Like many, I was immediately surprised by Eli Stern’s thesis placing the Vilna Gaon (the Gra) as a cornerstone to the modern Jewish project. The thesis is based on a multiple modernities template, indicating that modernity took different forms in different geographical and cultural contexts, and that modernity in one place need not resemble modernity in another. Eli’s book has gotten a lot of negative feedback, primarily from scholars with expertise in the Gra that I simply do not possess. My own look at Eli’s book, can only hope to suss out claims made by the author in relation to what I know about modern Judaism, and “modernity” writ large.
What I like most about Eli’s thesis is the more expansive sense of space lent to modern Judaism and modern Jewish thought, and the attention to demography. In many respects, this book is more about these, the modern Jewish condition, then it is about the Gra per se. In particular, it has long been claimed that German Jewish modernity has overly dominated the field of modern Jewish. As a useful corrective, Eli’s book pushes the view of it further east, arguing throughout that the virtual majority status of the Jews in the places they inhabited in the Russian empire, in the Pale of Settlement, made for far more dynamic and self-confident forms of Jewish life and thought, unlike the defensive and apologetic forms that took shape in Central and Western Europe. This alone might stand out as one of Eli’s most important arguments, a bio-political one that pays attention to the importance of geography and populations on the formation of Jewish thought. The modern Jewish culture outlined here is pungent and anti-bourgeois. With Berlin almost off the map, Eli associates, in ways that are both offhand, but strategic, Vilna with New York, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles, places with large Jewish populations and robust Jewish culture (pp.13, 171).
In terms of intellectual scholarly community, though, Eli’s book faces many challenges if not obstacles. Stacking the deck against Eli’s project, as viewed from the sociology of knowledge, is the fact that Eli’s ideal interlocutors may be modern Jewish thought scholars who have no access to the primary sources and texts that would allow them to engage the Gra’s work. We lack expertise in the languages, which would have to include Yiddish, Polish, and Russian, and there are no critical editions of the primary sources, in English or in Hebrew. The very difference of this different modernity will be hard to gauge, or to even want to engage.
One of the first stumbling blocks that readers of Eli’s book will have to work around is this question. Could a contemporary person go back to the Vilna Gaon and find in him and his work a distant or even dim reflection of herself or himself, as can be done with Buber and Rosenzweig, Mendelssohn and Spinoza? At first glance, there seems nothing modern about the world of the Gra that would recommend in any way Eli’s thesis about the Gra and his wide ranging interests (p.27). These wide ranging interests are dominated by the world of Torah knowledge, what Shai Secunda has called, referring to the world of the Talmud, “a narrow vastness” (The Iranian Talmud, p.2). Indeed, Eli makes reference to the 30 (!) commentaries penned by the Gra on just the Zohar; one has to wonder about how narrow and hermetically sealed this corpus is. There is nothing that would attract it as modern, if by modern one usually means more cosmopolitan positioning vis-à-vis the larger world.
A second stumbling block is historical, and I suspect that much of the criticism that Eli drew upon himself is based on a historicist confusion on the part of his critics. Given how embedded historicism is in academic Jewish Studies, this comes as no surprise. The historicist mistake would be to start, methodologically, with the Vilna Gaon and then tracing how his influence made for the creation of modern Jewish thought and culture. We can do that with Mendelssohn. We can’t with the Vilna Gaon. So that’s a problem. It’s hard to see how the Vilna Gaon creates the condition for secular forms of Haskalah, or Bundist, territorialist, and Zionist forms of Jewish political and literary culture.
The solution to the historicist problem would be to read backwards. Start first with the secularity of Eastern European Jewish modernity, and then work back to the Gra, as an origin point, not as a direct progenitor. In other words, forget about the the shift from tradition to modernity inherited from Max Weber and adopted by Jewish social historians such as Jacob Katz. That is precisely the transition for which Eli would seem to want us to stop looking. The point would be to look out for modern points of view in a towering figure such as the Gra who lived right at the moment of profound historical transitions.
As identified by Eli, what is already modern about the Vilna Gaon are the following:  a focus on system and the mathematization of knowledge, a startling elective affinity between the Gra and Leibniz, as posed by Eli,  a disenchanted natural world (pp.93ff),  a breaking free from medieval scholasticism and custom,  a certain democratization of knowledge,  the creation of the modern yeshiva system (pp.115ff),  a certain privatization of religion insofar marked by the distance of the Gra, personally, and the yeshiva world, institutionally, from the public sphere (pp.40, 104, 135-40,  an emphasis based on the Bible, the drive to emend the Talmud, the focus on peshat over derash, all of which putatively contribute to the weakening of rabbinic authority (p.63ff).
But is this “really” modern? The parts of modern consciousness missed here is the critical and self-critical impulse, the cosmopolitan frames of reference to larger world-civilizational contexts, political and aesthetic. Above all, I would point to the Gra’s own turn away from the civic-public sphere. While much has been in modernity and secularity theory about the privatization of modern religion, not enough attention has been paid to how liberal religion was a civil-political-public project. We could point to how, for instance, the liberal religion of Kulturprotestantismus or Reform Judaism in Germany and in the United States has always been interested in impacting upon the public sphere. When Eli sets the putative radicalism of the Vilna Gaon against the well-known moderation of Mendelssohn, it’s insider baseball. That part of the argument is based on hermeneutical questions regarding biblical authorship and the Rashbam, about which almost no one cares. Modern are arguments about religious authority, including the rite of excommunication, which Mendelssohn famously rejected on principle and which the Gra supported in opposition to Hasidism. Even more to the point, the modernity of the Gra is argued on the basis of a comparison to Mendelssohn and to Berlin, not the other way around. It is hard to imagine someone making an argument about he modernity of Mendelssohn by comparing him to the Gra!
It could be that the modernity-thesis presented by Eli could be usefully tweaked. Given both sets of points just outlined regarding the modernity versus the anti-modernity of the Gra, maybe the Vilna Gaon was modern in “form” if not in “substance,” “virtually” modern, but not “actually” modern. I’m not sure if Eli would agree to the emendation. I would only note that he himself states how, in the face of problems besetting Jewish life, the Gra set out “to create an alternative universe whose borders were Torah text and whose hierarchy –and economy- was based on knowledge of those texts” (p.105). An “alternative world” is a virtual one, as virtual as the virtual majority status that Jews enjoyed in East European places like Vilna, which Eli returns to insistently in his book, from start to finish. I make this emendation, not to diminish the force of the argument presented by Eli, but rather to enhance it in as unexpected a way as the original and expansive thesis posed by him about the Vilna Gaon and the alternate-virtual modernity he might represent to us who who work in Jewish philosophy over against the more narrow ghetto of German Jewish thought.