My revered teacher Rav David Weiss Halivni will be eulogized with many superlatives – all of them deserved. Since his earthly departure on June 29, 2022, the last day of Sivan and the first day of Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, tributes have been profuse. Rav Halivni has been lionized as a child prodigy, a Talmudic genius, a pioneering scholar of the highest rank, a man of conscience who chose to leave a beloved institution when it failed to honor the convictions that he held dear, a devoted teacher, a matmid (perpetual student), an intellectual giant, and more. Yet all the encomiums still do not fully capture the character of the man.
I had the special merit of studying with Rav Halivni for three years. I say “studying” but it was more like witnessing. A colloquium of seminary students, faculty, and recent graduates met in his office on the fifth floor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and listened intently to his unwrapping of the Talmudic text. Sitting along a conference table, surrounded by an impressive library, Rav Halivni expounded on how the Talmud came to be. To be sure, Rav Halivni was thoroughly familiar with the content of the Talmud and its myriad commentators. But he saw as his special mission uncovering how the anonymous editors (stammai’m) imported, arranged, and connected the sources. Like a brilliant detective, Rav Halivni walked his students through the subtle clues that ultimately revealed the truth: all with a genial manner, a mischievous look, and a knowing smile. The results were stunning. And the atmosphere was breathtaking.
However, beyond the scholarship was the menschlikhkeit. Two personal memories come to mind. I had come to New York for a meeting of the Union of Traditional Judaism and was staying at the home of a colleague who offered to drive Rav Halivni. On the way, he asked if my colleague’s house in Queens was anywhere near a particular area. It was. Rav Halivni asked if we would mind going to a particular address. He had heard that a relative of someone he knew was sitting shivah and since we were in the neighborhood, he wanted to go. We entered silently and remained as inconspicuous as possible. Once the mourners were aware of his presence and acknowledged him, Rav Halivni spoke with such tenderness and compassion that I felt a palpable lifting of the heavy sadness that filled the room.
Rav Halivni happily accepted my invitation to come to my synagogue in Toronto as a scholar-in-residence. My wife Patti and I hosted him in our home. Our children, then in their teens and not easily impressed, were enthralled. We have hosted many celebrities and people of note in our day. But my wife remembers Rav Halivni most fondly. He was the only guest who ever turned to my wife first and asked her what she did professionally. He made her feel important (as she certainly is!). When I told our children that they had the privilege of meeting one of the most celebrated scholars in the Jewish world, they were only marginally impressed. To them, Rav Halivni was simply a marvelous raconteur. As much as Rav Halivni had a way with texts, he had a way with people. Rav Halivni’s writings, as masterful as they are, will remain valuable to the select few. But his personal impact on people was life-changing.
The American poet Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Rav Halivni’s gift went beyond his towering intellect. He made everyone around him feel worthy and special.