Further Eulogies for Professor Yaakov Elman Published by The Lehrhaus
With the news of the passing of Professor Yaakov Elman (1943-2018), ז”ל, there has been a significant amount spoken and written about his life, his scholarship, and his impact upon this world, beginning with some initial eulogies for him, followed by further eulogies, both at his funeral and beyond, and, to mark the thirty days following his passing, The Lehrhaus has published a half-dozen further eulogies. To mark the occasion, there were events at Yeshiva University’s Jerusalem and Manhattan campuses, as Professor Elman had been the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies at the Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School, it was fitting that the school would mark the occasion.
The six were composed by colleagues and students, highlights of which follow:
- Dr. David Berger writes
He was deeply concerned, even pessimistic, about the state of contemporary Judaism and hoped against hope that his own brilliant and wide-ranging work would contribute to its rejuvenation as a home of sophistication, breadth, and enduring commitment. His path-breaking demonstration of the interaction on the part of the Amoraim with their cultural environment, the Maharal’s engagement with Renaissance ideas, and the hasidic dimension of Rav Hutner’s thought were all part of an integrated, focused quest for this rejuvenated Judaism.
- Dr. Shana Strauch Schick, one of two students to complete their PhDs under Professor Elman, writes about his academic work at YU
His dedication to, and respect for, his students came through in every aspect of his career at Yeshiva University. Not content to teach required courses and pursue his own work, he set about to revive a Talmud department that had long been in a state of decline. His classes at the Bernard Revel Graduate School became a beacon to students who, like himself, brought a love of learning from the beit midrash but felt drawn toward critical approaches. Having revitalized the department, he set about to secure the necessary institutional resources to take on and support doctoral students, personally arranging for students to do additional coursework at Columbia, NYU, and Harvard, and always ensuring that we had the necessary funding to complete PhDs.
As an advisor he went above and beyond. He was ever supportive, always available, insightful, with the right amount of criticism during the dissertation process. And this continued throughout the years that followed. Even when he was once again confined to a hospital bed, he continued to be a devoted mentor; he still read our works, offered his insights and critiques, sent articles he thought would be of interest, and was there to help in any way he could—irrespective of the current state of his health. His devotion and pride in our work was like that of a father. I will always be grateful to him and try to live up to the standard he set for us.
as well as his intellectual work in advancing the field:
He was an individual in the truest sense of the word; his varied career was an extension of an insatiable intellectual curiosity that took him from the “besmedrish” to college, a stint in weather forecasting, to Assyriology and of course academic Talmud study. In this realm he brought together diverse strands of scholarship to build an approach that I can best describe as holistic. For him, the Bavli, read carefully, yields a vivid picture of overlapping intellectual and cultural moments, populated by commanding legal minds, creative religious thinkers, and more than a few colorful or even roguish personalities. Rav Yosef, Rav Nahman, and of course Rava, whom Professor Elman would often remind us is the most oft-cited sage in the Bavli. These were not abstract names or literary constructs, but people who lived and died, and at some level struggled with the same problems that rabbinic Jews living within prosperous foreign cultures would face over the next 1500 years.
To understand the texts, the anonymous editors who constructed them, and the figures active within them, Professor Elman forged a unique path, drawing on studies as diverse as the orality of Scottish epic poetry, sociology of religion, legal theory, and the study of Middle Persian texts and cultures. As he often acknowledged, Professors Shaul Shaked and Isaiah Gafni had demonstrated the importance of the Middle Persian texts, and he completely devoted himself to advancing this as a central aspect of modern talmudic scholarship. Collaborating with scholars of ancient Iran, he mastered Pahlavi and sought to read Zoroastrian religious works with the same rigor that he would bring to a Talmudic sugya. As he would often quip, unlike the Talmud, the Middle Persian works had not benefited from over a thousand years of continuous study and commentary.
Professor Elman’s holistic approach was devoted to showing how the Bavli could be read critically as a source of intellectual and cultural history. He simultaneously accepted the serious challenges inherent in analyzing a vast compendium, compiled and redacted over the course of hundreds of years, while rejecting the idea that this compels us toward extreme skepticism. He had utmost respect for the work and skill that had gone into creating, transmitting, and interpreting the Talmudic corpus over two millennia, so he was confident that by using the tools of modern critical Talmud study it was possible to trace developments across generations, expose differences between regions and schools of thought, and even between the approaches of individual sages to law and communal policy. This is exemplified by his sustained interest in Rava. Through Professor Elman’s work, we now have a picture of Rava that is neither a legendary hero of aggadic lore, nor a supposed kernel of truth derived from those tales, but a fleshed-out, cosmopolitan thinker and revolutionary jurist whose influence can be detected throughout the redacted layers of the Bavli.
- Mahnaz Moazami writes about how impressive Professor Elman’s knowledge and teaching was:
To sit in a class of his was always an adventure. He was a colorful man with many brilliant and sometimes quite far-reaching, but always stimulating, observations on history, religion, peoples, and places. The range of his command of the sources–historical, political, economic, social, and cultural– and his deep immersion in religious history and languages of the period was simply extraordinary. His critical sensibilities and insights were stunning.
- Meira Wolkenfeld writes about her experience as a student under Professor Elman and his excitement in discovering new avenues of research and encouraging students:
Personally, I became Dr. Elman’s doctoral student in part because of the very first paper I wrote for him. I wasn’t planning to go into the field of Talmud at the time, but he liked my paper and encouraged me to pursue further advanced study. My paper was actually about a paper he was working on and had shared with the class, which was about digestion. He had noticed that at a certain point, rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud as well as their near-contemporary Zoroastrian dastwars, had both independently started thinking about digestion in a more complicated way. Where earlier conversations focused on the ingestion of food, discussions from the fifth century began to relate to digestion as a more complex biological process which transforms the nature of the food. In my paper, I wrote about a gemara that he hadn’t discussed, and considered whether it also reflected this transformative understanding of digestion. Frankly, the point I made was trivial. But for Dr. Elman, if you could help him think about something he was thinking about, in even the smallest way, he was thrilled.
If you were ever in his class, you know that if you anticipated what he was going to say, he was ecstatic, but if you made a point that he didn’t anticipate – and usually, he was thinking at least five steps ahead of anyone else, so that was a real rarity – but if you did manage it, that gave him real joy.
- Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier writes about the vastness of Professor Elman’s knowledge:
This capacity to write on such a broad span of fields stemmed not only from Dr. Elman’s vast bekius, his eidetic memory, and his constant learning, but primarily from his insistence to study – and be mehaddesh in – all areas of Torah, all of Jewish tradition, and not focus on a particular area of interest to the exclusion of other traditional Jewish texts.
But in recognizing his great bekius, we should not lose sight of his iyyun, not just the fact that he published his analyses at a steady clip but the nature of his analysis as well. Properly appreciating Dr. Elman’s mode of analysis will provide a window into not only his scholarship, but the nature of his view of the interaction between Torah and general culture.
Generally speaking, someone with a vast knowledge of the Talmud could have a relatively easy time producing scholarship – you take theories that have been previously propounded, and use your knowledge to either bolster those claims with additional examples or to refute them. Needless to say, this was not Dr. Elman’s derekh.
Instead of using his wealth of knowledge to further old theories, Dr. Elman was proactive in creating new areas of research. Most famous is his contribution to Irano-Talmudica, where he pointed to multiple connections in law and legal methodology between the Bavli and Middle Persian texts, as part of the broader cultural interaction between the rabbis of the Bavli and their Persian neighbors. But he also developed and expanded the rabbinic hermeneutical method of omnisignificance and its application in the medieval and modern periods.
Rabbi Zuckier also notes that “novelty and creativity were central to Dr. Elman’s work. He not only participated in the field of rabbinic literature; he moved the field, in Herculean manner. He convinced an entire generation of scholars to reassess the state of the Bavli in its cultural context, convincing many to retrain in Middle Persian and Sasanian history.” The fascinating insight that Rabbi Zuckier provides regarding Professor Elman’s thought and scholarship includes the following:
Rather than turning Talmud knowledge into raw material, grist for the mill of proving or disproving various historical theories – the easy path for the baki – for Dr. Elman, the Talmud is a living, generative text, forming the basis of new theories, and shaping the academy rather than being shaped by it. Instead of simply being acted upon, the Torah sources take an active role in defining what Jewish history – and even world history – looks like.
Taking this point a step further, in the historical interaction between Torah and general culture, it is not the case that Torah submissively takes in whatever the outside world has to offer. Rather, the interaction goes in both directions, for the mutual benefit of both parties. This is seen in the context of Irano-Talmudica, where Dr. Elman did as much in his scholarly capacity to make Persian legal and ritual texts Talmudic as he did to make the Talmud Persian.
- Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary writes that Professor Elman was incredibly helpful and also excited about the younger colleagues’ work:
I have made sure to pass every major research idea I’ve had by Dr. Elman. I would present the idea, he would fold his arms and look up for fifteen seconds of long silence as he scanned his mental database of all of the Talmud, commentaries, and every journal article current and past. More often than not, thankfully, I received a positive verdict along with a dozen sugyot and further references that were essential to the research. He wasn’t just a specialist in one field, but a master of so many areas, making his insights uniquely valuable.
Two years ago, I sent Dr. Elman a manuscript of my book asking for his comments. At the same time, he asked me whether one of our colleagues, who was being judged for tenure, had received a reply. I told him that, indeed, our colleague did just receive tenure. He wrote back this email (all punctuation and caps in the original): “You made my night!!! I am SO happy! As much as I was happy seeing your book! That was the joy of the day!” I can just hear his enthusiastic voice through his words. He was always encouraging and personally excited by the accomplishments of his younger colleagues.
- Dr. David Berger writes
It has been wonderful to continue to read about Professor Elman’s inspiring thirst for knowledge, helpfulness to students and colleagues, and his intellectual creativity. If there are other such eulogies, please send them my way.