Karen Armstrong is, by far, my favorite author on comparative religion. It’s hard to believe that nine years have flown by since I last wrote about her work and influence. Her new book, The Lost Art of Scripture, is another masterpiece of scholarly research that manages to be informative without being onerous.
In her introduction, Karen writes: “We shall see that nearly all the scriptures we will consider insist that men and women must also discover the divine within themselves and the world in which they live … The myths, rituals, sacred texts and ethical practices of religion develop a plan of action whereby people reach beyond themselves to connect with the true and ultimate reality that will save them from the destructive forces of everyday existence.”
I could quote almost endlessly from this sumptuous text, which meanders seamlessly through the scriptures of Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Judaic sources. As a representative passage, I’ll cite a piece from the text’s analysis of the bifurcation between the two Talmuds completed by the rabbis in Babylonia and Palestine during the fifth and sixth centuries (pages 252-3): “The Bavli was completed in about 600 CE. The Jews of Babylonia maintain close ties with the Palestinians so the two Talmuds resemble one another, but the Parthians, an Iranian dynasty, allowed the Jewish community a measure of self-government, and this made the Bavli more confident and self-assured. It would become the key text of rabbinic Judaism …
The Bavli has been described as the first interactive text. When eventually it was committed to writing and later became a printed book, it was set so that the portion of the Mishnah under discussion was placed centre-page and was surrounded by the comments of sages from the distance and more recent past. Each page also left a space for the student to add his own commentary. When studying the Bible through the Bavli, he learned that truth was constantly changing, and that while tradition was numinous, it should not constrict his powers of judgment … Even when embroiled in a heated debate with his colleagues, a student was aware that he was participating in a conversation that stretched back to Moses and would continue as God’s revelation developed over time.”
Thoughts of such debates came flooding back to me last week when the great nephew of a former classmate from high school came to the office and advised that “Uncle Chaim” had passed away somewhat suddenly last month in Israel. My image of Chaim Zev Malinowitz is still the one from our high school yearbook, which – as another former classmate reminded me last week (thank you Yonah) – portended great things to come for him through scholarship and sharing of knowledge.
Not all high school yearbook bios turn out to be as prescient as Chaim’s was, but he would indeed rise to prominence in scriptural circles as general editor of ArtScroll’s Schottenstein English and Hebrew translations of the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi. Chaim’s father had been a student of Rav Aharon Kotler in Poland and that connection led to his attending the Yeshiva in Philadelphia for high school. From there he proceeded to learn at Yeshivas Iyun Hatalmud in Monsey, where he would ultimately head the kollel and participate as a beis din dayan after receiving smicha from Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Together with Rav Yisrael Simcha Schorr, Rav Malinowitz was appointed General Editor of ArtScroll’s Schottenstein Talmud in 1992. In 1997 he made aliyah from Monsey to Israel with his family, and became the congregational leader of Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Here is a cross-section of the tributes to this eminent Torah scholar that came pouring in upon his untimely passing at the age of 67, from sources as diverse as Jew in the City, The Times of Israel, Cross-Currents, The Jewish Press, and Reb Chaim’s home shul.