Showing posts with label The Vilna Geon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Vilna Geon. Show all posts


Eliyahu from Vilnius

The Geon from Vilna considered learning Torah the highest service of God.
In this he was depending on statements in the Talmud (Yerushalmi Peah chapter 2). Also there is considerable support for this idea in the Zohar. The disciple of the Gra goes into this in detail in his book the Nefesh Hachaim.

.  The fact is the Gra has support from the Talmud. There is a Halacha that when there is a mitzvah that needs doing and it can't be done by someone else one should interrupt his learning of Torah to attend to that Mitzvah. And praying to God to be saved from sin and to be drawn towards His service is a mitzvah that can't be done by anyone else.

The Gra (Eliyahu from Vilnius) is someone that is not charismatic. You can't get excited about the Gra. But it is possible to get excited about the Torah.

I sadly dropped my extent of involvement with the Torah. Sure I would keep on learning to some degree, but mainly my time was taken up by kivrei tzadikim [graves of saints] and saying lots of tehilim [psalms] and the like. Anything but Torah. And I discovered and odd fact. That when one drops  Torah he can't just pick her up again when he pleases.


Eliyahu from Vilnius and learning Torah

Eliyahu from Vilnius was very influential. It was his emphasis that learning Torah is the central thing . Yet the need for an authoritative biography has not been filled.. So far all we have is the type of silly, story book tales you can see in religious book stores. A few years back I was hanging out in Netivot in southern Israel, and there was a three volume set (HaGeon by Aliach) that was very well done, and people were telling me I should buy it. I did not because I was about to come to Uman and I had already too much baggage. But later I found out that three volume set was subject to excommunication. The book was apparently was not politically correct. I am pretty sure that there must have been people that did not like the idea that the Gra (short for the Vilna Geon, Eliyahu from Vilnius) was against certain subgroups in the world of Orthodox Judaism. But why that should be a surprise to people, I do not know. Or why that should be a reason to suppress the only well researched book written on an academic level on the Gra.

It is fairly well known the Gra thought that a well known group of Orthodox Jews was the Sitra Achra. [Or had fallen into the "Dark Side" in English vernacular and were teaching doctrines that  were subverting the Torah, all while pretending to be committed Orthodox Jews. [This group using  good and experienced operators, was able  by the use of psychological methods, to alter the loyalties of an individual so deftly that he himself did not suspect that he has  changed.] What is the great news? We know this. It is uncomfortable to know this for people that find inspiration in the teachings of Breslov but that is no reason to subvert the simple historical facts . In fact, there is an idea of  Nachman  that helps me to deal with the fact that there are disagreements between tzadikim (saints). He considers arguments between saints to be an essential part of the natural order,-without which there could not be free will. [Ontological undecidablity see Kelley Ross and Schelling ]

When I asked someone from Bnei Brak to bring me this three volume set, I was told it was written by a "baal teshuva" (newly religious). The ultimate put-down. However, the book was by a well known grandson of a famous Rav in Bnei Brak and he was asked to write the book by  Rav Kanievsky and  research for five years was done to produce it.] At any rate, my learning partner suggested that it is important to find this book because apparently it has a good analysis of how the Gra thought people should learn Torah.



Rav Eliyahu from Vilna. The Vilna Geon

Rav Eliyahu from Vilna held from learning Torah to a high degree. But there obstacles preventing people from learning Torah. And the main one seems to be  a kind of spiritual obstacle. It seems like the Torah is so precious that one needs some kind of extra merit to be able to learn and keep it. At least this looks like what the Vilna Geon was thinking. The Torah is the main thing. And the tzadik is connected and tied to the Torah. So for people that have fallen from the Torah, the way to get back to Torah is to be close to a tzadik.

 I think however the only advice is that one should do his best to go out and get the basic books of Torah and to learn them on his own. That is  the Old Testament,  The Babylonian Talmud, the poskim--that is the Rambam, Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Karo, the  basic commentaries Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik [Chidushei HaRambam], and the writings of Isaac Luria. Do this in your own home so  you are not dependent on others to have a place to learn Torah.

And there is something to be gained from this endeavor.  He who accepts on himself the yoke of Torah from heave there is removed from him the yoke of the government and the yoke of making a living.

