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David Weiss Halivni, Controversial Talmudic Scholar, Dies at 94

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a renowned scholar of the Talmud who started studying its labyrinthine arguments when he was 5 and devoted much of his life to the controversial idea that it was riddled with inconsistencies and incongruities that required further inquiry and reconciling to sustain its divine authority, died on June 28 at his home in Jerusalem. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by his son Baruch Weiss, who said he had been in frail health and had recently left a hospital after a bout of pneumonia.

The lone survivor of the Holocaust in his Eastern European Jewish family, Professor Halivni, who spent most of his career in Manhattan, was considered too radical, even heretical, by many Orthodox rabbis, and too regressive by many Conservative Jewish leaders.

But he carved out his own no man’s land and won praise from rabbis across the spectrum for his painstaking devotion to interpreting the Talmud, and for the books he produced. These included a nine-volume commentary, “Sources and Traditions,” that encompassed many of the Talmud’s 63 tractates. A 10th volume may be patched together by his family from his writings and notes.

“He changed the face of Talmudic scholarship fundamentally and forever,” said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, the former dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the fountainhead of the Conservative movement, who studied with Professor Halivni for four years. “His work is simply too persuasive to ignore. If you’re going to argue with him, you better have good arguments.”

What was pioneering about Professor Halivni’s work was that he burrowed deeply into the history of how the Talmud — thousands of pages of commentaries and debates by sages seeking to clarify and expand upon statutes outlined in the Bible — came to be compiled from the third to the seventh century.

Ultimately, Rabbi Tucker said, “he tried to restore the pristine state of the Talmud by pointing out incorrect editorial surmises” made by later sages in an effort to explicate the concepts and conclusions of earlier ones. Since the transmission was, for generations, largely oral, it was subject to the flaws resulting from fallible memories.

When logic was strained, Professor Halivni noticed, the later sages resorted to “forced readings” or split hairs — trying, in Rabbi Tucker’s words, to shoehorn in “a piece of a jigsaw puzzle when it didn’t quite fit.”

Professor Halivni tried to iron out the inconsistencies and gaps and restore logical coherence by, among other methods, returning to the sources or tracing a concept’s provenance. He went about this work much like a Supreme Court justice’s scrutinizing the Federalist Papers to see what was intended in the articles of the U.S. Constitution, or examining earlier precedents.

For example, the tractate “Moed Katan” (“Intermediate Days of the Festivals”) states, “During midfestival they may not marry wives, whether virgins or widowed … since this is an occasion for rejoicing; but a man may take back his divorced wife.” The reason for the ban was that the joy of marriage might eclipse the delight required by the festival itself. Professor Halivni wondered why the statement suggested that remarriage to a divorced wife was not an occasion for rejoicing.

He concluded, through meticulous research, that a phrase might have been transposed in oral transmission, and he suggested that a more accurate reading would be that “a man may take back his divorced wife, since this is an occasion for rejoicing” — in other words, the rejoicing of a remarriage is permitted because it is tempered by memories of the anguish of the divorce itself and so does not detract as much from the rejoicing in the festival.

Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli political party, called Professor Halivni’s work an “abomination” and accused him of daring “to enter the domain of the holy and express the poisonous and destructive thought that the transmitters of the Talmud changed the text not even knowing that they did so.” On the other hand, in 1977 Marvin Fox, then chairman of Judaic studies at Brandeis University, called Professor Halivni “one of our precious, precious treasures.”

Professor Halivni acknowledged that fundamentalist rabbis feel compelled to regard the Talmud as given by God, along with the Torah, at Mount Sinai. “If I criticize the Talmud, it suggests to them that I don’t accept its canonization,” he explained to the New York Times reporter Israel Shenker for a 1977 profile. “To them, accepting the canonization means that Talmud is off limits to criticism. But my feeling is that divine origin does not preclude critical study, since critical study seeks to purge the text of human error.”

Professor Halivni conveyed his Talmud method to students at the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1957 until 1983. He broke with the seminary that year over its decision to admit women for ordination. Baruch Weiss said his father objected to the way the decision was executed, which he felt disregarded Jewish law by turning the question into a secular one of admission policy rather than requiring a vote by rabbinical authorities.

