The Pursuit of General Studies According the the Disciples of the Gra

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein



This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Abe Mezrich






I. Disciples of the Gra who refrain from mentioning His general knowledge


            We wish to continue our investigation of the Gra's involvement in general studies, and this time with a critical eye, to see which of his disciples note this involvement with admiration, and which of them skip over it in silence. First, we shall briefly review those who noted the Gra's involvement and supported general studies. Among the most prominent members of this circle are the members of the Rivlin family. This is reflected in "Kol ha-Tor" and in other writings, and even R. Binyamin Rivlin himself is described as someone who was influenced by the Gra's encouragement to pursue general studies. Among the other Sages of Shklov who led this approach we find, of course, R. Baruch Shick. Two of the Gra's most outstanding disciples, disseminators of his Torah legacy and noted authors in their own right, are also included in this group: R. Israel and R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov. R. Menachem Mendel discusses the issue in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to Pirkei Avot. R. Israel takes it to the extreme in his testimony about the sanctity and devekut that filled the room when the Vilna Gaon spoke in praise of his own achievements in general knowledge, this in one sweep with a review of his merits in Torah study.


            R. Chayyim of Volozhin can serve us as the contrary example. R. Chayyim related at length the marvels of his master's Torah and holy conduct. To the best of my knowledge, nowhere does R. Chayyim make any mention of the Gra's interest in the natural sciences. We also find this silence among the Gra's sons, R. Yehuda Leib and R. Avraham. The sons wrote a lengthy introduction to their father's commentary to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, in which they describe his character, his values, and the way he conducted his life. Their accounts are among the most important and first-hand sources that we have about the Gra's diligence, his self-discipline, his cleaving to the words of Chazal, and his exceptional separating himself from worldly pleasures. This introduction and R. Chayyim's introductions to several of the Gra's works are the earliest efforts on the part of the Gra's disciples to portray their master. But in all of these writings there is no mention of study that does not involve Torah, and certainly not of impressive achievements in the realms of general knowledge.


            Are we dealing here with a disagreement as to the facts? It is difficult to make such an assumption. The documentation of the Gra's mastery of general knowledge is sufficiently impressive and stands uncontested. R. Chayyim of Volozhin and the Gra's sons do not deny the breadth of the Gra's knowledge; they simply remain silent about it.


            To this we may add external testimony that is not connected specifically to the circle of the Gra's disciples. For example, the book "Aliyot Eliyahu," which we have mentioned on several occasions, cites a tradition in the name of R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg (author of "Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbala"), the rabbi of Koenigsberg in East Prussia, who was still only a boy when the Gra died. A question may be raised: How is it that a German rabbi provides us with information about the Gra that was not known to the Sages of Lithuania? The answer is that the story relates to the period of the Gra's exile, when he wandered around among the Jewish communities in central Europe. According to the report, a certain professor in Berlin heard about the Gaon's genius, and presented him with a problem that had baffled him and his colleagues. To his astonishment, the Gra explained the matter to him in a satisfactory manner. When the professor and other representatives of the university went back to the Gaon in order to formally thank him for his important contribution to academic knowledge, they could not find him, as he had already continued on his way. The precise details of this incident are less important than the very impression that the Gra left on his visit outside the boundaries of Lithuania – a deep impression that the Gaon was fully fluent in all branches of knowledge.


            Assuming that there is no disagreement about the facts themselves, we can describe the intersection at which his followers stood. It was clear from the outset that all of the Gra's ways would serve as a model for emulation; and the disciples themselves wished to establish their master as a supreme role model. It was clear to them that presenting general studies as part of his legacy would lead to the spread of enlightenment in broad sectors of the community. What is more, since the Vilna Gaon did not waste his time and effort on things of no value, publicizing his general knowledge would not only have practical consequences, but it would also lead to a shift in values. In the eyes of the masses, the Gaon's ways would point to an assumption that was liable to shake the foundations of their accepted outlook: general studies have spiritual value. Thus, the decision to include or to exclude the breadth of the Gra's general knowledge among his virtues had to take all of this into consideration.


II. Fear of the enlightenment movement


            What would have brought some of the Gra's disciples to remove fluency in general studies from the list of desirable goals? Since we are dealing with students of the highest caliber, notable people whose loyalty and dedication to their master's legacy is unquestioned, another question may be raised: How did they justify for themselves the daring step that they were taking – eliminating one of the values that was central to their venerated master?