And if anyone needs to learn Torah it is certainly not just frum(Orthodox) people. Everyone needs to learn Torah because everyone needs to become free from the government and free of  drudgery. I have never hear of a person who enjoys waiting in line at government agencies or enjoys interaction with any government, or enjoys having his time wasted on drudgery. Why not take the words of the sages at face value and start to learn Torah today?
But clearly not everyone is fit to learn Torah. There are obstacles that are placed in front of people to keep them from this great gift. There are questions in philosophy which make even the existence of a law given by the First Cause impossible. That is metaphysics has had a good number of of people that thought it is impossible. And then there are questions in one's own mind? I can't account for all the questions but I think a good deal of them have to do with abuse of Torah. And there are lots of variations of that. Like, "If Torah is so great why is so and so a jerk?" Or "If Torah is so great why did so and so suffer." These are all good questions. The last was asked by Job and God told him that his questions were good questions and that his friends that claimed he was suffering because of sin were in fact wrong. And in fact we know from the very beginning of the book that he was suffering in spite of his being righteous. So by analogy to the first question it is possible to say it also is a valid question. But in spite of this it is expected of us to do our best to discover Gods will for our lives and to fulfill it. That fact that others do not succeed to not mean we should follow their example.

This does not mean not to go to university. The Vilna Geon clearly himself  wrote  book on Trigonometry and told one of his students to translate all of Euclid into Hebrew and to publish it. Not does this mean not to work for a living. It only means that when one is not working or doing university he should learn Torah in every day in this way. To have one session in the Old Testament in Hebrew. He should start from the beginning and have place marker in the book and just say the words in order. If one does not understand Hebrew then he should learn it with an English translation along side of it. Don't do any commentaries because then you will never finish it.  You  need to get to the end. Then the second time you can add commentaries if you want. Then you need to have a separate session with the Gemara. Start from Brachot and say page after page until you have finished Shas at least once. And the same goes for the Rambam and the Tur and the writings of Isaac Luria.

I should mention  that none of the above requires one to accept any particular set  of beliefs.  All one is required according to Rabbi Joseph Albo is rather common sense propositions. That things had a beginning and so needed something to begin them- a first cause you could call it. And that there was only one first cause. Not two or more. Its seems straightforward enough. It is hard to know what kind on alternative reality people need to believe in in order to deny either of these simple propositions.


In order to understand the Talmudic tractate about idolatry [called Avoda Zara] it seems to me to be necessary to get an idea of what idolatry is.
 It seems to me to be necessary to understand what was going on in lets say Athens at the time when people really believed in idols.

This would not refer to the philosophers who probably thought most of what was going on in the temples of the gods was ridiculous.

Now for people who were not specifically devoted to one god or the other it clearly was a benefit to have the Pantheon in Athens so that an average businessman on his way to work could make a quick detour to the Pantheon and offer scarifies to all the gods or at least the major ones, (and specifically the one that he thought might have some power over his future transactions).

But of course, there were people that were devotes of a particular god. They would spend as much time  possible in the temple of that god and would do as much services to that god as possible. E.g., devotes of Dionysus would go around in groups in a state of ecstasy and frenzy and do damage as they would go around the city and countryside. (Wine was of benefit to help them get into a state of frenzy.) 

Devotees of Venus would have other services they thought would be pleasing to Venus. But that would not stop them from offering sacrifices to propitiate other gods also.

The major experience of idolatry was not fear of retribution. The god that one was devoted to provided  the meaning of life and of the universe and everything else.

Nowadays that science and philosophy have pushed the realm of religion into the background, we are not aware of how much the gods were a major source of the very meaning of life for the ancients.

The Talmud itself does not deal with any of this. It is interested solely in the laws relevant to the statutes of the gods. The reason is that the religion of the Talmud is monotheism. The underlying assumption of monotheism is that there is a First Cause of everything that exists and that this First Cause provides the meaning of everything that exits. He made it all for some purpose.

Nowadays, we do not find devotes of Dionysus or Venus. People do try to get into states of frenzy and do seek physical pleasures that one might associate with Venus but without being devotes of Venus. But we do find modern substitutes that can provide people with the same kind of experiences  that devotes of the gods had.

There are several major examples but certainly the cult the Gra ut into excommunication would be a good example. Graves of tzadikim [saints] also for that matter. [note 1] The kind of frenzy of Left Wing Politics seems to be also a good example.

[note 1] For the sake of clarity I think it is good to learn the books of a tzadik and to follow his teachings. I think one can do so and should do so without crossing the line into idolatry. But in spite of that there are people would do cross the line.

In fact I think after seeing some of the problems there are in the world of orthodox Judaism that at the very least we can say his understanding of Torah is deep and profound.