Back at Columbia: The Academic Study of Talmud


February 17, 2015

Ari L. Goldman

Ari L. Goldman


Back at Columbia: The Academic Study of Talmud

Columbia University graduation day. New York City 2005. Joyce Royan

The Legacy of David Weiss Halivni

The academic study of Talmud is back at Columbia University after a nine-year hiatus occasioned by the departure in 2005 of Rabbi David Weiss Halivni.[1] Halivni, who was trained in the European yeshiva method before the Holocaust, is largely regarded as one of the great innovators in the modern study of Talmud. After he left Columbia and moved to Israel, he was awarded the Israel Prize and continues to write and teach informally at the National Library in Jerusalem.

Ari Bergmann – The Unlikely Successor to Halivni

Ari Bergmann

Halivni’s successor at Columbia is an unlikely choice to pick up his Talmud course. His name is Ari Bergmann, 53, and he manages a successful hedge fund on Madison Avenue. He was born to a Jewish family in Brazil, became a ba’al teshuva, studied in “black hat” yeshivot in Israel and then stumbled into Halivni’s class at Columbia when he needed some extra credits for a master’s degree. He became a huge fan of Halivni and his method of Talmud study and was one of the last three Ph.D. students he supervised. In fact, Halivni came out of retirement (and flew to New York) to award Bergmann his Ph.D. in 2014.

In the classroom, Bergmann is rigorous yet playful and warm. He struts about, writing terms on the board, and often apologizes for his accent – “I’m from Brazil,” he reminds the students — although his words are crystal clear. “The goal of the class is to give all of you a taste of the Talmud and the enjoyment of learning,” he said on the first day of class this spring.

Bergmann is a collector of rare Judaica and he often brings valuable manuscripts to class to bring his teaching to life. He casually passed around a “kuntres” or notebook of Rashi written on parchment that went back almost to Rashi’s time. “Be careful with it,” he said brightly. “This survived 1,000 years of pogroms. Let’s not destroy it in class.”

Bergmann’s method is working. He started teaching in September with nine registered students but word about the class got out and the class size has nearly tripled this semester. At the opening class this spring, every seat in his classroom was taken. In the fall, he allowed several auditors (myself included), but he had to limit outsiders so that there is room for Columbia students. He is an animated and engaging teacher who meets frequently with students and coaches them through their final papers.

On the first day of class, he asked the students why they took the class, which is called “Re-Reading the Talmud.” There were a number of undergraduates, both men and women, who said that they studied Talmud in high school – and, in some cases, during a gap year in Israel – and wanted to see what the academic study of Talmud was like. (Several admitted to “missing Talmud” since arriving at Columbia.) Others included a Ph.D. student in Talmud from the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary, a pre-seminary student from Yeshiva University, a film student interested in how the Talmud tells stories and a secular Israeli who never cracked a Talmud until he came to Columbia. Only some of the men wore yarmulkes.

Bergmann, an observant Jew who does wear a yarmulke, made it clear that he will not be following the yeshiva model that takes it for granted that the Talmud is a divinely-inspired work and where the text rather than its development takes center stage. In this class, the meaning of the text is explained by understanding its development.

What is Academic Talmud?

He explained that the “critical” method he teaches involves, among other elements, literary analysis, synoptic reading, source criticism, form criticism and the examination of manuscripts. He introduced the students to the concept of the “stam,” one of the most obvious contrasts with the yeshiva method. The stam, which figures prominently in the scholarship of Halivni and others, is material added by the anonymous redactors of the Babylonian Talmud between the period of the Amoraim and the Saboraim. Bergmann likens the stam to the anonymous contributors to Wiki pages today. “It is the voice of the collective,” he tells his students.

Bergmann also introduced his students to the “diachronic” approach, which acknowledges that the text of the Talmud developed over time.

Within that approach, there are two models, he said. There is the “retrieval” model that accepts that everything in the Talmud was ordained at Sinai as the “oral Torah.” The retrievalists, led by Saadya Gaon, believe that the rabbis were simply trying to remember what was said at Sinai. Their deliberations and debates are recorded in the Talmud.

