elijah’s genius and its afterlife capture an all-embracing interpretation of the modern Jewish experience.

Through the story of the “Vilna Gaon,” Stern presents a new model for understanding modern Jewish history and more generally the place of traditionalism and religious radicalism in modern Western life and thought.

Stern gave the Ledger a taste of his Nov. 19 talk at the University of Hartford.

Q: At one time, the Vilna Gaon had what could be considered celebrity status – his writings were taught in rabbinical school, etc. What happened to his legacy since the 18th century?  

A: The Gaon moved in myriad directions. Some Jewish nationalists saw his attempt to travel to the Holy Land as heralding their own path to Palestine. For others, his emphasis on Talmud study as the central practice of religious life made him a forefather of the modern study house (the yeshiva). For some his writings of mathematics became the gateway to secular knowledge.  But for most he simply became known as someone who embodied the idea of “Jewish Genius.” More than any text he wrote or passage of the Talmud he interpreted it was simply the idea of his genius that became the most enduring aspect of his legacy.

Q: What aspects of 18th-century eastern European Jewish life created the Vilna Gaon and what aspects of the Vilna Gaon influenced Jewish life during and after his lifetime?

A: The Vilna Gaon was very much a creature of his surroundings, so much so that ultimately the name of the City and the person became nearly synonymous for Jews (Vilna-Gaon). That said, in his lifetime he was most well known for his commitment to study and his fierce opposition to the new spiritual movement, Chasidism. He excommunicated the Hasidim and refused to meet with their leaders.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges in writing the book?

A: Undoubtedly, the hardest part of drafting this book was writing about a person who commentated on more texts than anyone in the annals of Jewish history. One could easily write a 2000-page study on Elijah and still there would be those who would say that he or she missed important aspects of his life or legacy.  I had to make a call very early on and circumscribe the project down to one big question: What is important about Elijah’s life and thought in terms of the way we understand what constitutes modernity? I am sure there will be many more books written by scholars and rabbis that will deal with many other features of his work and other kinds of questions.

Q: Are you involved in Prof. Freund’s excavations of the Vilna Gaon’s compound? Is there anything in particular about the site that you are curious about or hope to see unearthed?

A: Like everyone who cares deeply about Jewish history and the legacy of the Jerusalem of Lithuania I am very much looking forward to hearing about what Prof. Freund has uncovered. I think with a project like this one you need to see what is uncovered to even know what questions should be asked. I’m a Jewish historian; I am curious about everything beneath rubble.

“An Evening Devoted to the Gaon of Vilna and Vilna, Lithuania,” with Prof. Eliyahu Stern, Thursday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m., Mali 2 Auditorium, Dana Hall, University of Hartford. Dr. Richard Freund, director of the Greenberg Center, will also speak. Admission is free. For information: (860) 768-5018, mgcjs@hartford.edu.

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