I was once asked if traditional Jewish scholars rewrite history. My answer was that we did in the past, we no longer do it, thus we never did it.
Among the many Torah scholars and luminaries who guided the people of Israel throughout the ages, few reached the stature of Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon. The impact of the Gaon on Jewish practice, philosophy, lifestyle and thought since his death in 1798 has been immense. In the decades following his passing, many of his Torah insights were shared, taught and published widely.
Unfortunately, in many instances, teachings were attributed to the Gaon incorrectly. It appears that some Torah scholars harbouring a desire to make an impression would attribute their personal insights to the Gaon. Thus not every Torah thought presented “in the name of the Gaon” actually came from the Gaon.
At the same time, there are teachings that are undoubtedly of the Gaon, even though some agenda-driven individuals allege that he never said them. In particular, I am referring to the story of Rabbi Baruch Schick.
Rabbi Schick was born in 1744 in Shklov, Belarus. After studying Talmud and gaining a reputation as a scholar, Rabbi Schick developed an interest in science. In 1777, he composed a work about human anatomy and physiology which he published in Berlin, the city that symbolized the enlightenment.
The following year, Rabbi Schick visited Vilnius and had a meeting with the Gaon. After sharing some of his publications, Rabbi Schick informed the great rabbi that he was planning to translate and publish Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew. Rabbi Schick, in his introduction to the work, published two years later, shared with his readers the reaction of the Gaon to his endeavour:
“I heard from his (the Gaon’s) holy tongue that for every deficiency of knowledge in the sciences, he will have a hundred deficiencies of knowledge in Torah, for Torah and science are closely related. He commanded me to translate everything possible of the sciences into our holy tongue in order to spread knowledge among our people.”
It is quite clear from these words that the Gaon valued general studies and did not believe that one should focus solely on the Talmud and other Jewish traditional texts. Yet, as the Jewish world has progressed in the two centuries since his passing, some had difficulty with the words attributed to the Gaon by Rabbi Schick.
In 1965, a pseudo-historian by the name of Betzalel Landau published a biography of the Gaon. In a chapter dealing with the Gaon’s attitude towards secular studies, he quotes from the introduction to Rabbi Schick’s work, and then added, “I doubt if these words actually came out of the mouth of the Gaon. I surmise that the listener (Rabbi Schick) did not fully understand the intention of the great master.”
The Gaon lived for 18 years after the publication of the Hebrew edition of Euclid’s Elements by Rabbi Schick. If indeed he was misquoted, the Gaon would have had an opportunity to expressed himself on the issue, and we would likely have a record of it. The lack of such evidence makes it clear that until the second half of the 20th century, no one had a problem with the Gaon stating that a deficiency in sciences, could lead to a great deficiency in Torah.
We might ask why a contemporary author would decide to rewrite the history of such a luminary as the Gaon. The answer can be found in the associations that Rabbi Schick had with members of the Haskalah movement, the European Jewish enlightenment, including Moses Mendelssohn. For many traditional thinkers, Mendelssohn, and everyone associated with him, are not welcome in the halls of Torah studies. Landau clearly felt a need to distance the revered luminary from a man connected to the enlightenment.
So it appear that, at times, we do indeed rewrite our own history.
Rabbi Yirmiya Milevsky is spiritual director of Congregation B’nai Torah in Toronto.