Elijah and the Enlightenment
Elijah and the Enlightenment
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the philosophical leanings of Elijah ben Solomon during the Enlightenment. Historians commonly misrepresented Elijah by stating that he was a traditionalist who defended traditional rabbinic Judaism. It argues that Elijah actually questioned the canons of rabbinic authority through his hermeneutic idealism, while his opponent, Moses Mendelssohn, ardently defended the historical rabbinic tradition to German-speaking audiences.
ELIJAH BELIEVED THAT JUDAISM AND JEWISH TEXTS EXPRESSED UNIVERSAL and rational principles. In contrast, Moses Mendelssohn, Leibniz's best-known Jewish follower, attempted to convince Germans that rabbinic Judaism highlights the social and political limitations of idealism.
This is not the way Elijah and Mendelssohn are commonly represented. Generally, historians have described the men as two poles of eighteenth-century Jewish history, with the Gaon (Elijah of Vilna) described as the defender of rabbinic or “traditional” Judaism,1 and the “Jewish Socrates” (Mendelssohn) characterized as the founder of “modern” Judaism.2 The historian Heinrich Graetz, for instance, went so far as to liken Mendelssohn's accomplishments, specifically his translation of and partial commentary to the Hebrew Bible, Biur al ha-Torah (published 1780–1783), to the reforms of Martin Luther.3 And “just as Luther had overthrown the papacy,” Heinrich Heine wrote, “Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud, for he rejected tradition and asserted that the Bible is the most important aspect of religion.”4 When Shraga Feivush of Dubrowna published Aderet Eliyahu, the commentary to the Pentateuch written by his father-in-law, Elijah, he too played into the stereotypes, (p.64) arguing that the Gaon was a traditionalist. He explained, “The Gaon Rabbi Elijah's exegetical approach was to [follow] the early Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, locating all aspects of the law within Scripture.”5
A closer examination of these two important figures, however, suggests that scholars have misunderstood their protagonists. In fact, it was the Gaon's hermeneutic idealism that called into question the canons of rabbinic authority, while Mendelssohn tirelessly defended the historical legitimacy of the rabbinic tradition to German-speaking audiences.
The confusion has in large measure resulted from scholars' efforts to employ the dyad of “modern” and “traditional” instead of considering fully the distinct social dynamics of Vilna and Berlin. Often considered the eastern and western capitals of modern Jewish Europe, Elijah's Vilna and Mendelssohn's Berlin were vastly different types of Jewish centers that hosted distinct intellectual experiences: Vilna was a large provincial town with a Jewish majority, whereas Berlin was a cosmopolitan city with a tiny Jewish minority.6 And even though the Gaon never engaged directly in the high-stake debates surrounding biblical exegesis in eighteenth-century Christian academic quarters, Mendelssohn already in 1759 was ardently defending the sages and Judaism in general to German intellectual elites.
Only by ignoring this social context could a historian like Graetz mistakenly conjecture that a “traditionalist” like the Gaon was someone “who, in a more favorable environment might, like Mendelssohn, have effected much for the moral advancement of his co-religionists.”7 Rather, living in the densely populated Jewish locale of Vilna and not as a minority in acculturated Berlin was precisely what allowed the Gaon to challenge the rabbinic tradition. Evaluating the Gaon by his proximity to Enlightenment trends in western Europe misses the essential point that his role as a leader of a majority culture had a profound effect both on the formation of his worldview and on the legacy of Jewish intellectual confidence and political agency that he bequeathed to nineteenth- and twentieth-century eastern European Jewry. Indeed, the demographic strength of Vilna Jewry allowed the Gaon to adopt positions that Mendelssohn would have considered detrimental to the cause of Jewish emancipation, and perhaps even would have deemed sacrilegious. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn mobilized his defense of the rabbinic tradition precisely because he was fighting for the political recognition of German Jewry. Mendelssohn's understanding of Judaism was not an apology for (p.65) an increasingly acculturated German Jewry, but a forceful argument for pluralism and minority rights.
The Long Road between Vilna and Berlin
Vilna and Berlin are 514 miles (828 kilometers) apart. In good weather, a hasty trip on horseback in the eighteenth century would have taken roughly two weeks.8 Germans referred to Vilna as die Wilde, a nod to the city's various ethnic groups and ideological unruliness, as well as to the treacherous forests that surrounded the city.9 In the late eighteenth century, people typically traveled from Vilna to Königsberg, and from there sailed westward. The majority of Jewish scholars immigrating to Berlin during this period were from the western provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.10
Berlin grew rapidly in the eighteenth century. Jews and numerous other émigrés flocked to the Prussian administrative offices, commercial opportunities, and mercantile businesses sprouting up in the city.11 Berlin, known for its intellectual ferment, was home to thinkers such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), Christoph Nicolai (1733–1811), and Johann Georg Sulzer (1720–1779), all of whom were long-standing friends of Mendelssohn by 1755. Mendelssohn frequented Nicolai's garden and Lessing's home, and was a “pioneer,” along with the women of the Berlin salons, in cultivating contacts with the city's elite.12 His wife, Fromet Gugenheim (1737–1812), attended the theater with Christian friends.13
By 1750, the 3,000 to 3,500 Jews living in Berlin were a minority in Old Berlin (population 22,000), and comprised only 3 percent of the 120,000 total population of regional Berlin.14 Only a handful cultivated social relationships with Christian sectors of society. Those who were afforded such opportunities did so, like Mendelssohn, by mastering German, studying western philosophy, and dressing in contemporary styles. As this trend toward acculturation gathered force, some would leave the Jewish fold entirely. There are records of 345 Jews in Berlin converting to Christianity from 1770 to 1804.15
Berlin Jewry's minority status shaped the style of its intellectual output. Mendelssohn's efforts were primarily devoted to communicating with a Protestant majority culture in Berlin and in Prussian lands more broadly.16 His Jewish writings offered a philosophic response to his Christian interlocutors' harsh criticisms of the rabbinic tradition. As (p.66) Lessing's play Nathan the Wise illustrates, Mendelssohn was recognized by his Christian peers as the undisputed leader of a minority group and defender of Judaism, due to his reputation as a genius as well as his participation in the debates on the rabbinic tradition. Well before the publication of his own biblical commentary, Mendelssohn reviewed Robert Lowth's groundbreaking work on biblical poetry, De sacra poesi Hebraeorum, praelectiones academicae Oxonii habitae (1763).17 In Prussian lands, Lowth's work was privileged over what was perceived as the more heretical and radical historical criticism expressed by Spinoza's followers in England.18 Nonetheless, even Lowth, whose theories in some respects were adopted by Mendelssohn, made it a point to inform his readers that he “pays no attention to the fictions of the Masorites [sic].”19 Lowth mocked the ignorance of the rabbis in matters of poetic understanding and literary scholarship.20 He was not alone in this estimation of rabbinic interpretation. His student Johann David Michaelis, in the introduction to his Mosaisches Recht (1770), demurs that while the “intellectually deficient rabbis” of the Talmud may have something to teach us about Jewish law as it developed in Second Temple culture, their words have little value for illuminating Mosaic law itself.21 Though some like F. A. Wolf saw value in the Masoretic tradition,22 most German scholars from Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) to Mendelssohn's close friend Lessing contested, and in many instances detested, rabbinic methods of interpretation.
Criticism of the rabbinic tradition was often connected to the debates surrounding Jewish emancipation. The great champion of Jewish political rights Christian Wilhelm Dohm (1751–1820) suggested that Jews leaned on the laws of the despised Pharisees because they had been denied full participation in civil society. Dohm believed that for Jews to become “upright” they would need—with German encouragement—to reclaim their biblical roots. He was convinced that as soon as Jews were accepted into civil society, they would cast aside what he saw as the crutch of rabbinic law.23
Mendelssohn anticipated Dohm's critique in 1759, in a passionate defense of the Masoretic tradition and rabbinic exegesis.24 Prompted by Johann Jacob Rabe's announcement of a new German translation of the Mishnah, he wrote an anonymous essay in the prominent progressive German journal Literaturbrief: Briefe die Neueste Litteratur betreffend. Mendelssohn's essay is written from the point of view of a non-Jew skeptical of Judaism and especially of the rabbinic tradition. When the (p.67) non-Jew “once upon a time … happened upon a rabbi, a well-known sage of his people,” he asked the rabbi for his thoughts regarding rabbinic interpretation and Talmudic study. The rabbi admits that he “is well aware of the miserable and dishonest view, even the wisest of your people, have towards our [rabbinic] knowledge.” As the rabbi tells it, German academics distort rabbinic literature and exegesis and incite “bloody persecutions” against Jews. Eventually, the rabbi launches into a spirited, albeit apologetic, defense of rabbinic exegesis, pointing out that only a small percent of the Talmud contains “fairy-tale like” elements, and these are meant to be interpreted allegorically. “The rest of the Talmud,” he contends, “contains thorough examinations and evaluations of our laws and rituals and the commandments of the Old Testament.”25
Mendelssohn expanded his fictional rabbi's argument—this time in his own voice—in his commentary to Ecclesiastes, published in 1770 in Berlin. Only one year after Mendelssohn produced his commentary, in 1771, Jacob Rabe published a German translation. Mendelssohn unabashedly and publicly defended the rabbinic tradition in that commentary and elsewhere. In the summer of 1770, he boasted to his friend Elkan Herz that he never wavered in the authority he granted to the sages. “I am far removed from declaring a single utterance of our Sages of blessed memory to be a Scharteke [trash],” Mendelssohn asserted. “There is not a single gentile scholar who has leveled this charge against me or misrepresented my words to this effect.”26
Finally, Mendelssohn would forcefully argue in Jerusalem (published in 1783) that rabbinic law was not an impediment to Jewish emancipation, but rather the very standard against which the state's tolerance could be measured. Jews would gain emancipation not as members of a universal biblical religion (as Dohm had argued) but as members of a religion valued for its distinctive features as expressed by the rabbinic tradition. Hence Mendelssohn's plea to governments not to “feign agreement where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence.”27
Around the time that Mendelssohn was writing Jerusalem, he tacitly agreed to coauthor the Biur.28 One might assume that Mendelssohn wrote the Biur with an exclusively Jewish readership in mind and therefore addressed strictly Jewish communal concerns.29 His views in the Biur vis-à-vis rabbinic authority, however, were consistent with those exegetical and philosophical positions that he had expressed before German Protestant audiences.
