For centuries, the historic region of Lithuania, torn between its powerful European neighbors, was one of the great centers of Jewish culture and intellectual life. In the 1810s, the small town of Volozhin was the site of a uniquely influential yeshiva—a school of Jewish learning—founded by a charismatic rabbi beloved by the community, the brilliant Chaim of Volozhin. But as influential as Chaim’s own contributions were to Judaism, he was also part of a broader movement, spearheaded by an even more legendary rabbi, thinker and philosopher: the mighty Vilna Ga’on, the “Genius of Vilnius.” Together the two men helped plant a uniquely hardy seed of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land whose germination would come to have profound consequences, especially after the vast majority of Lithuania’s Jews who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust.
In this unusual episode of Second Decade, Dr. Sean Munger puts a rare spotlight on the religious life of Europe in the 1810s, but the story of Chaim of Volozhin eventually becomes epic pageant of adventure, settlement and resistance. In this episode not only will you meet the Genius of Vilnius and his dogged disciple, but you’ll delve into the doctrinal and intellectual disputes among 18th and 19th century rabbis, you’ll walk among the jumbled stones of Jerusalem’s ruined Hurva Synagogue, and you’ll trace the perilous journey that dozens of Jewish families made from Eastern Europe to the land of Israel—only to find, in too many cases, tragedy waiting for them. This episode of Second Decade has been nearly three years in the making.
Content Warning: this episode contains brief descriptions of atrocities during the Holocaust.
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