Professor Yaakov Elman: A Talmud Scholar of Singular Depth and Scope

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Shana Strauch Schick

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series of reflections in memorium for Dr. Yaakov Elman, which includes articles by David Berger, Mahnaz MoazamiMeira WolkenfeldShlomo Zuckier, and Richard Hidary.

It is hard to be reconciled to the fact that it has been a month since the passing of Professor Yaakov Elman. I find myself with a profound sadness and loss, yet at the same time gratitude, to count myself among the small group of Yaakov Elman’s doctoral students, with the distinct privilege of benefiting from his mentorship, and now the difficult task of trying to do justice to his memory—as a brilliant scholar, a selfless and ever supportive advisor, and one of the kindest, most sincere people I have ever known.

When I first met Professor Elman, he was in the hospital after a terrible car crash that left him partially paralyzed from the neck down. But this brush with death and devastating injury did not seem to faze him. From his bed he delivered an impromptu lecture on the Iranian practice of temporary marriage, which illuminated the peculiar stories of the Babylonian amoraim, Rav and Rav Nahman, marrying for one day—a topic he would touch on in several articles. His excitement over an insight, into a deeply perplexing sugya, allowed him to push past the physical pain and uncertainty over his health, something he continued to do over the subsequent fifteen years.

His sincere love of pursuing and spreading knowledge was manifest in many other ways. He not only appreciated good scholarship; he enthusiastically promoted the work of others. There are many whose scholarship I first encountered through Professor Elman’s excitement about sharing their work. In his writing and in person he was open and respectful to scholars from all disciplines and walks of life, Jew and gentile, male and female; and he extended this respect to his students as well. It was almost comical how much time he would spend photocopying articles to distribute in class, so that he could give his students the most up-to-date material instead of sending them to the library in search of it.

His dedication to, and respect for, his students came through in every aspect of his career at Yeshiva University. Not content to teach required courses and pursue his own work, he set about to revive a Talmud department that had long been in a state of decline. His classes at the Bernard Revel Graduate School became a beacon to students who, like himself, brought a love of learning from the beit midrash but felt drawn toward critical approaches. Having revitalized the department, he set about to secure the necessary institutional resources to take on and support doctoral students, personally arranging for students to do additional coursework at Columbia, NYU, and Harvard, and always ensuring that we had the necessary funding to complete PhDs.

As an advisor he went above and beyond. He was ever supportive, always available, insightful, with the right amount of criticism during the dissertation process. And this continued throughout the years that followed. Even when he was once again confined to a hospital bed, he continued to be a devoted mentor; he still read our works, offered his insights and critiques, sent articles he thought would be of interest, and was there to help in any way he could—irrespective of the current state of his health. His devotion and pride in our work was like that of a father. I will always be grateful to him and try to live up to the standard he set for us.

He was an individual in the truest sense of the word; his varied career was an extension of an insatiable intellectual curiosity that took him from the “besmedrish” to college, a stint in weather forecasting, to Assyriology and of course academic Talmud study. In this realm he brought together diverse strands of scholarship to build an approach that I can best describe as holistic. For him, the Bavli, read carefully, yields a vivid picture of overlapping intellectual and cultural moments, populated by commanding legal minds, creative religious thinkers, and more than a few colorful or even roguish personalities. Rav Yosef, Rav Nahman, and of course Rava, whom Professor Elman would often remind us is the most oft-cited sage in the Bavli. These were not abstract names or literary constructs, but people who lived and died, and at some level struggled with the same problems that rabbinic Jews living within prosperous foreign cultures would face over the next 1500 years.

To understand the texts, the anonymous editors who constructed them, and the figures active within them, Professor Elman forged a unique path, drawing on studies as diverse as the orality of Scottish epic poetry, sociology of religion, legal theory, and the study of Middle Persian texts and cultures. As he often acknowledged, Professors Shaul Shaked and Isaiah Gafni had demonstrated the importance of the Middle Persian texts, and he completely devoted himself to advancing this as a central aspect of modern talmudic scholarship. Collaborating with scholars of ancient Iran, he mastered Pahlavi and sought to read Zoroastrian religious works with the same rigor that he would bring to a Talmudic sugya. As he would often quip, unlike the Talmud, the Middle Persian works had not benefited from over a thousand years of continuous study and commentary.

Professor Elman’s holistic approach was devoted to showing how the Bavli could be read critically as a source of intellectual and cultural history. He simultaneously accepted the serious challenges inherent in analyzing a vast compendium, compiled and redacted over the course of hundreds of years, while rejecting the idea that this compels us toward extreme skepticism. He had utmost respect for the work and skill that had gone into creating, transmitting, and interpreting the Talmudic corpus over two millennia, so he was confident that by using the tools of modern critical Talmud study it was possible to trace developments across generations, expose differences between regions and schools of thought, and even between the approaches of individual sages to law and communal policy. This is exemplified by his sustained interest in Rava. Through Professor Elman’s work, we now have a picture of Rava that is neither a legendary hero of aggadic lore, nor a supposed kernel of truth derived from those tales, but a fleshed-out, cosmopolitan thinker and revolutionary jurist whose influence can be detected throughout the redacted layers of the Bavli.

One of the last articles he worked on, which I am now in the process of editing, reflects the scope of his interests as well as his ability to integrate different areas of scholarship. Drawing from recent studies as well as his own research, he points to parallel developments in Qumran, early Rabbinic, and Zoroastrian law, demonstrating that each system evinces a move toward greater abstraction and conceptualization, including quantification, analogical reasoning, and second-order interpretation. As always, he constructs a broad picture that might not otherwise have come into focus. Going over some of his last writings brings home how much more he could have done and how much we will not get to see.

Professor Elman wrote extensively about the final sugya of Mo’ed Katan, which reflects the Babylonian Rabbis’ concern with theodicy, the seeming arbitrariness of life, and their fear of death, topics that he, unfortunately, perhaps understood better than most. But it is the concluding words of the masekhet (29a) that suit him best. For someone who never stopped studying, writing, and expanding his horizons; someone who, to our great benefit, even in the most difficult times, did not rest, the teaching of R. Hiyya Bar Ashi in the name of Rav is most fitting:

Rav Hiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: Torah scholars have no rest, even in the World to Come, as it is stated: “They go from strength to strength, they will appear before God in Zion” (Psalms 84:8).

May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.

Shana Strauch Schick is a fellow of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University and teaches at Drisha Institute in NY and Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim in Jerusalem She holds a PhD in Talmudic Literature from Bernard Revel Graduate School and studied in the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud at Stern College. Her book, Between Thought and Deed: Intention in Talmudic Jurisprudence is forthcoming from Brill.