Printer Friendly

Introduction to David Weiss Halivni's "Prayer in the Shoah".

YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT testimonies on record of the theological consequences of the Shoah. It is a wrenching, troubling and yet tragically affirmative account of what it means to have prayed in the camps and to pray again today. The context for this testimony is noteworthy in itself. As Professor Halivni explains in the beginning of his essay, Yad Vashem had asked him to write the piece to introduce their publication of the High Holiday Machzor used in the Wolfsberg concentration camp (and that had been transcribed for that purpose by the Satmar Cantor Naphtali Stern, z'l). Halivni notes that he had been "looking for quite a while for an opportunity to write about the mispairing of sin and Holocaust. This may be the occasion, I thought, so I accepted the invitation, even though I did not know at that time what the biblical and rabbinic sources would show." [1] Several months after Halivni completed the essay, just before Rosh Hashanah 2000, Rabbi Obadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of SHAS, spoke about the Shoah on his regular Saturday night sermon, broadcast over Israel Radio. As Halivni recalls, "Rabbi Yosef spoke of the connection between sin and suffering and declared that the Holocaust was the result of sin and that the many religious people who were killed in the Holocaust had been sinners in a previous life (gilgul). "The radio show elicited powerful reactions in the Israeli media. Except for support from the Ultra-Orthodox community, the report was generally condemned in various letters to the editor and in radio and TV commentaries. When President Katsav of Israel criticized Rabbi Yosef's conclusion, members of SHAS threatened the government. Shortly thereafter, Halivni presented the views of this essay as a public lecture in Israel. He stressed three major themes of the essay: the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous; it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh; and it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such a rguments on behalf of their own authority. [2]

As a means of introducing Halivni's essay, I will offer observations about its religious context and literary setting and suggestions about its theological significance. First, for those less familiar with Halivni's work, I begin with a biographical note.

Halivni's Life and Work

Lucius Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University and former head of the Talmud Department of the Jewish Theological Seminary, David Weiss Halivni is recognized as one of the post-war generation's greatest Talmudic scholars. [3] Until the past decade, when he began to write his theological and methodological studies in English, he was widely known only among Hebrew readers of his ongoing magnum opus, Mekorot uMesorot ("Sources and Traditions") [4]--a technical, wondrous play of hypothetical reconstructions of the Talmud text's history of redaction. [5] His recent writings in English have explained how it is possible for one to apply the scientific tools of textual and historical analysis to the Talmudic literature, while, at the same time, respecting the sanctity of that literature as the source of traditional religious practice. [6]

The center of Halivni's overall work concerns the bond between academic rabbinic scholarship and rabbinic practice: a link that he fears is often missing today in both the academy (lest "religious interests" lead scholars to lose "scientific or critical objectivity") and the traditional or yeshivah worlds (lest "scientific interests" lead pious Jews to lose the "purity of Torah"). He observes that academic scholarship that is not connected to rabbinic practice tends to lose contact with the overall purposes of Jewish textual study, as well as with the guidelines for responding to textual questions for which there are no clear-cut, "scientific" answers. He adds, on the other hand, that when yeshivah learning avoids using the tools of critical scholarship, it fails to imitate the talmud torah of the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages, who made use of the powerful interpretive tools of their age to help them discern the subtler meanings of the Torah texts. In this context, one could say that the overall goal of Halivni 's work has been tikkun torah as his way of "mending the broken bond" that links Torah study and Torah life.

Consistent with this goal, he has devoted his energies to practical, communal work as well as to scholarship. He is co-founder and rector of a rabbinical seminary--the Institute of Traditional Judaism in Teaneck, New Jersey--and he has become Ray of a Shabbat minyan in the Upper Westside of Manhattan (with a growing congregation of observant Jews, many of them students and young professionals). This practical side of Halivni's work is worth noting, because "Prayer in the Shoah" reflects theological judgments that cannot simply be deduced through some formal method of inquiry. His judgments are made by a whole person: grounded, to be sure, in a life of text study, but offered just as intently for the sake of upholding living communities of Jews. To form such judgments, moreover, he has had to reflect on a lifetime of experiences, including those that bring memories of unimaginable suffering.

