The Book & the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction

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The words of the Talmud were the universe for David Weiss Halivni during his childhood in Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains. Before he was five he began his studies; by the time he was ten he had outgrown the town’s teachers and started to learn at home with his scholarly, impoverished grandfather. Even before his ordination at the age of fifteen, in 1943, he was famous for his erudition. But when the Nazis crushed the Jewish community of the Carpathians in 1944, he closed his Talmud. Halivni taught in the ...

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Overview

The words of the Talmud were the universe for David Weiss Halivni during his childhood in Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains. Before he was five he began his studies; by the time he was ten he had outgrown the town’s teachers and started to learn at home with his scholarly, impoverished grandfather. Even before his ordination at the age of fifteen, in 1943, he was famous for his erudition. But when the Nazis crushed the Jewish community of the Carpathians in 1944, he closed his Talmud. Halivni taught in the concentration camps and risked his life to save a scrap of paper from a sacred book. But adherence to the fundamentalist worldview that insists on reconciling every apparent contradiction in the text—troubling to him even as a child—had become impossible for him now. When he arrived in New York after the war, he began struggling toward the “window” of secular learning. From that synthesis emerged his original approach to critical study of the Talmudic text not only in its modern printed form but as it was in its original form, the Oral Torah from the mouths of countless sages.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Romanian-born Halivni (Sources and Traditions), who hails from the same village, Sighet, as Elie Wiesel, with whom he became friends after the war, comments that "There is no dearth of memoirs by survivors" of the Holocaust, which he calls "an event without explanation." Halivni began his studies of the Talmud at the age of five and was considered a prodigy. The only member of his immediate family to survive WWII, he eventually settled in the U.S., where he became a Talmudic scholar and teacher at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and eventually was made a professor of religion at Columbia University. His reason for writing his memoirs now is "to define myself spiritually in the light of the Holocaust." Remembering the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, he maintains, is an "act of defiance," because the aim of the Hitler regime was to wipe out European Jewry. This searching, honest work, told with passion but no sentimentality, will speak to those who have sought to maintain a belief in God despite evils witnessed in this life. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Halivni (classical Jewish civilization, Columbia Univ.) describes in affecting detail his isolated upbringing as a child prodigy of the Talmud in Sighet, Romania. Although he spent time in a Sighet ghetto, and then was successively in Auschwitz, Wolfsberg, and Ebensee, he does not dwell on the Holocaust in this memoir. Rather, he traces the journey of an intellectually gifted young man whose faith and devotion to the Talmud, the critical study to which he has devoted his entire life, has never wavered, even while simultaneously pursuing his yearning for secular knowledge. Halivni's descriptions of yeshiva learning, his break with the Jewish Theological Seminary (where he taught for 30 years) over reforms that he believed were contrary to Halakkah (Tamudic law), and his joy at acquiring a torn page from a Talmudic text while in a concentration camp are among the elements that should appeal to all those interested in Holocaust and Judaic studies. At times gripping and inspirational, this work is recommended for informed readers.-John A. Drobnicki, York Coll., CUNY
Kirkus Reviews
A slim, largely cerebral, yet sometimes deeply engaging autobiography by a Holocaust survivor who has become one of the greatest talmudic scholars of the postwar era.

Halivni, professor of religion at Columbia University and author of the nine-volume commentary Sources and Traditions, grew up in the town of Sighet in the Carpathian Mountains, the same village where Elie Wiesel, a close friend, was raised. He was recognized quite early as an ilui, a talmudic prodigy. Halivni recalls how his inexhaustible love for and commitment to the Talmud, his "bastion," kept him alive and sane through his separation from his parents, Auschwitz and the Gross Rosen concentration camps, and some indigent early years in America. Halivni clearly explicates his approach to the Talmud, noting how he balances "critical" study (non-literalist, influenced by philology and history) with a very traditionalist practice of halacha (Jewish law and observance). He explains the disagreement over the latter that drove him to resign from the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, his home for three decades. In his eloquent resignation letter, reprinted here in full and alone worth the book's price, Halivni also writes movingly of his struggle for faith after the Holocaust, observing that "true love is tormented love . . . The task is to reach out to heaven when it is cloudy, when heaven is no longer visible." The memoir is often dry, and too reticent about Halivni's life in America (his wife and sons are mentioned only twice in passing), but it is laced with more than enough moving meditations on faith and the life of a devoted student of religion to make it of considerable interest to an audience far larger than the relatively small universe of Judaica scholars.

A great scholar, Halivni has not written a great memoir, but he has produced a quite good one, succinct, intellectually illuminating, and sometimes surprisingly poignant.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813334653
  • Publisher: Westview Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Lexile: 1520L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

David Weiss Halivni is Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University. He is the author of the nine-volume commentary Sources and Traditions and Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses (WestviewPress 1997).

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