Meet the Original Jewish Genius, the Gaon of Vilna

Then, again.
Jan. 28 2013 10:22 AM

The Original Jewish Genius

How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement.

Painting of the Vilna Gaon, 1915
Painting of the Vilna Gaon, 1915

Chesdovi/Yesodei Hatorah School/Wikimedia Commons.

Are certain ethnic groups predisposed to excel in the classroom? The debate has heated up of late in academic circles. In a new book called Legacy, the geneticist Harry Ostrer of Albert Einstein Medical School argues that Jewish intellectual achievement is the result of genetic makeup and Jews’ fortuity to have lived among cultures that valued academics. Run Unz in the the American Conservative countered with an exhaustive study documenting that contemporary “Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents.” While American Jews continue to value education, the percentage of geniuses among them seems to be dropping. Asians, Unz claims, are “the New Jews of American intellectual life,” outperforming their peers.

The switch from Jews to Asians highlights the capriciousness of genetic arguments to explain intellectual achievement. Before genetic arguments were used to account for Jewish genius, they were employed to justify why Jews possessed inferior minds.  The German composer Richard Wagner famously thought that the Jewish race could never produce anything novel because Jews lacked creativity. While the likes of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman discredited Wagner’s drivel, people still wonder: If not race and genetics, then what is behind Jews’ intellectual achievements?

The idea of Jewish genius begins with an 18th-century figure called the Gaon of Vilna—the only person in Jewish history, in fact, to be known simply as the “Genius.” The sobriquet was a function of the breadth and depth of his writings, which ranged from treatises on mathematics and grammar to commentaries on mystical and rabbinic works. So profound was the Gaon’s imprint on the Jewish imagination that some claim his grammatical insights inspired the rebirth of the Hebrew language. Others claim him to be a forefather of Zionism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds him up as the first person to combine traditional Jewish learning with the study of the sciences. The literary critic Harold Bloom points to him as a “beacon for the entire Judaic intellectual and spiritual enterprise.”

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Born in 1720 into a respected rabbinic family, the Gaon, whose first name was Elijah, distinguished himself from early adolescence through his mastery of biblical and Talmudic literature. In his youth he is said to have aspired to become a doctor. In the manner of scholars of the time, he wandered anonymously around various towns before settling in the city of Vilna (now known as Vilnius), located in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Gaon is said to have motivated his students to develop the idea of “torah lishma,” “learning for its own sake.” While study had always been valued in Jewish history, Elijah went further, arguing that it was a religious end in and of itself. Even the fulfillment of laws and rituals played a secondary role to intellectual activities. This principle contributed to a new model of Judaism based around educational institutions. Elijah’s students promoted study houses, or yeshivot, which provided an elite religious education to Jews from all socio-economic backgrounds.

The Gaon expressed his dedication to study through his chosen genre, the commentary. Unlike codes or essays, the art of commentary requires interpretation that is at once faithful to the source and novel enough to shift the reader’s viewpoint. The Gaon’s style was to condense 2,000 years of debates recorded on a legal ruling into a 10- or 15-word précis, providing readers with the most essential information on the subject matter.   The commentaries also radically criticized the positions of previous interpreters. Elijah famously went against Jewish custom, arguing, for example, that Jewish men were not obligated to cover their heads with kippot. His critical instincts and boldness vis-à-vis the tradition lead 19th-century Zionists and even secularists, like Peretz Smolenskin, to claim the master as a harbinger to their ideologies.

Jewish kids of the period did not know the Gaon from his elite commentaries but from the pictures their parents hung on their kitchen walls. There, Elijah sat with his left hand folded over the top edges of a large tome, his right hand gently arched on a quill. The Orthodox painted him with phylacteries and a prayer shawl; the secularists left him in Polish garb, but as the Yiddish writer, Moses Gertz recalled, “every home in Lithuania was decorated with the picture of the Gaon.” Even the early secular Zionist leader Moses Lilienblum, who criticized some of his contemporaries for overestimating Elijah’s influence on the emergence of secular ideas and scientific achievements, admitted, “who knows if Lithuanian lands would have ever experienced enlightenment if not for the inspiration of the Vilna Gaon?”

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