(p.68) In his introduction to the Biur, Mendelssohn repeated his interpretive credo: “If we see that the sensus literalis of the text contradicts and opposes the authoritative interpretation—as it has been given to us by the Sages—to the point that there is no way to justify both readings, then we are obligated to follow the reading of the Sages…. For we have been given the tradition of the Rabbis, whose interpretations enlighten.”30
While Mendelssohn wrote the Biur for a primarily Jewish audience, his positions regarding the authenticity of rabbinic exegesis were largely a response to attacks launched against the rabbis by non-Jewish German scholars. No fewer than twenty-one subscribers to the first printing of the Biur were non-Jews.31 Though the Biur itself was written in Hebrew script, a German script edition—translated by Mendelssohn and Friedrich Christian Löftier (1752–1816) and intended for a Christian audience—appeared not long after the original publication.32 More importantly, by 1780 a translation of Mendelssohn's Alim li-Terufah, where his fullest defense of rabbinic exegesis appears, was distributed throughout Protestant intellectual circles. Indeed, Mendelssohn personally sent the translation to Protestant clergymen.
By connecting rabbinic exegesis and biblical literature, Mendelssohn hoped to refute those like Dohm who distinguished Mosaic law from rabbinic norms. Separating rabbinic exegesis from the biblical word and world gave ammunition to those seeking to further separate Judaism from Christianity and Jews from German society. Mendelssohn's defense of rabbinic exegesis vindicated the central ideas and practices of a minority group living in a majority culture. The rabbinic tradition, like the Jewish people itself, shared a biblical background with its German surroundings, while retaining distinct features.
Mendelssohn co-wrote the Biur with, among others, the scholar and bibliophile Shlomo Dubno (1738–1813). Born in Poland in the town of Dubno, Shlomo studied in his youth under prominent European rabbis such as Shlomo ben Moshe of Chełm (1715–1778).33 In 1772, after years of cataloguing Hebrew books in Amsterdam, he arrived in Berlin, where he worked with Mendelssohn for nine years on the Biur. Then, abruptly, Dubno left Berlin.34 In a letter he sent to the publisher and Hebrew grammarian Wolf Heidenheim (1757–1832), Dubno explains that he left because some of his teachers across eastern Europe had questioned his association with the new Maskilim.35 Despite leaving, however, Dubno did not cease to promote his exegetical project. He traveled the continent (p.69) collecting subscriptions in the hope of republishing his commentary on the Pentateuch without Mendelssohn's controversial translation.
When Dubno moved to Vilna, the city he found was by no means intellectually isolated. Though there was no “beckoning bourgeoisie” in Vilna, its wealthy members, some invested in the lumber trade, traveled regularly to German lands.36 Economic ties developed in tandem with intellectual affinities. The fourteen Vilna residents who subscribed to the first edition of the Biur dwarfed the number of subscribers in other eastern European towns (Kovno and Shklov were next closest, with three each).37 Many of the same individuals also subscribed to the German Maskilic publication ha-Me'asef. Scholars in both locales focused on examining universalistic biblical texts such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.38 Vilna scholars like Yehezkel Fievel (1755–1833), Shmuel ben Avigdor (d. 1791), Yosef ben Eliyahu Pesseles, Yehudah Hurwitz (1734–1797), and the Gaon's own sons all maintained contact with members of the Berlin Haskalah.
The best-documented exchange of ideas between the Berlin Maskilim and Elijah in Vilna is the case of Barukh Schick of Shklov (1744–1808). After spending a year in Berlin with Mendelssohn and other Maskilim such as Naftali Herz Wessely (1725–1805) and David Friedländer (1750–1834), Schick visited the Gaon.39
Vilna's Jewish intellectual vibrancy and demographic strengths appealed to rabbinic intellectuals like Schick and Dubno who had spent time in western Europe.40 Vilna's Jewish establishment, for instance, encouraged Dubno to reprint his commentary with the introduction that Mendelssohn would not publish.41 Among the notables who showered Dubno with approbations was Vilna Chief Rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor, who explained that because “some living in Ashkenaz and Poland did not embrace the method adopted by [Mendelssohn in his] German translation, Rabbi Shlomo will print the Pentateuch with the Aramaic translation of Onkelos.”42 The chief rabbi never condemns Mendelssohn by name, simply noting that “some” had complained. Other supporters of Dubno's exegetical project were Hayyim of Volozhin and his brother Zalman (1756–1788).43
Dubno brought to Vilna at least part of his magnificent library,44 which now also contained the works of not only Mendelssohn and Wessely, but also the bibliophile, grammarian, and philosopher Isaac Satanov (1732–1804). He ingratiated himself to those in the Gaon's (p.70) inner circle, especially the Gaon's son Avraham, with whom he shared bibliographic interests.45 Dubno also befriended the town's financial elite, such as Yosef ben Eliyahu Pesseles, in whose house he resided.46 In correspondence written in 1783 to the Berlin Maskil David Friedländer, Pesseles tried to smooth over the ill feelings and negotiate a financial settlement between Dubno and his Berlin associates in the wake of Dubno's abrupt departure.47 Some speculate that Pesseles welcomed Dubno with the express purpose of helping him edit an edition of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that would be supported by the Gaon.48 This is probably incorrect. Though Elijah and Mendelssohn never mention one another's work, Dubno's close contacts within both of their circles lends credence to the claims made by the historian Graetz (1817–1891) and the Maskil Kalman Shulman (1819–1899) that at one time documentation existed showing that the Gaon read the Biur, and that he not only refused to condemn the work but actually had a favorable impression of it.49
Like in Berlin, Vilna's Jews lived in close proximity to their Christian neighbors. In addition to its synagogues and Jewish study houses, the city had thirty-two Catholic churches with fifteen monasteries, and five Uniate churches with three monasteries. Catholic functionaries lived throughout the city.50 As mentioned in Chapter 1, beginning in the early modern period, Vilna was seen as a city situated between eastern and western Europe where various ethnicities and religious groups lived side by side, with occasional hostilities among them. Warsaw may have been a larger economic center, but by the end of the eighteenth century, Vilna was the intellectual hub of eastern European Jewry. It was Vilna, not Warsaw, that since 1579 could claim one of eastern Europe's most respected institutions of higher learning, the University of Vilnius.
Yet for all the intellectual overlap, Vilna and Berlin could not have been more demographically and spiritually different. Whereas the 3,000 Jews in Berlin comprised only a tiny fraction of the total regional population, the roughly 5,500 Jews in and around Vilna (Wojewoda) made up nearly 30 percent of the population, and the 3,500 to 4,000 Jews living within Vilna proper formed an overwhelming majority of the local population.51 As discussed in Chapter 1, the Jews of Poland and Lithuania in this period were “virtual majority populations,” which meant that the eastern European Jews developed very different cultural reference points vis-à-vis their western European counterparts.52
(p.71) Unlike Berlin, where conversion to Christianity was encouraged by Protestant clergymen who offered the keys to the modern German city, Vilna's leading Catholic figure in the second half of the eighteenth century, the physiocrat Bishop Ignacy Massalski (1729–1794), tried to prevent forced conversions and closed the doors of missions to converts.53 His position, however, was largely a response to the growing economic status of Jews living in Vilna. The unique experience of living as a virtual majority is highlighted in the Gaon's response to questioning by the police regarding his role in the famous kidnapping of the seventeen-year-old Christian convert named Hirsch, son of the wealthy Vilna communal leader Abba ben Wolf. When Elijah was interrogated by local Polish officials, they noted the Gaon's defiant response: “An old Jew, knowledgeable in the Talmud, looked at us in a bewildered fashion, as if he did not understand Polish. Nonetheless, he understood everything being said. Irrespective of the language in which the questions were posed, he refused to answer any of them.”54
That the Gaon could support the kidnapping (from a monastery, no less) of a child who seems to have converted out of his own will to Christianity, and could then refuse to respond to the police, bespeaks a chutzpah toward local non-Jewish authorities unfathomable to a Jew living in Berlin in that period. Moses Mendelssohn admitted as much: “When living in a foreign land, a Jew must be prepared to forgo what he believes is just. He should speak to ruling authorities with fear and humility in an ethically appropriate way and not in a strident fashion which would provoke anger.”55
Living as virtual majorities in their respective locales offered eastern European Jews a sense of political and intellectual agency. The luxury—and Achilles' heel—of living under such conditions is that one need not be constantly self-conscious of one's own primary identity. Living among a critical mass of those with whom one shares a common culture and language creates a sacred canopy that withstands outside criticisms as well as inventions and ideas that emanate from alien sources. Vilna's Jews were more aware of the differences among Maskilim, Hasidim, and Mitnagdim, and were less engaged in the happenings of the minorities that lived among them, such as Catholics and Protestants.
