A Living Talmud Encyclopedia

The state has recognized his stature by awarding him the Israel Prize for Talmud. But even at 81, David Weiss Halivni is still researching the Sages and publishing new books.

This week, even after he was informed that he had won the Israel Prize for Talmud, Professor David Weiss Halivni did not budge from his usual place in Jerusalem's national library. He continues to sit there several hours a day, near the shelf containing the Talmudic books that are the subject of his research: "I chose to sit here in order to save the time that accumulates in going to the shelf each time. In favor of the library staff, it must be said that they keep this space reserved for me."

And how could they not reserve it for him, especially in light of the esteem accorded to Halivni, who is perhaps the most preeminent Talmud scholar alive today? Students and colleagues visit him in the library, to ask questions or just to strike up conversation. Halivni, who is aware of his own value and especially that of his phenomenal memory, quotes one who told him that "my answers are faster than a search in an encyclopedia."

Special status

Halivni, 81, was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine). His parents separated when he was 4 years old, because his mother could not tolerate his father's lifestyle as an assistant to a dubious "miracle worker." Young Halivni grew up in the home of his grandfather, a Talmud scholar, who became the central figure of his childhood, in the town of Sziget in Hungary (Eli Wiesel also grew up there. In fact, Halivni studied in the same heder [religious primary school for boys] as Wiesel and the Satmar Rebbe). The family lived in abject poverty but young David achieved special status in the community thanks to his scholarly ability. In his memoir "The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction," Halivni relates how the town butcher would argue with him every time they met while other inhabitants would stop him in the street or simply come to the window of his home to gaze at him.

In the wake of the Nazis' accelerated campaign to annihilate Hungarian Jewry, Halivni's entire family perished at Auschwitz; he himself stayed at the death camp for only a week before being transferred to a forced labor camp. There, too, with a group of friends, he would spend the biweekly day of rest contemplating Talmudic issues. Once he even truly endangered his life, when he saw a German guard eating a sandwich wrapped in a page from the 16th-century rabbinical codex, the Shulkhan Arukh. He knelt before the guard and begged him for the page. Luckily for him, instead of shooting him on the spot, the German gave him the page. The precious page accompanied the group for several months and was kept at all times on the person of one of the learners.

After the war, Halivni immigrated to the United States. He says immigration to the land of Israel would have been "more natural from the perspective of my spiritual world, but I very much wanted to acquire a general education, and I was afraid that I would not be able to do so in Israel without the support of a family. I believed that the developed network of American welfare institutions would take care of me." And then he arrived at an American Jewish orphanage, where he instituted a revolt by refusing to eat meat, fearing that it was not kosher. (Halivni showed the institution's kashrut supervisor a question in rabbinical law and when the latter did not know the answer, he wrongly concluded that the kashrut supervision was not strict).

The orphanage's social worker introduced Halivni to her brother-in-law, Prof. Saul Lieberman, a leading Talmud scholar of the day. Lieberman's extensive scholarship succeeded in convincing the stubborn youngster that the food was indeed kosher. At the same time, Lieberman himself was deeply impressed with Halivni's talents and decided to "adopt" him as his successor. And thus the Belz Hasid who had studied in the heder of the Satmar Hasids in Sziget became a leading researcher at the Conservative movement's rabbinical school in New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where Lieberman taught.

"When I arrived in the United States at the age of 18, I had no general education at all," Halivni says. Within 10 years he had completed elementary, high school and college studies, a master's degree in philosophy and a doctorate in Talmud.

Innovative distinction

He says he never felt any tension between his Orthodox world and his work at JTS. "The group that led the seminary was Orthodox in its way of life. Nor were prayers mixed [with men and women together]." His life's work in research is connected to a theory he developed regarding different historical levels in the Talmud. "My starting point was the ambition, which I had already learned from my grandfather, to interpret the text as closely as possible to the literal meaning. In so doing, I did not understand why a large part of the explanations in the Talmud are so far-fetched and do not concord with common sense."

Halivni's answer consists of an innovative distinction between the level of the Talmud Sages, the Amoraim who are quoted by name in various sayings, and those who conducted the Talmudic debate, the formulators of the questions and responses, most of whom do not appear by name. In his estimation, hundreds of years elapsed between them and the Amoraim, and in the intervening generations the texts were sometimes corrupted; hence the problems and the far-fetched explanations. Thus far Halivni has published seven volumes that thoroughly examine the tractates of the Talmud and apply the principles of his method to the various issues that appear in them.

In 1983, Halivni announced his dramatic resignation from JTS, after it decided to ordain women for the rabbinate. In his letter of resignation he wrote: "It is my personal tragedy that the people I daven (pray) with I cannot talk to and the people I talk to I cannot daven with. However, when the chips are down I will always side with the people I daven with. For I can live without talking, I cannot live without davening."

Halivni retired about three years ago and decided to immigrate to Israel, which is what made it possible for him to be awarded the Israel Prize (which is contingent on Israeli citizenship). Last fall, he published a new book, "Breaking the Tablets" (Rowman, Littlefield), which deals with post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Halivni sharply attacks those who pose the question of why the Holocaust happened, and especially those who try to "explain" it by various sins, calling them collaborators with the Nazis. In his opinion, Auschwitz is tantamount to a divine revelation, such as the revelation on Mount Sinai, but is opposite to it in nature: "This is a revelation of the absence of the divine, a revelation of the possibility of God's absence from the world."