Translating an intellectual tradition into another time and place is tricky business. All great scholars live in a specific context, responding to specific challenges and building on certain assumptions. Those who follow in their footsteps in different environments must adapt their tradition in order to adequately follow it. Failing to change is itself a deviation.
In a fascinating essay, R. Elyakim Krumbein discusses the ways in which the Vilna Gaon’s legacy evolved over time in the hands of his followers (link). He compares the attitudes of the Vilna Gaon’s immediate students to those of Volozhin students over half a century later. The results are surprising and telling (link):
A considerable number of the personal memoirs of students of the yeshiva in the last decades of its operation (the yeshiva was closed down in 1892), when the Netziv stood at its head, have come down to our hands. It is difficult to find in them any trace of the moral aspirations that characterize Nefesh Ha-chayyim, aspirations that prominently appear in the writings of R. Chayyim’s disciples who lived a generation or two earlier, e.g., the author of Menucha u-Kedusha, whom we have previously mentioned. It is clear that over the course of time, Torah study turned from a central value – as taught by R. Chayyim – into an exclusive value. We do not find the students at Volozhin during this period dedicating even minimal time or effort to the cultivation of fear of heaven, as was taught in the book of the yeshiva’s founder…
The new climate is strongly felt in the words of a student of the yeshiva, Zalman Epstein, who explicitly relates that among the students of Volozhin during this period, there was no connection whatsoever between Torah study and the fear of heaven. Can a person with such a spiritual position find a common language with R. Chayyim of Volozhin?
What is interesting is that despite this all, the students of Volozhin saw themselves as continuing the tradition established by the Gra. Only that in order to do this they had to “update” their image of the Gra. If we accept the picture painted by this Zalman Epstein, the Gaon of Vilna was venerated in Volozhin not as “the Gaon and Chasid,” as he had been commonly designated, but simply as “the Gaon.” The intellectual approach enjoyed total reign. During this period many young Russian Jews studied in universities, and the students of Volozhin compared their status to that of those who entered the halls of academia…
Do the later figures bear the Gra’s name in vain? It is difficult to provide unequivocal answers to questions of this sort. All that we can do is collect data to the extent possible, consider it, and try to draw a reliable picture of the reality. How are we then to evaluate the reality? Each person must give his own answer.
Read the full essay here: link.