Yaakov Elman and the History of Halakha

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Shlomo Zuckier

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 MoazamiShana Strauch SchickMeira Wolkenfeld, and Richard Hidary.

Others have offered portraits of Prof. Yaakov Elman the loving father, the scholar with a diligent work ethic even in the face of adversity, the generous mentor, and the frumme yid from Brooklyn open and willing to engage with anyone who shared his interests.

As someone whose entrée into the field of rabbinics came from studying with Dr. Elman, I wanted to take a slightly different angle, and to focus on some remarkable aspects of Dr. Elman’s scholarship, which reflect not only his prodigious intellect and intensive work, but his broader hashkafah as well.

Many have reflected on the fact that Dr. Elman, despite primarily being known as a Talmudist, wrote on every era in Jewish history – from Assyriology and its relation to Tanach, to multiple reflections on Dead Sea Scroll Halakha, to studies on Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash Halakha, Yerushalmi, and Bavli, to articles on the Ramban and Meiri among the Rishonim, to considerations of Maharal, Rav Tzadok, the GRA, and, most recently, of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, his mentor, among the Acharonim.

The ability to span different time periods and fields, especially in today’s era of academic specialization, is truly unique and a reminder of what great scholars can achieve.

This capacity to write on such a broad span of fields stemmed not only from Dr. Elman’s vast bekius, his eidetic memory, and his constant learning, but primarily from his insistence to study – and be mehaddesh in – all areas of Torah, all of Jewish tradition, and not focus on a particular area of interest to the exclusion of other traditional Jewish texts.

But in recognizing his great bekius, we should not lose sight of his iyyun, not just the fact that he published his analyses at a steady clip but the nature of his analysis as well. Properly appreciating Dr. Elman’s mode of analysis will provide a window into not only his scholarship, but the nature of his view of the interaction between Torah and general culture.

Generally speaking, someone with a vast knowledge of the Talmud could have a relatively easy time producing scholarship – you take theories that have been previously propounded, and use your knowledge to either bolster those claims with additional examples or to refute them. Needless to say, this was not Dr. Elman’s derekh.

Instead of using his wealth of knowledge to further old theories, Dr. Elman was proactive in creating new areas of research. Most famous is his contribution to Irano-Talmudica, where he pointed to multiple connections in law and legal methodology between the Bavli and Middle Persian texts, as part of the broader cultural interaction between the rabbis of the Bavli and their Persian neighbors. But he also developed and expanded the rabbinic hermeneutical method of omnisignificance and its application in the medieval and modern periods. Furthermore, he applied genuinely new perspectives to his studies on Rav Tzadok and Rav Hutner.

This insistence on bringing new categories and new ideas to the field is more than a testament to Dr. Elman’s abilities, although it is certainly that. It also reflects certain key themes in the thought of Rav Hutner and Rav Tzadok that Dr. Elman has emphasized in his writing.

First, novelty and creativity were central to Dr. Elman’s work. He not only participated in the field of rabbinic literature; he moved the field, in Herculean manner. He convinced an entire generation of scholars to reassess the state of the Bavli in its cultural context, convincing many to retrain in Middle Persian and Sasanian history. This singularly initiated, innovative impression he made on the field through his intellectual creativity relates to several core aspects of the human psyche that Dr. Elman saw in Rav Hutner’s work. As he wrote, in an as-yet unpublished article (“Pahad Yitzhak and its Sources: An Opening Inquiry”):

The seven hallmarks of the Hutnerian system as they relate to the human psyche [are] individualism, autonomy, authenticity, innovation, self-fashioning and intellectual judgment and creativity.

Each and every one of these is manifest in Dr. Elman’s work, and, of course, in his personality.

Furthermore, this idea of not just participating in a field, but building new categories for it, may also serve as a statement on what it means to study history from the perspective of the Beis Midrash. Rather than turning Talmud knowledge into raw material, grist for the mill of proving or disproving various historical theories – the easy path for the baki – for Dr. Elman, the Talmud is a living, generative text, forming the basis of new theories, and shaping the academy rather than being shaped by it. Instead of simply being acted upon, the Torah sources take an active role in defining what Jewish history – and even world history – looks like.

Taking this point a step further, in the historical interaction between Torah and general culture, it is not the case that Torah submissively takes in whatever the outside world has to offer. Rather, the interaction goes in both directions, for the mutual benefit of both parties. This is seen in the context of Irano-Talmudica, where Dr. Elman did as much in his scholarly capacity to make Persian legal and ritual texts Talmudic as he did to make the Talmud Persian. In a similar vein, Dr. Elman’s insights from his study of the canonical Talmud, Ramban, Malbim, and Netziv regarding omnisignificance were redeployed regarding the Reform commentator Benno Jacob and even the Zand ī Fragard ī Jud-Dēw-Dād, clearly outside the Beis Midrash. The Talmud not only can activate scholarship; it is also a driving force in history.

Even cases of apparent influence by secular culture on rabbinic texts can be understood as stemming from the divine will. Two of Rav Tzadok’s grand themes, that the halakhic process and nature of Torah study develop over time through siyata de-shemaya, and of zeh le-umas zeh, that there are parallel developments in the Torah and secular world, frame Dr. Elman’s understanding of the interaction between Torah and broader culture.

From this perspective, history, divinely guided, consists of a series of encounters between Torah and the outside culture. Broader trends do not run roughshod over the Jews; the Jews themselves have major contributions to make in return. And the interchange and interaction is all directed by a higher power, as the unfolding of history allows for ongoing revelation among the Jews, always in the spirit of the times.

This hashkafah, laid out in Dr. Elman’s “Rav Tzadok Ha-Kohen on the History of Halakha,” was not theoretical; Dr. Elman lived it through his scholarship. The uniquely creative approach, uncovering previously unknown connections between Jewish and general philosophy throughout history – this is, in a sense, the revelation of God’s hand – and even God’s Torah – throughout history. For Rav Tzadok, history, properly studied, can also give insights into God’s ways – in every generation and for each part of Torah.

As Rav Tzadok taught, every dor has its Torah and its interpreters, those who reveal hiddushim. Our generation has just lost such a mehaddesh. But his contributions live on. As Rav Tzadok writes (Resisei Laylah, #13), and Dr. Elman was fond of quoting:

Whenever anyone understands any matter clearly, the light of that Gate [of knowledge] becomes open to the world and is open to all, for this is the principle that God established for all the generations, even though they continually decline in ability. For once these lights are made available to every generation by the great ones among the sages of Israel, they are not sealed up; they remain open forever, and become fixed laws for all Israel. Therefore, even though later generations are inferior [to earlier ones], they nevertheless maintain their awareness [of knowledge], as dwarfs [on the shoulders of] giants . . . and they themselves continue the process of this opening of new Gates. Even though they themselves are greatly inferior [in comparison to their forebears, their insights] are more profound, for they have already passed through the Gates opened for the earlier generations.

May we merit to learn from, internalize, and build upon Dr. Elman’s Torah.

Yehi Zikhro Barukh.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.