Two Decades of Learning with Professor Halivni

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Elana Stein Hain

Editor’s Note: We are running a number of pieces for the sheloshim of Professor David Weiss Halivni z”l. For Elli Fischer’s introduction to the symposium, see here. For Channa Lockshin Bob’s contribution, see here.

Around twenty years ago, I stepped into Professor David Weiss Halivni z”l’s class, and I never left. 

It was probably my sophomore year at Columbia College when someone directed me to his class on Peshat and Derash, in which we studied his book by that title. Our aim was to account for the gaps between what we today understand as the plain contextual meaning of Torah (peshat) and the decontextualized ways that Hazal often interpret it (derash). While I had been learning Torah she-be’al peh from a young age, I never heard anyone address this issue systematically.  I was both intrigued and scandalized.

Halivni confronted big questions head on, offering creative theological and historical paradigms as the “traditional radical” (per his son Baruch’s eulogy) that he was.  A triple commitment to profound emunah (faith), critical scholarship and traditional practice, marked his brand of religious piety. And there were times where he had to shift the balance between them, choosing some/one over the other(s).  To onlookers, he was walking a tightrope, but he was so natural about it; it was an organic expression of who he was.  His was a life of synthesis and nuance in the extreme. 

It was the slow, methodical commitment to raising questions and responding to them that typifies the contribution that Halivni is best known for: his extensive theorization of the role of anonymous editors of the Babylonian Talmud, and the resultant critical commentary he produced on much of Shas (the totality of the Talmud). (I am told he had written up at least to Hullin 40a before his death.) Rather than taking the text of the gemara (or in his unmistakable accent, the Gemura) at face value, he observed keenly where things did not quite fit: “forced explanations” by later rabbinic generations of the positions articulated by earlier rabbinic generations – whether amoraic explanations of a mishnah, later amoraic explanations of earlier amoraic statements, or anonymous editorial explanations of earlier material. And when he found something that seemed not to fit, he tried to reconstruct what the original source or position might have been. This approach became foundational to his position that the very warp and woof of the Talmudic page, what we call the shakla ve-tarya, is actually the work of anonymous editors who lived after the period of the amoraim. And while there are those who disagree with aspects of his theory, it is the academic theory with which to contend.

For me, it was neither the particular talmudic reconstructions nor the innovative theological paradigms that Halivni offered that most compelled me as his student. Ultimately, I was most compelled by his religious rigor: his insistence on placing the pursuit of understanding Torah at the center of one’s religious life. After all, this was the person who sat day after day throughout his retirement in the same spot in the Givat Ram library, slowly making his way through writing his commentary on Shas

He tried to pass this rigor down to his students, though it didn’t always work in the way he wanted it to. For example, rather than writing a dissertation on legal circumventions, which interested me as something of a big idea in rabbinic jurisprudence, Professor Halivni wanted me to edit a critical edition of a rishon (medieval commentator). While that did not excite me, to him, it was the greater contribution because it would allow deeper understanding of the gemara and its commentators sugya by sugya.  Sometimes what he tried to instill within us did work, like when he asked me to write a paper chronicling every use of the phrase אף אנן נמי תנינא in Shas. I had never before sat down to analyze any thread running throughout the gemara. It was inspiring (and painstaking!) to be pushed to do so. Sometimes his mastery would land like a curveball: like when he asked me at my dissertation defense how many times R. Yehudah HaNasi is mentioned in all of Mishnah. (My reply: I think you should answer that.) Every word counted. Every mention counted. Not just the big flashy ideas, but the comprehensive, committed analysis that led to an understanding of what Hazal had been trying to say. To be his student was to recognize the importance of that which is easily overlooked.

When he learned, words that didn’t quite fit with the give-and-take of the Talmudic discussion would rise from the page, almost physically, so that he could see multiple layers of the gemara at the same time. It was his sixth sense; and if I’m completely honest, it was not something easily passed down to the next generation. (Others, such as Shamma Friedman and Judith Hauptman, have furthered the field by developing more systematic literary criteria for identifying varied Talmudic layers within the text.) In fact, sometimes things that he felt were “maculations” I would still willingly gloss over. But he was adamant. Once he saw it, he had to understand it. Don’t excuse irregularities as mere idiom. Be precise. And I really do believe that this process of asking and reconstructing enabled depth in his own religious life. I have no doubt that there are many for whom his approach has given a similar lease on religious life. 