The Gaon embodied the confidence of someone who saw himself as a leader of a majority culture. This self-perception is evidenced as well in his intellectual proclivities. That is, the Gaon's and Mendelssohn's (p.72) respective political positions as leaders of minority and majority communities is reflected in the way they understood the rabbinic tradition as well.
Both the Gaon and Mendelssohn saw the Pentateuch as a blueprint for the history of the world.56 Each composed immensely influential Jewish biblical commentaries that employed innovative interpretive techniques and broke new ground in Jewish scholarly literature.57 Before the eighteenth century, according to Hans Frei, most exegetical traditions combined the literal and religious meanings of Scripture. “The point to realize,” he writes, “is not that they had been conceived to be in harmony with each other but that they had not even been generically distinct issues.”58 Over time, the ties holding together these two interpretive categories unraveled, however, and the literal sense of Scripture gained its own prominence separate from the text's religious, spiritual, homiletic, or mystical significance. Canon law, halakha, and dogma that had been “read into” the words of Scripture were now ignored or bracketed by eighteenth-century exegetes trying to locate the text's plain sense. In Jewish circles, the growing gap between the religious and plain-sense meanings was exemplified by Mendelssohn and the Gaon in their theories of the medieval, kabbalistic conception of the fourfold hermeneutic system PaRDeS59—a Hebrew acronym for the different kinds of meaning derived from a text: peshat (literal or plain sense), remez (allusive or allegoric), derash (rabbinic intertextual), and sod (kabbalistic or esoteric).
Jewish biblical interpretation and the fourfold hermeneutic method have a long and much studied history. Though Bachya ben Asher (1255–1340) employed PaRDeS as an exegetical system in his biblical commentary Midrash Rabenu Bachya (Naples: 1492), Edward Breuer has detailed how, prior to Mendelssohn, few if any Jewish interpreters laid out in any conscious way a defined rigorous hermeneutic strategy that accounted for the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible.60 Most medieval Jewish commentators related to PaRDeS as an abstract kabbalistic concept, whereas Mendelssohn and the Gaon applied this interpretive scheme to their Scriptural reading practices. In his commentary to Ecclesiastes, Mendelssohn explains: “There are four approaches to the explanation of the Holy Torah and they are peshat, derash, remez, and (p.73) sod. All are words of the living God and are simultaneously correct. They are not contrary to the ways of reason and logic, nor are they difficult to understand.”61
Mendelssohn tries to justify how the four methods of PaRDeS are all simultaneously correct—more specifically, how the plain sense of the biblical text squares with rabbinic interpretation (derash). These two approaches can generate either complementary or contradictory readings. When a contradictory reading occurs, Mendelssohn is adamant that “one is obligated to follow rabbinic interpretation.”62 According to Mendelssohn, distinguishing between rabbinic interpretation and the text's sensus literalis turns on the issue of biblical synonymy. In the introduction to his commentary to Ecclesiastes, he writes:
Every statement has a meaning agreeable with all the purposes of the speaker and the one listening. [The meaning] that follows the continuity and flow of words, stated without any additions or deletions, is called the primary meaning, and the explication of this meaning is called peshat … The manner of peshat is to pay attention to the sense and not to the words. [According to this approach] there is no difference between “Remember [the Sabbath day]” and “Observe [the Sabbath day].” … For what is intended by them … is itself one matter as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra explained in Yitro.63
Mendelssohn's understanding of sensus literalis was based on a theory of authorial intention advanced by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra (1089–1164).64 Ibn Ezra argues that the biblical use of synonyms is nothing more than a poetic device. The sages' interpretation of every biblical word, in his view, is to be understood only on the level of a secondary meaning and is not to be confused with the simplest reading of the text (the author's primary meaning). Interpretation involves understanding the writer's levels of intention.65 According to Mendelssohn, peshat is the author's primary intent, while derash represents the author's secondary or indirect intent.
Mendelssohn's position on synonymy ran up against contemporary rabbinic interpretive practices. For example, Mendelssohn's co-contributor to the Biur, Naftali Herz Wessely, wrote some of the most controversial Enlightenment tracts, stressing the need for the full integration of Jews into German intellectual, social, and political life. Yet with regard to biblical synonyms, the great reformer implicitly challenged (p.74) Mendelssohn: “There is no redundancy in different words. In our view the Torah's repetition of words was not meant in order to improve a poem. Because God's Torah is not, God forbid, like books of poems.”66 Wessely's view of biblical synonymy was echoed by numerous eighteenth-century biblical commentators, including the Gaon, whose commentary to Proverbs argues that each biblical work has a sufficient interpretive reason to stand uncontested.67 The fact that Mendelssohn adopted Lowth's position even though it contravened that of the overwhelming majority of his rabbinic contemporaries suggests that his defense of Talmudic reading practices had little to do with a fear of ruffling the feathers of his rabbinic colleagues.
Before Mendelssohn, however, the Gaon used PaRDeS as a selfreflexive method of interpretation rigorously applied to classical texts. In this spirit, the Gaon penned three different commentaries to the book of Esther—one following the rules of peshat, a second according to the rules of remez and derash, and a third according to sod.68 In his work on Proverbs, the Gaon expounds his understanding of PaRDeS:
Torah is broken up into two parts … they include peshat and sod. Within each, there exist two parts—in sod there exist the essence of something [the actual sod] and remez, which represents the entrance into the city of sod. In peshat there are peshat and derash. “Outside knowledge” refers to those who still stand on the outside [of the city of sod]. He who stands on the outside knows only the peshat…. “In the street” refers to the derash where halakha is found and it is this road that leads into … the gates of remez … which leads [into] the city of sod which is the inner world of Torah.69
Elijah represents hermeneutics as a landscape, with derash imagined as a road, remez as a gateway, and sod as a city. Peshat, or the sensus literalis, is depicted as that which stands alone on the outskirts, separate from other forms of interpretation. A little later in the same comment, he identifies peshat with children and others who have little background in Jewish texts.70 The sensus literalis of the text requires one to read without preconceived notions. It expresses the interpretation of someone freed from all traditions (what the Gaon considers the road of derash) or notions of community.71 In his commentary to the Bible, Aderet Eliyahu, the Gaon provides a more precise definition. Peshat, he writes there, “is an explanation of the word that takes into account the subject matter that (p.75) comes after it…. According to [the hermeneutic] of peshat, no word is superfluous.”72 For the Gaon, peshat entails explaining the significance of each word in a plain-sense manner while taking account of a verse's context.73 That is, he defines peshat as that which operates outside of any specific system, provides the plain-sense meaning, and is derived from the full context of a verse.
Both the Gaon and Mendelssohn agree on a contextual notion of sensus literalis defined by “the continuity and flow of words, stated without any additions or deletions.” While the Gaon employs PaRDeS to lay out a theory of gauging one's proximity to the essence of a text, Mendelssohn uses it as a framework for his theory of linguistic synonymy.
The similarities between the Gaon's and Mendelssohn's exegetical approaches are eclipsed, however, by the differences that mark their descriptions of the relationship between the sensus literalis of the text and its derashic, rabbinic interpretation. For example, both grapple with the verse on torts in Exodus 21 that seemingly prescribes lex talionis—“an eye for an eye.” Most rabbis of the Talmud insist that the verses in question concern only the monetary payment assessed to the criminal and Mendelssohn agrees, under the general principle that the sages' interpretations are correct in all circumstances:
We have not forgotten the general principle we adopted in the introduction to this book regarding the distinction between things contradictory and complementary. Exegetically, the plain sense of Scripture may stand in complementary relationship with the tradition of our Sages, but cannot contradict them with regard to strictures and law…. Thus in every instance that the apparent meaning of the plain sense of Scripture seems to contradict a tradition of our Sages concerning strictures or laws, the exegete is obligated to completely abandon the approach of peshat and to follow the path of true tradition, or to effect some compromise [if this can be achieved].74
Instead of taking “an eye for an eye” literally, Mendelssohn harkens back to the interpretation offered by the medieval rabbi Sa'adya ben Joseph (882–942).75 According to reason, Mendelssohn claims, the text must refer to financial liability because “what happens if someone damages only a third of one's eyesight, how does it figure that we could exact a form of retribution that would not lead to additional or less damage to the individual?”76
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according to the woman's husband, [who] may exact from him the payment to be based on reckoning.” And this is a rule regarding the meaning of damage through the Torah … and it can be applied through the principle of general-specific. In the first verse [21:23] we are dealing with a case of [damages] to life, one kills another person [and we would apply payment based on the law of reckoning] and in the second verse [21:24] we are dealing with a case of [damages] to limbs, one damages someone's eye [and we would apply payment based on the law of reckoning] and in the third verse [21:25] we are dealing with damages done to the body, someone cuts or bruises another person [and we would apply the law of reckoning].77
The Gaon deviates entirely from the accepted rabbinic interpretation, arguing instead that according to its plain sense the payment for such damage (ason) does not mean a monetary payment. Rather, he contends that these verses assume a general principle of lex talionis, and specify the cases in which lex talionis is applied.
