The Original Jewish Genius
How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement.
What etched the Vilna Gaon into the minds of his contemporaries and their descendants were folk stories about the personal cost of his intellectual prowess. The Gaon’s children say in the introduction to their father’s commentary to Jewish law that his intellectual feats were achieved by a polyphasic sleep cycle, which divided rest time into four half-hour intervals, three during the night and one during the day. His students claimed that when the Gaon’s eyes might have been ready to close, he dipped his feet in ice water. His daily food intake reportedly consisted of “a thin slice of stale bread no larger than a measurement of two olives soaked in water,” served to him “once in the morning and then again in the evening.” More disturbing, the Gaon was said to have “ingested spoiled food” so that he never would enjoy the taste of anything more than study.
In one startling vignette, his children recounted that as their father was preparing to leave on a journey of self-reflection, his favorite son fell gravely ill. The Gaon refused to change his plans. Only after a month away “not thinking about his family or his children” did the Genius find himself on the toilet one day wondering about the boy’s well-being (one is not supposed to think thoughts of Torah at that moment). He immediately returned home.
The episode was not anomalous; the Gaon was a terribly absent parent. His children divulge that he never once wrote them a letter. Nor when he saw them, once every year or two, “did he ever ask about their work or their well-being.” His sons note that their father did not even think to inquire after their homes, their children, or their livelihoods. After an enjoyable hour of speaking with them, the Gaon would hurry back to his studies so as not to waste time. He had a similar relationship with a beloved grandchild, who said of him, “I was in Vilna for over three years and when I visited, he did not inquire after my household or my children until a few weeks into our meetings.”
The Gaon also dismissed his ancestors. Never once does he mention in his commentaries anything uttered or written by his learned father. He had no compunction saying that on certain topics “it would have been better” had his great-grandfather, the 17th-century rabbi Moses Rivkes “kept his mouth shut.”
At the time that Wagner asserted that genius was based on race, and religious people insisted that the Heavens bestowed it upon select individuals, the Gaon’s 19th-century biographer, Yehoshua Heschel Levin, maintained that “the Gaon’s achievements were not the products of any teacher or external forces.” Rather, they were the product of work, will, and the aspiration to overcome the weight of history and the hurdles of social convention. Levin’s hagiography was reprinted nearly 10 times over the next 50 years and sparked numerous other works that depicted the Gaon as an icon of Jewish intellectual excellence.
And yet, like all Polish Jews at the time, the Gaon was locked out of the halls of Vilnius University, even though it was located next door to his home. He never expressed disappointment or a sense of inferiority about this ban or his larger exclusion from Western intellectual life. However, other Jews after his death tried to gain entrance to European institutions of higher learning. In the 1860s, they began to be admitted in significant numbers to Russian universities, but by 1887, Moscow and St. Petersburg universities capped Jewish enrollment at 3 percent. In the United States, unofficial Jewish quotas at major universities lasted deep into the second half of the 20th century. And yet Jews disproportionately contributed to the intellectual life of the modern era.
No one person can be said to have inspired millions of Jewish students to overcome the roadblocks put before them. Still, it’s telling that Jewish parents of the generations following the Gaon thought otherwise. Playing on the Yiddish vocalization of his name, they bade their children, “Vil-nor Goen:” “If you will it, you too can be a genius.”
Eliyahu Stern is assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University and author of The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the making of Modern Judaism.