Misnagdim: The Opposition to Hasidism
With the decline of Polish Jewry in the wake of the various catastrophes that overwhelmed them in the 17th century, the centre of Torah scholarship moved to Lithuania, which had been less affected by the tragedies. The Lithuanian Rabbis continued to uphold the traditional Jewish approach that equated religious leadership with scholarly mastery of the Talmud and the codes of Jewish religious law.
The most distinguished proponent of this position was Rabbi Elijah of Vilna.
Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Ga'on of Vilna (1720-1797)
Note: The Hebrew word Ga'on ("pride") was originally a title restricted to the heads of the Talmudic academies, especially in Babylonia, during the immediate post-Talmudic era (until about the 12th century). In later usage it came to be applied more generally to outstanding Talmudic sages.
- Having demonstrated his remarkable intellectual abilities as a child prodigy, Rabbi Elijah was supported by his community and allowed to devote his full energies to study, without the usual communal responsibilities that attach to a Rabbinic office.
- The scope of his learning extended far beyond the normal yeshivah curriculum (which was limited to the Babylonian Talmud), encompassing the full range of ancient and medieval Rabbinic literature, including the Palestinian Talmud and midrashic compendia, etc.
- Rabbi Elijah was an ardent student of the Kabbalah, though he was firmly opposed to the popular Hasidic version of Jewish mystical teaching. He particularly objected to the cult of personality implicit in the leadership of the Hasidic Tzaddik
- He was knowledgable in many branches of secular learning, including mathematics, astronomy and biology. He composed Hebrew works on several of these subjects.
- His approach to Talmud study was "critical," and he devoted much attention to textual questions. He opposed the casuistic mode of study (pilpul) that was common in many of the Polish yeshivahs.
- At the Ga'on's instigation, the Vilna Rabbinical court issued an order of excommunication against the "sect" (as the Hasidim were disparagingly called) in 1772, which was subsequently intensified in 1781 to prohibit marriage and commercial relations with them. He questioned the purity of their leaders' motives and challenged their scholarly credentials.
- In his legal rulings, as found in his glosses to the authoritative Shulhan Arukh law code, Rabbi Elijah often disregarded the established custom of the community in favour of the theoretical positions that emerge from the literary sources.
- Following the Ga'on's death there erupted a series of mutual denunciations, which often resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the respective factions.
- The opponents of Hasidism came to be known as "Misnagdim" (Hebrew for "opponents."
- Eventually the antagonism lessened as Hasidism became less radical and more conventionally Orthodox (e.g., they began to turn to Talmud study). The two groups came to the realization that they faced formidable common threats from the Jewish secular ideologies and religious Reformers, as well as from the persecutions of the Czarist government and Christian clergy.
Return to Orthodoxy Image Map