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David Weiss Halivni

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Rabbi David Weiss Halivni (Hebrew דוד הלבני) (born 1927) is an American Israeli world-acclaimed scholar in the domain of Jewish Sciences and professor of Talmud, born in Carpathian Ruthenia.


David Weiss was born in the small town Kobyletzka Poliana (Кобилецька Поляна, Poiana Cobilei, Gergyanliget) in Carpathian Ruthenia, then in Czechoslovakia (now in Rakhivski district, in Ukraine). His parents separated when he was 4 years old, and he grew up in the home of his grandfather, a Talmud scholar in Sziget, Romania. [1] During the Holocaust, at age 16 he was deported to Auschwitz. After a week he was transferred to a forced labor camp, Gross-Rosen, then to Wolfsburg, and later to Mauthausen camp and was the only member of his family to survive. [2]

When he arrived in the United States at the age of 18, he was placed in a Jewish orphanage where he created a stir by challenging the kashrut of the institution since the supervising rabbi did not have a beard and, more importantly, was not fluent in the commentaries of the Pri Magadim of Rabbi Yoseph Teomim. This was a standard for Rabbis in Europe. The social worker introduced him to Saul Lieberman, a leading Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who recognized his brilliance and took him under his wing.

Initially, he studied in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and was allowed to not attend lectures because of his advanced standing. Over the next decade, he completed his elementary, high school and college studies, and went on to earn a master's degree in philosophy and a doctorate in Talmud.[3]

Weiss later changed his name to "Halivni," a Hebrew translation for "weiss" or "white." [4]

He studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York. He is the author of Mekorot u'Mesorot, a projected ten volume commentary on the Talmud. He is also the author of the English language volumes Peshat and Derash, Revelation Restored, his memoirs The Book and the Sword and others. Halivni also served as Littauer Professor of Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He is Head of the Metivta of the Union for Traditional Judaism. [5]

A close student (or talmid-haver) of Saul Lieberman, he studied with him for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, an institution affiliated with Conservative Judaism. Halivni left the Seminary in the 1980s after the controversy surrounding the training and ordination of women as rabbis. He felt that there may be halakhic methods for ordaining women as rabbis but that more time was needed before such could be legitimately instituted, and that the decision had been made as a policy decision by the governing body of the Seminary rather than as a psak halachah within the traditional rabbinic legal process. His disagreement with the process by which JTS studied the ordination of women led to his break with the seminary and his co-founding of the Union for Traditional Judaism.


His methodology of source-critical analysis of the Talmud is controversial among most Orthodox Jews, but is accepted in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, and by some within Modern Orthodoxy. Halivni terms the anonymous editors of the Talmud as Stammaim, placing them after the period of the Tannaim, and Amoraim, but before the Geonic period. He posits that these Stammaim were the recipients of terse Tannaitic and Amoraic statements and that they endeavored to fill in the reasoning and argumentative background to such apodictic statements. The methodology employed in his commentary Mekorot u' Mesorot attempts to give Halivni's analysis of the correct import and context and demonstrates how the Talmudic Stammaim often erred in their understanding of the original context.

Another controversial aspect of Halivni thought is his attempt in his books Peshat and Derash and Revelation Restored to harmonize biblical criticism with traditional religious belief. He has developed a concept that he terms Chate'u Israel, in which he states that the biblical texts originally given to Moses have become irretrievably corrupted.


His impact on the Jewish Theological Seminary has been profound. Most of the Talmud professors at JTS follow his source-critical approach. This has impacted the manner in which Talmud is taught to its students. It has been noted that there is a qualitative difference between the pre-Halivni period and the post Halivni period at JTS in terms of the students' Talmudic literacy and scholarship. Halivni himself has indicated on many occasions that he has been unable to pass on his methodology to his students.

In recent years, the work of Halivni and Shamma Friedman has resulted in a paradigm shift in the understanding of the Talmud (Encyclopedia Judaica 2nd ed. entry "Talmud, Babylonian"). The traditional understanding was to view the Talmud as a unified homogeneous work. While other scholars had also treated the Talmud as a multi-layered work, Halivni's innovation (primarily in the second volume of his Mekorot u-Mesorot) was to differentiate between the Amoraic statements which are generally brief Halachic decisions or inquiries, and the writings of the later "Stammaitic" (or Saboraic) authors which are characterised by a much longer analysis often consisting of lengthy dialectic discussion. It has been noted that the Jerusalem Talmud is in fact very similar to the Babylonian Talmud minus Stammaitic activity (Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd ed.), entry "Jerusalem Talmud").

Until recently, Halivni was the spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer, [6] a congregation on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a position he had held since the congregation's foundation in 1992. In 2002, there was a big controversy at this congregation, for many members of the community wanted to allow women to be called up to the Torah, which, while supported by a then-recent legal argument by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, is opposed by many Rabbis for halakhic and sociological reasons. Halivni was not excited about the practice, and told the congregation: “I shall allow it, but only if it is done no more frequently than a few times a year, and only if it is done in a separate room from the ‘real’ service.” Thus, the congregation allows this practice only under very limited circumstances. Nevertheless, even this “compromise” was far too liberal for many congregants. On the other side, many liberals favored a Partnership minyan approach and were frustrated by KOE's failure to include women in the main Torah service.

Current work

In July 2005, Halivni retired from Columbia University. He now lives in Israel and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University.


Published works

Halivni also published the book Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah, a collection of essays on Holocaust theology.

The central thesis of “Breaking the Tablets” is that the history of the Jews is “bookmarked” by two diametrically opposing “revelations”: Sinai and Auschwitz. The revelation on Mount Sinai was the apex of God’s nearness to the Jews, while the revelation at Auschwitz was the nadir of God’s absence from them. Halivni’s conviction is that Auschwitz represents not merely God’s “hiding his face” from Israel, as a consequence of the Jews’ sins — a familiar trope in rabbinic theology — but also his actual, ontological withdrawal from human history.[10]

In "Breaking the Tablets" Halivni explicitly rejected the notion that this withdrawal is simply an example of "God hiding his face" as viewed in normative Judaism. The concept of hester panim (God's hiding his face) is classically used with regard to punishment, and Halivni is adamant that the Holocaust cannot in any way be regarded as a punishment for Israel's sins.


External links

See also

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