The Gaon's approach toward the rabbinic tradition is reflected throughout his commentary.78 He contends that one is free to read the text in such a manner because Jewish law does not necessarily conform to the sensus literalis of Scripture. Not only does the Gaon express no need to justify the lack of textual or biblical rationale behind Jewish practices, but he also cleverly quotes the subversive Talmudic dictum (Makkot 22b): “How stupid are the people of Babylonia who stand before a Torah scroll but not before a great sage.”79 The suggestion is that the Bible receives its authority only because of the way it is read and received by the sages (not vice versa). The Gaon does not defend Scripture or the rationale of rabbinic interpretation; nor does he hesitate to distinguish between these two corpora. In his view, rabbinic authority is not derived from the rabbis' connection to the biblical text itself, but rather is based on the fact that the Torah as a whole was given to human beings to interpret as they see fit. Mendelssohn, unlike the Gaon, could ill afford to mock those “Babylonians.” He lived among them, and many of them occupied prominent places in German intellectual life.
During the eighteenth century, the work of two of the most controversial biblical commentators in Jewish history once again rose to prominence: that of the twelfth-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (1085–1174?) and that of the sixteenth-century grammarian Eliyahu Levita (Bachur) (1469–1549). Both figures can be found lurking in the background of commentaries by the Gaon and Mendelssohn. At the end of Tosefet Ma'aseh Rav (Jerusalem: 1891), a commentary to a book written about the Gaon's customs, we are informed “that in the field of grammar, Gra followed Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur [Levita] and somewhat the approach of Rabbi David Kimchi, except in matters involving cantillations [the accents over biblical words printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible that provide the syntactical structure of Scripture], where [the Gaon] followed Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hanau's work Sha'arei Zimra.”80 While Tosefet Ma'aseh Rav is far from an objective source, its claims call out for investigation.
The Hebrew grammarian Levita wrote some of the greatest works of Old Yiddish literature, including the chivalric epic Bove-bukh (1507). He gained notoriety in Jewish circles—and a modicum of fame in Christian-Hebraic ones—for teaching the Christian monk (and later cardinal) Egidio da Viterbo (1469–1532).81 Levita's book Masoret ha-Masoret (1538)82 focused on the Masoretic tradition (diacritic markings and marginal notes dealing with the way biblical words are written and pronounced). Levita contested the established position that the Masoretic tradition emanated from the revelation at Sinai, insisting instead that the Hebrew vowel marks were unknown to Jews until post-Talmudic times.83
In his bibliographic work Rav Pe'alim, the Gaon's son Avraham lends credence to those who saw a connection between his father and Levita: “See the work Masoret ha-Masoret, written by Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur. [There] he analyzes in depth as to whether or not the masorah came from Sinai or from Ezra the prophet and he concludes in line with the authors of the Tosafot [the medieval school of Talmudic interpretation] that it came after the time of Ravina and Rav Ashi [the redactors of the Talmud].”84 Avraham in his introduction to Midrash Aggadat Bereishit again refers to Levita and the Tosafot, claiming: “the Tosafot agree that the masoret contradicts the Talmud.”85 While the authors of Tosefet Ma'aseh Rav wanted to distance the Gaon from Levita's controversial (p.78) ideas on the masorah, one senses that in this case perhaps the lady doth protest too much. The Gaon was certainly influenced by Levita's ideas generally.86 In his commentary to Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer, the Gaon addresses the veracity of the cantillations of the Bible and explicitly endorses Levita (though not by name): “In numerous cases the masorah disagrees with the Talmud.”87
The Gaon was far from the only eighteenth-century exegete touched by the critical ideas of Levita. The 1771 edition of Masoret ha-Masoret, translated into German by Johann Salomon Semler (1725–1791), was dedicated to Moses Mendelssohn.88 Yet Mendelssohn in his own writings rebukes the controversial rabbi, and devotes a large portion of his introduction to the Biur to challenging Levita. After paying Levita requisite respect, he fiercely defends the Mosaic origins of the masorah. “Also with regard to the orally pronounced and written words recorded in the Bible,” Mendelssohn argues, “Moses wrote all of the written words down and then orally read the text to Joshua and passed on to him the secret behind the difference between the two versions.”89 Mendelssohn draws a connection between Levita's position and “Christian scholars,” who in his view
do not possess the tradition of the Rabbis, pay no attention to the masorah, and do not accept the vowels and cantillations. These scholars make the Torah like an unguarded wall, where each person according to his own intellectual abilities can rise up and say what he pleases. They add, subtract and change the content of God's Torah. They do not stop with the vowels and cantillations, but also alter letters and words (for what will stop them from following such a path?) according to their own beliefs and ideas.90
Levita's treatment of the masorah and the vowel points reminds Mendelssohn of certain Protestant forms of biblical interpretation. By distancing his project from Levita's, Mendelssohn highlights the differences between his and the Gaon's exegetical projects and, more generally, between their respective views of rabbinic exegesis.
Another exegetical fault line between the Gaon and Mendelssohn can be detected in the way each treated the recently republished biblical commentary of Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (1085–1174?), known by the acronym Rashbam. A grandson of Rashi, Rashbam regularly interpreted biblical verses in ways counter to the readings offered by the rabbis. His (p.79) biblical commentary is hardly ever cited in the medieval period, but it is no wonder that in an age of critical inquiry the critical commentary of the Rashbam would find an audience.91
According to some, it was Mendelssohn who rescued the text from historical oblivion. But Mendelssohn himself registered his discomfort with Rashbam:
I have composed my commentary to Scripture according to the simplest reading of the text and according to Scripture's primary meaning [as opposed to Scripture's derashic—or secondary—meaning]. My work borrows from those commentators who led the way in offering the simplest reading of Scripture. They include the great light Rashi and his grandson Rashbam who delved deeply into the sensus literalis of the text to the point that he even went too far. Rashbam's love for the sensus literalis steered him away from the ultimate point of truth.92
With respect to nonlegal philosophical material Mendelssohn parted ways with the rabbis of the Talmud (in favor of universal reason), but with regard to legal material he defended their interpretations.93 For Mendelssohn, philosophy was something universal and could not contradict natural reason. Aggadic (narrative or philosophical) sections of rabbinic literature should be radically reinterpreted to conform to universal principles. Jewish particularity and difference resided in Jewish law; thus it was crucial to uphold and defend the uniqueness of rabbinic exegesis. By demonstrating the biblical origins of Jewish law, Mendelssohn wished to ensure that Judaism remained distinct and yet legitimate in the eyes of Christianity. For Mendelssohn, Rashbam's words were reminiscent of critiques issued by the German biblical scholars cited earlier, inasmuch as they provided an opening to dismiss the rabbinic tradition.
Contrary to popular and scholarly sentiment, Mendelssohn was not the only figure to have resurrected Rashbam from oblivion.94 Isaac Satanov, a Polish-born Maskil who traveled to Berlin, was so enthralled with the medieval rabbi's exegetical approach that he forged a whole commentary on Psalms under Rashbam's name.95 Likewise, the Gaon had access to a copy of Rashbam's commentary on the Bible and employed it as a source for his own understanding of the Bible's legal sections. In particular, the Gaon embraced those writings of Rashbam that contested rabbinic traditions. The phrase “and see the Rashbam” punctuates his commentary of (p.80) the legally oriented Torah portion of Mishpatim. He explicitly cites Rashbam in his comments to Exodus 21:6 (the case of the slave and the doorpost). In other instances, such as Exodus 21:22 (“an eye for an eye”), the Gaon follows the interpretation adopted by Rashbam without citation.96 Unlike Mendelssohn, who was ambivalent and ultimately rejected Rashbam, the Gaon not only adopted the early medieval rabbi's exegetical approach, but also extended it to other Jewish texts. The Gaon interpreted the mishnayot (early rabbinic rulings) against the Talmud (later rabbinic statements),97 and the Zohar against later kabbalistic interpreters.98 In addition, “unlike those who came before him, who quietly interpreted in such a manner, the Gaon did so in a formal way and passed his approach on to others as a principle [of interpretation].”99 The Gaon's relatively unconstrained method and Mendelssohn's more apologetic one permeated all aspects of their respective exegetical projects.
Ultimately, the Gaon's critical exegetical practices went well beyond not only Mendelssohn's but even the parameters set by Rashbam. According to the Gaon, even the Bible contradicts itself. The precept in Exodus 21:6 that an indentured slave must serve his master forever, for instance, opposes the injunction in Leviticus 25:40 that the indentured slave must work only until the Jubilee year. Furthermore, following Nachmanides, the Gaon argues that the book of Deuteronomy was written later than the other four books of the Bible. As the Gaon opens his commentary to Deuteronomy: “This book alone Moses prophesized on his own.”
Mendelssohn, meanwhile, shied away from invoking historical reasons for textual discrepancies. He could not even concede that Joshua (and not Moses) wrote the last eight verses of the Bible.100 In so doing, Mendelssohn defended the most anti-historical position adopted by certain medieval rabbis and Talmudic sages. As one scholar remarks, “In Mendelssohn's unequivocal support for [Moses's authorship of the last eight verses,] one senses a conscious desire to reject interpretations that could be easily misconstrued as concessions to critical scholarship.”101 If Mendelssohn feared angering his more conservative co-religionists, he could easily have relied on the sages of the Talmud, who saw these verses as being composed by Joshua. The Gaon, in contrast,
The Gaon, in contrast, builds on the historical position laid down by Ibn Ezra that the last verses, though inspired by Moses, were actually “arranged” by Joshua. In other places the Gaon likewise invokes a historical method to explain discrepancies between the plain sense of scripture (p.81) and rabbinic law. For example, in his gloss to Leviticus 16:2, the Gaon explains how the sensus literalis of the biblical text allows a priest to enter the Temple's sanctum sanctorum whenever he pleases. (According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the high priest could enter only once a year.) The Gaon makes a simple but critical historical distinction: during the time of Scripture, biblical law permitted Aaron to go in when he pleased; his access to the sanctum sanctorum was restricted only later in history, when the law changed.
