In April 2020, the Lithuanian Government along with the Lithuanian Embassy had to cancel celebrations that had been planned to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon. The coronavirus pandemic meant that an online commemoration was all that would be permitted to mark this very significant occasion.
But who was the Vilna Gaon and why was his anniversary so significant? Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer was born in 1720, in the town of Seltz (now Belarus near Brest Litovsk) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was a child phenomenon. Legend has it that by the age of four, he had committed the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) to memory. There are 23,099 verses in the entire 24 books! In his free time at the age of eight, he was studying astronomy, and from the age of ten, he studied alone as no teacher was capable of teaching him, such was his incredible acumen. Indeed, the word ‘Gaon’ is an honorary title for a Jewish scholar who is noted for his wisdom and knowledge of the Talmud.
By the time the Gaon was twenty years old, Rabbis from across Europe would submit their most difficult Jewish legal problems to him for his ruling. Lithuanian Jewry considered him to be their acknowledged leader.
Despite his vast knowledge and supreme intelligence, the Gaon chose to never hold a formal title or position, though it was offered to him on the most flattering of terms; his life was one dedicated entirely to the love, fear and devotion towards God. In his later years, he also refused to give approbations, though this was the privilege of great rabbis; he thought too humbly of himself to assume such authority.
And yet, his asceticism notwithstanding, the Gaon did choose to lead one campaign, a very public crusade against Hassidism. For almost twenty years, he led a battle against this group, unwavering in his determination to eradicate them in their entirety. Who were the Hassidim and why was the Gaon single-mindedly so steadfast in his vociferous opposition to the movement?
The Hasidic movement was initiated, by someone whose origins are shrouded in mystery. To be truthful, almost all his life is unknown and hagiographic. The founder of the movement who was later promoted as a mystical miracle worker and a Kabbalist was Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov (known as the Besht).
Yisroel was born in 1698, to poor parents Eliezer and Sarah in a settlement near Okopy Podolia, in West Ukraine. In 1703, young Yisroel became an orphan and was adopted by the Jewish community of Tluste. It is reported that, after the conclusion of his studies at the local cheder (Hebrew school), he would often wander into the fields and forests that surrounded the village. In 1710, he became an assistant to a melamed (teacher). Sometime in 1712, he became the dean of the local synagogue. He remained obscure for much of his life.
The Besht set up and became the leader of his movement at the age of 18. Up until this point, Jewish life was centred entirely on the Rabbi and the educated. Academic erudition was revered, to the degree that there was no place in the Jewish community for those that were less educated and intellectual. Special synagogues for the ignorant were the norm, and woe betide should the ‘shoemaker’ choose one week to pray in the synagogue of the merchants or the scholars.
The Baal Shem Tov’s mission was to change all this. The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov were founded on a key idea: God loves every single human being irrespective of his level of religious learning or understanding. Yes of course, for those that were able, studying Talmud was preferable, but God equally delighted in the prayers of the uninformed, or the heartfelt singing of those that were illiterate. The Baal Shem Tov stressed the rabbinic teaching “God desires the heart” as the obligation of intention of the heart (kavanah) in the fulfilment of the commandment.
Hassidism was never meant to be represented by the very constricted and very conformist Hassidic communities of say Brooklyn, Williamsburg or London. At its essence, it was based on free-spiritedness and a certain kind of anarchy that rejected conventions. Its earliest practitioners embodied this idea. The Besht wore ordinary clothes and mixed with ordinary people. Instead of formally constructed speeches to Talmudic scholars, the Besht used Shabbat meals as an opportunity to share Torah, using a far more freewheeling style. He discussed esoteric notions and the emotions behind religion with his followers, concepts that he brought down to a level that even the ordinary man could comprehend, rather than legal principles and complex theories that soared above the heads of the common man.
As a result, it evolved into a movement that developed its own leaders. People were looking for warmth and spirituality, not necessarily scholars. The teachings cherished sincerity over scholarship, and holiness over Torah studies. Pray hard. Be sincere. Cling to a holy man and one can soar to great heights. And the fact that the Besht died in 1760 did little to dampen the movement.
In the beginning, no one took much notice. But as Hassidism grew more popular, the Vilna Gaon began to take a strong stance against the movement. He joined the “opposers” or Misnagdim, a group of rabbis and heads of the Polish communities who formed a movement to curb Hasidic influence. In 1771, one of the first ex-communications against the nascent Hasidic movement was launched in Vilna. In May 1772 a letter signed by the Vilna Gaon, and 16 lay leaders were sent to communities across Eastern Europe. The letter exhorted them to deal with the Hasidim following the example of Vilna, and to abhor them until they had recanted. The letter was acted upon by several communities; indeed in the town of Brody, during one of its trade fairs, a ban (cherem) was pronounced against the Hasidim.
This is some of the text of the letter (translated from Hebrew) “To our Jewish brethren, you surely already know of the information that our grandfathers could never have dreamt up. That a set of suspect ones, have been formed, who meet together, and deviate in their prayers from the text that everyone else uses. They deem themselves as scholars. Anyone who joins them, even an ignorant fool who cannot recite the Shema, merits the best of this world and the best of the Next, all in less than an hour. In the middle of prayer they interject obnoxious words, and they conduct themselves like madmen. They explain their behaviour by saying that in their thoughts they soar into the most far-off worlds. They do not study Torah, and constantly emphasise that one should never spend excess time learning. Other ugly deeds they do have been fully described to us and verified by reliable witnesses. Sadly, they have succeeded in many places in leading our youngsters astray. Every day is a national holiday for them. When they pray they make such strange noises, indeed the walls actually shake, and they do somersaults” .
