Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision

The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision

By Arie Morgenstern

Gefen Publishing House 2012
Review Rabbi Ari Kahn
Dr. Arie Morgenstern’s recent book tells a fascinating tale of the relationship between messianism and the return to the Land of Israel, as a tool to bring about the Messianic Age.
The work tells of various rabbinic scholars who, due to mystical insight and various calculations, made their way or attempted to make their way to the Promised Land in order to ensure onset of the Messianic Age. The key to these calculations lies in the view that the six days of creation are an archetype and harbinger for future events - especially the events of the sixth millennia, which are seen as being parallel to the sixth day. To be more precise, each day of the six days of creation is akin to a thousand years (based on the verse in Psalms 90:4).Thus, just as Adam was created on the sixth day, all types of exciting changes were viewed as possible, even likely, in the sixth millennium. And because Judaism’s “internal clock” calculates each day from the preceding night, the period immediately preceding the sixth millennium was viewed as particularly auspicious. Rabbinic tradition gives a precise accounting of each hour of Adam’s day, and, in parallel fashion, the years in the second half of the fifth millenium, calculated by dividing 500 years by “12 hours”, with a result of 41.6. The messianic calculations thus pointed to the year 5500 (1740), and subsequently to the year 5541 (1781). This “simple” calculation is the background for this volume, and in a sense the volume would have been more readable with this introduction.
Morgenstern tells how some of the greatest kabbalists of the time made their way - apparently independently - to the Land of Israel in anticipation of the year 1740. The list includes Rabbis Moshe Haim Luzzato (the Ramchal), Haim Ben Attar (the Ohr HaHaim), and Immanuel Hai Ricchi. Later, Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, begins but does not complete his journey to Israel, in anticipation of the year 1781.
The story is fascinating and the facts Morgenstern presents are compelling. The problem with the book actually lies in the title: while the original Hebrew title was “Mysticism and Messianism: from the Aliya of the Ramchal to the Vilna Gaon”.
מיסטיקה ומשיחיות - מעליית הרמח"ל עד הגאון מווילנא, ירושלים, תשנ"ט
The English, on the other hand, ignores the Ramchal and centers on the Vilna Gaon: ”The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision”. The omission is more than unfortunate. The Vilna Gaon certainly deserves his own study; regrettably this volume is not it. When one reads a book purporting to be about the Vilna Gaon, one cannot help but be surprised that other than a passing reference on page 30, the Vilna Gaon does not make an appearance until page 231, and does not become the center of discussion until page 289!
The translating problems do not end with the title. While reading I was often forced to pause and attempt to reconstruct what the original Hebrew word might have been, in order to understand the English rendition. Translating devekut as “cleavage” simply does not work. Calling the central community organization a “kollel” gives a the modern reader a completely different and inaccurate impression of the subject at hand. Translating mavoi satum as a “cul de sac” instead of what was intended to be a “dead end” does not help when referring to an intellectual destination rather than a geographical one. (“I realized before starting out that my quest might end in a cul de sac because the Gaon was wont to conceal his identity.” Page 334)
Despite these difficulties, the book is readable, though the reader should be aware that this is an academic work, and not necessarily designed to be popular, easy reading. The actual chapters about the Vilna Gaon are interesting, especially the new archival information Morgenstern presents, which is the real value of the book. Though much of the author’s conclusions are conjecture, they are plausible - though certainly not the only possible explanation.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the kabbalistic movements of the 18th century, for those interested in the precursors to the modern Zionist Aliya (Morgenstern has been attacked in academic circles for pointing to earlier Aliya movements than the acknowledged Herzl/Zionist fueled movements). Indeed, anyone interested in messianism which was independent of the Sabbatean movement (another area where Morgenstern confronts accepted academic conclusions) and, most particularly anyone interested in the Vilna Gaon, will find this book invaluable, despite the fact that only a third of the book deals with the Vilna Gaon.
The book is not about the messianic vision of the Vilna Gaon, and only explores a small aspect of that vision. For example, the concept of Messiah Ben Yosef should be a central part of this any discussion of the mystical vision of the Vilna Gaon, and it is lacking in the present volume. Additionally, there is no mention of other works penned by the Vilna Gaon’s students and later disciples who claim to express his messianic teachings, such as the Kol Hator. While the author may argue that these works are irrelevant, the discussion is lacking without them.
I would suggest, for any future editions, re-editing to remove the inappropriate uses of language. I strongly recommend renaming the book in order to bring it in line with the Hebrew tome and to avoid unfounded expectations and eventual dissatisfaction with the important material the book does contain. The present title misrepresents the book’s contents and goals; changing the title will change readers’ expectations, and leave them far more satisfied.