Further Eulogies for Professor Yaakov Elman
With Professor Yaakov Elman’s passing a few weeks ago, some initial eulogies came out online prior to his funeral, expressing shock and sadness, as well as admiration for Professor Elman. Since then, he was eulogized at his funeral (recorded and uploaded to YUTorah.org), with some highlights being published on Facebook by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier, including “Family members relayed very nicely Dr. Elman’s joie de vivre, his sense of humor, and his love of music. And, of course, his deep and abiding love for his family.”
Other eulogies have appeared online, including Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Finkelman describing Professor Elman as a young mentor to him, which features this gem:
His interests in Torah were, even then, without apparent limits; so too, his growing competence in all areas of Torah. Just one example: He reviewed the weekly Torah portion, as the Talmud recommends, twice the text and once the Targum, the Aramaic translation. Undoubtedly the authors of that recommendation chose the Aramaic translation for the benefit of Aramaic-speaking Jews of antiquity, who knew that language better than they knew Hebrew, and could use the help of a Targum when confronting a difficult Hebrew word. Yaakov, as a teen, read the Torah portion with the Aramaic translation week after week in the Bronx, where no one spoke Aramaic as a native language, with the result that he became fluent in Western Aramaic.
Alan Jay Gerber writes in another eulogy,
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman left a lasting impression on my own life’s work, in my eternal love of books, appreciating those who might differ with me, and those who have come to appreciate my work. He passed away at way too young an age. Nevertheless, he will always be viewed by this writer as a man of lasting integrity, a sage both in his own youth, and in the 75 years of his gifted life as a teacher among our people, especially, among our youth.
And there are also three fascinating eulogies to him from fellow (younger) academics, one being by Professor Aaron Koller, which includes this insightful description of his work and his mind:
Yaakov was intellectually insatiable. He had intensively studied, and contributed to, essentially all of Jewish studies, from Assyriology (in which he did his MA at Columbia, and on which he published a few papers in JANES in the ’70s) through biblical studies, the Dead Sea Scrolls (on which he wrote a few papers, including important studies of MMT), especially of course rabbinics — his book and other articles on the Tosefta, his many “conventionally” significant articles on midrash halakha, the Yerushalmi, and the Bavli from the ’90s, and then his epoch-making studies of the Middle Persian background of the Bavli over the past two decades — but continuing on to medieval intellectual history with a series of articles on Nahmanides, and into the modern period, in studies of R. Zadok of Lublin, the Netziv, Benno Jacob, and his own teacher, Rav Hutner. (The relationship with the latter was never a formal one, but a deeply intimate and formative one for Yaakov.)
These were not just a series of individual studies, either. Yaakov saw all of this as a grand unrolling narrative, thousands of years of human endeavor that could be perceptively analyzed by one who took it all in in all its glorious messiness, complexity, and depth – as virtually no one but Yaakov did. He told part of the story in a 30-page article in World Philology, where he put rabbinic interpretation in its ancient context. As he was finishing that paper, he wrote to me that he had to shave off 3,000 words to meet the guidelines, but that he had also finished a draft of “a 200-pp monster on cognitive styles in Mesopotamia from 2500 BCE to 1000 CE,” and said that he now was ready to “do a book on cognitive styles from 2500 BCE to the present day.” I had to ask what a “cognitive style” was, but to Yaakov it was obvious: he literally was uncovering the minds of cultures long gone, piecing together how people thought.
(This last bit about cognitive styles in Mesopotamia over a few millenia blows my mind, but also greatly intrigues me.)
A second eulogy is offered by Rabbi Ari Lamm, who wrote that Prof. Elman “took what could be described as a pastoral approach to Jewish scholarship.”
He cared about the unique personal circumstances that shaped each of the great thinkers of Jewish history. More importantly, he marveled at the ability of these thinkers in each generation to creatively, lovingly, distinctively reshape the traditions to which they were heir. He was interested, in short, in understanding the sages of Jewish history as individuals.
This animated nearly every aspect of his work.
In the ‘90s, for example, Dr. Elman authored a series of articles on the landmark contributions by the famed Babylonian Talmudic sage, Rava, to the history of Jewish thought on the problem of human suffering. A decade later Dr. Elman would pen another series of studies further exploring Rava’s influential career – from his crafting a theoretical approach to rabbinic principles of Biblical interpretation, to his deftly leading a wealthy, acculturated Jewish community in the important Persian suburb of Machoza. As Dr. Elman emphasized in a variety of contexts, the Bavli as we know it was shaped irrevocably by Rava’s particular interests, style, and methods.
Another eulogy offered by a younger academic is by Professor Shai Secunda, one of the two students to have completed dissertations under Prof. Elman (Prof. Shana Strauch Schick being the other)*, which is chock full of fantastic information, as well as being fairly compact and certainly highly-recommended reading on Prof. Elman’s impact and legacy. This has several gems, beginning with this overview of his thinking:
Staggeringly fluent in Talmud, he was also one of the few truly voraciously hungry intellectuals left in a professionalized academia. He combined a Hasidic heart with a litvishe kop, a critical academic sense with the creativity of an original tosafist. Yaakov wrote copiously about times, people, and places distant from him and from each other—the fabled ruler of the ancient Persian Empire Darius the Great; the early 20th-century Reform German rabbi Benno Jacob; a medieval Catalan thinker known as the Meiri; a radical 19th-century Polish Hasidic master named Rabbi Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin; talmudic rabbis such as Rava and Abaye; and late antique Zoroastrian priests bearing names such as Sōšāns and Gogušnasp. With his black velvet yarmulke, white beard, and payis, Yaakov spoke excitedly of those long-buried and largely forgotten Zoroastrian sages as if they were close friends. The entire motley crew he studied was brought into endlessly fascinating conversations with one another in the vast halls of his brilliant mind, just as he cultivated an astoundingly diverse group of close, real-life companions that included yeshiva heads, professors, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Zoroastrians, and Jews of all denominations.
Prof. Secunda observes that Prof. Elman “was the not the first scholar to realize that studying Babylonian Jewry’s Persian context could illuminate the Babylonian Talmud, but he is the one who built it into a real movement of flesh-and-blood people from different fields, working in close relationships.”
For a thumbnail sketch of Prof. Elman’s important impact on the field of Talmudic studies, Prof. Secunda shares
Traveling the world for Jewish and Iranian studies conferences, Yaakov became a tireless evangelist for reading the Talmud alongside Middle Persian texts, regularly launching into detailed discussions of Zoroastrian law and describing it, to the astonishment of many, as “halakhic,” “rabbinic,” and “strikingly parallel” to Jewish law. He became an ongoing associate at Harvard, and his reading group with Skjærvø expanded to include a growing cast of characters, such as a visiting University of Tehran professor and Yaakov’s own Talmud students (including me). The tiny field of Old Iranian studies, which had been languishing due to lack of interest, gained tremendously from the sudden, unexpected infusion of these Talmud scholars.
One can now legitimately divide Talmud scholarship into two periods—BE, before Elman, when Talmud research focused on the text and its development, and AE, after Elman rewrote the curriculum of talmudists to include the languages and literatures of communities neighboring Babylonian Jewry, especially the Persian-speaking Zoroastrians, who ruled the powerful Sassanian Iranian Empire.
The world will greatly miss Prof. Elman, but, thankfully, his legacy lives on.
*If anyone else knows of any others who completed doctoral dissertations under Prof. Elman, I would be greatly interested to hear about them.