The Christian anti-rabbinic bias in Germany handicapped Mendelssohn from admitting, even to himself and to his co-religionists, that rabbinic interpretation did indeed sometimes fail to live up to the sensus literalis of the biblical text. To his Christian interlocutors, such an admission would have been tantamount to acknowledging that the Jewish tradition was inauthentic or unworthy of recognition alongside Protestantism. But apologies aside, for Mendelssohn rabbinic law was the essence of Judaism, and the state's claims to tolerance turned precisely on its ability to recognize Jewish law as a valid religious expression.
The Gaon, however, was not threatened by the nascent theories of Michaelis and other Christian exegetes. Nor was he interested in matters of Jewish political or social emancipation. It is doubtful that the Gaon was even bothered by the most pressing intellectual question facing Mendelssohn's world, namely the permissibility of studying philosophical or non-Jewish knowledge. The Gaon's disinterested posture has little to do with issues of “openness” and “insularity” toward non-Jewish knowledge, as has long been thought. Rather, it had everything to do with issues that were socially and intellectually pertinent to him as the intellectual leader of a majority Jewish culture.102
Operating as a leader of a majority culture allowed Elijah to challenge and diverge from the rabbinic tradition that Mendelssohn felt compelled to defend at all costs. Thus although these two towering figures of late eighteenth-century eastern and western European Jewish culture represent two poles of the modern Jewish experience, it is not for the reasons that historians and sociologists often cite. That is, they represent two poles not because one is traditional and the other modern, but rather because one embodies the political confidence, intellectual comforts, and creativity of someone who lived as part of a Jewish culture, while the other put forth a pluralistic and acculturated worldview that spoke to the experiences of being a minority.
(p.82) The Gaon and the “Jewish Socrates” express two very different types of Jewish genius. Mendelssohn provided a model for nineteenth-century western European Jews, who lived as minorities—assimilating and acculturating into their host countries' majority traditions. The Gaon's intellectual legacy, like Mendelssohn's, initiated deep structural changes in eastern European Jewish life, but in most cases these changes were not based on the challenges of mass acculturation experienced by western European Jewry.
Mendelssohn and the Gaon towered intellectually above their respective Jewish contemporaries. Each would have been seen as a genius in any age and in any locale. The form, content, and style of their respective types of genius, however, were indelibly shaped by the great cities they inhabited. Mendelssohn fought against the social and political hegemony implicit in the universalism of the idealist tradition. Judaism (which he understood as law) was not the basis for universal truth, but a test case for demonstrating the importance of ethnic and religious difference in the state. As Michael Mack has noted, “In shifting the emphasis from religion to legislation, Mendelssohn underlined the sociopolitical aspect of Judaism, as he understood it. This aspect describes a particular way of life that does not purport to be a sine qua non for the salvation of the rest of the world.”103
The Gaon does not express the least bit of worry about Polish authorities or ideas associated with western European Enlightenment circles. Living in Vilna, Elijah focused on matters pertaining to the upkeep of Jewish life and on battling rival Jewish worldviews. Most notably, Elijah would spend his political energies on opposing a new Jewish group that was just then spreading throughout Poland and Lithuania, a movement that would challenge his spiritual authority in Vilna and his worldview more generally.
(1.) See Jacob Katz's placement of the Gaon under the rubric of a “bearer of the tradition” in Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages, trans. Bernard Dov Cooperman (New York: New York University Press, 1993), 210.
(2.) On Mendelssohn representing the start of “modernity,” see Heinrich Graetz, Geschichte der Juden (Leipzig: 1870), 11:3; and in translation, Graetz, The History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1949) 5:291–292. See also Graetz, The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays, trans. Ismar Schorsch (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1975), 130. On Mendelssohn's ties to modern thought, see Daniel O. Dahlstrom's introduction to his Moses Mendelssohn: Philosophic Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ix–xxx; Moses Paul Spalding, “Toward a Modern Torah: Moses Mendelssohn's Use of a Banned Bible,” Modern Judaism 19, no. 1 (1999): 67–82; David Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 5–14; Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 177–180; and Allan Arkush, Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 1–68. On the use of the term “modern” see Michael Meyer, “Tradition and Modernity Reconsidered,” in Jack Wertheimer, ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 465. See also Meyer, “Reflections on Jewish Modernization,” in Judaism within Modernity: Essays on Jewish Historiography and Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 34–36.
(3.) See Heinrich Graetz, The History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1949), 5:329–336. On the printing of Mendelssohn's Pentateuch, see Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973), 376–377; Peretz Sandler, Ha-Biur le-Torah shel Moshe Mendelssohn ve-Siato (Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 1940), 85–89.
(4.) Heinrich Heine, Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1964), 9:230. To be sure, there were those nineteenth-century biographers of Mendelssohn such as Simon Bernfeld, Dor Tapuchot (Warsaw: 1897), who could “not fathom whether Mendelssohn truly believed what he said” regarding rabbinic interpretation (84–85).
(5.) Shraga's words appear in the Gaon's biblical commentary Aderet Eliyahu, originally published in Chamisha Chumshei Torah (Dubrovna: 1804). On the publication history of Aderet Eliyahu, see “Aliyat Kir,” published in Yehoshua Herschel Levin, Aliyot Eliyahu (Vilna: 1856), 109–110, and Yeshayahu Winograd, Otzar Sifrei ha-Gra (Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, 2003), 1–2. According to the nineteenth-century rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the Gaon demonstrated how “all the words of the prophets, the writings, and the oral law were hidden inside the text of the Torah.” See Yisrael's introduction to his work Pe'at Shulchan (Safed: 1836). Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the head of the Volozhin yeshiva, likewise saw the Gaon as connecting rabbinic interpretation and the sensus literalis of Scripture; see his comments to Deuteronomy 33:2 in Berlin, Ha-Emek Davar (Jerusalem: 1999). See also the claims made about the Gaon's exegesis by the early twentiethcentury exegete Barukh ha-Levi Epstein in his Torah Temimah (Jerusalem: Machon Ha-Torah, 2005), 1:1 fn.2.
(6.) On Jewish life in Berlin during Mendelssohn's lifetime, see Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, 15–25, 272–286; and Steven Lowenstein, The Berlin Jewish Community: Ennlightenment, Family, and Crisis, 1770–1830 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 10–67.
(7.) Graetz, History of the Jews, 389.
(8.) On those who traveled between Berlin and Vilna and the modes of transportation they used, see Moses Shulvas, From East to West: The Westward Migration of Jews from Eastern Europe during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1971), 104–108.
(9.) See Laimonas Briedis, Vilnius: City of Strangers (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2009), 41–43.
(10.) Shulvas, From East to West, 122.
(11.) On the unique social demographics of Berlin Jewry, see Lowenstein, The Berlin Jewish Community, 19–22; and Deborah Hertz, Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 23–28.
(12.) On the salons, see Hertz, Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, 1–23; and Lowenstein, The Berlin Jewish Community, 163–182.
(13.) See the 1777 letter sent by Mendelssohn to his wife cited by Hertz, Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, 49.
(17.) See Moses Mendelssohn, Gesammelte Schriften Jubiläumsausgabe, ed. F. Bamberger, A. Altmann, et al. (Stuttgart: Frommann, 1971–1975) (hereafter GSJ), 4:1, 171–210.
(18.) Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), 179–184.
(19.) Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1969), 136.
(21.) See the end of the introduction to Johann David Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht (Frankfurt am Main: Johann Gottlieb Garbe, 1770).
(22.) See Friedrich August Wolf, Prolegomena to Homer, 1795, trans. with introduction and notes by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and James E. G. Zetzel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 18–26.
(23.) See Jonathan M. Hess, Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 35–37.
(24.) See Mendelssohn, GSJ, 5:1, 48–50.
(25.) See Johann Jacob Rabe, Mischnah oder der Text des Talmuds (Ansbach: 1760–1763).
(26.) See Mendelssohn's letter to Elkhan Herz on July 22, 1770, GSJ, 20:2, 212, trans. in Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, 250.
(27.) See Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem; or, On Religious Power and Judaism, trans. Allan Arkush (Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1983). As Michah Gottlieb has argued in his excellent article “Mendelssohn's Metaphysical Defense of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 2 (2006): 205–225; Mendelssohn's philosophical argument for respecting metaphysical differences should be seen in conjunction with his defense of rabbinic authority and exegesis. Mendelssohn was not interested in German Jews' merely being accepted into German society as quasi-Christians but instead strove for mutual respect based on their similarities (natural religion) and differences (rabbinic Judaism). Thus defending the rabbis was not just an apologetic act but also essential to his philosophy of tolerance. On Mendelssohn's rejection of a universal religion and his plea for difference to be respected, see also Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment, trans. Chaya Naor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 166–172. Mendelssohn's philosophical and political “pluralism” calls into question the dichotomy of his possessing “public” and “private” personas. On historiography dealing with “public” and “private” Mendelssohns, see Jeremy Dauber, Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004), 105–108.
(28.) See Mendelssohn, GSJ, 15:1, 40.
