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.
Prof. Steinfeld grew up in the great Eastern European-style Israeli Yeshivas of Ponevezh and Hevron and retained the scholastic passion of that world long after finding an academic home in Bar Ilan and, following his retirement, at JTS. Although Zvi Arieh (who had studied at Yeshiva University with Meir Simcha Feldblum) was not nearly as well-known as his colleagues David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman, he also developed a parallel but distinct set of source critical tools for Talmud study that he employed successfully on the two tractates to which he gave his life, Avoda Zara and Horayot.
When I started graduate school at Yeshiva U, Zvi Arieh had just retired from Bar Ilan and was living and teaching in New York City with his wife Sara. (They made a precious pair. Sara used to attend his Talmud class both in order to learn and so that they could spend just a few extra minutes together). If I remember correctly, we studied selected sugyot on Horayot and Avoda Zara. At the time, some of his readings stuck me as unconventional, almost whimsical. But there was no question that every single one of his reconstructions were extremely creative. He was of the school that if you had nothing new to say, then there was no reason to say it. And much of what he said was new.
At the time, I was just starting graduate school after years in yeshiva and was very much interested in learning “the” scientific method of academic Talmud scholarship. Zvi Arieh’s classes reminded me that the world of the Lithuanian lamdan and critical scholar need not be so far apart. And more significant, that what remains after all the brilliant talmudic exegesis is done is the humble, special human being who created it.
Years after studying with Zvi Arieh I bumped into him at the JTS library. He invited me into his office to chat about what I was working on, though really, just to catch up. A call came in from a colleague, and he apologized deeply for needing to interrupt our chat because there was a sugya that needed to be explained. But he motioned for me to stay until he was through. I marveled as he slowly and deliberately got up from his chair, took an old gemara off the shelf, and with a twinkle in his eye, gently explained his understanding of a complex sugya to the person on the other end of the line. When he finished he hung up the phone, gave me a smile, and asked me about how my family was doing.