JTS Remembers David Weiss Halivni
June 29, 2022
The Jewish Theological Seminary joins with colleagues, friends, family, and students in remembering David Weiss Halivni, a longtime JTS professor, theologian, and transformational Talmud scholar who died Wednesday in Israel at age 94.
Professor Halivni made a profound and lasting impact on Talmud study at JTS and in the larger world of Jewish scholarship. His source-critical approach influenced countless students who went on to view his methodology as a touchstone in their scholarly work, and its influence on scholarship and teaching continues to this day.
Dr. David Kraemer, JTS librarian and a professor of Talmud, studied under Professor Halivni as a doctoral student. Dr. Kraemer recalls him as both a “genius” and a kind and caring person.
“I will never forget the hours he gave to me as I wrote my dissertation, meeting in chavruta [paired study] weekly to study the texts I was examining,” Dr. Kraemer said. “Imagine—one of the world’s greatest Talmudists offering chavruta to a mere student! As one who valued Torah and human beings, he was a model and inspiration to all of us.”
Dr. Robert Harris, professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, remembers Professor Halivni, or “Rav Weiss” as he called him, as both an extraordinary scholar and “a mensch of the highest order.”
“I remember many long walks in which he shared his wisdom with me on topics ranging far beyond rabbinic studies. We would talk about everything a young man might be worried about,” Dr. Harris said.
Born in Europe and raised in what was then Romania, Dr. Halivni was deported to Auschwitz at age 16 and then to other Nazi camps. The only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, he came to New York after the war and ultimately to JTS, where he studied with the renowned Talmudic scholar Professor Saul Lieberman. Though his exceptional intellectual gifts led him to receive rabbinic ordination in Europe at age 15, Professor Halivni was ordained in 1953 at JTS, where he also earned a Doctor of Hebrew Literature degree in 1958. He taught at JTS until 1983.
Professor Halivini’s major work about the Talmud was the multi-volume Mekorot u-Masorot, Sources and Traditions. Dr. Kraemer said that simply put, his teacher’s most significant contribution to Talmud scholarship was his insight into the chronology of the commentary attributed to the Talmudic rabbis. Professor Halivni showed that the Talmud’s anonymous, analytical voice belonged to rabbis who came significantly later than had previously been thought and that the vagaries of oral transmission meant they misconstrued some of what the earlier rabbis said.
In addition to his Talmudic writings, Professor Halivni wrote about the Holocaust, including in The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, a memoir describing how he survived in the camps, his love of Jewish study and practice, and a theological meditation on faith after the Holocaust.
Professor Halivni left JTS in 1983 because he disagreed with the institution’s decision to ordain women as rabbis at that time. He went on to teach at Columbia University before retiring and moving to Israel, where he continued to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University into his 90s. In 2008, he received the Israel Prize for his Talmudic work.