            It stands to reason that one consideration of greatest importance was the concern that the Gra's intentions would be misunderstood or distorted. Whereas the Gra understood general knowledge as something that "falls off" from, i.e. generated by, the Torah and heavenly wisdom, and following from this, as something that has a special connection to the people of Israel and their Torah, the community at large was exposed to the Enlightenment movement, the roots of which were foreign – a movement that had swept through the civilized world in Western Europe and had already begun in significant measure to penetrate eastwards.


            Let us illustrate the spirit of this movement with passages taken from "Divrei Shalom ve-Emet," a propagandist pamphlet written by Naftali Hertz Weisel, disciple of Moses Mendelssohn. "Divrei Shalom ve-Emet" was written as part of the debate that was stirred by the German Kaiser when he issued his Edict of Toleration, whose proclaimed objective was to improve the state of the Jews, but included educational reform that was meant to bring Jews to participate in general social and political life (and perhaps cause them to assimilate). The Jewish community was divided as to how to relate to these new orders. It was clear that responding to this royal invitation by adopting a curriculum of general studies was not meant to "remove stolen property from the mouths of non-Jews" or to "restore the crown to its former state," but rather to bring the Jews into the general human arena and put an end to the traditional separation and distancing that preserved the unique Jewish character. Weisel argued in favor of adopting the spirit of the royal initiative:


The proper education of the youths of Israel is divided into two parts: the first part involves teaching the Torah of man, those things because of which those who possess them are fit to be called by the name of man. For those who lack them are almost unfit for that appellation, as will be explained. And the second part involves teaching the Torah of God, which are the laws and statutes of God…

Included in the Torah of man are… the ways of morality and virtuous character traits… knowing history, geography, local customs and royal codes and the like. It also includes arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and the like.

Now the Torah of man precedes in time the heavenly laws of God, for a person should from his youth crown himself with the fear of God, with manners and with beliefs, for which it is fitting that he should be called a man. And with them he should prepare his heart to learn the laws and statutes of God, to observe also His commandments that are above his reasoning, which is the Torah of the Jew… Even though the laws and statutes of God are far above the Torah of man, they are connected and cleave to it. And in the place where the Torah of man ends the Torah of God begins, and tells us things that no man has the power to attain. Therefore one who is ignorant of the statutes of God but knows the Torah of man, even though the Sages of Israel will not benefit from his light, the rest of mankind of all the nations will benefit from it. But one who is ignorant of the Torah of man, even if he knows the statutes of God, will bring joy neither to the Sages of his nation nor to the rest of mankind. And so the Sages said: Any Torah scholar (who knows the laws and statutes of God) who lacks wisdom (manners and the way of the world) – an animal's carcass is better than him.


According to Weisel, enlightenment is a universal and not specifically Jewish value. The Jews were invited to acquire knowledge by non-Jews. The world of general knowledge is described as a foundation, upon which "the Torah of the Jew," i.e., the Torah and its commandments,[1] should be built as a second story. This idea had an important consequence as to the scope of the subjects that it is desirable to study. R. Binyamin Rivlin and R. Baruch Shick studied mathematics and the natural sciences. But the maskilim of Berlin, who wanted to teach the Jew to be a "man," attached great importance to the humanities and social sciences. Wiesel mentions the importance of studying ethics and history.


Another matter which was liable to raise concerns among the sons of the Gra and R. Chayyim of Volozhin was the emphasis that the enlightenment movement placed on the independent thinking of the individual. The maskilim were in favor of an independent-critical approach to all the sanctified traditions upon which people accustomed themselves to rely without asking many questions. The Gra's method of study included similar values. The Gra was indeed independent and opinionated; he did not bow before those who came before him in his clarification of the Torah's truth. Nevertheless, all of his Torah study revolved around the same fundamental axis, of anchoring every detail in ancient sources. His outlook assumed continuity and development from one stage to the next, and the test of reliability is always the same – verification by way of an early source.[2]


In light of the apparent similarity between the Gra and the maskilim, the Gra's disciples knew that explaining the critical difference between them would be a delicate and complicated mission. It would be exceedingly difficult to stand up to the acceleration and strength which the Enlightenment movement had gathered in Lithuania. As we proceed through the nineteenth century, a slight blurring of the position of the Gra would have sufficed to turn him in the eyes of the community into a part of this wave, "a herald of the enlightenment" – sort of a Lithuanian parallel to Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn's example, it should be remembered, was no cause for joy. On the one hand, the German scholar was not only pious and observant in his private life, but also demanded fidelity to the Torah and tradition in his writings, alongside his encouragement of intellectual openness to universal values. Nevertheless, most of his disciples ended up abandoning tradition in favor of reform or assimilation.


On the other hand, R. Chayyim of Volozhin was deeply concerned about spreading Torah knowledge. In his book, "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," R. Chayyim laments the decline of Torah study in his generation. We have already seen that R. Pinchas of Polotzek also saw the need for encouraging Torah study. Preoccupation with general knowledge may have been perceived as a diversion that was liable to shift energy away from Torah study, which according to these authorities, was so urgently needed.


All of these points explain the attitude of the Gra's sons and of R. Chayyim of Volozhin towards general knowledge. But none of this concerned the Gra whatsoever. He clung to the truth as he saw and understood it. Since he himself was not involved in the education of the community at large, it is hard to know how he would have dealt with the complex communal challenge with which his spiritual heirs were faced. From his perspective, general knowledge is a Torah value, which must be allocated its own space. In light of this, some of the Gra's most important disciples did not hesitate to explicitly proclaim the venerable place that this value had for their master. In order to reach a deeper understanding of this disagreement, we must pay attention to another important point.


III. Secular studies and the Holy Land


            Our understanding of this issue will remain incomplete if we fail to notice the fact that the division of the Gra's disciples into proponents and forswearers of general knowledge, seems to coincide with another internal split which characterized the Gra's followers – they differed as to their attitude and preoccupation with the resettlement of Eretz Israel.


            Many of the same Torah authorities who emphasized, at one level or another, the Gra's attitude toward general knowledge, we find in Eretz Israel. We already spoke of the Rivlin family. R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov moved to Eretz Israel several years after the Gra's passing, after he succeeded in publishing the Gra's commentary to Mishlei and his commentary to Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'a. R. Menachem Mendel led the community of Perushim in Jerusalem during the first generation. His younger colleague, R. Israel of Shklov, author of "Pe'at ha-Shulchan," moved to Eretz Israel after him, and dedicated most of his life to founding and leading the community of Perushim in Tzefat. In contrast to the above, those disciple of the Gaon who remain silent about his attitude toward secular knowledge remained in the Diaspora and continued to teach Torah there.


The difference is evident not only in the respective groups' actions, but also in their writings. The Gra's disciples who moved to Eretz Israel sent out letters that were disseminated all across Russia and Lithuania, that praise living in Eretz Israel and encourage the masses to follow their footsteps. In his introduction to the Gra's commentary to Yoreh De'a, R. Menachem Mendel does not forget to mention his personal and national hopes regarding the return to Eretz Israel. But we do not find R. Chayyim of Volozhin adopting a similar position or making a similar public call. Neither he nor the Gra's own sons give any room in their writings to messianism or to the centrality of Eretz Israel in the Gra's legacy.


It stands to reason that regarding this matter as well, the Gra's disciples were not all in agreement. Even if we don't assume that there were polar differences between them, it still seems that they held different positions regarding the place of and the appropriate degree of investment in Torah study as opposed to advancing the redemption and moving to Eretz Israel.[3]


And furthermore, it is possible to surmise that there is a certain correspondence and connection between the question of pursuing general knowledge, on the one hand, and the issue of Eretz Israel, on the other. Why? First of all, because R. Baruch Shick claimed that the Gra supported this study in order to raise the esteem of Israel and the Torah in the eyes of the nations. This goal has a certain messianic overtone, and indeed we saw that in the Rivlin family's tradition this tone is developed into a veritable symphony. According to them, the uncovering of lost knowledge is part of the messianic vision alluded to in the Zohar and one of the heralds of the end of days. It stands to reason that it would fill an important place in the thought and the program of those disciples of the Gra who accepted upon themselves the task of hastening the redemption, and that it would be absent from the writings of those who emphasized almost exclusively the Gra's Torah enterprise.[4]


We noted that the fear of the spreading of the enlightenment was one of the factors responsible for concealing the Gaon's attitude toward general studies. It seems that the differences in outlook with respect to Eretz Israel also touch upon this point. The hope of establishing a new community and a new society in pure sanctity, in a place that is perceived as being clean of all alien influences of the nations of the world, gave a sense of confidence and immunity that allowed adherence to the truth as it is without fear. If the redemption of Israel and the world requires occupation with general knowledge, it is possible to do this precisely in the natural homeland of the people of Israel; the problems of the German enlightenment can be attributed to the "bad air" of the Diaspora.


