David Weiss Halivni sits in the National Library in Jerusalem working, as he has done for decades, on his multivolume commentary to the Talmud. His lifelong immersion in the Talmud began in his hometown of Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains. In 1944, at age seventeen, he was sent with his family to Auschwitz and a series of labor camps, and emerged a lone survivor. After the war he made his way to New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, quickly establishing himself as one of the premier Talmud scholars of the age.
Like most academic talmudists, Halivni approaches the text with a deep sense of the many editorial hands through which they have passed—of their being products of history. Unlike most of his colleagues, though, he explicitly links his historical work to his theological concerns. Halivni's vision is spelled out in his 2007 book Breaking the Tablets, now newly released in Hebrew translation.
For Halivni, all of Jewish history and creativity has taken shape in the shadow of rupture, destruction, and shattering. The sacred texts themselves, in their gaps, incoherences, and inconsistencies, bear the marks of this shattering, the product of one historical catastrophe after another. Just as the rabbis of the Talmud and their successors labored to heal the fissured traditions they had inherited, the task of today's textual scholars is similarly to draw as near as they possibly can to the original revelation at Sinai.
Halivni believes in that revelation, even as he believes that his critical reconstruction of the tradition puts genuine limits on the reach of rabbinic authority. Very much a believing Jew, he gives haunting expression to his abiding faith in the essay on prayer that opens Breaking the Tablets and that returns us in the end to the texts and traditions that, with all their scars, endure.
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