This contribution to Modern Jewish history is quite wide ranging in scope attempting to put the Vilna Gaon in the context of the currents and trends of contemporary ideas and righting the wrong of many Jewish historians who posit that Eastern European Jewry was not really part of the modern world. Stern shows very forcefully that in deed, Eastern European Jewry fit into to the modern world. The author attempts at showing the affinity of the Gaon's approach as an idealist thinker with Leibniz. He observes a certain irony about the approach of Mendelssohn's defense of Tradition in contrast to the Gaon's innovative practices of textual emendations and challenges to the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law.
Prof Stern details the absolute differences affecting Western and Eastern Europe: the Jewish community is a minority culture in the West, trying to fit in whereas the Eastern European Jewish community is the dominant community with no pressure to conform. Mendelssohn and his followers contend with Protestant Church thinkers, defending Judaism, whereas the Gaon and his followers see no challenge posed by a Catholic Church. The author points out what he sees as ironic: Mendelssohn known as the progenitor of Reform actually spends his career in the Salons defending Traditional Judaism, whereas the Gaon, known as the representative of Traditional Judaism trail blazes a path of innovative changes in practices. I believe, however, at a closer look at these two personages, the conventional understanding of them is nevertheless compelling. For example, although Mendelssohn himself did not agitate for any Reform and for the most part represented Traditional Judaism admirably, he was nevertheless, rebuked by Rabbi Yakov Emden in suggesting a compromise when the State demands to stop immediate burial. The willingness not to fight the State for Minhag Yisroel disappoints Rabbi Emden and perhaps makes him suspicious of Mendelssohn. In addition, although the Vilna Gaon changes Jewish practices, those practices can hardly be called Reforms since the innovations were results of deeply rooted traditional Torah learning. Mendelssohn accepts the authority of the State almost immediately without a fight, whereas, the Gaon is determined to arrive at the correct practice. One is drifting away from traditional authority whereas the other is correcting a perceived mistake in Tradition.
There actually is a stark difference between Mendelssohn and the Gaon which has to do with Torah learning. To illustrate my point let's allow the following comparison: Mendelssohn translates the Torah into the vernacular, German and Artsrcoll Mesorah publishers (representatives of followers of the Gaon's tradition) translate not only the Torah but also the Talmud into the vernacular, English. Most historians agree that Mendelssohn's translation no matter how accurate it is, nor how traditional it is to the 'sensas literalis', its main purpose is to bring the Jewish community out of the ghetto and into the mainstream culture. whereas Artscroll who's main purpose is to enable access to ancient texts, has successfully brought so many people back to the authority and observance of Jewish Tradition. The social trending of the followers of Mendelssohn and the followers of the Gaon go in opposite directions. The followers of Mendelssohn abrogate the Torah in their discovery of the German language whereas the followers of the tradition of the Gaon fortify Torah observance through the learning of classical Hebrew texts.
In his discussion of the Gaon's opposition to Hasidism, he observes that the Gaon accepted 'Maskilim' with courtesy yet rejected courtesy when dealing with Hasidim, giving the impression that Hasidism posed more of a threat to the Gaon then the Haskalah. With the professor admitting that the Haskalah and also Emancipation were not battles being waged during the Gaon's time and place in Eastern Europe, I did not find this point proven.
Prof. Stern astutely describes the change of the medieval corporate structure of the Kehillah as the 'privatization' of the Jewish community. The Jewish community today is still 'privatized'. This point can be seen today very easily in the concept of the 'Shtiebl', often the private home of the Hasidic rebbe. Moreover, He proves privatization by showing us how the modern Yeshiva is funded privately.
Sometimes professor Stern's tone gets in the way of his point. His enthusiasm for the Gaon's broad shoulders in Halakha brings him to hyperbole when he says that the Gaon "rejected out of hand" the Shulchan Aruch. No doubt, the centrality of Torah learning (as opposed to learning codes) brings a fresh understanding of Jewish practice. One would be hard pressed, however, to think that the Gaon advocates the dismissal of the Shulchan Aruch.
Although I enjoyed reading this book because of its subject matter, and it is a major academic positive contribution to the understanding of the Vilna Gaon, it revived, nevertheless, because of its tone, an old religious complaint of mine: 'Fear of Heaven' does not fit into the academic world. It's as if immediately, when one walks into the halls of the Academy (not Yeshiva) one must check 'Yiras Shomayin' at the door! I can already hear a professor's screed: 'scholarship must be objective, and Yiras Shomayin colors a bias.' The truth is Yiras Shomayin will make one more careful and conservative in what one publishes, more deliberate and considerate, and hence, a better scholar.