Last week, the Israeli Talmudist Zvi Arieh Steinfeld passed away. He lived a life filled with religious and intellectual achievements (here is a description from a Festschrift edited in his honor at Sidra, the journal he founded and edited during its first decade), yet for those of us lucky enough to have known him personally, his greatest quality was encapsulated in an infectious smile that conveyed both a self-deprecating humility and a zest for a life dedicated to lernin’. He was one of the sweetest souls I have ever encountered. Continue reading
The world of Jewish Studies and the Talmud Blog mourn the passing of Prof. Jonah Frankel, teacher, pioneer, scholar and Israel prize laureate. Frankel was born in Munich in 1928 and arrived in Palestine when the Nazis came to power. His doctoral dissertation, the first and actually only scholarly treatment of Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud to date, remains the standard work of reference on this ubiquitous commentary. It was quoted extensively, thirty years later, by Prof. Israel Ta-Shma in his Sifrut ha-parshanit la-talmud. Frankel also collaborated with his father-in-law, Daniel Goldschmidt, on his editions of Jewish liturgical texts, and was working on an edition of the Ashkenazi Siddur for weekdays. He kept working on the latter project until very close to his death (I regret that I turned down the opportunity to work as his mouse-manipulator when he could not longer get it to do what he wanted); I understand the project is in good hands.
His greatest and lasting contribution to scholarship, however, was his introduction of methods taken from the study of literature to reading rabbinic stories. In many articles and then later, in books, Frankel applied the methods of New Criticism to stories that were supposed to be “history” or at best “folklore”. He insisted that they were nothing but “high literature” and that they deserved the best tools the discipline could give them. As such, he is the intellectual grandfather of almost every innovation in rabbinics since. Although New Criticism fell out of fashion and other methods took over, Frankel got his wish: rabbinic literature is recognized as “literature,” studied in university departments of Hebrew literature, and by literary scholars who do not specialize in Jewish Studies. ‘The Oven of Akhnai’, Rabbi Johanan and Resh Laqish, and Honi the Roofer (not circle-drawer) are household names not merely in academic circles, but also in almost every synagogue, study circle, adult education curriculum and beit midrash. Frankel’s work endures, and so his lips truly are speaking in the grave at this very moment. We hope to be able to host a “yeshivah on his grave,” here at the Talmud blog, in the future.
(The funeral was today, on Har Hamenuhot, in Jerusalem, at 4:30 PM).
The world of Talmud scholarship mourns the passing of Avraham Goldberg, professor emeritus at Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha. Professor Goldberg was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1913, served as a US Army chaplain in the Second World War, and moved to Israel in 1946. At JTS in New York and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he studied with the leading scholars of the mid-twentieth century, including L. Ginzberg, S. Lieberman, J. N. Epstein, and Ch. Albeck. A recipient of the Israel Prize in 2000, he authored dozens of articles, studies and reviews in both English and Hebrew and edited a number of tractates of the Mishnah. A collection of his essays entitled “Literary Form and Composition in Classical Rabbinic Literature” was just recently published by Magnes Press.
More information on Prof. Goldberg can be found here:
- Israel Prize Official Site (in Hebrew)- Judges’ Rationale for Grant to Recipient; Recipient’s C.V.
- Prof. David Rosenthal’s introduction to “Literary Form and Composition in Classical Rabbinic Literature” (Hebrew).
יהי זכרו ברוך
The other week, Leil Leibovitz lodged a complaint against the e-sefer and bemoaned the way that the iPad and its peers strip away the sense of holiness from the traditional experience of studying Talmud. Leibovitz laments the loss of the traditional talmudic tome – a hefty medium that commands our absolute attention. His complaint is particularly directed at the chussen shas‘ (the gargantuan set of talmudic tomes traditionally given to a groom before marriage) replacement- a sleek device that effortlessly allows its users to flit indiscriminately between Bava Qamma and Angry Birds.
On top of that, Leibovitz has this to say:
One reason Jews have managed to survive for millennia while other, mightier and more populous religious and ethnic groups vanished is our ability to engage in never-ending debate about the tenets of our faith. Rather than demand obeisance to tradition and rejection of modern developments or local customs, Judaism invites its adherents to argue, just as long as they’re all arguing about the same thing.
This is all low-hanging fruit, and some of it surprisingly misguided. As Yitz reminds me, the story of Jewish textual transmission has been one of adaptation. Jews have moved along with the evolution of different media, even if at a pace different than their neighbors. Scrolls gave way to codices, which made way for the printed press. We have merely arrived at the next paradigm.
Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recently crafted a taxonomy of the great “the-internet-has-irrevocably-changed us” lament. The same article might have been written about the loss of printed books and their replacement with e-readers – an act of mourning that I am surely joined in by readers of this blog (Here is merely the most recent and gorgeous example, by Leon Wieseltier). The point of Gopnik’s taxonomy, of course, is that a little perspective is in order. Indeed.
In one fundamental way the e-reader actually perpetuates an older trend in Jewish learning, that of the handy and portable talmudic volume, which could be taken anywhere and allow Talmud scholars to realize the rabbinic vision of constant study (“day and night”). Whether through the Hebrewbooks app, ובלכתך בדרך or iTalmud, I find myself carving out more time to study than ever. It is a kind of De Certeauian response to the unstoppable onslaught of media that races through our portable devices.
My old high-school principal, Rabbi Yosef Tendler, recently passed away. He was a gigantic man in more than a physical sense, and he cultivated a culture of total and constant dedication to Torah study. His mournful mantra – also constant – was “you’re wasting your life,” and in this he furthered the school of the Gaon of Vilna and its obsession with industriousness - where sins were deemed particularly tragic because of the time lost while committing them. It was not for everyone, and some students could not handle the pressure. For those of us who survived (and thrived) in this environment, the results have stayed with us even during stages and moments in life where such an ideal is all too often out of reach. The circadian rhythms of yeshiva life are indelible. Sometimes, vegged out on the couch on a late winter Thursday night (mishmar!), I still go into a funk.
Rabbi Tendler’s device of choice was an elegant portable talmudic tractate. As they like to say, he did not leave home without it. Rabbi Tendler used it to both forge ahead in his private course of study and also to review learning already acquired. The message was the medium, and the medium signified the constantly-studying Jew. Yet the portable Shas was no fetish. It hearkened back to the “pervasive orality” (Elman’s term) of rabbinic literature, with its reciters and walking books. When I learned (over the internet) that Rabbi Tendler died in early February, I realized that one of those walking books would walk this blessed earth no more.
This past Saturday, a most eccentric, traditional Talmudist named Rabbi Raphael Halperin passed away at the age of 87. In modern Israel, he is probably most recognized as the head of a major chain of optical stores whose (literally) ear-piercing, glass-shattering ads can be heard, approximately, every 2.5 minutes on Israeli radio. Halperin was not an academic Talmudist, nor was he an important Talmudist, but he sure was a splendidly strange and colorful-bird of a Talmudist. I remember the shock, horror, and admiration when I discovered his multi-volume encyclopedia of rabbis “from creation (literally!) until our day,” “Atlas Etz Hayim.” In some of the books were pictures of Halpern as a young body builder, or as a champion wrestler, while on other pages he appeared in a dashing suit and fedora behind the Hazon Ish. I also remember feeling that he stole my thunder, as I wanted to one day produce a comprehensive book of that sort for classical rabbinic sages. Little did I know then that Halpern was himself reinventing the wheel. The Jerusalem Post has a richly detailed and colorful obit.
As strange as his personal odyssey may seem, particularly for someone who became a kind of symbol for a type of harediism, Halperin’s biography actually hearkens back to a day when the ultra-orthodox world in Israel was, to put it one way, far less black and white.
He should rest in peace.
I will only now share one precious memory as there is so much to feel and think about.Once when we were learning, Prof. Dimitrovsky ז”ל recalled the midrash on ‘ויאכלו וישתו וחזו אל ד. He described it as a great barbecue with people sitting around on blankets with beers in their hand and saying: Look who is going there. It was a moment of midrash-citing and midrash-making that left me feeling as I too were right then present at the moment when G-d could be seen.
On Wednesday evening, August 31st at 6:30pm, the Hebrew University will be hosting an evening in memory of Prof. Dimitrovsky. Professors Shmuel Shprecher, Simcha Emanuel, and Shamma Friedman will be offering their remarks. The evening will take place in room 502 in the Maeirsdorf Faculty club. Here is the flyer:
Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל
Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) belonged to the first generation of academic Talmud scholars born and educated in Israel, and certainly one of the outstanding among them. His personality encompassed a unique blend of knowledge, talent, and devotion, a combination that was all his own.
A graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav, and before that Talmud Torah Etz Haim in Jerusalem, Dimitrovsky was loyally committed to the State of Israel in the making, and as a young man took up arms and served in the Hagana during the War of Independence. He was trained in the scholarly methods and high standards of the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University at the feet of J.N Epstein and Simha Asaf, whose methods he combined with the traditional learning and orientation he received through the tutelage of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Dimitrovsky.
