- Rabbinics without the Crutch of Canonicity
on “rabbi elijah wilna, gaon” (1890)
What is the place of rabbinics in Western thought, and what is its importance to English-speaking peoples? These still-pressing questions were perhaps first addressed in 1896 by Solomon Schechter in his groundbreaking Studies in Judaism. “The purpose” of this work, he explained, “was . . . to bring under notice of the English public the type of men produced by the Synagogue of the Eastern Jews.”1 Accomplishing this task, however, was no simple matter; Schechter acknowledged that some of his readers probably found “that Synagogue” and its rabbinic representatives “repulsive.” Still, he was undeterred, for in the Eastern Synagogue one encountered a unique set of “intellectual forces” that were not to be found in the “practical tendencies” of those residing closer to the Atlantic.2
The challenges and aspirations of Schechter’s project are highlighted in the essay he wrote on the eighteenth-century kabbalist and rabbinic commentator Rabbi Elijah of Vilna. Published in pamphlet form in 1896, it was the first sustained treatment in English about the man known in rabbinic circles simply as the “Genius” (Gaon).3 The essay was based on a paper Schechter had delivered at London’s Jews’ College in 1890. During that year, leading English parliamentarians, the Archbishop of Canterbury, twenty-seven members of Parliament, and the Duke of [End Page 150] Westminster were intensely considering how to address the “renewed sufferings of the Jews in Russia from the operation of severe and exceptional edicts and disabilities.”4 Their support for the plight of Russian Jews culminated in a public meeting held in Guildhall on December 10, 1890, in which £100,000 was raised for Russian Jewish immigrants.
Like many of his coreligionists then residing in England, Schechter was a native of Eastern Europe; he was born in Focsani, Moldavia, in 1847. By 1883, it was estimated that only half of the 60,000 Jews living in London had been residing in England for more than one generation. Soon there would be some 100,000 Jews living in the East End alone, 60,000 of them foreigners, and most from Eastern Europe.5 In attendance at Schechter’s 1890 lecture was Therese Gollancz (1859–1929), Elijah of Vilna’s great-great granddaughter (and the wife of the British rabbi Sir Hermann Gollancz), who had herself immigrated to England.
This growing sector of English Jewry was quickly acculturating into British life. Schechter’s lecture not only attempted to remind the audience about a figure and a Jewish world they were quickly forgetting. It also sought to identify the core features of Eastern European Jewry that continued to have vitality and significance for Jews who had moved west. Schechter’s goal was to describe the grandeur of the culture into which they were born but which many had come to see as somewhat embarrassing.
On the surface, Rabbi Elijah was a most unlikely character to present before a British public. In eighteenth-century Vilna, then part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, the rabbi rarely appeared in public, held no communal post, and composed commentaries that even trained talmudists had difficulty deciphering. Schechter avoids delving into these aspects of Elijah’s oeuvre, noting that his purpose is not to give a real appreciation of him as a scholar, a task that would require a thorough study of his works (p. 92). Instead, Schechter attempts to explain Elijah’s intellectual and historical importance for those who increasingly wonder why rabbinic literature matters at all or who associate its authors with the derided Pharisees of the New Testament. Schechter’s lecture and subsequent essay differ significantly from previous scholarship on Elijah. He begins from the assumption that the audience knows more about Plato and Aristotle than it does about Alfasi, Maimonides, and talmudic law. [End Page 151]
The most daring aspects of Schechter’s presentation of Elijah are its points of comparison, its rhetorical strategies, and the channels it opens for modern rabbinics to enter into conversation with Western values and ideals. “Rabbi Elijah Wilna, Gaon” begins with its protagonist standing alongside eighteenth-century European Jewry’s other two major figures: Moses Mendelssohn and...