More than 100 people from throughout the Chicago area packed into Beit Knesset Rachal at the Skokie Solomon Schechter Day School on Oct. 30 to hear Professor David Halivni lecture on “Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology after the Shoah,” the topic of his new book.
Halivni, considered one of our generation’s premier researchers into the Talmud, was visiting the United States from Israel where he currently teaches at both Bar-Ilan University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2008, he won the prestigious Israel Prize for Research into the Talmud.
The renowned Jewish scholar was born in the small town of Kobyletzka Poliana in Carpathian Ruthenia, then in Czechoslovakia. He grew up in the home of his grandfather, a Talmud scholar in Sziget, Romania, and received his smicha (rabbinic ordination) when he was just 15 years old.
During the Holocaust, at age 16, he was deported to Auschwitz. After a week he was transferred to a forced labor camp, Gross-Rosen, then to Wolfsburg, and later to Mauthausen camp and was the only member of his family to survive.
Halivni has written seven volumes of critical research on the Talmud, taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York, and made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2005.
“We are thrilled that Professor Halivni chose Solomon Schechter Day School to present his lecture,” says Marci Dickman, Head of School. “At Schechter we strive to create lifelong learners. Tonight, we all have an opportunity to continue our own journey of lifelong learning with an outstanding scholar and human being.”
Halivni was introduced first by his son, Shai Halivni, a member of the board of Solomon Schechter Day School and a parent of two Schechter students, and then by his student Rabbi Kensky, of Beth Hillel B’nai Emunah Congregation, who remarked: “We all can gain so much by sitting at the foot of a master…he has inspired so many students and tonight we will hear some of his insights.”
During his lecture, Halivni stated that the history of the Jews is defined by two opposing revelations: the revelation at Mount Sinai and the revelation during the Holocaust. On Mount Sinai God revealed himself to the Jewish people. The Holocaust, on the other hand, was marked by God’s distinct absence from the Jewish people.
“The Holocaust is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything that has ever occurred to the Jewish people,” he said emphatically, “including the destruction of the Temples, because of its extreme horror and cruelty.”
“I am often envious that 2000 years after the Temples were destroyed, we continue to mourn this loss by fasting and sitting on the floor and weeping,” he said. “I hope and pray that 2000 years from now, Jews will remember the lives that were lost during the Holocaust ….and I plead that Jews will continue to transmit the emotional tone of the Holocaust from one generation to the next.”
Halivni also rejects the notion that the Holocaust was a punishment for Israel’s sins. “To say that God punished us is obscene,” he said. “There is no answer…and I am glad there is no answer, because whenever there is an answer there is a sense of justification, and there is no justification.”
Following his lecture, there was a lengthy and provocative question-and-answer session. Afterwards, participants had the chance to speak with Halivni and purchase his latest book.
“Attending Professor Halivni’s lecture at Solomon Schechter Day School was very powerful for several reasons,” says Judy Tiebloom Mishkin, a Schechter parent. “To be learning in such an intimate setting, with one of the greatest Jewish minds of our time, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”
“It was, of course, both intellectually stimulating and thought provoking. However, I hadn’t anticipated how emotionally evocative his lecture would be. I will carry with me for a long time his question of whether we, Klal Yisrael, will sit on the floor and cry for two thousand years when we remember the Shoah, as his grandfather, and every generation that preceded him, did on Tisha Ba’av as they remembered the destruction of the Temples.”
Adds Marci Dickman,“It was an extraordinary evening. We are extremely grateful to the Halivni family for giving this gift of knowledge to our school and Jewish community.”
Tami R. Warshawsky is the director of marketing and communications for Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago.