Sunday 6 February 2022

370) Did the Mitnagdim create a counterpart to the Chasidic model of a Rebbe?


Yoreh Deah with Biur haGra


Mitnagdim, or opponents of the Chasidic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the early eighteenth century, have generally emerged relatively unscathed by accusations of exaggerated veneration of their Mitnagdic rabbinic leaders.[1] This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Alan Nadler[2] explores the notion of a Mitnagdic counterpart to the Chasidic model of veneration of their rebbes.

‘Decline of the generations’ (Yeridat hadorot) - the Mitnagdic argument against Chasidism

Nadler (2009:137) describes one of the reasons why the Mitnagdim opposed the Chasidim:

The extravagant claims which Hasidism makes with regard to the supremacy of its leaders loom large among the many grievances of the Mitnaggedim. The unprecedented wisdom, supernatural powers and meta-rabbinic functions attributed to all the hasidic masters, beginning with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, far exceeded any claims made for Jewish religious leaders since the dawn of the rabbinic era in the first century.”

This means that for almost two thousand years, no one Jewish religious group had created an exaggerated culture of venerating their leaders as much as the Chasidim. Chasidic rebbes had almost brought biblical prophecy, thought to be long since gone, back to life again. This also means that Chasidim had violated the basic rabbinic principle known as yeridat hadorot, or decline of the generations, where each successive generation is said to be in a state of spiritual decline since the advent of the Sinai experience. Now suddenly Chasidic rebbes were able to challenge that notion.

The Mitnagdim appear to be acutely aware that they were living in an ‘orphaned generation’ when compared to their belief that previous generations had been on much higher spiritual levels. This may have brought about a somewhat pessimistic attitude amongst the Mitnagdim which the more joyous Chasidim were quick to accuse their opponents of possessing.

Nadler (2009:138) shows, for example, how an early leader of the Mitnagdim, the Vilna Gaon’s son, R. Abraham b. Elijah, bemoans the decline of rabbinical knowledge in his generation, due to earlier texts being lost over history.[3]

Nadler also shows that a student of the Vilna Gaon, R. Shmuel b. Abraham Maltsan of Slutsk wrote that the decline of humanity, or yeridat hadorot, over the years has brought about a severe limitation to G-d’s providence and hence miracles are no longer as evident as they used to be.[4] In this case, the yeridat hadorot, was said to have affected not just the standard of Torah learning at that time but even placed limitations, as it were, on G-d Himself.

With the advent of the Mussar or Ethical movement that later emerged within the Mitnagdic camp in nineteenth century Lithuania, the yeridat hadorot concept was similarly used to discredit the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement that was emerging predominantly amongst the secular Jews. Notably, one Mussar master, R. Yehoshua Heller[5], used the yeridat hadorot premise to discredit both the Chasidim for their joy (- how could they be so happy in the midst of the downward spiral of generational decline?) and the Maskilim or members of the Enlightenment (- how could they be so optimistic as to embrace the European belief in historical progress and advancement through the sciences other academic disciplines?). According to R. Heller, the world was on a downward spiral and yet Chasidim and Masklim were claiming some form of rejuvenation (Nadler 2009:139).

Yet, in the face of all this Mitnagdic emphasis on yeridat hadorot, ironically their extremely venerated view of their founder, Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman known as the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) seemed to violate that very principle that the world was in decline. While they criticised the Chasidim for what they felt was an exaggerated adoration and elevation of their rebbes, they too, as we shall see, displayed a similar attitude of adulation and glorification towards the Vilna Gaon that also seemed to belie the notion of yeridat hadorot.

Unprecedented veneration of the Vilna Gaon

As part of the doctrine of yeridat hadorot is the idea that both the generation as well as its rabbinic leadership undergo an ever-increasing downward spiral with the passing of each successive generation since Sinai. Thus, a rabbi in a more recent generation is not of the same spiritual calibre as a rabbi in a previous generation. Contemporary generations are called ‘orphaned generations’ in comparison to older generations.

But the Vilna Gaon was considered an exception. R. Menashe of Ilia claimed that the Vilna Gaon paved the way for the advent of the Messiah.[6] He was regarded by his followers as a reincarnated soul from earlier generations. There are different accounts as to which earlier generation he was said to have been taken from.

We must remember, as Nader (2009:144) points out, that in Torah scholarship and particularly authority, it is more important to be ‘behind one’s time’ than to be regarded as innovative with the ability to think ‘ahead one’s time’.

According to the founder of the modern Chareidi movement of the post-war Lithuanian-Mitnagdic community, R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish (1878-1953):

We relate the Gaon to the following line: Moses, Ezra the Scribe, our holy Rabbi (Judah ha-Nasi), Rav Ashi, Maimonides and then the Gaon, through whom the Torah was revealed as through a Holy man designated for this purpose. He uncovered much that had been covered with darkness until he came along. He is thus considered to be one of the rishonim … one informed directly by the Holy Spirit, whose profound knowledge of the entire Torah cannot be accounted for rationally.”[7]

Nadler (2009:145) emphasis that this statement violates rabbinic principles of “we pay no heed to heavenly voices,” “the Torah is not in heaven,” and “the sage is greater than the prophet” that disallow supernatural revelation to have any bearing on matters of Jewish law.

Some hagiographical accounts by his students claim he was equal to, and by extension just as authoritative as, a rabbi from the rabbinic period of the Rishonim (1038-1500).

Other accounts place him as being from the earlier period of Gaonim (c.650-1038), hence his title “Gaon”. This would place him on par with rabbis like Rav Saadia and Rav Hai Gaon.

Still other accounts claim he was equal to stature of a rabbi from the even earlier period of Savoraim (c.500-c.650). R. Aryeh Leib Zunz of Polotsk writes:

There had not arisen anyone like him since the days of the ancient rabbis, the Savora’im, may they rest in Eden, such that the entire Torah, both exoteric and esoteric, is spread like a set table before him.”[8]

There are even suggestions, like that by R. Pinchas of Potolsk who was one of the Vilna Gaon’s closest disciples and who delivered his eulogy, that:

there had not been anyone like him in the world since the days of the Tanna’im [10–220 CE]”[9]

This means that there was the belief that no other rabbi had the spiritual stature of the Vilna Gaon during the almost two thousand years that preceded him!

This is how R. Tzvi Hirsch Farber describes the explanation he received from the Kabbalist and nephew of R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Aryeh Lipkin on why the Vilna Gaon was so revered:

Know, my son, that in every generation there are great scholars, each a master of his field of expertise but not of any other … But to rise to the level of being the greatest of the generation in all disciplines, to be supreme in rabbinics, supreme in Kabbalah, supreme in piety, in holiness and purity, supreme in the most sublime ethical attributes, and supreme in each and every field of knowledge, including both the humanities and the sciences – astronomy, grammar, architecture and more and more; such remarkable excellence could not be achieved even by the greatest men of earlier generations. Only our great rabbi [the Gaon] has merited this.”

According to this understanding, the Vilna Gaon was not just a great rabbinical scholar but he was a great master at everything. This made him unique and thus worthy of such extreme veneration.

R. Chaim of Volozhyn (1749-1821), one of the most prominent students of the Vilna Gaon writes:

For even as we sit in the darkness of this last and most lowly of generations, God has enlightened us by sending us a holy angel from heaven, that rabbi who is the emissary of the Lord of Hosts…[10]

This seems to place the Vilna Gaon within a category of unearthly spiritual beings, nevermind of Rishonim, Gaonim, Saoraim or Tanaim.

The license to change, emend and reject classical texts  

By framing the Vilna Gaon as being equal in rabbinic authority to a rabbi somewhere between a Tanna and a Rishon, it becomes understandable how he was able to change, emend and even reject classical rabbinic texts. This editorial work, or more precisely, emendation, was something the Vilna Gaon became famous for:

Nadler (2009:141) makes the point that:

Clarification of difficult classical rabbinic sources, most notably the Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh, by means of textual emendations based on critical analysis and deduction, and without resort to manuscript variants, was something that no rabbinical authority had dared to do for many centuries. When practiced by modern scholars today, such textual criticism is often condemned by the Gaon’s spiritual heirs in the Lithuanian yeshivot as little short of heresy. Nevertheless, the Gaon’s stature invested him with the power to emend hundreds of classical texts, replacing long-established Talmudic passages with his own alternative readings, and this actually earned him the effusive praise of his followers.”

This is how R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov describes his master’s emendation of one such text (Avot de Rabbi Natan):

I have decided to … publish these small tractates which have been closed up, sealed and inaccessible since the days of the redaction of the Talmud. No one can even begin to study them, as they have become corrupted, filled with thorns and covered with thistles, so that we are unable to approach them... Even the greatest of the [medieval] commentators were forced to abandon their explication, until there came along our great Rabbi, namely the one true Gaon … Only he was able to correct these … and to remove from them the shadows cast by numerous errors; indeed, he brought all of them from darkness to light.”[11]

We must bear in mind that it is one thing to correct ancient texts based on extant textual variants from an earlier time, but it is another matter to emend texts, more than a thousand years later, without such material. Furthermore, the last time such extensive emendation of old texts took place was during the period of the Gaonim (Nadler 2009:142).

Excursions into emendations of Kabbalistic texts

The Vilna Gaon’s extensive emendation of old texts was not limited to Talmudic literature but extended deeply within the mystical tradition, including the Zohar, as well.

R. Chaim of Volozhyn wrote an introduction to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra diTzniuta (an obscure mystical work incorporated into the Zohar) where he describes not only his master’s unprecedented comprehension of Kabbalah, but also his personal mystical experiences as well. He explains that the Vilna Gaon corrected “faulty passages” of this foundational work. He likens the importance of the Sifra diTzniuta to the relationship of the primary importance of the Mishna to the Gemara in Talmudic literature, without which further study of Talmud is impossible – so too the Sifra diTzniuta becomes the ‘mishna’ of Kabbalah, without which further mystical study is impossible. And the Vilna Gaon offered his “often bold alternative readings” (Nadler 2009:146) to this corpus of literature without resort to earlier alternative manuscripts.

Not only did the Vilna Gaon emend Zoharic texts but he also ‘corrected’ the more recent mystical writings of R. Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal (1534-1572). R. Chaim of Volozhyn writes in his introduction to Sefer diTzniyuta:

For the light of this book was almost entirely concealed since the time when it was used by some of the greatest and most holy of the ancient rabbis … This holy book has been like a hidden Torah, long concealed from Israel. Besides, who could understand it, as so many mistakes have occurred in the printed editions? The best we have are some interpretations scattered in the writings of the ARI. Therefore, how marvelous is this day, now that we have finally merited this buried treasure, thanks to this remarkable, wondrous and awesome commentary … by that saint and holy man, our great rabbi Elijah, who has managed to explain it thoroughly, in great depth and breadth, and who has ordered the text in an excellent fashion, by correcting it and removing the shadow of its numerous corrupt and confused earlier versions … And he [the Gaon] himself testified that the ARI had left him much room for improvements.”

The reason why the Gaon was able to defy yeridat hadorot

Nadler (2009:149) poses a poignant question:

How are we to understand the conjunction, in the same texts, of claims to the effect that the Gaon towered not only over the many generations that elapsed since the time of the rishonim but also over the thirteen centuries since the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, with dramatic condemnations of his own generation for its degeneracy?

The answer is provided by the nephew of R. Chaim of Volozhyn, R.  Avraham Simcha of Amchislov. Astoundingly, R. Avraham Simcha ascribes the root cause of the spiritual degradation as being the scholarly obsession with dialectics or intense argumentation, known as pilpul! Pilpul was regarded by him as symptomatic of generational decline. And because the Vilna Gaon was so opposed to the dialectical and pilpulic method of Torah study, he merited to reach the heights he did and was able to understand texts correctly and emend and change them accordingly. R. Avraham Simcha writes:

Now, this degeneration has reached the point of Satan arriving and confusing many students, so that since the time of that acute scholar, Rabbi Jacob Falk, who lived in the sixteenth century, and who was proficient in Torah and pilpul, the fundamental principles – the proper method and order of Torah study – have been forgotten … Thus it was that for many days … indeed, for more than two centuries, the world became entirely bereft of the proper and straightforward methods of Torah study, with the exception of a few exceptional scholars, of whom some had nevertheless become attached to this convoluted method [of pilpul] ... Until all of a sudden, God shined a new light upon us – that great and awesome Gaon and saint, the light of Israel and its holiness, whose scholarship and sanctity have been proclaimed from one end of the world to the other, our great master and teacher, Elijah of Vilna