And it was so clearly a labor of love for him. He delighted in it. Even contradictions or gaps were not problems: they were indicators that perhaps the gemara did not have one large editorial hand that in Tosafistic dreams would have smoothed out contradictions in different parts of Shas. Rather, Halivni posited that there were the compilers who sewed different sugyot together, though they stood in tension with each other. There was a sense of adventure in it for him, such adventure that he spent his whole life working and re-working his theories. The only smile that could rival his reaction to the mention of his family was the smile that appeared when he shared a hiddush, a novel understanding of what lay behind a forced interpretation in the Talmud. Many will pay tribute to Halivni for his brilliance, for his photographic memory, for his commitment to comprehensiveness and for his genius in reconstructing rabbinic texts. But that smile represents something that is greater than the sum of those parts: his love of talmud Torah was palpable.  

The gemara was his first love. He quite literally lived within it and through its discourse; it had accompanied him through thick and thin: a troubled childhood, the Holocaust, and making a life and career for himself in America. After reading his autobiography, I understood that his focus on forced interpretations, tradition and critique, these were not just about the stam (anonymous talmudic editors); they were metaphors and questions about his own life. I watched him pore over the gemara as one would admire one’s child, noticing every feature, re-positioning anything out of place. As students can attest, he would end each semester by citing the gemara in Pesahim: יותר ממה שהעגל רוצה לינק פרה רוצה להניק, more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse. He wanted to learn Torah and to teach it, to nourish others with it. His love of Torah led him directly to a love of people.

In fact, Professor Halivni was brimming with love. I witnessed his love for his family, and I too felt loved as his student. His love expressed itself in confidence in what his students could accomplish. His love expressed itself in concern about my development as a learner and teacher of Torah, as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a professional. It expressed itself in the way he greeted me, my spouse and my children with such joy; in the way he consistently inquired about where and what I was teaching; in the way he insisted that we learn or talk Torah when we met, whether in Givat Ram, at his class for Hebrew University faculty, or in his apartment, in later years. At his shivah, I discovered another way that his love expressed itself: he kept copies of his students’ dissertations in his cabinet, quite easily accessible: a concrete expression of his investment in our learning. But it wasn’t just family and students; he was an אוהב את הבריות, a lover of all. Walking with him to lunch at the National Library, I watched him in conversation with  library staff, cafeteria staff, and fellow travelers, knowing people by name and asking after them and their families. This was a talmid hakham about whom one would easily say ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו, see how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds (Yoma 86a).

Professor Halivni’s sense of humor was another aspect of his love of people and of life itself. When my friend Aleza and I visited him late in her pregnancy, he requested wryly: “Call me when the baby is born. You don’t have to call me first, but call me.” He was genuinely entertained when he witnessed people who read his commentary Mekorot u-Mesorot and were baffled by his activity of trying to reconstruct rabbinic text. It tickled him to observe the different worlds in which people live and in which he himself lived. He was a person who laughed and made others laugh often. Not one’s usual picture of a world-renowned scholar.

When Halivni began to experience the kind of cognitive decline appropriate for his age, he appeared as the broken Tablets about which the gemara adjures, הזהרו בזקן ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שהרי לוחות ושברי לוחות מונחים בארון, Be careful to respect an elder who has forgotten their learning through no fault of their own, for both the tablets and the broken tablets were kept in the ark (Berakhot 8b). Every conversation with him was precious, and when he had a hiddush, which would come less and less often, he was eager to share it. I will always cherish a particular experience of the last time that I learned with him, as we sat in his apartment and he generously offered to share his most recent hiddush with me. יותר ממה שהעגל רוצה לינק פרה רוצה להניק was on display. It was touching. I asked him for a photo because I could tell we likely would not have another such opportunity. 

As a family, we are blessed to have warm relationships with the next generations of Professor Halivni’s family, and it was meaningful to hear their poignant and loving remarks at the funeral and shivah. No doubt, his Torah and his values lives on within them and so many direct and indirect students for generations to come. And yet, the day he died, Hazal’s words rang true: חכם שמת אין לנו כיוצא בו, A scholar who dies has no replacement (Horayot 13a).

A few years ago, a hevruta and I were learning a sugya in Hullin (138b) that contained a passage that stood out to us: the stam (anonymous editors) question the explanation and the very need for explanation offered by the stam (anonymous editors) some fifty pages earlier (89b). I am a direct Halivni student, and she is his student’s student. We looked at each other instinctively and wondered aloud what Halivni would have said. He never reached that daf in Hullin in his commentary. And even back then, we knew he never would. Hopefully some student or student’s student or avid learner of Halivni Torah will have something wise to say on that passage, but what I wouldn’t give to hear his take.

חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין

Elana Stein Hain is the Director of Faculty and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She was one of Professor Halivni’s final three graduate students.