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

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

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by Eliyahu Stern
     
 

Elijah ben Solomon, the "Genius of Vilna,” was perhaps the best-known and most understudied figure in modern Jewish history. This book offers a new narrative of Jewish modernity based on Elijah's life and influence.

While the experience of Jews in modernity has often been described as a process of Western European secularization—with Jews becoming

Overview

Elijah ben Solomon, the "Genius of Vilna,” was perhaps the best-known and most understudied figure in modern Jewish history. This book offers a new narrative of Jewish modernity based on Elijah's life and influence.

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 Hasidism 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Gershon David Hundert
 “Stern's study will become the first resort for anyone seeking to understand the place of Elijah of Vilna in the modern Jewish experience. This is a learned, innovative and important book that, for the first time, situates the Gaon in both his time and his place. Moreover, the work contributes significantly to a re-evaluation of the emphases appropriate to the study of Jewish history in the modern period.”—Gershon David Hundert, McGill University
 
Harold Bloom

 “Elli Stern’s study of the great Gaon of Vilna is a considerable contribution to the study of Jewish genius. Though the Gaon now tragically represents the murdered culture of East European Jewry, his example remains a beacon for the entire Judaic intellectual and spiritual enterprise.”—Harold Bloom 
Shaul Stampfer

 “Explaining much of the reality behind the Gaon’s mystique, Stern shows that in many respects he was even greater than his hagiographers ever imagined. Stern has made a major contribution to our understanding of East European Jewry.”—Shaul Stampfer, Hebrew University
The Jewish Review of Books

“In offering an alternative view of the complex genealogy of Jewish modernity, The Genius should generate serious conversation.”—The Jewish Review of Books

Tablet magazine - Lawrence Kaplan

“Important and ambitious. . . Stern’s The Genius is a pioneering work about an intellectual titan.”Lawrence Kaplan, Tablet magazine

Forward - Raphael Magarik

Stern. . . has masterfully reappraised the Vilna Gaon. . . He has found, under Eastern European Orthodoxy’s murky patina, a Judaism that was shockingly fresh, radical, and modern.”Raphael Magarik, Forward
Yale University - Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize

Winner of the 2012 Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication.
Sami Rohr - Sami Rohr Prize

Finalist for the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300205923
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
07/01/2014
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

Harold Bloom
Elli Stern’s study of the great Gaon of Vilna is a considerable contribution to the study of Jewish genius. Though the Gaon now tragically represents the murdered culture of East European Jewry, his example remains a beacon for the entire Judaic intellectual and spiritual enterprise.—Harold Bloom 
Gershon David Hundert
 “Stern's study will become the first resort for anyone seeking to understand the place of Elijah of Vilna in the modern Jewish experience. This is a learned, innovative and important book that, for the first time, situates the Gaon in both his time and his place. Moreover, the work contributes significantly to a re-evaluation of the emphases appropriate to the study of Jewish history in the modern period.—Gershon David Hundert, McGill University

 

Shaul Stampfer
Explaining much of the reality behind the Gaon’s mystique, Stern shows that in many respects he was even greater than his hagiographers ever imagined. Stern has made a major contribution to our understanding of East European Jewry.—Shaul Stampfer, Hebrew University

Meet the Author


Eliyahu Stern is assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University.

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