Halivni, David Weiss

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HALIVNI, DAVID WEISS (1927– ), U.S. talmud scholar. Born in Poljana Kobielecka, Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), Halivni was raised in Sighet, Romania, by his mother and his maternal grandfather, Isaiah Weiss, a prominent rabbinic scholar. Recognized as a talmudic prodigy (ilui), Halivni was ordained a rabbi in Sighet before reaching the age of 17. Upon the occupation of the Carpathian region by Germany, the family was confined to the ghetto of Sighet, and thence deported to Auschwitz, Halivni being transferred to forced labor in Silesia. The sole survivor of his family, Halivni was liberated from the concentration camp of Ebensee, in Upper Austria, in May 1945, and came to the U.S. in 1947. Through the coincidence of a relative of Saul *Lieberman being employed in the Bronx orphanage where Halivni was billeted, he soon met that scholar, and so was taken under the wing of the leading academician in the field of rabbinic literature. Following undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College, in tandem with residence in the Yeshivat Rav Chaim Berlin, and graduate study at New York University, Halivni pursued a doctorate of Hebrew letters under Lieberman at the *Jewish Theological Seminary of America (jtsa) where he joined the faculty as professor of Talmud and Rabbinics.

Halivni's early work included a study of the pseudo-Rashi commentary on the Babylonian Talmud's tractate Ta'anit, the misattribution of whose opening segment he first suggested on the basis of literary comparison and then confirmed by means of an early manuscript that he identified in the Seminary's library collection. In 1968, Halivni completed the first volume of his ongoing talmudic commentary, Mekorot u-Mesorot ("Sources and Traditions"). In the first stages of this work, often starting with difficulties noted by traditional commentators, Halivni developed a source-critical approach to the talmudic page, aiming to uncover earlier, variant readings and textual substrates altered in transmission. (This methodology, and aspects of Halivni's personality, provided a basis for characters and for a paradigm of critical talmudic study dramatized in the first two novels of Chaim *Potok.)

Halivni's great achievement was a complete re-conceptualization of the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.

Appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Halivni was awarded Israel's Bialik Prize in 1985 for his ongoing talmudic research; he also received honorary doctorates from a number of Israeli universities, as well as the University of Lund, Sweden, and jtsa. Halivni was also a charter participant in the Institute for Advanced Studies of Tel Aviv University.

In the mid-1980s, Halivni left the Seminary for a professorship at Columbia University and also participated in the founding of the *Union for Traditional Judaism and its rabbinical academy, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, where he served as rector. He also became the de facto and then official rabbinic adviser of a small group, which initially met for Sabbath services in the home of the infirm Louis Finkelstein and subsequently burgeoned into a large community on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Halivni's books in English include Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law (1986), Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis (1991), and Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses (1996).

In his later years, Halivni confessed something of a return to the mysticism of the ḥasidic milieu of his youth, expressed through a certain ecstasy in prayer (especially on days including memorial prayers), and also, most notably with regard to his scholarship, in terms of the doctrine of ẓimẓum – that is, divine contraction or withdrawal from the world.

Halivni is also the author of a memoir, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (1996). Reticent for decades about his personal experience of the Holocaust, Halivni had said, with reference to Sighet ḥeder-mate, fellow survivor, and long-time friend, Elie Wiesel, "He speaks [about the Holocaust], and I am silent; but when we are together, I shout, and he listens." With his often poignant and thoroughly frank autobiography, Halivni broke his silence to speak of the transfiguring impact of the devastation on the course of his life.

[Jonah C. Steinberg (2nd ed.)]