His spoken Hebrew was that of a native speaker, and at the same time rich and flowing naturally out of the Talmudic sources. His written Hebrew style, was likewise enriched in both these directions: from his absolute mastery of the wealth of all strata of Hebrew, stemming from his command of Talmudic and other sources, and the natural control of a native speaker, it emerged as a creation of stylistic beauty few could match.
Similarly, his research and studies, in all the various fields he addressed, all reflect this one of a kind combination of Torah scholarship, scientific methods, and religious-Zionist conviction.
Professor Dimitrovsky’s profound understanding of the complexities of the vast Talmudic corpus, down to the most minute detail, cannot be acquired except by arduous devotion to Torah study from an early age. With these strengths, Dimitrovsky created a unique scholarly profile, based on a meticulous scientific method founded on the peshat of the text, accurate historical understanding, and overall – sound common sense. He integrated a deep-seated, natural grasp of the material with fierce devotion to the beauty of Jewish tradition, even when working in the broader, secular reality of the academic setting.
These were the same qualities that led to the dialogue of love between him and his students, all during his teaching career, and above all, his inherent modesty – genuine, personal, and special to Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Through his years as Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and later at the Hebrew University, Dimitrovsky trained generations of scholars of Talmud and Midrash.
These strengths mark his scholarship also: scholarly precision with loving mastery of his material persisted in his ongoing project of putting order into the texts and uncovering the depth level of correct meaning: “nahara nahara ufashtei“.
It is therefore not surprising that he gave preference to the literature of the rishonim – its profound depths require scholarly expertise as a sub-discipline in itself: “tzvat bi-tzvat asuya“. For example, Rashba, the chief disciple of the Nahmanidean school, as well as a decisor who wrote thousands of responsa – only a true scholar – astute, with the entire rabbinic corpus at his fingertips – is equal to the task of transmitting the Rashba to future generations. Dimitrovsky did so, from editing the Rashba’s novellae to compiling his responsa, with all their fragments. Every conversation with Prof. Dimitrovsky demonstrated that this was a labor of love.
Consider also the neglected, abstruse discipline of elucidating the writings of the early aharonim, namely, the masters of pilpul, who formed the link to the following generations while their own teachings were nearly forgotten, overshadowed by both rishonim and aharonim. Dimitrovsky stepped in, shed light, analyzed, and breathed new life into their words. His illumination of the semikha controversy likewise typifies his work which was devoted to the intermediate generation.
Another lost corpus restored by Dimitrovsky was the editions of the Talmud printed in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion. These disconnected dry bones were restored to their grandeur and provided with his fully innovative history of these little known prints.
Thus he was able to direct a concentrated in-depth focus to the commentarial and halakhic works of the Rashba; the printers of the forgotten edition of the Talmud dating from before the expulsion from Spain; of Y. Berav and Joseph Karo in the context the semikha controversy; and the entire genre of pilpul. Armed with profound powers of analysis on the one hand, and a restrained style, on the other, he has thereby enabled us to restore our own link to this almost-forgotten generation, and to hear – through his words – their muted majesty.
We were deeply gratified in 1994, when the unique achievements of our teacher, so well know to us, his students, were publicly recognized with the award of an Israel Prize in an official ceremony.
Shamma Friedman is the Benjamin and Minna Reeves Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary teaching at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and Adjunct Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.
This past Sunday, Professor Hayim Zalman Dimitrovsky was laid to rest in his hometown of Jerusalem. Professor Dimitrovsky was one of the greatest talmudic philologists of the previous century, and his research included pioneering talmudic higher criticism, scientific editions of medieval talmudic commentators, a collection of fragments of early Spanish talmudic prints accompanied by an indispensable guide to this phenomenon, and intellectual biographies of schools of talmudic study. Professor Dimitrovsky merited to learn with some of the greatest Talmudists of the early twentieth century, including J.N. Epstein and Simcha Assaf. More importantly, from his post at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later, at the Hebrew University Talmud department, he succeeded in raising generations of scholars who not only continued his work, but advanced the field in completely new (and different) directions. His death is a loss not only for his family, friends, students and colleagues, but for the field at large. He was the last of a generation.
In the coming days, the Talmud blog will be sharing brief remarks in memory of Prof. Dimitrovsky from those who knew him best. May his memory be a source of comfort to all who studied with him, and all who have studied his works.