October 15, 2023

The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna

"The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna" By Immanuel Etkes, Stanford University Press; 1st edition (Oct. 31 2023).

Immanuel Etkes is Professor Emeritus of the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also the author of, "The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader" and, "Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady: The Origins of Chabad Hasidism." 

Description of the book (Stanford University Press):

The Gaon of Vilna was the foremost intellectual leader of non-Hasidic Jewry in eighteenth-century Europe; his legacy is claimed by religious Jews, both Zionist and not. In the mid-twentieth century, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Rivlin wrote several books advancing the myth that the Gaon was an early progenitor of Zionism. Following the 1967 War in Israel, messianic sentiments spread in some circles of the national-religious public in Israel, who embraced this myth and made it a central component of the historical narrative they advanced. For those who identified with the religious Zionist enterprise, the myth of the Gaon and his disciples as the first Zionists was seen as proof of the righteousness of their path. 

In this book, Israeli scholar Immanuel Etkes explores how what he calls the "Rivlinian myth" took hold, and demonstrates that it has no basis in historical reality. Etkes argues that proponents of the Rivlinian myth seek to blur the distinction between Zionism as a modern national movement or a religious one—a distinction that underlies many of the central conflicts of contemporary Israeli politics. As historian David Biale suggests in his brief foreword to this English translation, "what is at stake here is not only historical truth but also the very identity of Zionism as a nationalist movement."
Elijah ben Solomon Zalman known as the Vilna Gaon (April 23, 1720 – Vilnius October 9, 1797) was a Lithuanian Jewish Talmudist, halakhist, kabbalist, and the foremost leader of misnagdic (non-hasidic) Jewry of the past few centuries. He is commonly referred to in Hebrew as ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna, "the pious genius from Vilnius".

Through his annotations and emendations of Talmudic and other texts, he became one of the most familiar and influential figures in rabbinic study since the Middle Ages. He is considered as one of the Acharonim, and by some as one of the Rishonim. Large groups of people, including many yeshivas, uphold the set of Jewish customs and rites (minhag), the "minhag ha-Gra", named after him, and which is also considered by many to be the prevailing Ashkenazi minhag in Jerusalem.

Born in Sielec in the Brest Litovsk Voivodeship (today Sialiec, Belarus), the Gaon displayed extraordinary talent while still a child. By the time he was twenty years old, rabbis were submitting their most difficult halakhic problems to him for legal rulings. He was a prolific author, writing such works as glosses on the Babylonian Talmud and Shulchan Aruch known as Bi'urei ha-Gra ("Elaborations by the Gra"), a running commentary on the Mishnah, Shenoth Eliyahu ("The Years of Elijah"), and insights on the Pentateuch entitled Adereth Eliyahu ("The Cloak of Elijah"), published by his son. Various Kabbalistic works have commentaries in his name, and he wrote commentaries on the Proverbs and other books of the Tanakh later on in his life. None of his manuscripts were published in his lifetime.
An excerpt from the introduction in, "The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna" (via Google Books):
AT A CONFERENCE HELD AT Jerusalem's International Convention Center on October 15, 2009, on the bicentennial of the immigration of the Gaon of Vilna's students to the Land of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who was then speaker of the Knesset and later would become president of the State of Israel, said, among other things:
Our family [the Rivlin family] can take pride in the steadfastness and the deep roots we have struck in the Land of Israel over the past two centuries, being among the first immigrants to come here, a century before the Zionist movement. Some of the family was blessed to serve as trailblazers of the immigration movement commanded by the Gaon of Vilna and his students. Herzl and his associates in the Zionist enterprise can take credit for many things, but the credit for primacy is reserved for our great grandparents, who changed the situation in the Land of Israel and laid the foundations for Zionism. This was the first true aliyah.
Is this really true? Would it be right to regard the Gaon of Vilna and his students, those who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the early nineteenth century, as the first Zionists? Is there a historical basis for the assertion that the immigration of the Gaon's disciples was the "first true aliyah"?

Between 1808 and 1810, a group of Jewish rabbinic scholars from White Russia and Lithuania immigrated to the Land of Israel. Leading the immigrants of over forty households were some of the closest students of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna. This group of immigrants laid the foundations of the settlement in the Land of Israel of the community known as the Prushim. In their outlook, these people were Mitnagdim, opponents of Hasidism, and they regarded themselves as bearers of the legacy of the Vilna Gaon. The immigration of the Prushim in the early nineteenth century is the historical nucleus around which grew the myth according to which the Gaon and his disciples were the first true Zionists. As we shall see, this myth was crafted largely through the broad literary efforts of one man, Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, in the 1930s and 1940s and has been enthusiastically adopted in certain quarters of Israeli society since the Six-Day War. This book is devoted to the task of critically examining that myth in its various incarnations, discussing its reception, and clarifying the motives for its emergence and growth.

Yet before turning to discuss the myth, some words are in order about the historical context of the immigration of the Prushim to the Land of Israel.

Zionism-with its ideals of national revival and independence of the Jewish people through immigration, settlement, and reclamation of the Land of Israel, and productive labor in agriculture and industry there-is a movement that emerged in late nineteenth century, mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet older, traditional Jewish communities did already exist in the Land of Israel. These were bolstered by immigrants who came with different ideals and lived on a different economic basis.

The immigration by the Prushim in the early nineteenth century was in fact the second stage in the development of the Old Yishuv (that is, the Ashkenazi Old Yishuv, or "old settlement") in the Land of Israel. The Prushim's immigration was preceded by an immigration of Hasidim from Eastern Europe. Individual Hasidim came to the Land of Israel in the 1740s, 1750s, and 1760s. A convoy of about three hundred Jews, about half of them Hasidim, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, and Rabbi Israel of Polotsk, immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1777. These immigrants settled in the two "holy cities" in the Galilee-Safed and Tiberias.

Shortly after the immigrants reached the Land of Israel, R. Israel of Polotsk was sent back to Eastern Europe to organize the raising of funds for their community. The underlying assumption for this mission was that the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel were not expected to work for a living but rather to pray and study Torah, while their Hasidic brethren in Eastern Europe were expected to support them. This arrangement was based on three justifications. For one, the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel are public emissaries who are fulfilling the mitzvah of settlement in the Land of Israel; although this mitzvah applies to every Jew, since it is inconceivable that all or most Jews will settle in the Land of Israel, the immigrant Hasidim serve to represent all of their brethren in the Diaspora. For another, the Hasidim who live in the Land of Israel pray for their brethren in the Diaspora; since the Land of Israel is the "gate of heaven," prayers recited there are incomparably more beneficial than those recited in the Diaspora. Finally, the Hasidim who live in the Land of Israel are poor, and it is a mitzvah to support them.

The head of the donation enterprise for the Hasidim in the Land of Israel in the last decades of the eighteenth century was R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder and leader of Chabad Hasidism. At a later stage, additional Hasidic leaders joined to manage the fundraising enterprise. The organizational framework entrusted with the distribution of donations among the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel was the kolel, but over the years, the kolel of the Hasidim split into several kolels, each associated with the regions of Eastern Europe from which the immigrants had come. Thus, a situation arose in which the donations collected in a certain region of Eastern Europe were distributed among the Hasidim who originated from that region.

As said, between 1808 and 1810, several dozen families from Lithuania and White Russia immigrated to the Land of Israel under the leadership of a few students of the Vilna Gaon. These Prushim first settled in Safed, and in 1816 some of them moved to Jerusalem and renewed the Ashkenazi settlement there. About a year after their arrival in the Land of Israel, R. Israel of Shklov, one of the leaders of this community, was sent back to Eastern Europe to organize fundraising there. Indeed, similar to the Hasidim, the Prushim who settled in the Land of Israel were likewise not expected to work for a living but rather to earn a living from the donations of their brothers in the Diaspora. The raising of funds for the Prushim was headed by R. Hayyim of Volozhin, the most senior of the students of the Vilna Gaon and the one who took over his role as the leader of the Mitnagdim camp. Like the Hasidim, the Prushim too established a kolel that was responsible for distributing the donations, through an arrangement known as the haluka.

It is important to note that such reliance on donations from Diaspora Jews was typical of Ashkenazi immigrants (i.e., those of Eastern and Central European origin). For their part, the Sephardim, who until the middle of the nineteenth century constituted the vast majority of the Jews in the Land of Israel, made a living from commerce and small trade, while only the hachamim (i.e., the rabbis) benefited from donations from Jews of the Diaspora. Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim were subjects of the Ottoman Empire and knew the language and customs of the region, and their economic base was no different from that of Sephardic Jews who lived in other realms of the empire.

The immigrations of both the Hasidim and Prushim to the Land of Israel can be characterized as traditional. These were aliyot of people belonging to the spiritual-religious elite, whose purpose in immigrating to the Land of Israel was a quest to elevate their spirituality and quality of worship. For both the Hasidim and the Prushim, settling in the Land of Israel had special meaning, in addition to the value of fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling there and the possibility of fulfilling the additional mitzvoth that apply to the Land. The Hasidim, who prioritized fervent prayer as a means of mystical communication with the divinity, greatly prized the opportunity to pray at the tombs of celebrated Mishnaic and Kabbalist figures. The Prushim, by contrast, greatly prized the opportunity to study Torah in the sanctified atmosphere of the Land of Israel.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, a sharp gap developed between the religious ideals of the early members of the Old Yishuv and the reality that was emerging in the four "holy cities": Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and Jerusalem. The improvement in conditions of personal safety in the Land of Israel and the improvement in the means of maritime transportation led to an increase in Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe. Many of the new immigrants were not among the class of rabbinic scholars for whom the contributions of the Jews of the Diaspora had been intended. Not all the descendants of the first immigrants were leading scholars either. This created a situation in which donations were distributed also to those who were not engaged in Torah study. Moreover, the increase in the number of recipients of the haluka funds was not matched by an increase in the amount of donations. As a result, many members of the Old Yishuv faced increasing economic hardship. What exacerbated the distress was the unequal nature of the distribution of funds.