Timely Thoughts

Reflections From A Student

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Meira Wolkenfeld

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series of reflections in memorium for Dr. Yaakov Elman, which includes articles by David Berger, Mahnaz MoazamiShana Strauch Schick, Shlomo Zuckier, and Richard Hidary.

It’s an honor to speak in memory of my teacher Dr. Yaakov Elman. I’m going to talk a little bit about some of his recent scholarship, but mostly, I hope to speak to the experience of being his student. We’ve heard about his wide-ranging and far-reaching accomplishments, from his work on the transmission of the Tosefta, to texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to so many aspects of the intellectual history of the Bavli. Yet, as a teacher, despite his mastery, breadth of knowledge, and intellectual stature, he always related to his students with an innate egalitarianism, with his infectious eagerness for ideas and his love of learning with and from anyone. He always came to class with an idea that he was excited about, and he genuinely wanted to hear what you thought.

If you were ever in his class, you know that the Babylonian Talmud has approximately 1.86 million words. He, of course, knew all of them. He was famous for founding the field of Irano-Talmudica, which by definition entails mastery of two separate fields. Recently, he worked even more broadly, for example, in a paper which he always referred to as “the 200-page monster,” he was writing a history of legal thinking from ancient Mesopotamia through at least Sasanian Babylonia, an undertaking of unparalleled breadth. And yet, he wanted your opinion.

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.

A little over a year ago, I took my qualifying exam, which is an oral exam about a specific reading list. It’s administered by a panel. As my advisor, Dr. Elman started the proceedings. The first thing he said was, “I have no doubt that Meira knows everything, so I’m not going to ask you about something from your reading list, but instead I have a question about your project.” Firstly, this shows his hesed. I was nervous, and the first thing he did was set me at ease. It also shows how supportive he was. I was very prepared for the exam, but I’m not certain if quite that level of unshakable confidence was necessarily warranted. But that’s how he was as an advisor. He was always behind you 150%. I’m sure others in the room have had the experience of sending him a paper late at night – say at 11:30 you make some final changes to a draft – and you knew that if you could stay up for another one or two hours, you’d have a response in your inbox with his comments on your paper, certainly by morning. That’s how dedicated he was (and also how prone to working in the middle of the night). And I felt that he asked me that question during my exam because he, of course, knew all of the information on the reading list and so what he really wanted to hear about, what excited him, was what I would do.

Now I don’t remember exactly the content of the question; as I said, it had to do with my project, but it also had to do with a paper he’d written that was published just this past December in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute. I thought I’d talk about that paper for a minute, because it’s some of his most recent work and really shows his creativity and it’s a subject that he was still thinking about. The paper takes as its starting point close readings of passages in two particularly intricate and legalistic Middle Persian texts, but these close readings lead to broad reflections on trends in late antique intellectual culture. The Pahlavi Videvdad, PV, is a fifth century middle Persian translation and running commentary on the Zoroastrian sacred text of the Avesta. The Zand ī Fragard ī Jud-Dēw-Dād, ZFJ, dates slightly later, to the sixth century, and is organized as responsa on the legal sections of PV. It’s a text that did not receive much scholarly interest before Dr. Elman and which he was particularly enthusiastic about studying and translating alongside Dr. Mahnaz Moazami.

Because ZFJ is slightly later than PV, going from PV to ZFJ, one can trace the development of certain types of legal thought. For example, Dr. Elman noted increasing instances of omnisignificant interpretation, where superfluous words, usually poetic repetitions, are interpreted in order to derive legal information from a scriptural source. He also noted an increasing interest in quantification, like in trying to determine just how much of a forbidden substance one would need to eat to be liable. He noted that these texts are scholastic and scripturally oriented, and develop abstract legal concepts. These qualities are, of course, even more characteristic of rabbinic literature. And so Dr. Elman was excited about them, not only for what they could reveal about the background of the Bavli, but also for thinking about what motivated the development of similar, but actually much earlier, rabbinic legal thinking.

This ability to read a complicated text very closely, with attention to detail and a narrow lens, while simultaneously thinking extraordinarily broadly and flexibly about general structures of the way people think and why they think that way, characterizes so much of his work. This interest in the way people think or thought is a thread that ties together his work in so many different realms, from the halakhic tendencies of specific amoraim, like Rava, to broad cross-cultural thought patterns.

When I first heard the news last month, there were a few lines of gemara that kept running through my head. They’re from the very end of Tractate Sotah. The mishnah there explains that when different rabbis died, different qualities ceased to exist. For example, the mishnah states, “ משמת רבי בטלה ענוה ויראת חטא, when Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] died, humility and fear of sin were nullified.” I can hear Dr. Elman reciting the words of the gemara here. I learned them from him. It says, “ אמר ליה רב יוסף לתנא לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא, Rav Yosef said to the reciter of the mishnah, ‘Don’t teach that there is no more humility in the world, afterall, I’m still here!’” I thought of these words, because no one experienced more joy in the wit and humanity of the rabbis than Dr. Elman. And I thought of these words because I think that we are all experiencing that feeling of bereft that the mishnah evokes, that there is a special quality missing from the world, a special glint, a way of thinking, that was uniquely his.

The mishnah encapsulates the death of each rabbi with just one or two traits, but we are much too close to this loss to do that. It’s felt from too many perspectives. I know that my own loss and sadness pales in comparison to the loss of the family, to the loss to scholarship, to talmudic studies and Iranian studies and intellectual history. But what I hoped to convey was my personal loss, the loss of a teacher and advisor of immense humility, uncanny insight and creativity, and tremendous devotion.

Meira Wolkenfeld
Meira is a doctoral student in Talmud at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has taught at Nyack College, Congregation Shearith Israel, and Congregation Keter Torah. She studied in the Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) at Stern College, holds an MA in Talmud from Revel, and a BA in Ancient Near Eastern studies from UCLA.