Monday, May 7, 2018

The Academic Wonder: The Gaon of Vilna

Nadene Goldfoot                               
Vilna Gaon, AKA Elijah ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797
Leader of Mitnaggedim- antagonists of Hasidim 
Elijah ben Solomon Zalman was born in 1720 in Lithuania.  At the age of 20 till he was 25, he traveled among the Jewish communities of Poland and Germany, settling in Vilna, which now the country's capital. Here he taught and founded his own academy.  Since he was known as a Talmudist,  this is what he taught.  Elijah earned early fame for his scholarship, his knowledge about the Tanakh and Talmud. He was said to have a remarkable memory.  He loved science and studied astronomy and mathematics and even studied music.
The Gaon disagreed with other masters such as the Rambam and Rabbi Yosef Caro who wrote the Shulkhan Arukh.  Sometimes he revealed hidden meanings in the decisions of these scholars.  He even corrected the wording of the Jerusalem Talmud where he had found errors. Maybe that's why the Babylonian Talmud was the preferred one.
Vilna 1938 in Jewish ghetto or Jewish (Zydu) Vilna
175,000 Jews lived in Lithuania when WWII started. Russians deported 25,00 from
Lithuania and Latvia in July 1940.  Germans and Lithuanians massacred the rest
by 1943.  
He didn't go along with the prevailing view of when Redemption would take place or even how it would happen.  He felt he was living in the end of the Diaspora and the beginning of  the Messianic era.  This freed their fear of their interference of settling in Palestine or interfering, thinking it would only come about by a miraculous happening. To him, the commandment to settle in Eretz Yisrael was of central importance.  He was ahead of his time.
This famed student refused the rabbinic office and lived in seclusion.  He gained a wide reputation as a saint and a scholar . He was against Shabbetai Tzevi who had lived from 1626 to 1676 and thought himself to be the messiah from Smyrna.  Shabbetai was gaining followers.  He was one attracted to Kabbalah when young when he started showing manic-depressive traits.  These grew as he aged.  He was alive during the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 and 1649 when he heard a heavenly voice say that he alone would redeem Israel. He got to Palestine only to be excommunicated by the rabbis of Jerusalem. 

Hasidism came about during this period which clashed with his expression of Judaism.  Elijah led an opposition to the Hasidim in Lithuania and ordered their excommunication and the destruction of their literature.   He evidently had the authority to do such a thing.   He viewed their teachings as heretical and that it was an apostasy.  His very obdurate attitude stopped the spread of Hasidism there in Lithuania. Hasidism was founded by the Baal Shem Tov in 1699 that went on till 1761 in Volhynia and Podalia and was an outgrowth of the depressed state of the eastern European Jewry  following the terrible Chmielnicki massacres and the Christian Church driven massacres of Jews and persecutions that were so common during the Crusader days.
"PROPHECY: Vilna Gaon forecast war between Recep Erdogan's Turkey and Vladimir Putin's Russia
 He warned Jews to start preparing for the end of days when Russia captured Crimea shortly before his death in 1797."
By the age of 60, Elijah made an attempt at aliyah alone,  but returned before reaching Palestine.  It was virtually an impossible feat to do in those days.  Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire then and had been since 1517.  This empire would hold onto Palestine until the end of WWI.

Instead, his reputations continued to grow and improve in the field halakhah (the law-the legal part of talmudic and Jewish literature).  His goal was to establish the critical texts of the authoritative rabbinic writings, and used emendations (corrections from errors he had found) .  In this endeavor, he avoid pilpul(something that many rabbinic scholars this type of discipline, saying that it gave a false perspective.  a type of clarification, a sharp and dialectic intellectual distinction used in talmudic study)  and based his views and ruling upon the plain meaning of the text.

He had great respect for the early kabbalistic works, and was most critical of philosophy.  However, secular studies were of great interest to him, especially if they threw light on the Torah, though he was against the Haskalah.(Enlightened ones)  This was a movement of spreading modern European culture among Jews, and was going on from about 1750 to 1880.  They believed that Jewish Emancipation would not come about until they were in intellectual and social conformity with the non-Jewish population and needed to become modern and westernized in their own Jewish religion first along with their customs.
One must remember that in this period, Jews were not citizens of any country.  They lived in a country at the whim of the dominating King.  They had been expulsed from Jerusalem in the year 70, European towns in 1096 by German Crusaders, England in 1290, France in 1306, Toledo, Spain in 1355, Hungary in 1349, Austria in 1421, Spain in 1492,  and LITHUANIA in 1495.  It never stopped.  Jews were expulsed from Sicily and Sardinia and also Portugal in 1497, the Island of Rhodes in 1502,  the kingdom of Naples in 1541, and  Russia in 1727 when he was only 7 years old. It continued among other nations with the expulsion of 750,000 Jews from Russia having to re-settle in the Pale of Settlement from 1882 till 1890, of which was land including Lithuania, Latvia,  Poland and Ukraine.   Lithuania had been a part of Russia from 1795 till the end of World War I in 1918. At that time Lithuania was the center of  Haskalah.  It was during WWI that 100,000 Jew were expelled or forced to emigrate to the Russian interior.   At the war's end in 1918 till 1924, when Lithuania became independent,  Jews received national autonomy.  However, Vilna was given to Poland in 1919.   and by 1924, their autonomy was so weakened that it was only about religious matters.
Contains all the descendants
DNA's double helix
I note that this man didn't feel he had to be in agreement with everyone.  He was the original "stiff-necked" person, a man responsible for the correct understanding of our Torah who would remain faithful to it and to our law.  He was a thinker.  He had curiosity and didn't stop studying and learning.  He was humble.  I read that he wasn't impressed with his pedigree of being related to RASHI who had a wonderful family tree leading to King David of Israel. Elijah had a tree leading to RASHI.   He thought we should be spending our time studying Torah, not worrying about a pedigree.  However, Elijah passed away 221 years ago, and today science has advanced beautifully so that we can spend a modicum of time researching our DNA, keeping such a pursuit as a fantastic hobby and still keep everything we do in moderation.  We can make time today for both; studying the Torah and our pedigree, called our family tree.  It's something that binds us to our family and keeps us following the commandment to honor our mother and father.  I'm sure he would understand.  Learning about DNA and how we are put together only makes me more aware of the awesome depth of intelligence that has to be G-d to have created us.  We're at the point now of understanding much of it, and learning about codes being found in the Torah with computer programs.  Perhaps this is the time Elijah was talking about.  He loved astronomy.  Our DNA is as deep to understand as the universe must be.

Resource:  The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Elihahu's Branches by Chai;m Freedman  Russian Crimea wars.
   1769: A winter raid into New Serbia. Several thousand were captured.[12]
  • 1774: Crimea became a Russian vassal.
  • 1783: Crimea annexed by Russia.


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