Commentary Magazine


The Book and the Sword by David Weiss Halivni

The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction
by David Weiss Halivni
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 196 pp. $21.00

The Talmud, the foundational document of classical Judaism, is a forbidding, multivolume work with a reputation for difficulty that derives not only from its vast size and abstruse terminology but also from many passages that simply do not appear to make logical sense. Traditional methods of study resolve these contradictions through an interpretative virtuosity which explains local problems by adducing relevant passages from distant places in the text. But there is also a modern, critical mode of technical analysis, based on the understanding that the text itself was redacted over the course of 400-to-500 years and that later sages did not always understand earlier traditions or may have possessed versions corrupted in transmission.

One of the most eminent practitioners of this kind of critical study today is David Weiss Halivni, Lucius N. Littauer professor of classical Jewish civilization at Columbia University. His prodigiously learned research into the work of the later rabbinic sages amounts to an archeology of the Talmud: by uncovering the likely original meaning of corrupted traditions, he has proposed coherent reconstructions of legal discussions whose difficulties have challenged generations of scholars; in the process, he has articulated an entire conceptual framework for understanding what he refers to as the “Jewish predilection for justified law.”

In addition to being a master scholar, Halivni is a survivor of Auschwitz. His determination to place the two salient facts of his life in more than an accidental relationship is the animating impulse behind The Book and the Sword, and it is what makes the book both important and in some respects unique.

Early in his childhood in the Transylvanian town of Sighet, Halivni tells us, he was identified as an ilui, a Talmud prodigy. A child genius was a source of great communal pride: at five or six, his sayings were being quoted around town, and the boy, who lived in the household of his maternal grandfather with two sisters (one totally disabled), his divorced mother, and her two unmarried sisters, soon discovered that, since people were willing to pay for displays of his prowess, he could also provide some material support for his beleaguered family.

It was his grandfather, a penurious but distinguished talmudist, who took responsibility for the nurturing of the boy’s gift. Halivni’s homage to this venerable figure at once repays a debt of gratitude and identifies, in his grandfather’s rejection of the then-dominant style of Talmud study in favor of greater emphasis on the plain meaning of the text, a kind of precedent for the controversial innovations he himself would later introduce in his academic work.

With rare psychological candor, Halivni acknowledges that his boyhood feats of learning, however much they may have been motivated by religious devotion, were also driven by a need for recognition and security. But if he was fortunate in being rewarded for what he did best, his good luck brought anxiety as well. Because not only his own self-esteem but the happiness of a large household depended upon his success, the need to excel was overwhelming; so, too, was the fear of situations in which his gift might not be recognized.

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This was the background to events that began to unfold in March 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary and the Jews of Sighet were deported to Auschwitz. There, Joseph Mengele sent Halivni—by now a young man of seventeen—to the left, his mother and grandfather to the right and immediate death. Torn from his family, horrifically abased, Halivni nevertheless drew strength from the text to which his life had hitherto been devoted. Talmud study had served many purposes in his existence; now, the religious values of which it was the quintessential expression provided a shield against despair and dehumanization.

Halivni passes rather quickly over his time in Auschwitz and in the slave-labor camp to which he was later transferred. After the war, he made his way to America, and his tale becomes one of a displaced, penniless orphan whose true powers are gradually revealed and then in the end richly acknowledged. He studied in advanced yeshivas in New York and attended Brooklyn College, where for the first time he encountered secular subjects. Sought out by a succession of scholar-rabbis from the worlds of the yeshiva and hasidic Judaism, he ended up studying with the preeminent talmudic philologist Saul Lieberman at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical institution of Conservative Judaism.

Eventually Halivni, too, became a professor at the Seminary, where for 30 years he happily taught and conducted his research until resigning over its 1983 decision to ordain women as Conservative rabbis. He is now a spokesman for what he calls “traditional Judaism,” an approach that simultaneously affirms the rigorously critical study of Jewish texts and the faithful observance of Jewish religious law.

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Halivni devotes more than half of The Book and the Sword to his break with the Seminary, an account that will fascinate anyone interested in postwar American Jewish life and the development of the Conservative movement. For the seasoned reader of Holocaust memoirs, however, Halivni’s book is bound to seem meager. Although he offers vivid recollections of arriving at Auschwitz and leaving it, he appears to have suppressed almost all memory of what he saw and experienced there. The core of horror seems to be missing.

In this respect, the story told in The Book and the Sword differs markedly from that told in the work of Elie Wiesel, a much better-known author who, exactly like Halivni, was a young talmudist in Sighet before the war. Wiesel’s first and most influential book, Night (English translation 1960), records in detail the unspeakable horror of the camps, and the breakdown of spiritual and cognitive identity to which it led. Because of its power, and perhaps also its timing, Night established an entire paradigm for understanding the experience of the Holocaust. In his later fiction, Wiesel often paints a portrait of the survivor as one who endures a kind of death-in-life, literally possessed by the burden of bearing witness to catastrophe.

Halivni, by contrast, Wiesel’s townsman and age-mate, is interested less in the destruction of personal identity than in its persistence. Clearly, the reason he devotes the preponderance of his book to the years before and after the war is that he perceives an essential continuity between the two periods, a continuity which the war traumatically interrupted but failed to shatter. The central axis of identity remains unbroken.

The nature of that axis is brought out in a brief passage dealing with Halivni’s experience in a labor camp where the inmates dug tunnels to protect munitions factories from Allied bombardment. Every night, Halivni would pass by a Nazi guard eating a greasy sandwich; the grease made the sandwich-paper translucent, and one night the emaciated young talmudist was able to discern that the paper was actually

a page of Orach Chaim, a volume of the Shulhan Aruch, Pesil Balaban’s edition. The Balabans began publishing the Shulhan Aruch, the [16th-century] Jewish code of law, in Lemberg in 1839. The first publisher was Abraham Balaban, and after his death he was succeeded by his widow, Pesil. Pesil’s edition of the Shulhan Aruch was the best; it had all the commentaries. . . . As a child of a poor but scholarly home, I had always wanted to have her edition. . . . Here, of all places, in the shadows of the tunnel, under the threatening gaze of the German, a page from the Shulhan Aruch, fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.

Coaxed from the hands of the guard, the paper became a focus of clandestine study and a spiritual rallying point for the religious prisoners in the camp.

This beautiful vignette, evoking the then-prisoner’s deep intimacy not only with a text but with its printing history, as well as his naive excitement over the fulfillment, under horribly degraded circumstances, of a boyhood wish, is thoroughly typical of Halivni’s brand of faith. To say that that faith survived the nightmare of the Holocaust largely intact is not to say that he is worthier than others. But he may be no less representative.

Many survivors struggled after the war to establish lives that would be explicitly continuous with the religious and cultural values they had held before. Indeed, the enormous expansion of Orthodox Jewish life and institutions in Israel and America could not have taken place if these survivors and their communities had not been determined to restore what had been lost. Such individuals (Elie Wiesel, in his cultural and political activities, as distinct from the persona projected in his fiction, is among them too) are more numerous than we might conclude from reading some of the standard literature of the Holocaust—which is all the more reason to be grateful for the example, and the witness, of David Weiss Halivni.

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