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Isadore Twersky

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Isadore Twersky (a.k.a. Yitzhak Asher Twersky) (1930–October 12, 1997) was the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, a chair previously held by Harry Austryn Wolfson. Twersky was an internationally recognized authority on Rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy. He was especially known as an expert in the writings and influence of the 12th-century Jewish legalist and philosopher Maimonides. His best-known works are, An Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), and the more popular anthology, A Maimonides Reader. He was the editor of the Harvard Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (in three volumes), won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989, and was a fellow of both the American Academy for Jewish Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. According to Hacker (2005), Twersky can best be characterized as a "historian of ideas and a researcher of the intellectual history of the Jews," and would presumably have considered himself as such.


Twersky was born in Boston in 1930, and attended both Boston Latin School and Hebrew College, which was then known as Hebrew Teachers' College. His Torah knowledge was largely acquired through diligent private study rather than formal yeshiva instruction (Hacker 2005). He graduated from Harvard in 1952, where he majored in history. In 1949, he was one of the first students to spend a year abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he developed relationships with such scholarly and literary giants as Gershom Scholem, Yitzhak Baer, Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson and Nobel Prize winner S. Y. Agnon.

Upon his graduation from Harvard he began studies toward a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, under the guidance of the scholar of medieval philosophy, Harry Austryn Wolfson. His doctorate was on the twelfth century Provencal Talmudist, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières (Rabad), which, when subsequently published under the title Rabad of Posquières: A Twelfth-Century Talmudist, was one of the first academic portraits of a Talmudist written at an American university (Septimus 2005).

A scion of the Hasidic dynasty of Chernobyl, Twersky succeeded his father as the Talner Rebbe for the last twenty years of his life. He was a son-in-law of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His elder son, Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, is a lecturer at Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. His other son, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, holds the Leib Merkin Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud and Jewish Philosophy and is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University. His daughter Tzipporah Rosenblatt is a lawyer. She is married to Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Rosenblatt, who serves as the rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York City.

Teaching and research

Twersky was a pioneer in the introduction of the methodology of the History of ideas, first developed by Arthur O. Lovejoy into Jewish Intellectual history. He also devoted special emphasis upon the interaction between law and spirituality in the History of Judaism. He founded the Center for Jewish Studies in 1978 and served as its director until 1993.

His research in some respects resembled that of his contemporary and friend Alexander Altmann (Hacker 2005), and his work on Jewish rationalist philosophy brought him into conflict with scholars such as Gershom Scholem and Shlomo Pines, who viewed the medieval rational philosophy typified by Rambam as an alien parasite grafted onto traditional Judaism (Septimus 2005). There has been noted a certain irony in the affection given to this greatest of Jewish rationalists by the descendant of an illustrious Hasidic dynasty (it being the case by and large that Hasidic doctrine has stronger affinity for the mystical over the rational), but Septimus (2005) sees here a coherent and unified search for the spiritual within the rational.

At Harvard, Twersky taught both undergraduate and graduate students. His popular course, Moderation and Extremism, which compared and contrasted the paths to virtue in the works of Aristotle, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas, drew over 200 students in 1995, the final year it was taught. Over the course of his thirty years at Harvard, he taught a large number of graduate students. His exacting standards and expectations were legendary. Nevertheless, over thirty individuals completed their doctorates under his guidance. Many of these play leading roles in Jewish studies, both in North America and in Israel. Among these are Morris (Moshe B.) Berger, Edward Breuer ((Hebrew University), Bernard Dov Cooperman (University of Maryland), Joseph M. Davis (Gratz College), Lois Dubin (Smith College), Talya Fishman (University of Pennsylvania), Daniel Frank (Ohio State University), Steven Harvey (Bar Ilan University), Carmi Horowitz (Lander Institute, Jerusalem), Eric Lawee (York University), Diana Lobel (Boton University), David Malkiel (Bar Ilan University), Allan Nadler (Drew University), Ira Robinson (Concordia University), Marc Saperstein (Leo Baeck College, London), Mark Sendor, Bernard Septimus (Harvard University), Marc Shapiro (University of Scranton), Michael Shmidman (Touro College), David Sklare (Machon Ben Zvi), Adena Tannenbaum (Ohio State University), and Jeffrey R. Woolf (Bar Ilan University).

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  • Joseph R., Hacker (2005), "Isadore Twersky: Historian of Jewish Culture", in Harris, Jay M., Be'erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 1–14 
  • Bernard, Septimus (2005), "Isadore Twersky as a Scholar of Medieval Jewish History", in Harris, Jay M., Be'erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 15–24 

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