David Weiss Halivni, pillar of Talmudic scholarship, Holocaust survivor, dies age 94

A prodigy, Halivni received rabbinic ordination at 15, won the Israel Prize and molded generations of scholars in US and Israel, teaching well into his 90s

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Prof. David Weiss Halivni in Israel, ca. 2016 (Meir Meiersdorf, via wikipedia, CC-BY-SA)
Prof. David Weiss Halivni in Israel, ca. 2016 (Meir Meiersdorf, via wikipedia, CC-BY-SA)

Prof. David Weiss Halivni, a theologian and pioneer in the field of academic Talmudic scholarship, died Wednesday at age 94.

Born in today’s Ukraine, Halivni was raised in Sighet, Romania, by a Talmudic scholar grandfather who fostered his evident genius with rabbinic texts. In Sighet, he studied alongside Elie Wiesel, who remained a close, lifelong friend.

Halivni was ordained as a rabbi at 15, but by the age of 16, he was captured by the Nazis, and, like Wiesel, was sent to Auschwitz and a series of Nazi camps.

“We were in the ghetto together. He was on the last transport. I was on the first. I left on Monday, he left Thursday,” said Halivni in an obituary for Weisel. “So we came to Auschwitz at different times.”

Halivni was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, which left an indelible mark on his future theological works, and indeed much of his scholarship, said former student and friend Dr. Zvi Leshem in conversation with The Times of Israel.

Orphaned, Halivni started life in New York, where his scholarship began anew, eventually at the Jewish Theological Seminary under Rabbi Saul Lieberman. Halivni taught at JTS until 1983 and left over the issue of the ordination of women, moving to Columbia University from where he retired in 2005. He was also the longtime head of Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) in Manhattan.

After his retirement, he moved to Israel, where he continued to teach at Hebrew University and Bar Ilan University well into his 90s. In 2008, Halivni was awarded the Israel Prize for his Talmudic work.

Halivni was a daily presence at the National Library in Israel, where he continued his research until just before the coronavirus pandemic.

“Though perhaps small in stature, Prof. David Weiss Halivni was an intellectual giant, a legend in his own time, and a dear friend of the National Library of Israel, where he was truly a fixture, spending thousands of hours immersed in research and conversation with fellow scholars and students,” read a statement published by the National Library.

Prof. David Weiss Halivni in Israel in 2017 (Matthew Morgenstern)

Leshem, today the head of the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library, formed a bond with the scholar in 1975 when studying at JTS. While he initially felt Halivni had “an aura of a Hasidic rebbe,” the two became personally close. “He was very much part of the family,” he said.

According to Leshem, Halivni’s “source-critical approach” to Talmud study was pioneering but not accepted across the board by scholars. “Everyone recognized that he was a giant scholar and pathbreaking, looked up to him and took his work very seriously,” he said. However, in the ultra-Orthodox spheres, his work was considered “pretty radical.”

Essentially, according to Leshem, Halivni looked at the texts of the Babylonian Talmud and analyzed the historical chronological development of the rabbis’ discussions, assigning each to the relevant time period. The largest source of the Talmudic comments are unsourced and anonymous, what he called stammaim. These were considered late additions by Halivni, who would basically unravel them from the “earlier” conversations to understand a particular issue under discussion and find the “original” intentions of the authors. The methodology is employed in his multi-volume commentary “Mekorot u`Mesorot,” or “Sources and Traditions.”

Halivni sparked controversy in the field of theology as well. In his autobiography “The Book and the Sword,” Halivni writes that he taught in the concentration camps and even risked his life to save a scrap of paper from a sacred book. However, he recoiled from those who attempted to explain the Holocaust through theological terms.

Later, in his collection of essays “Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah,” Halivni radically proposes that God revealed Himself to the Jewish people twice: once at Mount Sinai with the revelation of presence, and once at Auschwitz with the revelation of utter and complete absence, in which humans were given total and complete free will.

Halivni married Zipporah Hager, who taught comparative literature at City College, with whom he raised three sons. Zipporah died a decade ago. Two sons, Baruch and Shai, both lawyers, remain in the US. Dr. Rabbi Ephraim Halivni lives in Israel, where he works at the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Halivni will be buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives on Thursday.

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