Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a theologian, beloved teacher and pioneering and sometimes controversial scholar of Talmud, died June 29 at age 94 in Israel.
A Holocaust survivor, Halivni earned his doctorate and taught for many years at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, until leaving the institution in 1983 over its decision to ordain women rabbis. He later became dean of the rabbinical school of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a movement created by rabbis and scholars who similarly broke with the Conservative movement, and which mourned him as a “giant of Torah and middot,” or sterling character.
He is perhaps best known as a champion of the “source-critical approach” to studying Talmud, treating the vast compendium of Jewish law and lore not as a seamless, unassailable work but as a tradition layered with variant readings and textual strata altered in transmission.
But while traditionalists felt his approach, laid out in his multi-volume opus “Mekorot u’Mesorot,” or “Sources and Traditions,” trampled on the “domain of the divine,” Halivni insisted his work was in line with an unbroken chain of rabbis and scholars who contributed to what he considered a living canon of Jewish text.
David Weiss was born in 1927 in Kobyletska Poliana, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), but was raised in Sighet, Romania — the same hometown as Elie Wiesel, who was his life-long friend. Recognized as a “boy genius,” he was ordained as a rabbi at 15. When Nazis seized the town in March 1944, he was sent first to Auschwitz, and then to the Wolfsberg and Ebensee (Mauthausen) concentration camps. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.
In his 1996 memoir “The Book and the Sword” and the 2007 book “Breaking the Tablets,” Halivni laid out his justification for observing Torah and praying to God despite the horrors of the Holocaust. He rejected suggestions that the Holocaust was divine punishment for the Jews’ purported sins. Rather, he wrote in “Breaking the Tablets,” God “restrained himself from taking party in history and gave humanity an opportunity to display its capacities, for good and for evil. It is our misfortune that, in the time of the Shoah, humanity displayed its capacities for unprecedented evil.”
Halivni — a Hebraized version of his last name, which he adopted to distance himself from German officers also named Weiss — became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1952. He received his doctorate from JTS in 1958 and went on to teach at JTS, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University and Harvard Law School.
Associated with Columbia University for 35 years, he taught there full time starting in 1986 and retired in 2005.
Halivni’s fluency in a wide range of Jewish texts and thinkers was stunning, according to many of the people who studied with him.
“It was like glimpsing into, simultaneously, Bavel, Lucena, Worms, Lublin, Cairo, Jerusalem, etc. … all at once, but precisely extracted, one from the other,” Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., wrote on Facebook about the experience of sitting in on Halivni’s Columbia Talmud course. He was referring to historic sites of Jewish study. “And he did so with a humility that was immediately and obviously 100% genuine.”
Halivni was predeceased by his wife Zipporah Hager, who taught comparative literature at City College of New York. They raised three sons: Baruch Weiss is an attorney in Washington, D.C.; Shai Halivni is an attorney in Illinois; and Rabbi Ephraim Halivni lives in Israel, where he works at the Academy of the Hebrew Language.