Artwork by Davora Lillian
What was really the disagreement, between the Vilna Gaon and the early leaders of chassidut?
If we’ve learnt anything at all about the fight between the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and chassidut, and the followers of the Lithuanian path of mitnagdim, as exemplified by the Vilna Gaon and his followers, this is probably what we believe:
The Vilna Gaon and the mitnagdim became ‘anti’ the chassidim and the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, because they were worried about ‘false messiahs’ in the wake of the Shabtai Tzvi affair.
That’s what we think the whole disagreement was about? That the Baal Shem Tov started this new ‘Tzaddik-centric’ approach to Judaism, and all the Litvak rabbis decided to excommunicate the people practicing chassidut because they were worried that another ‘false religion’ would spring up.
Guess what…that’s not really what happened. Or at least, not at the beginning of this whole story, back in the 1700s. As I started to set out in THIS POST, geula-fever was alive and well in the 18th century, fueled by kabbalistic speculation that the time for ‘the End’ had come, and geula was about to happen.
As I covered in that post, there were a few key dates that the kabbalists had pegged for the final coming of Moshiach, all based on the gematria of the word ‘dawn’, and allusions to that word in the Zohar and in the book of Daniel.
These years were:
1748 – which was proceeded by an ‘elite aliya’ of the Jewish world’s leading kabbalists to Israel, including the Ohr HaChaim from Morocco, the RaMCHaL from Italy, and many kabbalists and mystics from the Ashkenazi world too, including Rabbi Gershon of Kutow, the BESHT’s brother-in-law.
1753 – when three huge kabbalists in Israel including the CHIDA, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash), and Rabbi Chaim de la Roza tried to ‘force’ the end of days via kabbalistic uses of Hashem’s mystical names. Heaven forced them to stop, and the CHIDA had to go into exile for 5 years.
1781 – which was again proceeded by a ‘chassidic’ aliya from the Ashkenazi world, which was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.
(The last official ‘date’ as the last possible date for the ‘in its time’ redemption, was 1840, but we’ll leave that alone for this post.)
Between 1748 and 1781, so many of our leading rabbis believed that the geula was imminent, and the Vilna Gaon and the Lithuanian rabbis were counted firmly amongst them.
In fact, pretty much the only leading rabbi at that time who was saying that geula was NOT going to happen imminently was the Baal Shem Tov. I know I quoted this in the previous post, but let’s bring his letter written to Rabbi Gershon in 1747 again here, to keep all the pieces together in one place. The BESHT wrote:
“I asked the Messiah when he would be coming. “This is how you will know,” he replied. “When your teachings become public and revealed to the world, and your wellsprings of my teachings, which you will have mastered, overflow to the outside, so that [others], too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the klipot will be eradicated and a time of [Divine] desire and salvation will come.”
The Baal Shem Tov continues:
“[This reply] left me puzzled and severely troubled. Such a long time! When can it possibly come to pass?”
The Baal Shem Tov was explaining to Reb Gershon that the Moshiach is going to come, and the end of days is going to happen, only when the Jews start to really connect to God, and experience ‘ascents of the soul’, and to really learn and understand Torah on the deep level of chassidut.
Moshiach wasn’t just going to show up, regardless of the spiritual state of the Jews, and regardless of all their bad middot and lack of emuna. He was only going to come when the Jews got real, learned some humility, and started talking to God sincerely every single day, and including Him in every aspect of their life.
So now, the question is:
Why did the mitnagdim fall out so badly with the chassidim, if everyone at that time was eagerly anticipating Moshiach and geula, and the Lithuanian rabbis were pressing for aliya and for ‘the end’ to come just as much as the chassidim?
The answer lies in the different approaches the Vilna Gaon and the chassidim were trying to take, to bring the geula.
We can set it out like this:
1747 – The Baal Shem Tov writes a letter explaining that Moshiach is only going to come when the Jews make teshuva, and approach their yiddishkeit in a more ‘chassidic’ way.
The BESHT’s leading student, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, sat on that letter for over 30 years, but then published it in 1780, when it started to become obvious that Moshiach was not coming imminently, after all.
In the meantime, the Vilna Gaon had spent years trying to resolve all the kooshiot, or difficulties in the Torah, using just his superb logical abilities and ‘cleverness’. According to documents found by researcher Arie Morgenstern which quotes the Vilna Gaon’s students and sons, as brought in his book The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision, the Vilna Gaon believed he could bring the Moshiach:
“[B]y force of his supreme halachic authority. [T]he Gaon proposed to move to Eretz Yisrael and write the final halacha there, in order to hasten the redemption. As Joseph Karo had done, so would the Gaon of Vilna do. He wished to be the final arbiter, not in order to write the halacha for its own sake, but rather to hasten the redemption and conclude the ‘sorting’ (birur) process that would usher in the Messiah.”
Here’s what the Vilna Gaon himself wrote, about his aspirations:
“Every unresolved issue is a klipah, and emanates from the Erev Rav that intermingled with the Israelites…This is how unresolved issues insinuated themselves into the halacha. The answer to the unresolved issues is the repair of the klipah.”