Halivni spent his childhood in the Jewish community of Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains. He was famous for his Talmudic erudition even as a child, and even before his rabbinic ordination at the age of fifteen. But Hungarian Jewry had already begun to suffer the effects of Nazism several years before this, and, later that year, in 1944, he was deported, first to a ghetto, then to Auschwitz, later to the forced labor camp of Wolfsberg, in Gross-Rosen, then to the death camp of Ebensee. His family perished in Auschwitz, and he writes that, of his grandfather's 65 children and grandchildren, only five survived the camps. Inside the camps, he continued to teach Mishnah from memory, but, as he recounts in his memoirs, the environment was no longer one in which he could open his mind to new levels of learning Torah. He recalls,

Even though I knew that the murderers were out there in the streets,... I shut them out, drew an imaginary wall and continued to do what I had done all those years, linking myself to the past and continuing to study the same material I had studied since the age of four....

That changed on the fateful day of May 14, 1944.... We were told on that day that we had to leave our house ... and wait in the street for transport.... At that time ... I lost my home and my imaginary life stopped. I stopped learning... I had no desire or ability to study Torah amid people ready to kill us. I did not learn on the train and did not resume formal learning until months after liberation.... [7]

In their wildest imagination the people of the ghetto could not have imagined what ultimately happened ... that they would be gassed ... including young children. [8]

Halivni's memoirs, The Book and the Sword, A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, were composed and published more than fifty years after the horrible events that define them. The words and world of the Talmud had filled his imagination as a child. In his youth, they provided him a refuge ("an imaginary wall") from the horrible world around him. Through much of his adult life, they may have provided him a refuge, as well, from the memories of that world. But I am struck by two occasions on which this wall of imagination appears to have been breached. He describes the first occasion in his memoirs: "I lost my home and my imaginary life stopped." It seems most prudent to understand his experience physiologically: when physical survival itself was threatened, it was simply impossible to concentrate on book learning, even for the sake of refuge. Yet, his description of horrors that went beyond one's "wildest imagination," might also suggest something about the relation between Torah and imagination. If words of Torah can fill the entire imagination, can they also reach beyond the imagination? Or do events that shatter the imagination itself also threaten the universe of one's Torah learning? Is this, in fact, another way of characterizing the theological challenge that Halivni faced in writing his memoirs? Would the memory of such events also challenge the universe of one's Torah learning (and pierce the "wall of his imagination" a second time)? If so, we may wonder if "Prayer in the Shoah" offers Halivni's response to this second challenge: a way, finally, to re-imagine, re-build, and renew the universe of Torah after the events of Shoah. [9]

The Setting of "Prayer in the Shoah"

"Prayer in the Shoah" is what we may call a "theological testimony." It is, for one, written by a survivor of the Shoah and, in that sense, belongs to the literature of witness. But it is also a theological inquiry, composed by someone who is both a profound scholar of Talmudic literature and a rabbinic leader. Halivni's personal witness to the Shoah therefore, in a sense, brings a dimension of traditional rabbinic Judaism into the horrors of the Shoah and then out again. In the process, his witness enables the reader to see what it might mean for rabbinic Judaism itself to endure the Shoah and then persist again as rabbinic Judaism. How does the heart and soul of Talmudic Judaism suffer such an event? How does it withstand the event and not disintegrate in despair? How is it transformed through the event, so that what emerges into life after the Shoah is both traditional rabbinic Judaism and something else? And how does the transformation occur, in detail, to each aspect of rabbinic Judaism: its method of re ading Torah, its sense of the Covenant between God and Israel, its understanding of sin and punishment, and its visions of God's relations to creation and, even, of God's self-relation?

Responding to these questions through what I will label his "third-way" of writing, Halivni may frustrate the tendency of many modern Jews to separate personal (or communal) from academic forms of writing. In both Mekorot uMesorot and his more general English writings, Halivni is careful to frame most of his work strictly within the limits of academic scholarship as most scholars define it today. He also offers a second level of inquiry, however, through which he entertains questions for which there is insufficient scholarly evidence to offer demonstrable answers. Even if these questions are not answered, he suggests, critical scholars may survive or even prosper in their professions. But some of these questions speak to matters of life-and-death for the religion of Israel -- for the spiritual, psycho-social, and corporate existence of Judaism after the Shoah. What, for example, is the status of the Covenant after the destructions of the Temple? Or after the Shoah?

