The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism

Eliyahu Stern, Author
Eliyahu Stern. Yale Univ., $45 (336p) ISBN 978-0-300-17930-9
Reviewed on: 12/03/2012
Release date: 01/01/2013
Paperback - 322 pages - 978-0-300-20592-3
Open Ebook - 337 pages - 978-0-300-18322-1
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-283-90655-5
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In this surprisingly accessible take on “the most influential rabbinic figure in modern Jewish history,” Stern, assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale, provides a highly original analysis of the Gaon (meaning genius or wise man) of Vilna’s thought and polemics. He reveals the Gaon as something of an ascetic misanthrope who “was known to donate the family food to the poor” and never wrote to his children when traveling. In comparing the Gaon to the other major Jewish thinker of his time, Moses Mendelssohn, Stern inverts the traditional perspective of Mendelssohn as the father of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Gaon as a traditionalist by noting that while Mendelssohn “tirelessly defended the historical legitimacy of the rabbinic tradition,” the Gaon overthrew its canons. In his educational approach, as in his intense denunciations of Hasidism, the Gaon emphasized the primacy of Torah and Talmud study against performing commandments and praying devotedly. Stern devotes too little space to the Gaon’s writings on Jewish mysticism, given that he “spent most of his time focused on the kabbalah,” and at times the author overstates his influence on modern Judaism. Still, this is a profoundly erudite and sometimes scintillating look at a pivotal rabbi. (Jan.)
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