(29.) On those who claim that one should distinguish between Mendelssohn's Hebrew and German writings, see, for example, Tzemach Tzimrion, Moshe Mendelssohn ve-ha-Ideologia shel ha-Haskalah (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University (p.214) Press, 1984), 109–121; Allan Arkush, “The Questionable Judaism of Moses Mendelssohn,” New German Critique 77 (Spring–Summer 1999): 29–44; and Arkush, Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 229–231. Similarly, according to Michael Meyer, “It must have been clear to Mendelssohn that he would have lost all personal effectiveness as an educator and reformer of his people had he freed himself from the law.” See Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749–1824 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), 51.
(30.) See the first paragraph in Moses Mendelssohn, GSJ, 15:1, 41.
(31.) Steven Lowenstein, “The Readership of Mendelssohn's Bible Translation,” Hebrew Union College Annual 53 (1982): 183.
(32.) See Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, 386–389.
(34.) Many theories have been offered for Dubno's abrupt departure. Some claim that the breakup was due to a financial dispute with Mendelssohn's brother Saul. Still others contend that Dubno broke with Mendelssohn because Mendelssohn refused to print all of Dubno's introduction to the Biur. On this point see Edward Breuer, The Limits of Enlightenment: Jews, Germans, and the Eighteenth-Century Study of Scripture (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996), 150. For Mendelssohn's response to Dubno's departure, see GSJ, 15:1, 40.
(35.) This letter is listed as “letter 13” in Osef ha-Chakhamim (1878), cited in Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, trans. Bernard Martin (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 44.
(36.) See Israel Klausner, Toldot ha-Kehilah ha-Ivrit (Vilna: 1938), 41. On the lack of a beckoning bourgeoisie see Gershon Hundert, “Re(de)fining Modernity in Jewish History” in Jeremy Cohen and Moshe Rosman, eds., Rethinking European Jewish History (Oxford: Littman Library, 2009), 139–140.
(37.) See the charts of subscribers to the Biur arranged according to locale printed in Lowenstein, “Readership of Mendelssohn's Bible Translation,” 195.
(38.) See Nancy Sinkoff's chapter “The Linguistic Boundaries of Enlightenment” in her Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2004), esp. 173–176; and Nehama Rezler Bersohn, “Isaac Satanow, the Man and His Work: A Study in the Berlin Haskalah,” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1975, 31–32. It is thus not surprising that Mendelssohn penned his first exegetical work, Sefer Megillat Kohelet (Berlin: 1770), on Ecclesiastes and that the Gaon's major exegetical work was his commentary to Proverbs (Shklov: 1798).
(39.) On Schick's enlightened tendencies and his relationship to the Gaon, see his introduction to Euclid: Explanation of all the Geometric Sciences, trans. Barukh Schick (The Hague: Leb Zusmensh, 1780; Hebrew), where he claims the (p.215) Gaon told him “that for every deficiency of knowledge a man has in general knowledge, he will have a hundred deficiencies of knowledge in the science of Torah. For Torah and science are closely related.” Furthermore, Schick proffers that the Gaon “commanded me to translate everything possible of the sciences into our holy tongue.” On the Gaon's meeting with Schick, see most recently Yisrael Shapiro, “Askolot Chalukot be-She'elat Torah u-Madda'im be-Veit Midrasho shel ha-Gra,” Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu 13 (2003): 6–18; and David Fishman, “A Polish Rabbi Meets the Berlin Haskalah: The Case of R. Barukh Schick,” AJS Review 12, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 96–97.
(40.) On Dubno, see the comments made by Menachem Zobel in “Bibliography,” Kiryat Sefer 28, no. 2 (July 1941): 126–132. For other examples of the impact and impression that Dubno made on the Vilna community, see Shmuel Joseph Fuenn, Matisyahu Strashun, and Hillel-Noah Maggid Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah: Korot Adat Yisrael be-Ir Vilna (Vilna: Yitzchak Funk, 1915), 177, 225–227. See also Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn, 400–403.
(41.) In a letter that Dubno sent to Mendelssohn dated September 22, 1780, he suggests that Mendelssohn had objected to publishing his introduction due to its length. See Mendelssohn, GSJ, 19:258–260.
(42.) For a full list of all the rabbinic approbations to Dubno's project, see David Kamenetsky, “The Great Rabbis' Approbations of Rabbi Shlomo Dubno's Bible” (Heb.), Yeshurun 9 (2002): 711–754.
(43.) The approbation of Hayyim of Volozhin's brother, Zalman, a close student of the Gaon's, reads as follows: “Very dear to me are the words of Rabbi Shlomo Dubno whose commentary on the Torah provides us with two good things. First, his commentary brings together all of those who interpreted texts in a peshat manner. Secondly, … when [his] book [Tikkun Sofrim, which focuses on Scriptural and grammatical issues] came to my hand I realized that he had resolved problems that had perplexed me for ages. Therefore, I have given my approbation to his edition of Tikkun Sofrim, and I am prepared to buy a copy of the Bible from him. I implore all men who fear God in their hearts to purchase a copy of his Bible, so that Rabbi Shlomo Dubno will be able to finish his work and perhaps will be strengthened to write on the Prophets and Writings” (recorded in Fuenn, Strashun, and Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah, 165–166).
(44.) The books contained in Dubno's library are preserved in a catalogue published under the name Reshimat Misparim (N.p.: 1814). Israel Zinberg, in his A History of Jewish Literature (Tel Aviv: Y. Shreberk, 1959), 45 fn.62 refers to the catalogue as Reshimat Sifrei Rashad. Prior to his arrival in Berlin, Dubno worked for seven years in libraries throughout Amsterdam. Regarding Dubno's access and acquisition of books and manuscripts, see Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, 41. On his listing of Mendelssohn, Wessely, and Satanov, see Reshimat (p.216) Misparim, 6, 19, 46, 47, 51, and 53. The bibliographic connections among the Gaon, Dubno, and Mendelssohn are attested to in a bibliographical document recorded by Malachi Beit-Arié. The document, which is a manuscript version of the bibliographic work Siftei Yeshenim (Amsterdam: 1680) compiled by Rabbi Shabbtai Bass (1641–1718), contains emendations and additions made by the Av Beit-Din of Berlin, Rabbi Herschel Lewin (who wrote an endorsement to the Biur), Shlomo Dubno, and Rabbi Avraham, the Gaon's son. Beit-Arié suggests that when Dubno came to Vilna, among the texts he brought was this bibliography. See Malachi Beit-Arié, “Sefatim Dovevot: Hagahot ve-Hashleimut be-Ketivat Yad le-Siftei Yeshenim,” Kiryat Sefer 40, no. 1 (December 1964): 132.
(45.) On a few occasions Rabbi Avraham refers to his library in the plural “etzleinu,” suggesting perhaps a joint or family ownership. See Avraham ben ha-Gra, Sefer Rav Pe'alim (Warsaw: Shuldenberg, 1896), 28a–29b.
(46.) On Yosef ben Eliyahu Pesseles, see Fuenn, Strashun, and Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah, 224.
(47.) The letters sent between Pesseles to Friedländer are reprinted in Shmuel Yosef Fuenn, Sofrei Yisrael (Vilna: 1871), 138–143.
(48.) See Kamenetsky, “The Great Rabbis' Approbations of Rabbi Shlomo Dubno's Bible,” 711 fn.1, 2.
(49.) Conflicting testimonies have been offered regarding the Gaon's position on Mendelssohn's work. Israel Zinberg claims in “Appendix 1” of his History of Jewish Literature that the Gaon did in fact see the Biur and was not disturbed by its contents. Zinberg cites a letter collected by Moritz Güdemann that attests to a letter written by N. H. Wessely, which, in turn, refers to three rabbis who objected to the publication of the Biur. Among those rabbis listed is Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. (See Moritz Güdemann, “Die Gegner Hartwig Wessely's Divrei Shalom ve-Emet,” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 19, no. 10 : 479.) Zinberg correctly points out, however, that at the time Wessely made this statement, the Gaon could not possibly have had access to the Biur let alone have made a public statement regarding its status. According to Zinberg, it was the Hasidic book Toldot Ya'akov Yosef (Korets: 1780), written by Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef of Połonne (d. 1782), that was condemned by the Vilna community. Because both books were published around the same time, many such as Wessely confused them and thought the Gaon objected to Mendelssohn's work. In reality, Zinberg notes that Graetz himself claims he saw a document attesting to a letter sent by the Gaon to Berlin indicating that he had refused to speak out against the Biur. Likewise, it is hard to believe that the Gaon would condemn a work that was supported by many in his most inner circle. Finally, the strongest but most dubious testimony supporting the claim that the Gaon had read and was impressed by the content of the Biur can be found in the statements made by the (p.217) nineteenth-century Maskil Kalman Shulman in the introduction to his reprinting of Wessely's work Words of Peace and Truth (Warsaw: 1886). There Shulman claims that “the Gaon praised Rabbi N.H. Wessely's commentary to Leviticus, for he appreciated his attempt to prove the plain sense of Scripture from the words of the Sages.” On Kalman Shulman see also Harkavi's “Appendix” to Divrei Yemei Yisrael (Warsaw: 1893). On the Gaon's connection to the Biur see also Yehuda Friedlander, “Le-Birur Yachaso shel ha-Gaon mi-Vilna la-Haskalah be-Reishitah: Ha-Gaon ve-N. H. Wesseley,” in Ha-Gra u-Veit Midrasho, ed. Moshe Hallamish, Joseph Rivlin, and Raphael Shuchat (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2003), 197–205.
(50.) See Briedis, Vilnius: City of Strangers, 61; and Israel Klausner, Vilna be-Tekufat ha-Gaon (Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 1942), 226–227.
