Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Historian Arie Morgenstern


A discussion between Jewish Action’s literary editor, Matis Greenblatt, and Dr. Morgenstern about his research on the Vilna Gaon and his remarkable new theory on the aborted aliyah

Q:  When and how did you become interested in the Gra and his disciples?

A:  In 1975, after completing a stint as director of the Torah Education Department of the Jewish Agency in the U.S., I returned to Israel.  At that time, the huge archive (7,000 pages) of the Pekidim and Amarkalim, who distributed funds to the settlers of the old yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, was moved from Amsterdam to Israel.  This is a record of all the correspondence they received from the entire Jewish world during the period 1826-1870, including numerous letters from the Gra’s disciples.  It is a treasure trove of 19th century Jewish history.  In 1981, I received my Ph.D. from Hebrew University with a dissertation on this archive.  In 1985, I published my Messianism and the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and in 1989, Geulah B’derech haTeva.

Q:  You have said that you were privileged by Heaven to shed a new light on the Gra.  Can you elaborate on the historical significance of your theory?

A:  My general field is the 19th century.  However in recent years I have become absorbed by the 18th century because it was the year 1740 which the kabbalists described as Erev Shabbat.  (Each thousand years is equivalent to one day.  The current sixth thousand began in 1240 and its midpoint was reached in 1740.)  That is to say, 1740 began the pre-Messianic period preceding Shabbat, the name for the Messianic Age.  Many kabbalists came to Eretz Yisrael and sought to bring the Messiah through mystical means.  This includes Rabbis Chaim ben Atar, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Gershon Kitover, in addition to many Sephardic gedolim.  The Chassidic aliyah of 1777 and — as explained in my article — the Gra’s abortive trip, were all part of this general awakening.

Q:  You regard the Gra’s yearning to compose a single-view Shulchan Aruch, which apparently would be accepted by all of Jewry, as part of this movement.  How could the Gra expect to gain the acceptance of the Chassidim and the Sephardim?

A:  The controversy between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim did not really become intense until the cherem of 1781, and the Gra felt that his halachic prominence would prevail upon both the Chassidim and the Sephardim to accept his view.  In fact, the minhag Yerushalayim to this day is mainly that of the Gra.

Q:  You maintain that after the Gra’s uncompleted trip he initiated a new approach — Geulah b’Derech haTeva — which involved settlement of Eretz Yisrael through natural means, and in fact, many of his disciples did go to Eretz Yisrael.  Why is it that they do not mention that the Gra urged them to undertake aliyah?

A:  I believe that the Gra’s position was so well known to all his followers that there was no need to mention it in writing.

Q:  How did you get involved in the whole topic of the Gra’s trip?

A:  A certain academic actually wrote that the trip never occurred.  I became incensed and set out to collect as much evidence as I could to study the matter thoroughly.  My trip to Holland was quite extensive, including many libraries and community archives; but on the day before my return to Israel, I still had found nothing.  One half hour before the closing time of the Hague archives, I came upon a huge volume which contained the entry about the Gra mentioned in my article.

Q:  Did any of the Gra’s disciples attempt to acquire knowledge of the sciences, as did the Gra, or was their study restricted to Torah?

A:  There were those who were associated with the Gra, such as Rabbi Baruch Schick of Minsk and Rabbi Yehoshua Zeitlin of Shklov, who were knowledgeable in the sciences.  Rav Baruch published a number of scientific works in Hebrew and sought to disseminate scientific knowledge among the Jews.  However, it is true that the Gra’s greatest disciples concentrated their efforts on Torah exclusively.  Since scientific knowledge was thought of as important in understanding Torah, rather than as a pursuit in its own right, the Gra apparently felt he could teach them himself what was necessary for an understanding of difficult sugyot such as Arugah or the Sanctification of the New Moon.

Q:  What became of the yearning of the Gra and his disciples for the Redemption?

A:  They looked towards 1840, since the Zohar emphasized the great changes due to occur that year.  After 1840, most of the disciples and their descendants spoke little of the Redemption as an impending event.  However, individuals, including Yosef Rivlin and Yoel Moshe Solomon, continued to believe that their efforts in the settlement of the Land were part of the redemptive process.  Interestingly, the London International Conference of 1840, which compelled Muhammed Ali to give up Palestine, prevented Eretz Yisrael from becoming an Arab-controlled land and facilitated further Jewish settlement there.  I believe that the 1840 conference was more important than the Balfour Declaration.

Q:  Is it possible that your historical interpretations of the Gra and his disciples are influenced by your own personal views?

A:  Some of my academic opponents have so alleged, but the charge has no basis.  The documents speak for themselves.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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