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Saul Lieberman

(1898 - 1983)

Saul Lieberman (also known as "the G'RaSh"), was a rabbi and a scholar of Talmud. He was for many years president of the American Academy for Jewish Research. He was an honorary member of the Academy for the Hebrew Language, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. In 1971 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies and in 1976 he received the Harvey Prize of the Haifa Technion.

Born in Motol, near Pinsk, Belorussia, he studied at the yeshivot of Malch and Slobodka. In the 1920s he attended the University of Kiev, and, following a short stay in Palestine, continued his studies in France. In 1928 he settled in Jerusalem. He studied talmudic philology and Greek language and literature at the Hebrew University, where he was appointed lecturer in Talmud in 1931. He also taught at the Mizrachi Teachers Seminary and from 1935 was dean of the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research in Jerusalem. In 1940 he was invited by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to serve as professor of Palestinian literature and institutions. Nine years later he was appointed dean, and in 1958 rector, of the Seminary's rabbinical school.

Combining vast erudition in all fields of talmudic and rabbinic literature with a penetrating knowledge of the classical world, Lieberman opened new pathways to the understanding of the life, institutions, beliefs, and literary products of Jewish Palestine in the talmudic period.

He made his debut in scholarly literature in 1929 with the publication of Al ha-Yerushalmi, in which he suggested ways of emending corruptions in the text of the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud and offered variant readings to the text of the tractate of Sotah. This was followed by a series of text studies of the Jerusalem Talmud, which appeared in Tarbiz; by Talmudah shel Keisaryah (1931), in which he expressed the view that the first three tractates of the order Nezikin in the Jerusalem Talmud had been compiled in Caesarea about the middle of the fourth century C.E.; and by Ha-Yerushalmi ki-Feshuto (1934), a commentary on the treatises Shabbat, Eruvin, and Pesahim of the Jerusalem Talmud.

His preoccupation with the Jerusalem Talmud impressed him with the necessity of clarifying the text of the tannaitic sources (rabbis of the first two centuries of the common era), especially that of the Tosefta, on which no commentaries had been composed by the earlier authorities and to whose elucidation only few scholars had devoted themselves in later generations.

In the comparatively short period of three years (1937-1939) he published the four-volume Tosefet Rishonim, a commentary on the entire Tosefta with textual corrections based on manuscripts, early printings, and quotations found in early authorities. During that period he also published Tashlum Tosefta, an introductory chapter to the second edition of M. S. Zuckermandel's Tosefta edition (1937), dealing with quotations from the Tosefta by early authorities that are not found in the text.

Years later, Lieberman returned to the systematic elucidation of the Tosefta. He undertook the publication of the Tosefta text, based on manuscripts and accompanied by brief explanatory notes, and of an extensive commentary called Tosefta ki-Feshutah. The latter combined philological research and historical observations with a discussion of the entire talmudic and rabbinic literature in which the relevant Tosefta text is either commented upon or quoted. Between 1955 and 1967 ten volumes of the new edition appeared, representing the text and the commentaries on the orders of Zera'im and Mo'ed and on part of the order of Nashim.

In Sifrei Zuta (1968), Lieberman advanced the view that this halakhic Midrash was in all likelihood finally edited by Bar Kappara in Lydda.

His two English volumes, which also appeared in a Hebrew translation, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942) and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), illustrate the influence of Hellenistic culture on Jewish Palestine in the first centuries C.E.

Other books of his were Sheki'in (1939), on Jewish legends, customs, and literary sources found in Karaite and Christian polemical writings, and Midreshei Teiman (1940), wherein he showed that the Yemenite Midrashim had preserved exegetical material that had been deliberately omitted by the rabbis. He edited a variant version of the Midrash Rabbah on Deuteronomy (1940, 19652). In his view that version had been current among Sephardi Jewry, while the standard text had been that of Ashkenazi Jewry. In 1947 he published Hilkhot ha-Yerushalmi which he identified as a fragment of a work by Maimonides on the Jerusalem Talmud. Lieberman also edited the hitherto unpublished Tosefta commentary Hasdei David by David Pardo on the order Tohorot. The first part of this work appeared in 1970.