Elsewhere, he wrote:
“At the end of the galut, in the footsteps of the Moshiach, the tree of life, the Law of Moses will be revealed.”
One of the Vilna Gaon’s senior students, Rabbi Israel of Shklov, explained that his mentor had managed to resolve all the issues in the whole Torah (!) except for in two passages in the Zohar. The Rabbi of Shklov says:
“Had the Gaon resolved these issues, he would have brought the birur (‘sorting process’) to its end, and the path to the Messiah’s arrival would have been readied for use.”
As it was – he didn’t, and it wasn’t.
The Vilna Gaon set out for Israel in 1778.
But first travelled to Amsterdam, where he hoped to track down copies of the books and manuscripts that would help him resolve his two last remaining ‘issues’, before he made aliya, wrote a new ‘perfect’ Shulchan Aruch in Israel, and ushered in the redemption.
But God didn’t let him do that, his mission to Amsterdam was a failure, and the Gaon returned home to Vilna, without attempting the trip to Israel.
Once home, he decided to take a different tack, and for the first time in his scholarly career, he decided to teach an elite group of students his approach to learning Torah, with a particular emphasis on these students moving to Israel, and helping to lay the practical foundations for the Jews to return to their land.
In the meantime, nearly all the Chassidic rebbes dealt with the ‘moshiach let-down’ of 1781 by starting to put the emphasis on personal redemption, as opposed to national redemption, and taking the emphasis off of moving to Israel.
Everyone, that is, except Rabbenu and Breslov chassidut.
Rebbe Nachman continued to stress the importance of living in Eretz Yisrael, as well as the importance of working on the ‘inner dimension’ and developing the good middot that would enable each person to achieve their ‘personal redemption’, too.
1781 approaches, the make-or-break date for ‘geula in its time’, and the Vilna Gaon realizes that his approach of trying to ‘perfect’ Torah, and engage in ‘perfect’ mitzvah observance is out of reach, and that he can’t bring Moshiach this way. Instead, he looks to kick-start redemption by placing ‘boots on the ground’ in Eretz Yisrael, and directs a group of his elite students to make aliya after his death.
Meanwhile, after 1781, the different Chassidic leaders put much more focus on the idea that redemption is internal, not necessarily land-based.
Israel is out of reach, so turn inwards and work on your personal and communal redemption instead, wherever you live!
Only Breslov chassidut actually combined these two, very different approaches, continuing to stress the practical aspects of aliya to the real Eretz Yisrael, together with emphasizing the inner work and importance of being connected to the True Tzaddik and praying for redemption.
But there was so much opposition to Rebbe Nachman, and then to Breslov, that this message was muted back then, and really has only begun to flourish in our days.
So now, what happened with the excommunication of the chassidim by the Lithuanian rabbis, headed by the Vilna Gaon?
As usual, it’s a sordid tale of petty politics and ego-mania.
In the years leading up to the first ‘excommunication’ of the chassidim, in 1772, The Vilna ‘kahal’, or community leaders had been locked in a vicious struggle with the town’s chief rabbi and rabbinical judge, a fellow by the name of Shmuel ben Avigdor.
Shmuel ben Avigdor had been ‘bought’ his position – as was the custom of the time then, and in many ways still is today – by his wealthy father-in-law. The kahal leaders felt that Shmuel ben Avigdor was throwing his weight around, was out of his depth when it came to making halachically-binding decisions, and – most crucially of all – was impinging on their income by trying to butt into communal affairs that they felt he should play no part in.
So, the kahal went to war against their very wealthy, very connected chief rabbi, to try to get him ousted. His father-in-law had bought him the rabbinate ‘for life’, so the kahal leaders could only get him out of the way if they could prove his was guilty of gross, ‘anti-Torah’ misconduct. So that’s what they set about trying to show.
According to Arie Morgenstern:
“The methods used were illegitimate:…false testimonies, silencing of witnesses, preventing the presentation of exculpatory evidence about the defendants under threat of excommunication, forbidding the lodging of complaints with the rabbinical court by the same means, and even forbidding the rabbinical judges to listen to cries of protest against the abuse being committed.”
Plus ca change.
And having waged war against their town rabbi by dirty means, the kahal then just applied their ‘abilities’ against the chassidim in their midst, too.
Why did the Vilna kahal turn against the chassidim?
Some researchers claim they were egged on by the Vilna Gaon (more on that in a moment), while others claim that the kahal leadership were worried that people flocking to chassidut would diminish their clout in the Jewish community, and their own legal status vis-à-vis their non-Jewish rulers. (Which in turn, would diminish their ability to levy taxes on the Jewish community….)
In the meantime, the horrible, dirty machloket between the Vilna kahal leaders and their chief rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor raged almost without let up for approximately 30 years (!) It was so poisonous, Vilna’s Jewish residents were frequently arguing on street corners, and fights would regularly break out in public, even between the women.
That only stopped when the community was hit by a terrible tragedy.
In 1771, an outbreak of plague killed hundreds of small children in Vilna’s Jewish community. It was clear to the kahal leaders that this was some ‘punishment from Heaven’, but rather than accept that their own machloket against the Chief Rabbi could be the cause, they searched around for a scapegoat – and found one, in the nascent movement of chassidim.
