The Original Jewish Genius

How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement.

Painting of the Vilna Gaon, 1915
Painting of the Vilna Gaon, 1915

Chesdovi/Yesodei Hatorah School/Wikimedia Commons.

Are certain ethnic groups predisposed to excel in the classroom? The debate has heated up of late in academic circles. In a new book called Legacy, the geneticist Harry Ostrer of Albert Einstein Medical School argues that Jewish intellectual achievement is the result of genetic makeup and Jews’ fortuity to have lived among cultures that valued academics. Run Unz in the the American Conservative countered with an exhaustive study documenting that contemporary “Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents.” While American Jews continue to value education, the percentage of geniuses among them seems to be dropping. Asians, Unz claims, are “the New Jews of American intellectual life,” outperforming their peers.

The switch from Jews to Asians highlights the capriciousness of genetic arguments to explain intellectual achievement. Before genetic arguments were used to account for Jewish genius, they were employed to justify why Jews possessed inferior minds.  The German composer Richard Wagner famously thought that the Jewish race could never produce anything novel because Jews lacked creativity. While the likes of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman discredited Wagner’s drivel, people still wonder: If not race and genetics, then what is behind Jews’ intellectual achievements?

The idea of Jewish genius begins with an 18th-century figure called the Gaon of Vilna—the only person in Jewish history, in fact, to be known simply as the “Genius.” The sobriquet was a function of the breadth and depth of his writings, which ranged from treatises on mathematics and grammar to commentaries on mystical and rabbinic works. So profound was the Gaon’s imprint on the Jewish imagination that some claim his grammatical insights inspired the rebirth of the Hebrew language. Others claim him to be a forefather of Zionism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds him up as the first person to combine traditional Jewish learning with the study of the sciences. The literary critic Harold Bloom points to him as a “beacon for the entire Judaic intellectual and spiritual enterprise.”

Born in 1720 into a respected rabbinic family, the Gaon, whose first name was Elijah, distinguished himself from early adolescence through his mastery of biblical and Talmudic literature. In his youth he is said to have aspired to become a doctor. In the manner of scholars of the time, he wandered anonymously around various towns before settling in the city of Vilna (now known as Vilnius), located in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Gaon is said to have motivated his students to develop the idea of “torah lishma,” “learning for its own sake.” While study had always been valued in Jewish history, Elijah went further, arguing that it was a religious end in and of itself. Even the fulfillment of laws and rituals played a secondary role to intellectual activities. This principle contributed to a new model of Judaism based around educational institutions. Elijah’s students promoted study houses, or yeshivot, which provided an elite religious education to Jews from all socio-economic backgrounds.

The Gaon expressed his dedication to study through his chosen genre, the commentary. Unlike codes or essays, the art of commentary requires interpretation that is at once faithful to the source and novel enough to shift the reader’s viewpoint. The Gaon’s style was to condense 2,000 years of debates recorded on a legal ruling into a 10- or 15-word précis, providing readers with the most essential information on the subject matter.   The commentaries also radically criticized the positions of previous interpreters. Elijah famously went against Jewish custom, arguing, for example, that Jewish men were not obligated to cover their heads with kippot. His critical instincts and boldness vis-à-vis the tradition lead 19th-century Zionists and even secularists, like Peretz Smolenskin, to claim the master as a harbinger to their ideologies.

Jewish kids of the period did not know the Gaon from his elite commentaries but from the pictures their parents hung on their kitchen walls. There, Elijah sat with his left hand folded over the top edges of a large tome, his right hand gently arched on a quill. The Orthodox painted him with phylacteries and a prayer shawl; the secularists left him in Polish garb, but as the Yiddish writer, Moses Gertz recalled, “every home in Lithuania was decorated with the picture of the Gaon.” Even the early secular Zionist leader Moses Lilienblum, who criticized some of his contemporaries for overestimating Elijah’s influence on the emergence of secular ideas and scientific achievements, admitted, “who knows if Lithuanian lands would have ever experienced enlightenment if not for the inspiration of the Vilna Gaon?”

What etched the Vilna Gaon into the minds of his contemporaries and their descendants were folk stories about the personal cost of his intellectual prowess. The Gaon’s children say in the introduction to their father’s commentary to Jewish law that his intellectual feats were achieved by a polyphasic sleep cycle, which divided rest time into four half-hour intervals, three during the night and one during the day. His students claimed that when the Gaon’s eyes might have been ready to close, he dipped his feet in ice water. His daily food intake reportedly consisted of “a thin slice of stale bread no larger than a measurement of two olives soaked in water,” served to him “once in the morning and then again in the evening.” More disturbing, the Gaon was said to have “ingested spoiled food” so that he never would enjoy the taste of anything more than study.

In one startling vignette, his children recounted that as their father was preparing to leave on a journey of self-reflection, his favorite son fell gravely ill. The Gaon refused to change his plans. Only after a month away “not thinking about his family or his children” did the Genius find himself on the toilet one day wondering about the boy’s well-being (one is not supposed to think thoughts of Torah at that moment). He immediately returned home.

The episode was not anomalous; the Gaon was a terribly absent parent. His children divulge that he never once wrote them a letter. Nor when he saw them, once every year or two, “did he ever ask about their work or their well-being.” His sons note that their father did not even think to inquire after their homes, their children, or their livelihoods. After an enjoyable hour of speaking with them, the Gaon would hurry back to his studies so as not to waste time. He had a similar relationship with a beloved grandchild, who said of him, “I was in Vilna for over three years and when I visited, he did not inquire after my household or my children until a few weeks into our meetings.”

The Gaon also dismissed his ancestors. Never once does he mention in his commentaries anything uttered or written by his learned father. He had no compunction saying that on certain topics “it would have been better” had his great-grandfather, the 17th-century rabbi Moses Rivkes “kept his mouth shut.”

At the time that Wagner asserted that genius was based on race, and religious people insisted that the Heavens bestowed it upon select individuals, the Gaon’s 19th-century biographer, Yehoshua Heschel Levin, maintained that “the Gaon’s achievements were not the products of any teacher or external forces.” Rather, they were the product of work, will, and the aspiration to overcome the weight of history and the hurdles of social convention. Levin’s hagiography was reprinted nearly 10 times over the next 50 years and sparked numerous other works that depicted the Gaon as an icon of Jewish intellectual excellence.

And yet, like all Polish Jews at the time, the Gaon was locked out of the halls of Vilnius University, even though it was located next door to his home. He never expressed disappointment or a sense of inferiority about this ban or his larger exclusion from Western intellectual life. However, other Jews after his death tried to gain entrance to European institutions of higher learning. In the 1860s, they began to be admitted in significant numbers to Russian universities, but by 1887, Moscow and St. Petersburg universities capped Jewish enrollment at 3 percent. In the United States, unofficial Jewish quotas at major universities lasted deep into the second half of the 20th century. And yet Jews disproportionately contributed to the intellectual life of the modern era.

No one person can be said to have inspired millions of Jewish students to overcome the roadblocks put before them. Still, it’s telling that Jewish parents of the generations following the Gaon thought otherwise. Playing on the Yiddish vocalization of his name, they bade their children, “Vil-nor Goen:” “If you will it, you too can be a genius.”