Reflections on R. Prof. David Weiss Halivni z''l
R. Prof. David Weiss Halivni has passed away, and the tributes and memories have been pouring in. I first heard about R. Halivni, זכרונו לברכה, from my father, יבדל לחיים ארוכים, who was his student in the 1970s at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was not able as a child to understand much about what his contributions were, but it was clear that he was a giant of learning, capable of holding in his mind what most people cannot keep track of even with books open in front of them.
When I was in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. in Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS, I finally got to take a class with Prof. Halivni (cross-registered at Columbia, where he taught). If you have read the tributes to him offered so far, they are all true: a mind that consistently beat the CD-ROM searches—see Barry Wimpfheimer’s reflections—a desire to engage with every student who would engage with his theories, and an insatiable love of the Talmud. [He liked to emphasize that learning anchored in the rishonim and aharonim (medieval and modern commentators) was *not* the same as actually learning something new about the Talmud itself.]
I did not have a lot of personal contact with him, though I did get some time with him in the context of that class, including private time with him in his office. I can’t speak to him as a person better than others who knew him much better and had relationships with him that spanned years.
But I feel called to share some of my sense of deeply significant aspects of his learning, research and teaching, and how they have influenced me and the beit midrash in which I spend my time. This is all surely מקצת שבחו של האדם , but I hope these categories of contribution can help highlight some of what this unique individual has contributed to the world of Talmud Torah and study of the Talmud that will long outlast his earthly sojourn.
שינויי דחיקי לא משנינן לך Sometimes the Questions are better than the Answers
Anyone who has learned Talmudic commentators knows that most of them mainly structurally consist of questions and difficulties raised with the Talmudic text, followed by answers meant to address these concerns. When you first learn to learn a Tosafot, you are trained to find the question, understand it precisely, find the answer, and feel the circle completed in resolution. You might see competing answers—sometimes in the very same text!—but the destination is the resolution, which claims to capture what the Talmud itself had in mind and why the apparent difficulty is just a mirage when viewed from the right angle, up close.
Prof. Halivni really pioneered the notion that the questions raised by the rishonim and aharonim were really the most important part of their work. Search the footnotes in Mekorot Umesorot for these medieval and modern giants and you will find that it is mostly their questions that are cited, even as their proposed answers are passed over. Prof. Halivni’s great insight—and I think his most dramatic contribution to modern Talmud scholarship—was that these master readers of the text were always right when they spotted a difficulty. Something was wrong; something didn’t make sense. But their answers might have been limited based on assumptions of Talmudic omniscience (more on this below), or an assumed lack of historical development, or the (religiously critical) need to reach religiously coherent conclusions, which are not always identical with the best historical explanations.
This split between question and answer is nothing short of revolutionary and has the remarkable effect of elevating these commentators to the place of glory they deserve while also leaving room for future readers and scholars to contribute their own possible answers by opening up other axes of interpretive possibility. With Prof. Halivni as your guide, you were not really learning the Rashba, you were learning how to learn like the Rashba. This is a central piece of my own learning and my pedagogy. And I believe it to be a critical element of creating pious, faithful readers of the text in the modern world who nonetheless have something to contribute of their own to this transgenerational conversation.
ברייתא לא שמיע ליה–Not Everyone Knew Everything
Perhaps one of the widest misconceptions about the Talmud—held subliminally even by many who study it in depth!—is that it is the project of a group of Sages, sitting in a study hall, with all the sources available to them, playing out logic-based discussions around a set of questions. This could almost not be more wrong, on every level. This is not the place to detail all the aspects of Talmud scholarship that have helped us sharpen a more accurate picture, but I want to pick out one aspect that was a major contribution offered by Prof. Halivni. Simply put, his repeated assertion—emphasized again and again throughout Mekorot Umesorot—is that not everyone knew everything. Individual Sages may or may not have known what other Sages said. Baraitot—texts assigned to the time of the Mishnah but not appearing in that canonical text—may or may not have been studied by all the Sages who took up the topic under discussion. In other words, the serious student of Talmud cannot assume that what we have at the end of the Talmudic discussion is what any given Sage in the Talmud himself would have had access to. This, Prof. Halivni argued, was true even if the final redactional level of the Talmud itself, which may or may not have been aware of other Talmudic passages or of the full scope of the traditions under discussion. Much of Mekorot Umesorot is about viewing the Talmud as being some version of a game of “broken telephone”, where what emerges at the end maybe the best sense the editors could make of the limited information they had.
