‘Unconventional scholar’ receives Israel Prize

‘Unconventional scholar’ receives Israel Prize

JERUSALEM – On the Monday morning after Rabbi David Weiss Halivni was named a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, the chasidic shul where he attends daily minyan gave him the honor of "shlishi," an invitation to ascend the bimah to recite a blessing on the third portion of the day’s Torah reading.

For a man whose unconventional scholarship and institutional shake-ups have brought him into controversy for much of his adult life, this gesture had great meaning.

"In my letter of resignation to the Jewish Theological Seminary," he recalled in an interview with The Jewish Standard at Hebrew University, where he is visiting professor of Talmud, "I wrote, ‘My destiny is that the people I talk to I cannot daven with, and the people I daven with I cannot talk to. However, when the chips are down, I will always side with the people I daven with, for I can live without talking but cannot live without davening.’ Now the people I daven with are talking to me."

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni is the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for his talmudic studies. Union for Traditional Judaism

Halivni, a Holocaust survivor in his late 70s, is to receive the Israel Prize for his landmark research on the Talmud. The prize, conferred on Israel Independence Day, which falls this year on May 8, has been presented since 1953 to individuals or groups judged to have demonstrated excellence or broken new ground in certain fields. It carries with it an award of 50,000 shekalim (about $14,’85).

A prodigy from Ukraine who received ordination at 15, Halivni has been turning out a multi-volume commentary on the Talmud, "Mekorot u’Mesorot: Sources and Traditions," since the 1970s. His non-traditional approach to analyzing the voluminous exposition of the Oral Law is based on deconstructing its divergent parts and surmising where errors may have crept into the text over many centuries.

"I work under the concept that Torah is not only Torah chaim [Torah of life] but Torat emet [Torah of truth]. If you say ‘The Rambam said …,’ you have to be sure that’s what he said. You have to be exact in understanding history."

While "Sources and Traditions" initially caused shock waves in some sectors, its author says it is "almost universally accepted in academic circles today." It is used nowhere as prominently as at the Union for Traditional Judaism, the Teaneck-based institution he founded after leaving JTS when it began ordaining women.

"We are honored to be the only religious institution worldwide that teaches Rav Halivni’s method of Talmud study as our primary approach," said Rabbi Ronald Price, dean of UTJ’s seminary, the Institute for Traditional Judaism. "[His] attentiveness to the nuances of the Talmud’s text places a magnifying glass on how the Talmud was constructed and how it evolved. His life-long efforts are to restore the Talmud to its original understanding while not compromising how the halachic process has worked over the past two millennia."

Halivni continues to confer ordination on ITJ graduates, even after resettling here two years ago near Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. He is also visiting professor of Talmud at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, where he was teaching two weeks ago when a secretary handed him a note from Israeli Minister of Education Yuli Tamir asking him to call her. Based on inquiries he’d recently gotten from Israeli academics, Halivni guessed that Tamir was calling about the Israel Prize.

"I knew what was going on," said Halivni, "but nevertheless I said, ‘No, I’m not interrupting the class.’ But I couldn’t teach," he confessed with a laugh.

During the interview at the university’s Library of Judaism, where Halivni spends most of his time doing research for the eighth volume of his work, the affable scholar, a former professor of classical Jewish civilization at Columbia, talked about his written and communal accomplishments. He expressed disappointment that UTJ has not captured the interest of a larger swath of Jews.

"More and more [secular] institutions teach Judaic studies and more and more teachers wear kippot," he said. "They will have to come to grips with reconciling the two worlds, and the institution that’s most sensitive to this is UTJ. So far, it hasn’t had a great impact on the public. I still think it is making progress as a rabbinical organization. I’m impressed with the level of the students."

Halivni easily admitted that he was pleased to receive the good news from Tamir. "I am a student of the great Professor Saul Lieberman," he said with a smile. "He got the Israel Prize in ‘7’. So whatever he got, I am … trying to get, too."

The late Lieberman, a professor of Talmud at JTS for four decades, is credited by his prot?g? for many of his achievements.

Halivni related a story from his 1996 memoir "The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction."

The teenaged Weiss (who later appended a Hebrew equivalent, "Halivni," to his surname) arrived with a group of 15 refugee children at a Jewish orphanage in the Bronx on Feb. 11, 1947. They were served meat, but he would not eat it until he could be sure it was kosher. Lacking a beard, the resident rabbi did not win the young survivor’s trust, so a Yiddish-speaking social worker — Lieberman’s sister — was brought in.

"She said, ‘If I’ll take you to the man who I think is the greatest Talmud scholar, would you go?’ ‘I would run,’ I told her. The next day, I met Professor Lieberman and it changed my life. I wouldn’t have gotten the prize if it weren’t for that meeting."

After assuring the youngster that he could eat the meat at the orphanage, Lieberman engaged him in a talmudic discussion. "I was very much impressed," recalled Halivni. "His knowledge was phenomenal, but there was one Tosafot [talmudic commentary] I knew better than he."

As Halivni was leaving, he saw Lieberman take out a talmudic tractate and open it to the first page. "He said, ‘If I forgot one Tosafot, who knows how many more I forgot?’ And I’m sure he didn’t put down the Gemara [Talmud] till he went through the whole [tractate]. A scholar knows there is no other way."

read more: