The last decades of the 18th century were a critical time in Jewish history. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) and his circle of friends and colleagues had recently initiated the Haskalah, the Enlightenment movement that would soon lead to Jewish religious and political reform. In the first steps of emancipation in many European countries, Jews acquired greater civil rights and became more integrated into general society, even as they themselves questioned whether this was a positive development. Modern Judaism was emerging.
A new book by the Israeli scholar Arie Morgenstern, The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision, translated from Hebrew into English by Naftali Greenwood, concentrates on this period but is almost silent on these modernizing trends. Instead, it focuses on the arch-traditionalists of this period, both the Chassidim and their opponents, the Mitnaggedim, whose revered leader was Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797).
The book is disorganized and is generally not an easy read. Its title in English is misleading, since the Gaon of Vilna is hardly mentioned until near the end of the book. The original Hebrew title, Mistikah u-meshihiyut [Mysticism and Messianism] is much more apt. The English of the translation includes poor grammar and clumsy and unidiomatic English phrases. But the reader who toughs it out will learn much of interest.
Large numbers of Jewish mystics – Chassidim and Mitnaggedim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim – moved to the Land of Israel in the 18th and early 19th centuries in the sincere conviction that their aliyah would bring the coming of the messiah nearer. They had calculated that various specific dates between 1740 and 1781 would be propitious times for the messiah to come. Just a century after the debacle of the false messianic movement of Shabbetai Tzvi, many Jews were still concentrating their energies on “calculating the end.”
Morgenstern tells the story of the aliyah of many of these Jews who often adopted extreme standards of piety (in particular in areas of public morality and sexuality) in order to force God’s redemptive hand. From our perspective today it is ironic that contemporary arch-traditionalists often dismiss Zionism for allegedly trying to bring redemption without waiting for the messiah. In the 18th century, it was the arch-traditionalists who were moving to Israel because they did not want to wait for God to act.