Halakhic Romanticism: Wordsworth, the Rabbis, and Torah

  • Lloyd Davies


The year 1796 marks the beginning of William Wordsworth’s enormously productive friendship with Samuel T. Coleridge in Dorset, England. That same year, in Vilna, Lithuania, the leading representative of Lithuanian mitnagged Rabbinic Judaism, R. Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, issued a h.erem or letter of excommunication, condemning H. asidism as a pantheistic heresy. Also in that year the H. asidic Rebbe Shneyur Zalman of Liady published his Tanya, a work whose objective was to secure H. asidism’s legitimacy within traditional Rabbinic Judaism.1 Only four years earlier, in Königsberg, Prussia, just two hundred miles from Vilna, Immanuel Kant, the premier philosopher of the Enlightenment, had published Religion within the Boundary of Pure Reason. Kant’s friend and fellow native of Königsberg, J. G. Hamann, the radical Christian polemicist, had died just eight years earlier. Moses Mendelssohn, the leading German–Jewish exponent of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, had also died recently (1786) in Berlin, a mere three hundred miles from Königsberg.2


Jewish Community External Authority Divine Commandment Modern Western Culture Divine Presence 
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    The Gaon of Vilna, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720–97), a famed Talmudic scholar, led the mitnagged (literally, one who is against) opposition to the H. asidic movement. His most noted disciple is Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (1749–1821), who founded the Yeshiva of Volozhin, the most influential center for Talmudic studies of its time. On the Gaon of Vilna, see Bernard Martin, A History of Judaism, Vol. II: Europe and the New World (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 137–40, and Solomon Schechter, “Rabbi Elijah Wilna, Gaon,” in his Studies in Judaism, first series (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1896), 73–98. On R. Hayyim of Volozhin, see Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1989). H. asidism originated with R. Israel ben Eliezer (1700–60), the Ba’al Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”). Rabbi Shneyur Zalman of Liady (1748–1813) developed a more intellectual version of H. asidism known as H. abad H. asidism in his Likkutei Amarim, popularly known as the Tanya. On H. asidism, see Martin, 168–88; on R. Shneyur Zalman, see Charles B. Chavel, “Shneyur Zalman of Liady,” in Understanding Rabbinic Judaism: From Talmudic to Modern Times, ed. Jacob Neusner (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1974), 317–35.Google Scholar
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© Sheila A. Spector 2008

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  • Lloyd Davies

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