David Weiss Halivni

From Academic Kids

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni is scholar of Talmud and a Holocaust survivor originally of Sighet, Hungary.

Professor Halivni's name was formerly "David Weiss"; however, after World War II, he wanted to change his name, because "Weiss" had been the last name of a certain Nazi guard in a concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He first thought to change his name to "David Halivni", for halivni in Hebrew means the white one, just as Weiss means white in Yiddish. However, he did not want to give up the name "Weiss" entirely, for it had been the name of his teacher / grandfather, Yesha'yah Weiss. Therefore, he settled on "David Weiss-Halivni."

He studied for a short while in the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York. He is the author of Mekorot u'Mesorot, a projected ten volume commentary on the Talmud. He is also the author of the English language volumes Peshat and Derash, Revelation Restored, his memoirs The Book and the Sword and others. Rabbi Halivni also serves as Littauer Professor of Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He is the Head of the Metivta of the Union for Traditional Judaism [1] (http://www.utj.org/).

A close friend of Rabbi Saul Lieberman, he studied with him for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Conservative Judaism. Halivni broke off from the seminary in the 1980s after the controversy surrounding the training and ordination of female rabbis. Although in some ways he is more traditional than conservative Jews and Judaism, in many other ways he is far more radical. Indeed, many authorities feel that his departure from traditional Judaism is by far more extreme than that of Conservative Judaism.

His methodology of source-critical analysis of the Talmud is very controversial. Halivni terms the editors of the Talmud as Stammaim, creating a new term for Rabbis that he places after the period of the Tannaim, and Amoraim, but before the Geonic period. He posits that these Stammaim did not always fully understand the context and import of the statement of the Tanna or Amorah when it was said. The methodology employed in his commentary Mekorot u' Mesorot will attempt to give Halivni's analysis of the correct import and context and will demonstrate how the Talmud erred in its understanding of the original context.

Another controversial aspect of Halivni thought is his attempt in his book Revelation Restored to harmonize biblical criticism with fundamentalist religious belief. He has developed a concept that he terms Chatu Israel, in which he states that the biblical texts originally given to Moses have become irretrievably corrupted.

His impact on the Jewish Theological Seminary, however, has been profound. Most of the Talmud professors at JTS follow his source-critical approach. This has impacted the manner in which Talmud is taught to its students. Many have noted that a current student of the seminary is taught the source-critical method even prior to his or her basic grasp of the Talmudic method. Indeed, one observer noted that there is a qualitative difference between the pre-Halivni period and the post Halivni period at JTS in terms of their Talmudic literacy and scholarship. Halivni himself has indicated on many occasions that he has been unable to pass on his methodology to his students.

Halivni is currently the Rabbi and spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE, [2] (http://www.koe.org)), a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a position he has held since the congregation's foundation in 1992. In 2002, there was a big controversy at this congregation, for many members of the community wanted to allow women to be called up to the Torah, which, while theoretically defendible in Jewish law, is opposed by many Rabbis, and is totally taboo in Orthodox Jewish circles. Halivni was very opposed to the practice, and told the congregation: “I shall allow it, but only if it is done no more frequently than a few times a year, and only if it is done in a separate room from the ‘real’ service.” Thus, by allowing this feminist practice under very, very, limited circumstances, he managed to prevent it, for all practical purposes. Nevertheless, even this “compromise” was far too liberal for many Orthodox Jews, who promptly quit their membership from KOE. On the other side, many liberals were frustrated by KOE's failure to include women in the Torah service, and they went and founded their own prayer group, Darkhei No'am ([3] (http://www.dnoam.org))


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