(51.) Compare the statistical analysis compiled in Lowenstein, The Berlin Jewish Community, 4, 16, with those figures compiled in Klausner, Toldot ha-Kehilah ha-Ivrit, 46–53. On Vilna's Jewish population and eighteenth-century Jewish Lithuania-Poland, see the data most recently compiled by Shaul Stampfer in his article “The 1764 Census of Lithuanian Jewry and What It Can Teach Us,” Jewish Population Studies: Papers in Jewish Demography, 1993 23 (1997): 91–121, and Stampfer, “Some Implications of Jewish Population Patterns in Pre-partition Lithuania,” in Adam Teller, ed., Scripta Hierosolymitana 38 (1998): 189–223.
(52.) See Adam Teller, Koach ve-Hashpa'ah: Ha-Yehudim be-Achuzot Beit Radzhivil be-Lita ba-Meah ha-18 (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2005), 33–45; and Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 21–31. On the implications of the demographic differences between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century eastern and western European Jewish communities, see Elchanan Reiner, “Aliyat ha-Kehilah ha-Gedolah,” Gal-Ed 20 (2006): 31–34.
(53.) Jacob Goldberg, Ha-Mumarim be-Mamlekhet Polin-Lita (Jerusalem: 1985), 37–39.
(54.) On Elijah's deposition, see the transcription and translation of Israel Klausner, Vilna be-Tekufat ha-Gaon, 236.
(55.) See Moses Mendelssohn's introduction to Sefer Megillat Kohelet in GSJ, 14:149. On Mendelssohn's relationship to governmental authorities, see Chimen Abramsky, “The Crisis of Authority within European Jewry in the Eighteenth Century,” in Siegfried Stein and Raphael Loewe, eds., Jewish Religious and Intellectual History: Presented to Alexander Altmann on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979), 18–19.
(56.) The Gaon in his commentary to Sifra di-Tzniuta (repr. Israel: 1969), writes that in the text of the Torah one sees “the past, present, and future. Everything is included in the Torah…. Not just its general rules but each and every particular thing, person and everything that will happen to a person from their birth until their death” (55a). Likewise, in the Biur on Genesis 2:8, GSJ, 15:2, 23, Mendelssohn claims that “all of the creation story and all that is told in Scripture about what happened to Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel all of it is true without question … within this story there is a hint of what will take place to every being. What is the case with Adam and his sons and what happened to them in particular will be the case for the entire species in general.” The World-Book trope adopted by both figures goes back at least to Augustine and was still heavily invoked by eighteenth-century thinkers and specifically by Leibniz.
(57.) On the Gaon's influence in nineteenth-century exegetical circles, see Ya'akov Elman, “The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Jewish Studies: An Internet Journal 2 (2003): 222; Yehudah Leib Copperman, Pirkei Mavo la-Peirush ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah al ha-Torah (Jerusalem: Hotsa'at Haskel le-Yad Mikhlalah Yerushalayim le-Vanot, 1985), 86; and Edward Breuer, “Between the Haskalah and Orthodoxy: The Writings of R. Jacob Meklenburg,” Hebrew Union College Annual 66 (1995): 273–279. On Mendelssohn's popularity in nineteenth-century rabbinic exegetical circles, see Meir Hildesheimer, “Moses Mendelssohn in Rabbinic Literature,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 55 (1988): 79–133. On the Biur's general readership, see Steven Lowenstein, “The Readership of Mendelssohn's Bible Translation,” Hebrew Union College Annual 53 (1982): 179–213.
(58.) See Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenthand Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 56–57.
(59.) While the term PaRDeS appears in Talmudic literature as a form of mystical knowledge, in the medieval period it is identified with a specific hermeneutic scheme. For an overview of the scholarship produced on the interpretive aspects of PaRDeS see Peretz Sandler, “On the Problem of PaRDeS and the Fourfold Method,” in Arthur Biram, ed., Sefer Urbakh (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1955), 222–235; and Frank Talmage, “Apples of Gold: The Inner Meaning of Sacred Texts in Medieval Judaism,” in Talmage, Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver: Studies in Medieval Jewish Exegesis and Polemics, ed. Barry Dov Walfish (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999), 114–116.
(60.) Edward Breuer, The Limits of Enlightenment: Jews, Germans, and the Eighteenth-Century Study of Scripture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 69.
(61.) See Moses Mendelssohn, GSJ, 14:4. On Mendelssohn's introduction to Ecclesiastes and his use of PaRDeS, see Philip Culbertson, “Multiplexity in Biblical Exegesis: The Introduction to Qohelet by Moses Mendelssohn,” Cincinnati Judaica Review 2 (Spring 1991): 10–18.
(62.) See GSJ, 15:1, 40.
(63.) See Moses Mendelssohn's introduction to Sefer Megillat Kohelet in GSJ, 14:148.
(64.) See Ibn Ezra's lengthy comments to Exodus 20:1, available in English in Ibn Ezra, Commentary to the Pentateuch Exodus/Shemot, trans. Norman Strickman and Arthur M. Silver (New York: Menorah Publishing Company, 1997). On Ibn Ezra's exegetical theory of synonymy, see Uriel Simon, “Le-Darko ha-Parshanit shel Ibn Ezra al-pi Shloshet Biurav le-Pasuk Echad,” Sefer ha-Shanah shel Universitat Bar Ilan 3 (1965). On synonymy in medieval Jewish exegesis, see Ya'akov Elman, “‘It Is No Empty Thing': Nahmanides and the Search for Omnisignificance,” Torah u-Madda 4 (1993): 1–83; and Nechamah Leibowitz, Iyyunim Chadashim be-Sefer Shemot (Jerusalem: World Jewish Agency, 1969), 66–67, 445.
(65.) See David Halivni, Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 52–54. On Mendelssohn's notion of “literal meaning” and the role that “connectedness” plays in his exegesis, see Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, 65–67.
(66.) See Sandler, Ha-Biur le-Torah shel Moshe Mendelssohn, 140 fn.10.
(67.) On the Gaon's concept of synonymy, see Moshe Philip's essay in Sefer Mishlei im Biur ha-Gra, ed. Moshe Philip (Petach Tikvah: 2001), 438–439; Levin, Aliyot Eliyahu, 16; Barukh ha-Levi Epstein's introduction to his Torah Temimah (Jerusalem: Machon Ha-Torah, 2005), 1 fn.2; and Yehudah Leib Copperman, Li-Feshuto shel Mikra: Kovetz Ma'amarim (Jerusalem: Hotza'at Haskel le-yad Mikhlalah Yerushalayim le-Vanot, 1974), 86.
(68.) Starting with the publication of Elijah's commentary under the title Me'il Tzedek (Berlin: 1856), there have been numerous attempts to publish Elijah's various commentaries to Esther. See Winograd, Otzar Sifrei ha-Gra, 27–31.
(69.) See the Gaon's comments to Proverbs 1:20 in Mishlei im Biur ha-Gra, ed. Moshe Philip (Petach Tikvah: 1991) and Tikkunei ha-Zohar, 61b.
(70.) The Gaon differs from those who describe the relationship of peshatremez-derash-sod in a hierarchic manner (with sod at the top of the ladder and peshat on the bottom). See, for example, the Gaon's comments to Proverbs 24:11 (in Mishlei im Biur ha-Gra), where he describes the interpretive categories of PaRDeS in circular imagery with peshat and sod coming together full circle. In his commentary to Proverbs 23:23 the Gaon uses a horizontal diagram to describe the (p.220) relationship between these hermeneutic techniques—a relationship in which each category has equal footing and functions independently of the other “zeh mul zeh” [each one facing the other].
(71.) In the Gaon's commentary on Proverbs prepared by Menachem Mendel of Shklov (Shklov: 1798) those who study peshat are situated in a synagogue. But those learning in the synagogue are described as children and the knowledge they possess is characterized as “outside knowledge.” The edition published by Shlomo Luria (Chemdah Genuzah) describes peshat in the same terms as those used by Menachem Mendel of Shklov. His description, however, leaves out any mention of peshat being located in a synagogue, or for that matter in any institution. Other versions of the Gaon's ideas, recorded in Moshe Philip, Sefer Mishlei im Biur ha-Gra (Petach Tikvah: 1991), attest to peshat's being a hermeneutic that operates in an even more detached and autonomous position in relation to the rest of the “world” of Jewish knowledge.
(72.) See Elijah ben Solomon, Aderet Eliyahu, Genesis 1:1.
(73.) David Halivni argues that these two understandings of peshat can be found throughout rabbinic literature. See Halivni, Peshat and Derash, specifically chapter 3, where he stresses the idea of context as the defining element of peshat.
(74.) See Mendelssohn's comments to Exodus 21:1 in Mendelssohn, GSJ, 16:198.
(75.) Mendelssohn seems to be citing Ibn Ezra's citation of Sa'adya found in Ibn Ezra's commentary to Exodus 21:24.
(76.) See Mendelssohn, GSJ, 16:206.
