Some Initial Eulogies for Professor Yaakov Elman, Luminary in Academic Talmudic Studies
At this moment, a funeral is currently taking place for a luminary in Academic Talmudic studies. Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018), ז”ל was a brilliant, funny, insightful, and kind man. I had the pleasure of auditing a course under him over a dozen years ago at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and also had him comment on articles I worked on over a decade ago. His departure from this world is a really significant loss to not only his family and friends, but also to those who studied rabbinic texts, especially the Babylonian Talmud. For me, he was helpful in better understanding some of the personalities (especially Rava) and their roles in the Talmud.
To get a sense of how special he was and what he brought to this world, here are some excerpts from some recent notes on his passing that people have been publishing online (I suspect there will be more, especially once the funeral concludes):
One can’t speak of Dr. Elman’s career, because he defied any such category and lived multiple existences. He went from Yeshiva study – and an exemplary one at that, under the tutelage of Rav Yitzchok Hutner – to studying Assyriology in the evenings, to studying and working in meterology, and then worked in the Solomon Rabinowitz Hebrew Bookstore by day while he ghostwrote Torah books for Artscroll and Ktav at night.
Finally, about 30 years ago, he settled on a career in the academy, but even here he could not be contained. His thesis was on the most technical of academic Talmud concerns, Toseftan Baraitot in the Bavli, as he proved his bona fides, that a Yeshiva Bachur from Brooklyn could do scholarly philology with the best of them. But he also wrote on a whole range of fields, from orality studies to developing the Rabbinic hermeneutical principle of omnisignificance, to writing several articles on suffering, running the Friedberg Genizah project, and dabbling in the Halakhah of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His last 20 years have been largely committed to his pursuit of Irano-Talmudica, parallels between Persian and Talmudic law and culture, where he essentially created a subfield from scratch where previous scholars had claimed that none existed.
And of course he never forgot his yeshiva background. He wrote several important articles on Rav Tzadok and his 20th century interpreter, and Elman’s Rebbe, R. Yitzchok Hutner, true labors of love.
It’s easy to reflect on Dr. Elman’s extensive and deep knowledge of the Talmudic corpus. It was precisely such a knowledge that allowed him to read any theory or alternative cultural system and instantly find resonances to the Talmud. –Prof. Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier
As everyone knows he was a talmid chacham, an ilui, a scholar of astounding breadth and scope, who reinvented himself many times out of a sincere love and excitement for knowledge and truth. In the course of his work he pioneered new approaches, and with great determination created a space for academic Talmud study at Yeshiva University. Having had the great privilege of being his doctoral student, I can also say that he was one of the most kind, supportive, devoted, and loving people I have ever met. But what strikes me still today, was his unique ability to build bridges of all kinds and between people of all kinds, garnering respect from Roshei yeshiva and academics, from scholars of second temple Judaism, talmudists, Iranists, Jews and non-Jews alike. He built bridges between different academic disciplines, between the beis midrash and the academy, the Bavli and Iranian studies. And for those of us who were privileged to be his students, he built bridges between our potential and the scholars he believed we could become. It is one of the greatest honors of my life that I was able to study with and be mentored by Prof. Yaakov Elman. To say that he went above and beyond what was expected of an advisor is to put it mildly. –Prof. Shana Strauch Schick
Prof. Elman was one of the great and significant academic scholars of the Talmud and Rabbinic literature of the past 30 years, certainly in the United States. He did important work in understanding the relationship between the Mishna and Tosefta (the major codes of the first era that created Rabbinic Judaism), though I did not generally agree with his conclusions. More importantly, he did the painstaking, slogging, detailed, rigorous work of systematizing how and when we should deem Talmudic attributions historically reliable and when they should be seen as reflecting a late editor, which is essential for understanding the development of of Talmudic sugyot (literary sections). This work required taking seriously the kernel of valid critique in Prof. Jacob Neusner’s early work (exposing the dominant, mostly Israeli scholars of the previous generation as sloppy and ideological), while trashing the lazy and foolish ways in which Neusner and his followers carried their valid critique to non-sensical, though linear, conclusions. This required Prof. Elman to do what so few people do: resisting the trend to set up binaries and take sides, to insist that the person he’s about to trash has one crucially important point, refusing to treat Neusner as a joke, and to take it seriously enough to re-do the rest of his work.