“We therefore declare that every community do all in their power to root out, to outlaw and destroy and to excommunicate them. Do not believe them, for in their hearts they are vile. As long as the Hasidim do not fully atone of their own accord, they must be scattered and driven away so that not even two of these heretics remain together. The end of their groups and gatherings will be a blessing for the world.”
But no one took much notice. In the winter of 1771, a terrible pandemic broke out in Vilna killing hundreds of young children. It was unequivocal that the Hassidim had ‘caused’ this tragedy onto the community, and this was God’s retribution for their colossal sins. Followers of the Hassidim were publicly flogged and chased out of town. But by now Hassidism was sprouting up all over Eastern Europe and it was becoming impossible to stem their growth.
In 1780, one of the pupils of the Besht, Rabbi Jacob Josef of Polano authored a Hassidic book which caused further anguish to the opposers. In the book the author systematically collated all the stories, notes and anecdotes of the Besht, editing them into a coherent and powerful manifesto for followers of this alternative way of life.
He espoused all the main features…no longer was it important to follow a Rabbi, rather the righteous leader (Tzaddik) would be the centre of Jewish life. He shared the idea of enthusiastic prayer, and embracing one’s human self rather than attempting to become an angel, devoid of materialistic desires. And to throw fuel onto the raging fire, he condemned the establishment for promoting mindless halachic conformity as the only perfect model of Judaism. This book ignited the Gaon once again against Hassidism, and he issued an even more severe letter against them.
He encouraged the book to be burnt, and burnt it was in many communities. In fact it remains one of the rarest late-18th century first-edition rabbinic books, and when it does appear at auction it sells for many thousands of dollars.
The letter of the Gaon was followed almost immediately, by an all-encompassing ban on Hassidim endorsed by the Gaon. One was not allowed to marry Hassidim, nor pray with Hassidim; one was not allowed to eat their bread or drink their wine; they had to be banished entirely. If the first letter was not successful, this one was even less so. Even though some communities officially adopted the stance, Hassidic communities continued to flourish and thrive.
There are countless stories about this period and the to and fro between the two camps. One particular story demonstrates the newly-found confidence that the Hassidim began to experience as the years progressed. They, in fact, began to make some fun of the Gaon. On several occasions in the past rumours had been spread that the Gaon had retracted his hostility towards Hassidism, but none were really believed.
In 1796, the now ailing Gaon was informed that a man was visiting communities in Germany, masquerading as the son of the Vilna Gaon. He would arrive in communities, sit in the back of a synagogue and refuse to talk in public. When coerced, he would cry and state that his father, the Vilna Gaon bitterly regretted his opposition to Hassidim and was now saying, “how will I ever be able to repent for all the aggravation I have caused those wonderful people. If only I was younger, I would fast, pray and cry to ask forgiveness for all the terrible things I have said about the Hassidim. I would travel from place to place, encouraging people in every community to join them, so that they could worship God in the correct manner.” He was evidently a great actor and people believed him. For he was not a son of the Gaon.
Eventually the fellow ended up in Hamburg and was introduced to the local Rabbi Rafael Hamburger, who had regular correspondence with the Gaon and was a close friend. He immediately identified him as a fraud. He was beaten up, and run out of town, never to be seen again.
When the Gaon heard about the episode he became very angry and wrote another strong letter against Hassidism and its devotees. He called them a wicked sect, and instructed everyone to persecute them mercilessly and redouble their efforts to get rid of them. “They are like a boil on the body of Israel, hopefully we will be able to uproot their name from this world. It is impossible to record all the sins of the Hassidim as there was not enough paper to write them all down. They are guilty of misleading the common people and leading them like lambs to the slaughter.”
Within a year the Vilna Gaon had passed away. He died in 1797, and the Misnagdim had lost their A-lister, whilst the Hassidim were only just getting started, as their leaders gained more acclaim and greater recognition both within the community and amongst the gentiles.
One may wonder, whether the Vilna Gaon’s efforts against the Hassidim was worth staking his reputation over? The opposition to Hassidism lacked depth in terms of the accusations against them. This was hardly an unfaithful organisation. Groups of people praying louder than was customary, singing merrily and drinking a bit of vodka, whilst focusing on esoteric aspects of Judaism rather than clinical intellectual Talmud studies, could certainly not easily be construed as heresy?
Perhaps the Vilna Gaon’s opposition did more than can be easily proven from historical references. Perhaps some of the wilder elements of the Hassidic practices from that early period were towed in. Perhaps their trajectory out of normative Judaism would have occurred in the generations that followed but was diverted back towards acceptable behaviour as a result of the checks and boundaries that the Vilna Gaon insisted upon.
What is certain is that the lack of Jewish learning and knowledge amongst ordinary Jews was something that the Vilna Gaon realised needed to be addressed, which is why his foremost student, Rabbi Haim of Volohzin founded the Volozhin Yeshiva, the powerhouse institute of Jewish learning, that was opened to students of any background.
The Vilna Gaon was undoubtedly a shining light, not just for the Jewish community at the time, but one whose dazzling brilliance illumines the Jewish world still today.
Lina Antanavičienė the Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel said it best: “The Vilna Gaon’s philosophy is as relevant in the changing world of today as it was in the 18th century. Living in a community, while developing independent thought and aspiring to make positive changes in society – teaches us an important lesson about the development of modern democracy in Lithuania.”
April 29th 2021
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