Whether or not one accepted all of his hypotheses, Prof. Halivni’s work opened up the reader to a more precise reading of each and every level of the Talmudic text. Many others have and continue to offer focused studies on the “layers” present in the Talmudic text, layers that represent the contributions of subsequent generations to an unfolding anthology of rulings and discussions over centuries. Prof. Halivni, took this genre to a scope few others reached (R. Yosef Dünner being one possible exception), offering his analysis on the lion’s share of the Talmud and truly showing how to ask these questions consistently across all sorts of sugyot, spanning all Talmudic topics. Recognizing that not everyone knew everything allows for an expansiveness of thought and interpretation, allows more voices to be heard at full volume, allows us to hear those voices individually before we synthesize them with others. This has created a much richer and more curious culture of Talmud Torah that is hard to imagine being without once you have seen and experienced it.
מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד להורות לפני רבו כבר נאמר למשה בסיני–Intellectual and Spiritual Continuity with the Past
Prof. Halivni modeled what it looked like to engage critical and historical questions as an organic outgrowth of the traditional learning of the beit midrash. Though he spent time teaching in a secular university context, his classes even there felt like shiurim in gemara. The pages of his magnum opus—Mekorot Umesorot—are filled with quotations from the rishonim and aharonim and his entire bearing and demeanor was that of a yeshiva student. For him, asking the questions he did about the historical development of text was not a break with the past, but simply the necessary corollary to loving the text so much that you just had to understand it to its fullest, whatever tools would enable you to do so.
This was part of what was so magnetic about him as a scholarly and rabbinic figure to many people. He offered—more by modeling than by saying—a picture of what it could look like to engage modern questions without being in a state of rupture and disjuncture from one’s past. Models of that have always been personally important to me, and they continue to be critical for anyone who deeply longs to be part of an unbroken covenant without quashing questions that feel central for understanding our texts and our contemporary world. Prof. Halivni wasn’t really a “modern Jew” in the sense of projecting some sense of a new project that would need to reject aspects of the “old world” in order for Judaism to cohere in the contemporary moment. I aspire to that sense of continuity in my own religious life and try to bring it to my own students when we learn together. I am grateful to him for being one important model of the viability of that path.
אבות העולם לא עמדו על דבריהם–Never Be Afraid to Try Out New Ideas
It was essentially a kind of perpetual betting pool in academic Talmud circles to try to guess what radically new theory of the Talmud’s formation would appear in the introduction of the next volume of Mekorot Umesorot. Prof. Halivni changed his mind many, many times! The date of the Talmud’s formation swung wildly by hundreds of years, initially cast as a “side hustle” by the named Talmudic Sages themselves and eventually as the work of a much later period in time, extending into what we often think of as the post-Talmudic period.
Put aside one’s opinions on these matters themselves. The humility, the lack of any need to stick to one’s guns, the pure search for sense and truth modeled here, are remarkable. It is so tempting as a scholar to come up with a theory and, like a Ptolemaic astronomer, to accrue epicycles upon epicycles just to keep one’s theory defensible and fundamentally unchanged. Mekorot Umesorot went through a Copernican revolution with each new volume. This model feels like it is slipping away from us in so many ways. You can either embrace a post-truth nihilism and just say new and inconsistent things all the time as you wish, or you can live a life haunted by digital breadcrumbs that will lead readers to a different and inconsistent version of your past, undermining you in the present. Beyond the world of scholarship, Prof. Halivni’s model is one for both writers and readers to aspire to: we are all working on a host of difficult questions and it might take us a lifetime or more to get to satisfactory answers. Mekorot Umesorot showed what a life so lived looked like, and its generous readers recognize this as its strength. In many ways, he embodied his own methodology: The questions he raised were the essential piece, with the answers he offered just possible pathways forward. Whether or not the conclusions he arrived at are the best way to read a sugya—my informal survey of the data tells me that Prof. Halivini usually does not win the day among academics in his conclusions—the attempts are truly the colossi on which all of us of lesser stature stand.