The opposing approach is the “creative” model championed by such luminaries as Maimonides. The proponents of the creative model argue that the rabbis were creating new ideas all the time through their deliberations and debates. The “oral Torah” is a living document that continues to evolve today, Bergmann argues.

Neither the retrieval nor the creative model, he emphasized, necessitates jettisoning the idea of Torah MiSinai the notion that the text is divine or divinely inspired. “It is not a contradiction to embrace the creative model and believe in the divinity of the Talmud,” he told the class.

And then, like the good pedagogue he is, he used a term he just taught to expand his point. “The divinity question is itself diachronic,” he said, explaining that it too has developed over time.

Bergmann tells his student that they are part of the modern Talmudic process. He urged them to not just read the assigned readings each week but to opine about them. “You don’t have to be right,” he said, “you just have to have an opinion… Just like in the Talmud where every hava amina – every nascent thought – is worthwhile.”

The Study of Talmud in Columbia University

The study of Talmud has deep roots at Columbia. It goes back to 1887 when Gustav Gottheil, then rabbi of Temple Emanuel, raised money from his congregation for a chair for the study of “Hebrew and cognate dialects.” The subjects to be taught, Gottheil said, included “the Aramaic version of the scriptures, the Mishna and the Talmud.” The first occupant of the chair was Richard Gottheil, the rabbi’s son who was appointed professor of Rabbinical Literature and Oriental Languages. Jewish studies has been taught at Columbia ever since by both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars. The study of Talmud has come and gone. Since Halivni’s departure in 2005, an introductory Talmud course and other classes in rabbinics were was offered, but the Bergmann seminar, offered in the religion department at Columbia, means an advanced course is now being offered.

Bergmann, who was born in São Paulo Brazil in 1961, came to Baltimore in 1977 to study at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He continued his Talmud studies in Israel at the Ponevez and Hebron yeshivot. Along the way, he picked up a C.P.A. degree and took a job at Price Waterhouse which led him to a position at Bankers Trust. He opened his own hedge fund in 1997.

In an interview at his office, Penso Advisors LLC, he recalled that he always liked collecting old Judaica books and manuscripts. “My wife said ‘You have all these books, why don’t you study history?’” he recalled. He enrolled in a “liberal studies” masters at Columbia and became a student of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. He said that he had never heard of David Weiss Halivni but took his course at the suggestion of a friend. He became enamored with Halivni and his method and stayed to complete his Ph.D. with him. His dissertation, “Halevy, Halivni and the Oral Formation of the Babylonian Talmud,” is an analysis of the various theories about the process of formation of the Babylonian Talmud and the impact that orality had upon it.

The Goal of the Course

The goals of his new course, “Re-Reading the Talmud,” are similar. “In the past century,” his syllabus explains, “advances in the theories of how to read the Talmud and in the models of its formation and redaction have opened up new avenues for understanding what the text says and, more importantly, how it works.”

Every week there are assigned passages from the Talmud, beginning with Sukkah and going on to Bava Metzi’a, Avodah Zara and Pesachim. The assigned critical readings come from a wide variety of sources, including Halivni, Shamma Friedman, Isaiah Gafni, Louis Jacobs, Christine Hayes, Daniel Sperber, Beth Berkowitz, Yaakov Elman, Alyssa M. Gray, Robert Brody, Ephraim E. Urbach, Jeffrey Rubenstein and many, many others. Students also watch Ruth Calderon’s 2013 Knesset speech where she gives a Talmud lesson. At one session of the class, the 2011 film “Footnote,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, is shown and analyzed.

The New Generation of Talmud Students

Bergmann revels in the diversity of his sources and the diversity of the students attracted to his class. “There’s a guy with a black yarmulke, a Haredi, all the way to a guy who doesn’t wear a yarmulke and who isn’t Jewish. Men and women too,” he told me. It is clear, he added, that the longtime resistance to the critical study of Talmud among traditional yeshivot is breaking down. “The world is changing.”

“These two approaches, the traditional and the academic, were once viewed as incompatible and thus their audience was completely different,” Bergmann added. “Now, however, these two approaches are not only seen as compatible but complimentary to each other.”

Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. He is the author of four books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard and his newest book, The Late Starters Orchestra.


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