Critical text scholars will surely acknowledge the importance of such questions to the practical lives of various rabbinic communities; and they may acknowledge the significant role of "myth-making" in strengthening communal life -- that is, the importance of "constructing narratives" that enable communities of Jews to give sense and order to their lives with one another. But most may assign responsibility for such "myth making" to "communal leaders" or to artists, writers, and composers. And this division of responsibilities will also bring with it the presumption that distinct spheres of training and knowledge and sensibility contribute to critical text study, on the one hand, and such practical literary output on the other. Leaders of traditional religious communities, on the other hand, will readily acknowledge the significance of such questions, but they may also claim that appropriate answers to them are already available in the "tradition." Such leaders may then re-affirm the critical scholars' sense o f a division of responsibility, but in reverse order: these questions are too important to be influenced by critical scholarship, and the responsibility for framing them must be left to appropriate religious authorities.

Halivni seeks both to acknowledge the separable spheres of critical and community-specific modes of study and, at the same time, to argue that both sides must give much more attention and care to the third mode of inquiry that falls in between them. For Halivni, what the critical scholar may label "myth making" is "made," to be sure, but not only by human hands. What the traditional religious leader says is "answered by tradition" is "inside" the tradition, to be sure, but cannot be brought to the light of day without human effort -- and it is an effort that belongs to this day. His third mode of inquiry draws, at once, on both rabbinic leadership and critical inquiry, both traditional Torah learning and scientific study.

There are several ways of drawing these two sides into a single inquiry. One of Halivni's central approaches is to undertake a religious historiography. [10] This is to encourage religiously committed academic scholars to conduct their customary, scientific studies of historical evidence, but then to contribute, as well, to their communities' wrestlings with the "big questions" that exceed the limits of clear evidence. The first rule of religious historiography is to eliminate answers that would flatly contradict the evidence. The second rule is, among various possibilities, to select the one answer that responds to the community's sense of Torah, by helping repair present day crises in the community, while at the same time reaffirming and extending the wisdoms of classical rabbinic Judaism. The third rule is that the capacity to make profound judgments of this kind requires prayer as well as critical rationality.

Halivni's essay illustrates another one of his "third approaches." This is to write within the style and language of the medieval tradition of rabbinic commentary. While it is not obvious in the English translation, almost all of Halivni's text is written within the Biblical, Talmudic, and Gaonic vocabularies typical of medieval commentaries: in both his textual citations (which you will see) and the paraphrases that are internal to his own sentences (which you may often not detect in the English). Halivni's text continually replays the medieval style, restating his main thesis each time it is demonstrated on yet another level of our textual heritage and re-citing illustrative sections of the siddur, or of the rabbinic and biblical literatures. In this way, Halivni signals that his Jewish theology after the Shoah will remain deeply within the rabbinic tradition, reaffirming the Biblical Covenant between God and Israel and the traditional vocabularies of Bible, Talmud, and of post-Talmudic commentary. At the s ame time, by introducing the unsettling witness of the Shoah into these traditional vocabularies, he delivers the transformative consequences of the Shoah into the heart of rabbinic Judaism. In this way, he does not "add on" to the tradition, but illustrates how it is relived today, for this generation.

Speaking for a moment as interpreter, I believe Halivni understands himself to be writing in a way that is reassuring to an Orthodox readership, indicating that rabbinic Judaism lives on today, after the Shoah and without insulating itself from the religious consequences of the Shoah. At the same time, his writing also delivers an unsettling message: rabbinic Judaism may not be identical, today, to the religion promoted in the last three decades by Orthodox leaders and roshei yeshivah. He does not say this in the way such leaders may say they fear: that is, he does not diminish traditional rabbinic piety or halakhah or faith in the God of Israel. He suggests, instead, that, for the people Israel after Shoah, such piety may not be consistent with a number of claims made by Orthodox leaders today. The problem is not simply that these leaders may fail to speak Torah to the conditions of the day. It is, more gravely, that their anxieties about the changing face of our Covenant may have moved them to reframe rabbi nic Judaism as a system of unchanging doctrines and rules-or as a system of doctrines and rules that they alone are authorized to define for us, as if with direct divine commission. [11]