אין התורה נקנית אלא בחבורה–A Sense of Group Purpose
As I mentioned earlier, there have been others who have explored the Talmud’s “layers” and who have drawn attention to the threads from across time and space that were woven into a single tapestry. Since the medieval period, commentators have drawn attention to the parts of the Talmud that can (and should) be ascribed to a later editorial voice, as opposed to the Amoraim, the named figures of the post-Mishnaic period. But Prof. Halivni took these earlier references to redactional difference and creativity and gave this group of people a name: the Stammaim. Growing out of the term “Stam”, the anonymous editorial voice of the Talmud already referenced in medieval commentaries, the term “Stammaim” makes this part of the Talmud come alive, and gives a sense of a group of people working on a project together, a project of consequence and of generational scale. To be sure, his motivation here was simply to explain the text. But I don’t want to overlook the impact of seeing redactional phenomena as work by a group of people. This simple shift in nomenclature also carried/carries with it the sense that real people in real time were helping to shape תורה שבעל פה , to ensure that the Oral Tradition would be carried on to future generations and to pursue an almost frenzied project of understanding everything that had come before them. I dare say that the term “Stammaim” itself sort of transforms the identity of the redactors of the Talmud from clerks tying up lose ends to another great stage in the development and transmission of the Oral Law, alongside the Tannaim, Amoraim, Geonim and Rishonim. This brings the formation of the Talmud into this broader context and offers the learner and the reader an extended hand to join that redactional voice in understanding this incredible corpus. Prof. Halivini exuded that feeling in all of his teaching, like he was a latter-day partner in this enterprise. I seek out that feeling wherever and whenever I am able to access it, and I am grateful to him for being such a model in that regard.
דור דור דורשיו, דור דור וחכמיו –The Religious Gifts of Appreciating Historical Development
I want to close with perhaps the most basic element of R. Halivni’s methodology, already alluded to above, which I think may have the most profound religious consequences. The Talmud was a creation that formed over time, made up of the voices of many generations. The traditions therein represented the wisdom of many Sages in many times and places, and later traditions built on earlier ones but also each contributed their own unique elements to the discussion. R. Halivni’s historical lens was focused on all corners of the Talmud and he used that lens to discover lost opinions as well as to explain discontinuities and difficulties in the text. But training this historical lens on the Talmud also had/has important effects on the broader discourse of תורה שבעל פה (whether he intended this or not).
On Sanhedrin 38b, Reish Lakish says that the first human being was show all the teachers and Sages of each and every generation. This is one of the first hints we get of there being religious value to understanding each generation’s contribution on its own terms. Even if we are meant, like אדם הראשון, to take it all in as a unified picture, God chooses to share this information while keeping the generational strata intact and distinct.
It is easy to fall into a conventional pattern wherein the Talmud is a bunch of complicated discussions that conclude somewhere, leaving us with a “Talmudic take” on the matter, with some ambiguities that then need to be resolved. And then a period of halakhic “change” or “reinterpretation” begins in the medieval period, a product in part of social pressures and a loss of what the Talmud really “meant to say.” But when you are keenly aware of the historical layers of the Talmud at every step, you begin to see things very differently. The Talmud is then part and parcel of a process of preservation, interpretation and development that has never stopped. There is a dynamism to the entire discourse from the Mishnah through the Mishnah Berurah. What we have, throughout, are Sages in different times and places doing their best to hold on to the Torah, to follow it, to interpret it, and to apply it to their generation. This is not a process of “change”, it is just what Torah has always been. Rava does his best to understand R. Yohanan and may read the latter’s words through a set of assumptions that he holds because of his Babylonian context. The stammaim read Rava in light of other traditions and perhaps other sugyot they have encountered, and new meaning may emerge. And post-Talmudic commentators pick up this work, sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly, channeling in their own debates the divergent strands of thought and practice embedded in the Talmud to which they were non-negotiably accountable.
This more consistent picture of the Oral Tradition is, in my view, critical for shaping the kinds of teachers of Torah we need today. We need readers and leaders who can see themselves as protagonists in this conversation, who can find inspiration from each generation’s unique contribution, even as our goal as religious Jews is to pull those strata into a unified whole. And this returns us to the opening point: doing this in a way that feels utterly continuous with the past as opposed to in rupture with it. I am not sure whether R. Halivni would recognize this impact of his work, but it is descriptively true for me: this appreciation for the teachers of each generation and their struggles brings me much more deeply into the conversation of Torah and helps me find my own voice within it.
I am proud to teach in a Beit Midrash where these unique contributions of R. Prof. Halivni continue to reverberate. I pray that his spirit and his legacy will guide the learning and leadership of many for generations to come.