According to the mitnaged Maggid of Makow, the reclusive Vilna Gaon was totally unaware of any problem with the chassidim, until the kahal leaders – who were giving the Vilna Gaon a salary of 1400 guilders a year and a rent-free home, even though the Vilna Gaon fulfilled no public duties as rabbi – brought a bunch of false witnesses to slander the chassidim as a ‘deviant cult’.
Rabbi David the Maggid writes:
“Due to his devotion to the Torah and his perseverance, the holy Pious One [the Vilna Gaon] was oblivious to all these matters, until the righteous and honest learners cried out… Then he became their enemy, fighting them and pronouncing the great excommunication of all their rabbis and students… The excommunication went into effect in 1772, after Pesach.”
But none of the other four major Jewish communities in Lithuania, including Horodno, Brisk, Slutsk and Pinsk, joined in with the excommunication of 1772, because they understood that the Vilna kahal was trying to deflect the spiritual heat off its own bad behavior, by using the chassidim as scapegoats. Very quickly, the excommunication died away, and the Lithuanian communities happily sent money to support the Chassidic aliya that began in 1777 – ahead of the ‘end of times’ date of 1781.
THE SECOND EXCOMMUNICATION
But then, there was a second excommunication of the chassidim that happened in 1781 – and that one stuck, and widened out into a veritable war against chassidut.
What triggered this second attack against chassidut? A few different things:
More and more people were flocking to the ranks of chassidut.
Chassidut became increasingly organized as a communal force within the Jewish community, and so appeared to be more of a threat to the existing leaders’ status, influence, and ability to use their communal position to make money.
The Baal Shem Tov’s students started to print and disseminate some of their ideas and teachings – notably Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who published Toledot Yaakov Yosef in 1780.
May 1781 came and went without Moshiach showing up, and a wave of frustration overtook the Jewish community and led to a whole bunch of internecine fighting.
The chassidim were not totally blameless, for the war erupting.
By this point, many of them were openly mocking the Lithuanian rabbis for being out of touch with their communities and overly hung-up on pietism and asceticism, instead of serving God joyfully, with their hearts. There were also some Chassidic leaders who were publically complaining about the behavior of other Chassidic leaders, and that might also have fueled external criticism of the movement.
Meanwhile, the mitnagdim communities and their rabbis were having to deal with all these ‘miracle stories’ that started circulating about the Baal Shem Tov – including his infamous ‘conversation’ with Moshiach, in 1747 – after Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s books came out. To put it bluntly, it was hard for the Lithuanian rabbis to compete, when there was a Tzaddik of the caliber of the Baal Shem Tov wooing their congregants away with his supernatural abilities and awesome, soul-inspiring advice.
In other words: they got jealous.
Plus ca change
There’s one last thing I want to add here, because clearly what I’m describing above has continued to play itself out in our day and time, too.
At its highest level, there was a dispute for the sake of heaven going on, between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, about the way to bring Moshiach and geula.
The BESHT said:
Geula will only come when all the Jews make teshuva, and start to serve God sincerely, and not just to pay ‘lip service’ to the external commandments and mitzvoth. And God will wait as long as it takes, for that to happen.
The Vilna Gaon said:
Geula will come ‘in its time’, once we fix the halacha perfectly. And whoever is not on that level of perfection at that time, won’t make it through to the world-to-come.
(I should mention here, that the Vilna Gaon was kind of obsessed with the Erev Rav, and that he and his students both talked and wrote about them a great deal.)
This mirrored the debate that took place in Sanhedrin 97b, between Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, and Rabbi Yehoshua, that you can read about HERE.
And we are still having that debate today in the Jewish world.
On the one hand, there are the people saying geula is ready to come NOW!!! Today!!! And that the world is full of evil erev rav types that just can’t change, and won’t make it through, and that millions of people are going to die before Moshiach is revealed, because they just aren’t on the level to make it.
This is the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach.
On the other hand, we can see with our own eyes that each of these ‘end times’ keeps coming and going; and that the predicted wars keep fading away. And, that the whole ‘erev rav’ approach is basically unworkable in practice (as I cover in my book), and that with daily hitbodedut, regular visits to Uman, and a strong connection to our True Tzaddikim, people can and do transform into better Jews in some fantastic ways.
This is the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach.
A few years’ ago, Rabbi Dov Kook of Tiveria famously wrote a note where he stated that Rabbi Eliezer Berland is a spark, or reincarnation, of that selfsame Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol.
God is waiting for us all to open our eyes, and see what’s right in front of them.
After 200 years of trying the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach – which has clearly not worked to bring Moshiach and redemption – God is waiting for more of us to adopt the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach of sincere teshuva, talking to God, and connecting to our True Tzaddikim, instead.
And when we get that message, geula will finally happen.
 The author of the Shulchan Aruch.
 Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Ra’aya Mehemana, Konigsberg, 1858, 28a.
 Yahel Or, Commentaries on the Zohar, Parshat Mishpatim 114b (Vilna, 1882).
 In his preface to the book: Pe’at Ha’Shulchan.
 Page 237, The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision