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THE BOOK AND THE SWORD by David Weiss Halivni


A Life of Learning in the Throes of the Holocaust

by David Weiss Halivni

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-374-11545-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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.