An analogy may be drawn from the realm of Halakha. The Vilna Gaon aspired to erect the world of Halakha on what he saw as the Talmudic truth, something which in many cases necessitated detachment from customs lacking a source (according to the Gra) that took root over the course of the years. Changing the custom outside Eretz Israel was exceedingly difficult, but many of the Gra's practices in Halakha were accepted in Eretz Israel. This happened by virtue of the fact that his disciples arrived there early, became the ruling element in the new community, and in great measure were capable of "starting from the beginning." For example, the Gra failed to institute the daily recitation of the priestly benediction outside of Eretz Israel, but in Eretz Israel this practice was broadly accepted. It may be suggested that R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and his colleagues perceived themselves as "building something new." The energy of this same awareness weakened the concerns about the influence of German Haskala.[5]


            Thus far we have examined the Vilna Gaon's attitude toward general studies in light of the account appearing in "Pe'at ha-Shulchan." The Gra spoke about this issue with his eyes closed, when he was in a true state of devekut, if not ecstasy. General knowledge assumes a place, according to this, in the charismatic image of the Gra, and it is part of the phenomenon of the end of days that has a source in the Zohar. We have already seen, however, that the Gra's image underwent upheavals over the course of the years, and that there were those who emphasized his being the "Gaon" at the expense of his being the "Chasid." That is to say, the Gra was turned into a predominantly rational personality, whose intellectual achievements are astounding. Those with this outlook also related to the Gra's attitude toward general studies, only that the conceptual framework of these studies is not the grand plan to raise the "horn of Israel", or to advance some Divine goal. The background is the struggle against European enlightenment. The Gra studied the sciences, and from this, it was now held, we can reach the following conclusion: The Torah and general wisdom can live together in harmony, and there is nothing to fear.


            It would be expected that this outlook would not develop in the first or second generation following the Gra. Since it is a novel approach which does not precisely reflect the spirit of the original position, time was needed for it to develop in the minds of the Lithuanian scholars who responded to the changes transpiring in Jewish society which was opening up to new influences. Indeed, the first biography of the Gra – "Aliyot Eliyahu" which was published in 1856 – is one of the important early expressions of this understanding. In the next stage of our journey, we shall examine this development, and learn about the personalities who were involved in it and about its ramifications for the Lithuanian consciousness.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] How should Weisel be assessed? This is a matter of debate. The pamphlet "Divrei Shalom ve-Emet" was severely criticized by some of the most outstanding Rabbis of his generation, and by R. Yechezkel Landau (the Noda Bi-Yehuda) in particular. On the other hand, other leaders knew him as a pious and educated man, who wrote helpful Torah tracts. See R. Tzuriel's article:

[2] We shall deal with this point at greater length when we examine the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh.

[3] It should be noted for the sake of precision and balance that Rav Chayyim worked to provide logistical assistance and financial support for the Gra's disciples who moved to Eretz Israel. He was apparently sympathetic to this project, but his basic and fundamental commitment was to Torah study above all else.  

[4] As I was finishing writing this shiur, I came across an article written by Raphael Shochet, "Demuto shel ha-Gra lefi Rav Chayyim mi-VolozhinMetziut o Pulmos," Da'at 67 (Winter 5770), pp. 39-54. He too notes the absence of any mention of secular studies among some of the Gra's disciples, and part of what we said here corresponds to his assertions. Some of the other points that I made here are apparently subject to scholarly dispute.

[5] The scholar Aryeh Morgenstern uncovered the testimony of someone who met the Gra as he was on his way to Eretz Israel (the Gra, as we know, never reached his destination). The Gra told him that he had hoped that in Eretz Israel he could free himself of Polish customs.