(77.) The Gaon interprets Exodus 21:23–25 by invoking the interpretive scheme of general-specific, klal u-frat. This hermeneutic principle—which is one of the thirteen hermeneutic principles attributed to the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Ishmael—assumes that the biblical text offers general rules and applies those rules to specific cases. In this instance, the general rule is the payment of damages, while the specifics (stated in the next verse) are three particular occurrences of bodily damage. Ironically, the Gaon employs a rabbinic interpretive principle (generalspecific) to interpret these verses against their rabbinic interpretation. The Gaon employs a select number of Rabbi Ishmael's thirteen interpretive principles (and perhaps some of the thirty-two by Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yosi), such as general-specific and a fortiori, for his own peshat readings. While he saw some of the rabbis’ principles as uncovering the text's sensus literalis, he saw others as being more homiletic. According to Fuenn, Strashun, and Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah, for the Gaon “there are those [of the rabbis' thirteen] principles that [are to be considered] peshat and there are those that open up the doors to derash” (154). On Mendelssohn's use of Rabbi Ishmael's thirteen hermeneutic principles, see Sandler, Ha-Biur le-Torah shel Moshe Mendelssohn, 107; and Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, 72–73. While one (p.221) may be tempted to say that neither exegete follows what contemporary scholars would deem the sensus literalis of the text, what is most striking is the Gaon's unbridled challenging of the rabbinic tradition, while Mendelssohn finds it necessary to justify the rabbis' views.
(78.) For other examples of the Gaon disagreeing with the rabbinic interpretation of Scripture, see Aviya Hacohen, “Be-Ikvei Biur ha-Gra le-Parshat Amah Ivriya,” in Moshe Ahrend and Moshe Bar Asher, eds., Sefer ha-Yovel le-Rav Mordekhai Breuer: Asufat Ma'amarim be-Maddaei ha-Yahadut (Jerusalem: Akademon, 1992), 77–90. For a list of examples where the Gaon interprets Scripture in accordance with its plain and simple meaning, and against the interpretation offered by the rabbis, see Menachem Kasher, Torah Shleima, Exodus (Jerusalem: 1927), 17:302–303.
(79.) See the Gaon's comments in his Aderet Eliyahu, Exodus 21:6.
(80.) See Tosefet Ma'aseh Rav (Jerusalem: 1891), subject heading 240.
(81.) On the life of Elia Bachur (also known as Eliyahu Ben Asher Ashkenazi, Eliyahu Tishbi, and Eliyahu Levita), see the introduction in Christian D. Ginsburg, The Massoreth ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1867); and further, Salomon Buber, Toldot Eliyahu ha-Tishbi (Leipzig: C.L. Fritzsche, 1856). On Levita as a biblical exegete see Deena Arranoff, “Elijah Levita: A Jewish Hebraist,” Jewish History 23 (2009): 17–40.
(82.) See the introduction to the second edition of Elijah Levita, Sefer Masoret ha-Masoret (Venice: 1538).
(83.) Like Levita, Shlomo Zalman Hanau (1687–1746) was a proto-Maskil who unabashedly challenged the canons of traditional rabbinic exegesis, a practice that earned him the ire of the rabbinic establishment. On Hanau see Andrea Schatz, “‘Peoples Pure of Speech’: The Religious and Secular, and the Jewish Beginnings of Modernity,” in David B. Ruderman and Shmuel Feiner, eds., Jahrbuch Des Simon Dubnow Instituts, vol. 6 (Leipzig: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2007): 183–185, and David Sorkin, The Berlin Haskalah and German Religious Thought: Orphans of Knowledge (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2000), 44–45. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that specifically in his Sha'arei Zimra, Hanau borrowed ideas from seventeenth-century Christian exegetes, employing the principle of grading as the basis of his theory of accentuation. See Aron Dotan's “Prolegomenon” to William Wickes's writings in Two Treatises on the Accentuation of the Old Testament: On Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, on the Twenty-one Prose Books (New York: Ktav, 1970), xi.
(84.) See Avraham ben ha-Gra, Sefer Rav Pe'alim (Warsaw: Shuldenberg, 1894), 41a–b. Avraham further elaborates on his notion of the masorah in his “Introduction” to Midrash Aggadat Bereishit (Vilna: 1802). On the publication (p.222) history and subsequent plagiarism of Rabbi Avraham's edition of and notes to Aggadat Bereishit, see Fuenn, Strashun, and Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah, 210–221.
(85.) The Gaon's use of Bachur's work is further corroborated by a handwritten notebook of Rabbi Joseph Zundel of Salant (1786–1866), in which the author asserts that the Gaon was influenced by Bachur. The manuscript was shown to me by its owner, Ari Bergmann of Lawrence, N.Y., on January 5, 2007. See Yosef Avivi, Kerakh Ktivat Yad ha-Kollel be-Tokho Shlosha Sefarim (Jerusalem: Asufa Auction House, 2001). On Rabbi Joseph Zundel of Salant, see Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 57–68.
(86.) The nineteenth-century Vilna publisher Nachman ben Tzvi insinuates in Yehoshua Heschel Levin's Aliyot Eliyahu fn.111 that the Gaon read and borrowed from Bachur's work Sefer ha-Tishbi. Compare the Gaon's comments in Tikkunei ha-Zohar im Tikkunim mi-Zohar Chadash im Biur ha-Gra (Vilna: Rosenkranz, 1867), 44b; and Elia Bachur, Sefer ha-Tishbi (Bnei Brak: 1976), 9.
(87.) See the Gaon's comments in Biur ha-Gra al-Shulchan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer (Vilna: 1819), 129:32.
(88.) See Buber, Toldot Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, 10.
(89.) Mendelssohn, GSJ, 15:1, 30.
(91.) In the seventeenth century the only extant manuscript of the Rashbam was owned by the famed bibliophile David Oppenheim (1664–1736). Eventually, the manuscript was acquired by the Christian Hebraist and biblical scholar Daniel Ernst Jablonski (1660–1741), who finally printed it in 1705. Subsequently, the text fell into the hands of the Fraenckel family and was kept in the Breslau Seminary library, before disappearing during World War II. Between Jablonski's publication and the Fraenckel family's procurement of it, the manuscript came into the possession of Moses Mendelssohn (see Mendelssohn's comments in GSJ, 15:1, 41), who included Rashbam along with Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and Ramban (Nachmanides) as the main exegetical sources for the Biur. See David S. Loewinger and Bernard D. Weinryb, Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Library of the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau, a Publication of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1965), viii.
(92.) See Mendelssohn, GSJ, 15:1, 40.
(93.) Breuer, Limits of Enlightenment, claims that a contradiction exists in Mendelssohn's writings between the Biur, where Mendelssohn opposes the idea of dual hermeneutic truths, and his commentary on Ecclesiastes, where he embraces such a position (221–222). It might be suggested that no such contradiction exists. Rather, as Mendelssohn states (in his comments to Exodus 21:1), whenever peshat (p.223) goes against rabbinic law it must be abandoned; but where it does not go against rabbinic law, the peshat interpretation is allowed to stand (GSJ, 16:198). In Ecclesiastes, which is primarily a non-legal text, Mendelssohn was more amenable to the theologically more daring theory of multiple hermeneutic truths. In the Biur, however, where he faces the issue of rabbinic law being contradicted by peshat, he cannot adopt such an approach and therefore explains the limitations of the theory he had expressed in Ecclesiastes. The distinction between rabbinic law (halakha) and non-legal material (which is usually identified as aggada) is revealed in Mendelssohn's philosophy of tolerance expressed in his work Jerusalem. There Mendelssohn dismisses or argues with the Sages regarding matters of belief (aggada). Reason and belief are universal concepts that all human beings share, so the Sages' words are not to be taken as dogmas. For Mendelssohn, however, rabbinic law (halakha) is something particular to Judaism and highlights Judaism's distinctive features. Thus, halakha need not conform to reason or natural religion. Jewish emancipation requires German society to recognize and respect not only what it has in common with Jews, but also what makes Judaism unique.
(94.) See Martin Lockshin's introduction to Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam's Commentary on Leviticus and Numbers: An Annotated Translation, ed. and trans. Martin Lockshin (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies Series, 2001).
(95.) David Rosin, Peirush ha-Torah asher Katav Rashbam (Breslau: S. Shottlender, 1881), xix.
(96.) See Elijah ben Solomon, Aderet Eliyahu, Exodus: 21:6, 21:22.
(97.) On the Gaon's and his students' approach to the interpretation of Mishnah and Gemara, see Chanan Gafni, “Hirsch Mendel Pineles and His Work The Way of Torah,” master's thesis, Hebrew University, 1999, 34–37 fn.29.
(98.) Yosef Avivi notes that the Gaon applied the same hermeneutic to his reading of kabbalistic texts. For example, the Gaon explains mystical works such as the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah in opposition to the manner in which Rabbi Isaac Luria (the famed Ari) interpreted these texts. The radical nature of the Gaon's kabbalistic hermeneutics drew criticism from a number of quarters. See Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat ha-Gra (Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, ha-Makhon le-hotza'at sifrei ha-Gra, 1992), 28–30.
(99.) See Fuenn, Strashun, and Steinschneider, Kiryah Ne'emanah, 154.
(100.) On the last eight verses of the Bible, compare the Gaon's comments in Aderet Eliyahu, Deuteronomy 1:1 to Mendelssohn's commentary to Deuteronomy 34:5 in GSJ, 15:1, 21. The Gaon also limits the claim that the last eight verses of the Bible were written by Joshua: he argues that they only were arranged by him. Such a position, however, must be seen in light of the Gaon's belief that even Moses only arranged the words of the Torah.
(101.) See Breuer, Limits of Enlightenment, 165.
(102.) The terms “openness” and “insularity” express an embattled or minority discourse in which a group is being challenged by an outside force. Any reading of Elijah's writings reveals that these were simply not the conditions in which he operated. On the issues of openness and insularity in early modern Ashkenaz (whose Jewish communities were but a fraction of the size of those that existed by the end of the eighteenth century), see David Ruderman, Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995).
(103.) Michael Mack, German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 82.