If anyone were to open a rabbinic hall of fame, then one of the first entrants would be Elijah ben Solomon, the 18th-century authority known as the Vilna Gaon (“Genius”). The reclusive scholar, who was too busy studying and writing to publish in his lifetime, was the presiding spirit of a community which became the intellectual capital of east European Jewry.
His focus on Talmud laid the foundations of modern yeshivah study and, ultimately, the revival of Orthodoxy. But his voluminous commentaries spanned the corpus of Jewish religious literature, including Kabbalah, and he even penned a book in Hebrew on Euclidean mathematics.
Though he eschewed communal office, his authority radiated beyond the study hall, especially in his strong opposition to the spread of Chasidism.
Yale University associate professor Eliyahu Stern sets the Gaon’s ideas in the context of the intellectual milieu of his times, arguing for a more complex interaction between tradition and modernity than is often assumed.
The Gaon wrote “perhaps with greater breadth and variation than any other figure in Jewish history”, Stern suggests. And it is not just the yeshivah world where he left a lasting influence: much of the “intellectual dynamism, social confidence and political assertiveness” of modern Jewry derives from this Polish-Lithuanian luminary.