A number of his works have appeared in new and revised editions. Lieberman served as editor in chief of a new critical edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (vol. 1, 1964), and as an editor of the Judaica series of Yale University. He also edited several scholarly miscellanies. He contributed numerous studies to scholarly publications as well as notes to books of fellow scholars. In these he dwelt on various aspects of the world of ideas of the rabbis, shed light on events in the talmudic period, and elucidated scores of obscure words and expressions of talmudic and midrashic literature.

Towards the end of his life, he was very upset over his life work in trying to ensure that the Conservative movement was a halachic movement. He was very distraught at the direction the Conservative movement was taking in deliberating about ordaining women as rabbis. Immediately after his death, at the direction of JTS's Chancellor Gerson Cohen and with the approval of the JTS faculty, the Conservative Movement decided to admit women into its rabbinical school at JTS. He saw it as a major split with normative halakhic Judaism and very much opposed to Jewish law. Some of his students, representing major figures of the Talmud department of the Jewish Theological Seminary and whom broke away from the Conservative movement, have published and translated his teshuva against the ordination of women in Tomeikh KaHalkha.

Lieberman was an important rabbi in the Rabbinical Assembly, the body of Conservative Jewish rabbis, and was viewed as one the movement's most important decisors in halakhah (Jewish law). In the 1950s he worked on the agunah problem.

According to Jewish law when a couple gets divorced it is the man who has to present the woman with a bill of divorce, called a get. Without one the couple is still viewed as married, whether a civil divorce is obtained or not. In the past, if a woman was refused a divorce because a man would not give his wife a get, the rabbis of the local Jewish community were authorized to force the husband to do so. However since the enlightenment, local Jewish communities lost their autonomous status, and were subsumed into the nation in which they existed. The Jewish community lost its civil powers to enforce marriage and divorce laws. The unintended result was that rabbis lost the power to force a man to give his wife a get, and Jewish law does not allow a woman to give a get to the husband. Without a get, a Jewish woman is forbidden to remarry and is therefore called an agunah (literally "an anchored woman").

For decades traditional voices within the Rabbinical Assembly counseled that Conservative Jews should take no unilateral action on this issue, and should wait for solutions from the Orthodox community, or joint action with the Orthodox community. However, the Orthodox rabbinate was in a state of legal paralysis on this issue throughout the 1800s and into the mid 1900s; while numerous solutions were offered, none were accepted. Eventually liberal voices within the Rabbinical Assembly won out, and the movement authorized unilateral action.

After doing research on this problem in conjunction with other rabbis, Professor Lieberman developed what came to be called "the Lieberman clause", a clause added to the ketubah (Jewish wedding document). In effect it was an arbitration agreement used in the case of a divorce; if the marriage dissolved and the woman was refused a get from her husband, both the husband and wife were must go to a rabbinic court authorized by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and heed their directives, which could (and usually did) include ordering a man to give his wife a get.

At the time this clause was proposed it has some support in the Modern Orthodox community, and Orthodox leader Joseph Soloveitchik gave this proposal his approval. They began work on a joint rabbinic committee that would insure objective standards of marriage and divorce for both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. However, objections from ultra-Orthodox rabbis torpedoed this effort at cooperation, and the proposed joint effort faltered. Most of Orthodox Judaism then rejected the Lieberman clause as a violation of Jewish law. As such, it is only accepted as binding and valid in non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism.

This clause is still used in many ketubot (wedding documents) used by Conservative Jews today. However, in the intervening years there has been growing concern the legal validity of this clause due to United States law on separation between church and state; while this clause has been upheld in court, many rabbis are concerned that at some point in the future its binding legal nature may be denied. As such, the Rabbinical Assembly has since developed other solutions to the agunah issue that are now commonly used.

Judith Lieberman

His wife, Judith Lieberman (1904- ), was a daughter of Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), leader of the Mizrachi. She served from 1941 first as Hebrew principal and then as dean of Hebrew studies of Shulamith School for Girls in New York, the first Jewish day school for girls in North America. Among her publications were Robert Browning and Hebraism (1934), and an autobiographical chapter that was included in Thirteen Americans, Their Spiritual Autobiographies (1953), edited by Louis Finkelstein.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, Tomeikh KaHalakha Volume 1 (Union of Traditional Conservative Judaism)