The most significant contribution of Prof. Elman was pioneering the field– THE FIELD!!! — of studying Middle Persian language and culture and, through it, shedding light no one had bothered to try to shed on Judaism’s more important document, the Babylonian Talmud, and especially on its Herculean stars, such as Rava, Rav Nachman, and the anonymous stammaim. Prof. Elman came to this field in his upper 50s, when many other scholars are repackaging their earlier work, digging in their heels, and coasting. He started learning a new language and doing brand new work.
Prof. Elman radiated capacious and infectious curiosity. –Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein
A lot of the eulogies have said that he was particularly encouraging towards women in the field of Jewish academia, helping them and amplifying their work in what is a difficult field. I am very unsurprised. Professor Elman was about the truth, and if you had it, he didn’t care who were you were. Young, old, man, woman, frum, not frum.
5) he also was a good exemplar of someone who was a serious Scholar who didn’t take himself too seriously. Whether it was bringing a real axe into his Intro to Bible class to demonstrate what “בין עיניך” meant, or including Calvin and Hobbes comics in his syllabuses, or the cracking of a joke or a retelling of a good yarn, there was real joy in all that he did.
The world is a much less interesting, much less passionate, and much less joyful place without him. –Rabbi Akiva Weisinger
I woke up to the news of the passing of Dr. Yaakov Elman, a teacher who had as profound an influence on me as much as anyone. In addition to being a world-class scholar who in later years opened up the field to Middle Persian, his work ethic was unparalleled. Always prolific, Dr. Elman produced some of his most influential work after a debilitating accident.
Dr. Elman wasn’t just an academic by profession, it was who he was. He was relentlessly driven by a search for truth and would out-work anyone to find it. He simply knew no other way. –Rabbi Josh Yuter
Like with many of his students, he took great interest in me both on the personal and professional level. Honestly, I sometimes have felt regret that after he invested so much time in me that I did not focus on academia as he had hoped I would do under his tutelage. He even taught a class for me, which was really more like a 4-month private tutoring session when I was the only one who signed up for his course on Talmudic exegesis. … He never hesitated to still help or speak to me extensively both by phone and e-mail. I am truly thankful for the interest and help that he gave me in the way that I learn Torah and his care for my more general well-being that he demonstrated while I took his courses and his e-mails asking for updates on my progression as an educator.
Additionally, I often came away from his class so inspired and happier since his approach to his struggles in regards to health and appreciation for the little things was so remarkable. He truly modeled for us what it meant to have true “Hakarat hatov”(appreciation) for many of the little things that most of us take for granted. –Rabbi Michael Katzman
He was a true iluy in a world that no longer realized it needed them, and he was one of the few and true voraciously hungry intellectuals left in a professionalized academia. He combined a chassidishe heart with a litvishe kop, a critical academic sense with the creativity of an original Tosafist. At his utter core was the work-ethic of an old-school masmid who never, ever, stopped learning, writing, mentoring, and doing, whether he lay in a hospital bed after a near fatal car-crash, or sweating during physical therapy in a rehab facility, learning to walk again (and again) after health problems. –Prof. Shai Secunda
Here are also a few Twitter threads further about Professor Elman:
As mentioned, there may be further eulogies and other reflections on Professor Elman’s life and contributions coming out after the ongoing funeral, but this is certainly a start to appreciate him. If you would like to get an even further sense of him and his wisdom, I have been listening to a lecture of his from over two decades ago, “Historical Context & Background of the Talmud”, which is a fantastic introduction to Prof. Elman and his thought.