For Halivni, the deeper crisis is that traditional Judaism has been increasingly represented in the past three decades by such leaders, and that clal yisroel therefore begins to identify "Jewish piety" with the orthodoxy of such leaders, alone. The result is that both traditional and non-traditional Jews are led further away from the interpretive traditions of classical rabbinic Judaism. Traditional Jews are led away because they follow the examples of their leaders (whom they mistakenly identify with the methods of the classical sages); nontraditional Jews are led away because they flee from the same examples (which they also mistakenly identify with the methods of the classical sages).

Renewing Judaism

I have introduced Halivni's approach as it is addressed to the community of Orthodox readers, but his essay might speak, in different ways, to readers from each of the denominations of Judaism. The task for any reader is to re-hear such a text within the terms appropriate to his or her community of practice and belief. This is how one speaks, in general, of talmud torah: receiving the texts of Scripture in their plain-sense, but then hearing them again through interpretations (d'rashot) that enable the plain-sense to guide everyday life in one's own community. But Halivni's work suggests that the tradition of reading both peshat and derash applies to more than the Tanakh. If Torah is present in the rabbis' interpretations of Torah, then we must also read the rabbis as we read Scripture, receiving the plain-sense and then reinterpreting it in the context of our own lives. And the same applies to every stage in the transmission of rabbinic Judaism right down to the most recent generation of scholars. This is no t to make "Scripture" out of these scholar's "merely human writings," but to hear Scripture in that dimension of their writings that transmits Torah, and to receive this dimension as filled with as much divine presence as fallible human presence--and as much fallible human presence as divine presence.

In Halivni's terms, God revealed only one Torah (not one Written and one Oral), but the fact that we possess a holy (and thus unchangeable) -yet-fallible record of the written Torah means that the divine and the human hand are always inextricably bound together in our readings of this Torah. This binding means that the divine hand may be directly present in the rabbinic scholarship of our generation (and much more is therefore at stake than merely academic study), but that none of us knows precisely where the divine part ends and the human part begins. One therefore reads such scholarship with intermingled senses of reverence (honoring the divine hand that may be detected) and caution (recognizing that a fallible, human hand will be more evident). In Halivni's words, our awareness of the imperfections in every stage in the transmission of Torah

instills a sense of humility, revealing human frailties and weaknesses [that commingle with the divine words at each stage], and indicates that whatever human beings touch has the potential for corruption. Yet...these words are still the most effective way of becoming closer to God, approaching his presence. We cannot live without these words--there is no spiritual substitute -- but while we are living with them, we are keenly aware that we are short of perfect, that along the historical path we have substituted our voice for the divine voice. We are condemned to live this way. [12]

As you will see, this "humble faith" belongs to the Judaism that has accompanied Halivni "out of the fires." The religion and the Covenant with God are renewed after death, but they are not unscathed. Israelis relieved of inappropriate guilt, but realizes, instead, its awesome responsibilities for contributing to repair, tikkun. True prayer is possible once again, but the community for whom one might pray, and the urgent need for prayer, are expanded exponentially. One may address God once again, and the divine may be as near as the pages of one's text or the effort to read it; but divine mystery and complexity is only deepened, and the divine presence only intensifies one's sense of the enormous work remaining to fill what is absent in it.

For Halivni, Judaism after the Shoah is as dynamic as all Judaisms in the Tannaitic and most of the Amoraic sources. God shows His face anew to us today as He has always shown it, which means through the renewal of Judaism in each age. And after each destruction? Halivni's response appears to be yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Israel has faced destructions before and lived to renew its relationship with God. But no, in the sense that this destruction is unique, wholly unparalleled in its magnitude. And then? I must let you encounter Halivni's surprising response for yourselves.

PETER OCHS is Edgar M Bronfman Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at the University of Virginia and founder of Textual Reasoning: Electronic Journal of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network. His books include The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity (1993) and Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture (1998) His article, "From Peshat to Derash and Back Again: Talmud for the Modern Religious Jew," appeared in the Summer 1997 issue.


(1.) From personal correspondence.

(2.) Some leaders even claimed, for example, that their yeshivot represent the true tradition of Torah, since they survived the Shoah and must therefore have been free of sin.

(3.) This and the next paragraph of biography is paraphrased from a previous essay I wrote about Halivni's work: "From Peshat to Derash and Back Again: Talmud for the Modem Religious Jew," Judaism Vol. 46 No.3 (Summer 1997): 271-292, esp. 278-279.

(4.) Sources and Traditions: A Source Critical Commentary on the Talmud (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 1968; Jerusalem 1975, 1982, and continuing.

(5.) He reconstructs the redactional history of the Babylonian Talmud in order to resolve intractable problems in various Talmudic sugyot, or "arguments." His major thesis is that the structure of the sugyot and the "anonymous or setam [Stammaitic] portions of the Talmud were the product of a particularly fertile and creative period after Ravina and Ray Ashi and during the years 427-501 c.c." (Irwin Haut, The Talmud as Law or Literature: An Analysis of David Halivni's Mekorot Umasorot [New York: Bet Sha'ar Press, 1982], p. 6). Halivni argues that the word of the Stammaim (whose editorial identify and name is another product of his work) is also in need of correction: They had to offer forced readings of earlier sources, because they based their readings on truncated traditions that did not reflect the precise texts that earlier sages had before them. Halivni explains that the Stammaim preferred to live with forced reading (dechikum) than to deny the consistency of their textual sources. In this way, they help ed initiate the trajectory of apologetic rabbinic scholarship that Halivni tries to correct, in its medieval contexts or in the contexts of Orthodox learning today. (Comments drawn from my forward to David Halivni, Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses [Boulder: Westview, 1997].)

(6.) Among the works are: Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses (Boulder, GO: Westview Press, 1997); and a more scholarly version of the latter, "Reflections on Classical Jewish Hermeneutics," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research Vol. LXII (1995): 21-127. For overviews of Halivni's interpretive approaches, see Irwin Haut (cited above); and most recently, Yaakov Heberman, "David Halivni: Preeminent Scholar and Critic of the Talmud" (Hebrew), Mahut 22 (Winter 2000): 7-22.

(7.) David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), pp. 46-47.

(8.) The Book and the Sword, p. 57.

(9.) See P. Ochs, "Wounded Word, Wounded Interpreter," in Humanity at the Limit: The Impact of the Holocaust Experience on Jews and Christians, edited by Michael Signer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 148-160, esp. pp. 152-154.

(10.) In Revelation Restored, Halivni labels this "transcendent history"; in my Preface to his book, I re-label it "depth historiography," as distinguished from the "plain-sense historiography" of historical science.

(11.) According to Halivni, this self-justifying behavior represents only the most recent expression of an ancient rabbinic proclivity for apologetic reasoning. Halivni locates an early symptom of this proclivity in the habit of some Amoraic sages to claim that their halakhic opinions are based on traditions of oral revelation or halakha le-moshe mi-sinai (Literally "laws of Moses from Sinai," the Talmud interprets this term to mean that "they are only traditional laws (hilkhata) for which the rabbis ... [may find subsequent,] scriptural support (asmakhta)" Revelation Restored, p. 54.). The proclivity increases steadily after the Amoraic period, on into the medieval and modem periods of rabbinic jurisprudence. Halivni's concern is that, by appealing to halakha le moshe mi sinai, rabbinic leaders are claiming, in effect, that there is direct divine authority for their opinions, which are therefore immune to the usual give-and-take of rabbinic debate and discussion. He fears the tendency has become dominant in many of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, whose leaders may even (to return to the theme of "Prayer in the Shoals") refer to events of the Shoals as justification for their own rabbinic authority.

(12.) David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored, p. 89.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Cain Sits.
Next Article:Prayer in the Shoah.

Related Articles
From Peshat to Derash and back again: Talmud for the modern religious Jew.
Vatican urges repentance for sins of omission.
Holocaust questions.
Prayer in the Shoah.
At the limits: reflections on Halivni on the Shoah.
Two paradoxes: reflections on history and belief.
Breaking the tablets; Jewish theology after the Shoah.
Sensitivity training: Catholics need to learn more about their Jewish brothers and sisters, Rabbi Ruth Langer says, so they don't make the same...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters