June 28, 2020
The Vilna Gaon. (Photo: Ariel Bulshtein)
Visitors to the only remaining Jewish cemetery in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius witnessed something unusual on April 23. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the area filled with cars, and out of one spilled high-ranking Lithuanian officials, including Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. Careful to observe social distancing, they all joined Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania Yossi Levy near one of the headstones to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Torah scholar Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon.
The Vilna Gaon was born on April 23, 1720, in the village of Selz in modern-day Belarus. When he was living, Vilnius, known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" was anything but Lithuanian, and home mostly to Poles and Jews. The Holocaust changed that forever.
Although the now-independent Lithuania is home to only a tiny Jewish population, the locals try to remember the rabbi, who helped make their capital famous throughout the Jewish world. One of the streets in the old city of Vilnius has been renamed after the rabbi. In 1997, a statue of him was erected in what used to be the city's Jewish quarter.
The Vilna Gaon lived near the city's great synagogue, which was later badly damaged in World War II and completely destroyed by the Soviets. Still, much of the area remains as it was during his life. The nation's Jewish museum is named after the Vilna Gaon, and another site in Vilnius linked to the rabbi is the Widow and Brothers Romm print shop, which published the first version of the Talmud with the Gaon's commentary.
Ironically, the first version of the statue to commemorate the great scholar portrayed him without any head covering, an error that was later fixed. Although there are many images of the rabbi, no one knows what he really looked like, as all 11 "portraits" were painted long after his death.
The Vilna Gaon monument, Vilnius. (Ariel Bulshtein)
The 300th anniversary of the Gaon's birth inspired decision-makers to step up their efforts to commemorate his life. The Lithuanian Parliament declared 2020 the Year of the Vilna Gaon and the Year of Jewish History. But even before 2020, Lithuanian authorities sought to have the Gaon's manuscripts included in UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme. The Lithuanian Central Bank issued a special commemorative coin to mark the celebrations of his birth and legacy.
The celebration scheduled originally included nearly 70 separate events, but coronavirus upended everything. An international conference on Jewish study and intellectualism in Lithuania from the 18th to 20th centuries has been postponed until October, and possibly to next year.
The Vilna Gaon himself would probably wonder, and maybe be dismayed, if he knew the honors being heaped upon him in his homeland, which since his lifetime has been nearly emptied of its Jewish population. He was noted for scholarship and modesty, so much so that he consistently refused an official position with the local rabbinate, as the job would have disrupted his studies. His sons said he never slept more than two hours a day, divided into four half-hour parts. It's hard to imagine him making time for the "nonsense" of national honors.
The unusual interest in the great scholar's life seems quite appropriate to Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Lina Antanaviciene.
"The Jews were an inseparable part of society in Lithuania from the days of the great duchy in the 14th century," Antanaviciene said.
"The Jewish community made an important contribution to the rise of Lithuania, its history, culture, and science. We see the 300th anniversary of the Gaon's birth an opportunity to promote knowledge of the history of Jews in our country, and improve and preserve their legacy and invest more in keeping that legacy alive. In the broader sense, this is an opportunity for the Lithuanian people and for the entire world to learn more about the achievements of Jews who were born in our country and lived and created for our country, and to be proud of them," the ambassador said.
The Lithuanians' desire to show pride in a spiritual authority who was active in their capital city is worthy of praise, but it is a challenge. The Vilna Gaon's work, his thinking, rulings, and innovations to the Talmud and the Kabbala are not immediately comprehensible to anyone who is not familiar with Jewish texts, and virtually inaccessible to anyone who does not read Hebrew. And without the content, the Vilna Gaon could be reduced to a folkloric figure, as happened with Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, whom residents and visitors associate with the famous legend of the Golom.
The organizers of the year of events honoring the Vilna Gaon will try to bridge knowledge gaps with an exhibition titled "The Years of Eliyahu," which is scheduled to open in October at the National Library of Lithuania and will focus on the rabbi's enormous influence on Judaism. State authorities plan to borrow the famous notebook from the Gaon's own synagogue, which is currently preserved at the Yiddish Scientific Institute in New York, for the exhibit.
The Lithuanian national broadcast company is making a special effort to bring the Vilna Gaon's work to the general public. A special radio program devoted to the Gaon shared some of his pearls of wisdom with listeners, and stressed his critical approach as well as his broad familiarity with general subjects like mathematics and astronomy. The Gaon wrote a book on the sciences, and was also knowledgeable about engineering, biology, geography, linguistics, and music.
The broadcast underscored the Gaon's importance as a spiritual authority not only to the Jewish people, and shared a piece of his practical advice: "Today, this teaching from the Vilna Gaon is important to us. If a person desires to understand something, he must follow three rules: to look at what he is shown, to hear what he is told, and to feel all this in his heart."
Ambassador Antanaviciene agreed that the legacy of the Vilna Gaon includes universal messages.
"The Vilna Gaon's philosophy is as relevant in the changing world of today as it was in the 18th century. Living in a community, while developing independent thought and aspiring to make positive changes in society — that teaches us an important lesson about the development of modern democracy in Lithuania," she said.