In response to that decision, Professor Halivni co-founded a breakaway movement now called the Union of Traditional Judaism. Though at its peak it claimed 15 affiliated synagogues and a seminary that ordained 24 rabbis, it is now largely engaged in advocacy and outreach, according to Rabbi Ronald Price, its executive vice president emeritus.

In 1986, he became a professor of religion at Columbia University. He retired in 2005 to live in Israel; he taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University in the Tel Aviv area until 2008 and then taught a Talmud class at Israel’s National Library until 2018.

Professor Halivni was born David Weiss in Kobyletska Poliana, now in Ukraine. (He later adopted the Hebrew surname Halivni, which like Weiss essentially means white, because the name Weiss also belonged to SS officers he encountered.) Although his passport rendered his birthday as Dec. 21, 1928, his son said that his true birthday was Sept. 27, 1927, and that the date was most likely altered so he could qualify for immigration to the United States under a special program for war orphans.

When he was 4, his father, Ephraim Bezalel Viderman, and his mother, Feige Weiss, separated and he went with his mother to live with his Hasidic grandfather, Shaye Weiss, an esteemed Talmud scholar, in the town of Sighet, then in Romania. There he was at times a religious school classmate of Elie Wiesel, the future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

His grandfather realized that David was a child prodigy, with a phenomenal memory capable of recalling whole pages of text, and had him dip into the Talmud at age 5. By the time he was 10 he had stopped attending school to study full time on his own, and by 15 he was ordained a rabbi.

In March 1944, the Germans marched into Sighet and deported its Jewish residents to Auschwitz, where David’s mother, sister and grandfather were killed. His father was also killed by the Germans, leaving him at 16 his family’s sole survivor. After a week at Auschwitz, he was transferred to forced labor camps at Gross-Rosen, Wolfsberg and finally Mauthausen, where he worked in an underground munitions plant.

He later told his sons that on one occasion he noticed a German guard eating a sandwich wrapped in a page torn from the Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish code of law, and daringly asked the guard to give him the wrapping. The guard consented, and the page became an object of discussion for several months.

After the Allies’ defeat of the Germans, he returned to Sighet to find that the Jewish community there had been wiped out and sojourned in Budapest, where he spent his days studying with a rabbi. He told his sons, Baruch Weiss said, that “the only thing that kept him going after the war was learning.”

He was able to immigrate to the United States in 1947. Although he knew no English, his reputation as a Talmudic scholar had reached Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, which invited him to undertake advanced Talmud study.

While he was receiving assistance from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a social worker, aware of his talent, introduced him to her brother-in-law, Saul Lieberman, a renowned Talmudic scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who became a significant mentor.

Feeling that he needed a stronger secular background, he enrolled at Brooklyn College and, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy there, earned a master of philosophy degree at New York University. He chose the Jewish Theological Seminary for his doctorate in Talmud. Within a decade he was teaching there.

He married Tzipora Hager, a descendant of a grand Hasidic rabbi, in 1953 and they settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She gained a doctorate in Yiddish literature from New York University and taught at the City College of New York. She died in 2008. In addition to his son Baruch Weiss, Professor Halivni is survived by two other sons, Ephraim and Shai Halivni, and six grandchildren.

Professor Halvini’s 2007 book argued that the Holocaust revealed that God had decided to let mankind make its own choices without his interference.

Professor Halivni was considered something of a theologian, and in 2007 he published “Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah.” In that book, he added a second revelation to the traditional one at Mount Sinai: the revelation at Auschwitz.

While the revelation at Sinai crowned God’s singular attachment to the Jews, he posited, Auschwitz marked God’s withdrawal from intervening in human affairs. He rejected those who tried to rationalize the Holocaust as punishment for Jews’ sins. God, he said, had already decided to let mankind make its own choices without his interference.

“This is a revelation of the absence of the divine,” he said, “a revelation of the possibility of God’s absence from the world.”

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