Vilna Gaon

Renowned scholar led non-Hasidic Jewish world into modernity.

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To be sure, the Gaon was a critical scholar, in the limited sense referred to above, but he was far removed from any attitude of broad tolerance towards views which diverged from the traditional path. It is on record that the Gaon was instrumental in having one of the early Maskilim placed in the pillory for daring to express criticism of a passage in the Midrash and of Rashi. Nor had the Gaon any use for Jewish philosophy. In a note to the Shulhan Arukh, he is very critical of Maimonides for rejecting belief in demons, incantations, and amulets. Maimonides was misled, remarks the Gaon, by his study of the accursed philosophy.

Although the Gaon took little part in communal affairs, he led the opposition to the Hasidic movement, convinced that the Hasidic doctrine of panentheism, that everything is in God, is a heretical doctrine. It is not going too far to say that the Gaon persecuted the Hasidim, placing their leaders under the ban.

Some of the Hasidic masters, nevertheless, revered the Gaon and even acknowledged that were it not for his opposition the movement might have gone astray. Respect for the Gaon in Lithuanian circles was unbounded. Some Lithuanian Rabbis declared that the Gaon really belonged to the generation of the Tannaim whose word was law.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.