Donate to RNS

Is your faith broken? Join the club.

In memory of a great rabbi, and of a woman who taught Torah to children, and in memory of our many broken tablets and faiths.

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, of blessed memory, in 2016. Photo by חיים מאירסדורף/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — That question is outrageous.

And yet, only one contemporary Jewish theologian was courageous enough — or possessing of sufficient chutzpah — to ask it the way he did.

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a theologian and pioneer in the field of academic Talmudic scholarship, died this past Wednesday (June 29) at age 94. Born in Ukraine, Halivni was raised in Sighet, Romania, where he studied alongside Elie Wiesel, who was precisely his age. Halivni was ordained as a rabbi at 15, and a year later was sent to Auschwitz and a series of other concentration camps. He was the only member of his family to survive.

Rabbi Halivni taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then at Columbia University, where he taught until his retirement. He made aliyah, where he taught at Hebrew University and Bar Ilan University well into his 90s. In 2008, Halivni was awarded the Israel Prize for his Talmudic work and could be found every day at the National Library.

In “Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah,” God revealed the Divine Presence to the Jewish people twice: once at Mount Sinai with the revelation of presence, and once at Auschwitz with the revelation of utter and complete absence, in which humans were given total and complete free will.

But, for me, the greatest gift of that book was this teaching, and it has haunted and inspired me. 

After the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites waited for Moses to return from the top of the mountain. It had taken 40 days for him to receive the tablets of the covenant, and in his delay, the Israelites became restless and bored. They turned to Moses’ brother, Aaron, and demanded: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1).

The Israelites brought offerings to the calf, and they broke out in spontaneous dance. Moses became angry at their apostasy, and in anger, “he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

After Moses broke the first set of tablets — the set God had given him — he reascended Mount Sinai, renewed the covenant with God and then got a second set of tablets, which he and God had crafted together. 

Which set was better?

I know, I know: You would assume Tablets 2.0 was the upgrade. That is our culture — planned obsolescence and consumerist FOMO.

Rabbi Halivni thought differently. He suggested Moses’ first set of tablets constituted the whole Torah — a pristine revelation.

The second set of tablets, which God and Moses created together, was defective. The “erroneous” Torah continued until the time of Ezra the scribe, who attempted to repair its deficiencies and omissions. But even he could not correct all the errors.

What, then, is the task of the generations? It is what Halivni called “tikkun ha-mikra” — the ongoing task of repairing the text, the continuous attempt to restore the pristine sense of God’s revelation, to investigate the Torah anew and to rediscover the words of the Living God and to restore its glory.

Halivni wrote:

I contend that the Written Torah was “maculated” through a process of forgetfulness and neglect … and that it is therefore in need of a general restoration in order to “reinstate its glory as in the days of old.” Here too I am closer to the kabbalistic rendering of the concept of tikkun. According to the Lurianic theory, tikkun olam refers to the need for repairing a defect in the process of creation itself, not just an adjustment here and there of certain flawed details.

The truth is: The tradition, as we have inherited it, is not perfect. It needs the constant work of the human interpreter to make it closer to what it needs to be. So, too, our abilities to understand it. So, too, the world — broken, like the first set of tablets.

In “The Book and the Sword: An Incident at Auschwitz,” where the young Halivni saw a guard eating a sandwich that had been wrapped in a greasy paper, which turned out to be:

a page of Orach Chaim, a volume of the Shulhan Aruch, Pesil Balaban’s edition. The Balabans began publishing the Shulhan Aruch, the (16th-century) Jewish code of law, in Lemberg in 1839. The first publisher was Abraham Balaban, and after his death he was succeeded by his widow, Pesil. Pesil’s edition of the Shulhan Aruch was the best; it had all the commentaries … As a child of a poor but scholarly home, I had always wanted to have her edition … Here, of all places…under the threatening gaze of the German, a page from the Shulhan Aruch, fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.

What happened? Halivni coaxed the guard to give him that tattered, sacred piece of paper. He, and others, would gather to study it — a small piece of text — in the midst of hell.

That is faith: the ability and the desire to take a small, tattered, stained piece of the ancient tradition; to create community around it, even in a place of great profanation; and to make it come alive.

My faith is one of constant shattering and repair. I write these words, hurriedly, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. We are safe nowhere — especially not in what should be the sacred spaces of our civil duties and gifts — schools and patriotic displays. 

That is why I post this today, and in memory of one of the victims, Jacki Sundheim, who was the event and b’nai mitzvah coordinator at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois. 

May the many words of Torah that she taught in her lifetime rise up to greet her in the World to Come.