For we have already learned from our holy master, the ARI of blessed memory, that this [decline] refers only to the generations in general, so that it is still possible for a unique individual (yahid ba-dor), even in the very lowest generation, to be endowed with a soul that is greatly elevated, incomparably higher than any in previous generations. Such a person is sent to correct his own generation as well as the generations of the future.”[12]


According to R. Avraham Simcha, the Vilna Gaon was able to reach the unprecedented heights he attained because he rejected pilpul, the argumentative style that was prevalent in the Jewish world of learning. And thus, the Mitnagdim were able to create an effective counterpart to the Chasidic model of a rebbe, where the Vilna Gaon similarly became extremely venerated and was regarded as being somewhere between an angel of G-d, a Tanna, a Savora, a Gaon and a Rishon. This way, the Mitnagdim did not view the veneration of the Vilna Gaon as violating the rabbinic principle of yeridat hadorot, but instead he becomes the exception that proves the rule (Nadler 2009:151).

According to the Mitnagdim, the yeridat hadorot doctrine was, therefore, still in force and it was just the Vilna Gaon (and perhaps his close disciples) who had risen above it, “but it never affected subsequent generations of the Jewish masses” (Nadler 2009:157). The masses were still locked in perpetual generational decline.

On the other hand, according to the Chasidim, the advent of their founder, the Baal Shem Tov and the subsequent leaders of the Chasidic movement had reversed the yeridat hadorot doctrine not just as a personal exception, but for the masses, so that the world was now on an upward path of spiritual and mystical progression towards the future messianic era:

Rabbi Israel [Baal Shem Tov]… opened the gates of wisdom, discernment and knowledge. He began to investigate the whole of God’s Torah and prepared himself to fathom and explicate the most profound secrets of its wisdom in such a way as to enable the human intellect to grasp and understand it…so that they would understand …that all the words of the Torah had been given to the whole of Israel, with the intent of making each and every soul from among the people of Israel intimately acquainted with them, for the Torah was not given to the angelic hosts but rather to the seed of Jacob whom He chose. Not a single aspect of Torah should be beyond the understanding of every Israelite… Since then, the gates to the Garden of God have remained open[13]

Maimonides never accepted the principle of perpetual decline and he spoke instead of aliyat hadorot, or generational progression through sechel or intellectual persuits and deveopment. This way the world would merge slowly into a natural, non-mystical and non-supernatural messianic era, without even realising it.  [See Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?]

[1] Although the notion of Da’as Torah, as understood today, is very much the vogue in contemporary Judaism across all segments of the religious population. See Kotzk Blog: 048) Contemporary Daas Torah - Protecting Or Overstepping The Boundaries?

[3] Sefer Agadat Bereshit, 1802.

[4] Sefer haEmunah vehaHashgahah (Koenigsburg, 1864).

[5] Sefer Me’oz ha Dat, chapter 4, 44-50,

[6] Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image (Berkeley, 2002), 32–3.

[7] Abraham Yeshaya Karelitz, Sefer Kovets Iggarot (Bnei Brak, 1989), part I, letter 32, 71.

[8] She’elot uTeshuvot Meshivat Nefesh (Warsaw, 1849), part one, §1.

[9] Pinchas of Polotsk, Sefer Pe’ultai haShemini (New York, 2004), vol. 2, 487.

[10] Hayyim of Volozhin, Introduction to Perush al Kammah Aggadot (Vilna, 1800), 3–4 of un-paginated front material.

[11] Introduction to Sefer Mirkevet Eliyahu (New Jersey, 1987 [re-issue of the Shklov 1804 edition of Be’ur haGra al Massechet Avot, Avot deRabbi Natan, uMassachtot Ketanot]), III–IV.

[12] Sefer Midrash Ruth heChadash haNikra Midrash Ne’elam (Jerusalem, 1996), 8–10.

[13] Sefer Beit Yakov (Warsaw, 1890), 8a–b.

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