Any Jew who survived the Holocaust is “a brand plucked from the fire” (Zechariah 3:2). That is especially true of any European Jew, and even more so of any European Jew who survived the worst of the Holocaust: Auschwitz and then the “Death March” to Mauthausen in 1945. One such survivor was a sixteen-year-old youth named David Weiss from Sighet, Romania. Some of his fellow townspeople might have anticipated that this boy prodigy might become the world-renowned Jewish scholar that he did become. But in 1944 (the year he was brought to Auschwitz), they could not be sure that he would live at all, let alone live and remain even more devoted to the Torah and its attendant Jewish tradition than he had been in childhood. But he not only survived—he prevailed. He became the great light of many lives.
He arrived in America in 1947 as a refugee and eventually found his way to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Immediately upon receiving his second rabbinical ordination and his doctorate, he joined the Talmud faculty there. He eventually hebraized his surname “Weiss” to “Halivni” (both meaning “white”), though he retained “Weiss” as his middle name. After leaving the seminary in the 1980s due to its serious departure from normative Jewish tradition (“Halakhah”), he held a chair especially established for him at Columbia University. He also founded the Union for Traditional Judaism, and became the dean of its rabbinical school, the Institute of Traditional Judaism. Upon his retirement from Columbia, he emigrated to Israel, where many came to consult him and benefit from his profound wisdom and empathy. On June 29, he died in Jerusalem at age 94..
Two points stand out in his remarkable life and career. In his scholarly career, Professor Halivni revolutionized the study of the Talmud by uncovering its complicated editing, whereby original sources were reworked, sometimes radically, by later, anonymous editors. More and more students of the Talmud (and they are legion) have adopted and employed his method in their study of this often difficult, even enigmatic, text. Indeed, a Jesuit friend of mine once called the Talmud the most “layered” text he had ever studied.
In his life, though, Rabbi Halivni was much more than an extraordinary academic. As an instructor of the Torah, and personally committed to its teaching, he showed that not only did his body survive the Holocaust, his soul survived it, too. Indeed, he more than survived—he flourished. His light ignited many other souls as well. His faith, to be sure, was complex and sometimes involved intense struggle. Of course, there is plenty of precedent for this in Jewish tradition (a là Genesis 32:28, “Israel” means “one who struggles with God”). Rabbi Halivni was constantly troubled by why God hadn’t rescued so many Jews (including his entire family) during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, he was always convinced that his survival in particular was for the sake of the Torah. His raison d’être was always to plumb the depths of God’s Torah and share his insights with his fellow Jews—and with interested gentiles as well. He did all this with exceptional grace and warmth.
I treasure every one of my many encounters with this great man over the more than sixty years that I knew him. During this period of mourning, I am trying very hard to recall as many of them as possible. His mark on my life and work is indelible. “And My servant David is a prince in their midst” (Ezekiel 34:24). Who David Weiss Halivni was for us in this world, we hope he will also be for us in the world-yet-to-come. For now, we have to be somehow content with only the memory of him.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by Thaler Tamas via Creative Commons. Image cropped.