Remembering Gerald Blidstein

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TRADITION mourns the loss of Prof. Gerald (Ya’akov) Blidstein z”l, one of our generation’s most significant and creative practitioners of Jewish thought, who passed away on September 10. Blidstein served as a member of our editorial board for many years, and contributed many important essays to our pages. We invited two of his friends and colleagues to share their thoughts on his legacy as a scholar and consummate mensch.

Carmi Horowitz

Prof. Gerald Ya’akov Blidstein, whom we knew as Jerry, was a role model for me from the time I was in high school and college. Many years later, after following his career from somewhat afar, he brought me to Ben Gurion University’s department of Jewish Thought, which he chaired, and where I had the privilege of becoming his colleague.

Prof. Blidstein combined breadth of knowledge, with a profound and sensitive understanding of the halakhic and aggadic literature throughout the generations, all of which was supplemented by a mastery of the scholarly literature, and wide general reading. Jerry’s oeuvre focused on the centrality of halakha in Jewish life and lore as an independent discipline which he studied on its own terms and not as a tool for other disciplines. He read and studied halakha with great care and precision, and succeeded in eliciting from those sources a broad understanding of the central institutions of Jewish life and thought. 

His scholarship dealt extensively with aspects of Jewish political thought as expressed in halakhic literature. He wrote about kings, courts, civil law, democracy, institutional authority, force and coercion, and more. All of these were analyzed on the basis of their talmudic sources and later halakhic works, with particular emphasis on those of Maimonides. He analyzed the nature and authority of Jewish tradition, institutional halakhic authority, takkanot and gezerot, the very concept of Torah she-ba’al pe, and the moral authority of halakha and its limitations. His many articles and his books on Hilkhot Mamrim and Hilkhot Melakhim are major contributions to clarifying these concepts. 

The re-establishment of a Jewish polity in Eretz Yisrael provided a challenge to Jewish thinkers, theologians, and halakhic scholars to delve into traditional Jewish sources and examine what halakha has to say. As an outstanding talmid hakham and student of the R. Soloveitchik zt”l (about whose thought Jerry published many important articles), as well as a committed Zionist, Jerry saw importance in clarifying the theoretical guidelines of those issues as they are formulated in traditional sources.

Prof. Blidstein’s focus on Rambam’s works fit his temperament. Maimonides’ encyclopedic presentation of halakha, its implicit legal theory with its philosophic, moral, and ethical emphases, was a natural foundation for Jerry’s own way of understanding Jewish life and lore. His preoccupation with Rambam, corresponded to that of my teacher Prof. Yitzhak Twersky, who dedicated a substantial part of his scholarly work to the study of Rambam. Both scholars combined an extensive knowledge of rabbinic literature, with a particular emphasis on Rambam’s halakhic oeuvre, and both drew on their traditional study of rabbinic literature, while utilizing academic tools to broaden their understanding and analysis of Rambam’s works. Further, while their scholarship stringently obeyed academic guidelines and rules, their relationship to this knowledge was not “academic” in the sense of complete detachment from their subject. They both led lives deeply committed to the demands of halakha, both of them had a keen interest in the moral and ethical values found in Maimonidean literature, and both of them demonstrated true and honest humility in their daily lives, particularly shielding their acts of hesed from the eyes of even those close to them. And both used their gift of speech with precision and restraint as emphasized in Hazal and Rambam. The coincidence of all of these elements is not frequently found among academic scholars.

Jerry left a rich and inspiring legacy which will continue to reverberate among students of halakha and Jewish thought, and among all those who seek an informed, sophisticated, and deeper understanding of Torah.

Carmi Horowitz received semikha at Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. at Harvard University. His academic career in Israel was spent teaching Jewish philosophy and intellectual history at Ben Gurion University, Bar Ilan University, Touro College, and Michlalah Jerusalem College. 

Abraham Feintuch

My dear friend Yaakov (Jerry) Blidstein passed away on the 21st day of Elul, after a long illness which slowly eroded both his motor skills and cognitive abilities. We had studied Gemara together daily for over forty years until his illness progressed to a point where we had to stop. During the last weeks that we learned together it occurred to me that neither the Torah nor Hazal describe the feelings of the people when Moshe Rabbenu shattered the Luhot and they saw the “otiot porhot be-avir,” the letters flying to the heavens. Jerry’s death took place in the week of Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh, which contains the last of the positive commandments given to Bnei Yisrael, the obligation to write a Sefer Torah. To me Jerry was a walking Sefer Torah – the embodiment of the Torah in a living person – and in those last weeks I felt that I was seeing before me the “otiot” of his Torah leaving him and flying heavenward.

Prof. Blidstein’s academic standing speaks for itself. Suffice it to say that he was the first faculty member of Ben Gurion University to be awarded the Israel Prize and to be elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences. His over 170 publications cover virtually all Rabbinic writings from the Midrashei Halakha, through the Talmudim, Geonic literature, Rishonim and Ahronim, dealing  in depth with both Halakha and Aggada. In particular he made a seminal contribution to the study of the thought of our teacher the Rav, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l. The small sample of his work (15 articles) which appeared in Tradition reflects the elegance of expression and depth of analysis that are common to all his writings.

Jerry’s academic achievements were augmented by his ability as a Lamdan. Jerry was a talmid muvhak of the Rav and the weekly Gemara shiur that he gave in our Beit Knesset was no less challenging than his scholarly lectures. It is important to point out that from his perspective the Beit Midrash and the Academy complemented each other and each supplied useful tools for the understanding of Torah, to which he dedicated his life. 

While his work covered every facet of Rabbinic literature from Hazal to modern thinkers, halakha and agadda, Rambam’s Mishneh Torah was his major focus. He wrote four books on different sections of Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Melachim, Hilkhot Tefillah, Hilkhot Mamrim and Hilkhot Talmud Torah. What is common to all of them is the strong synthesis between the lamdanut of the yeshiva and the methods of academic scholarship. The integration of the two is so complete that if one ignores the footnotes it would be extremely difficult to discern the passage from one methodology from the other. In fact, many of his “hiddushim” could be presented equally at a shiur in the yeshiva and at an academic conference. I would like to mention one (from among many) aspects of this synthesis which appears in his work on the Rambam. His first major work on Mishneh Torah was his Hebrew volume, Political Concepts in Maimonidean Halakhah on Hilkhot Melakhim (1983, and in a revised edition in 2003). I remember multiple conversations we had about various topics discussed in the book. He was especially enthusiastic about chapter 5: “HaMelekh veha-Mishpat” where he discusses at length an idea of the Or Sameah, or, as he is referred to in the text, R. Meir Simcha. He took great pleasure in transmitting the hiddush from the Beit Midrash into the halls of Academia. 

Jerry and I prayed in the same Beit Knesset and he dedicated many hours to the shiurim that he delievred there, which  were always extremely well-prepared and eloquently presented. They also reflected his unique ability to discuss a complex halakhic sugya in his Talmud shiur, and then to explore the depths of Parshat Bereshit with Rashi in one of his other shiurim (in this he was a talmid muvhak of the Rav). His talent as a darshan shone alongside his outstanding ability as a lamdan. In particular his drashot on the opening night of Selihot or before tekiyat shofar on Rosh Hashana inspired the entire kehillah. The connection between the tefilla of Hannah in the Haftara and the sounding of the Shofar (to take just one example from many) took on new meaning for us in his unique presentation.

In addition to his role as an exemplary teacher of Torah, Jerry also played the role of the community’s conscience. I recall very clearly an incident that occurred during our first years in Beer Sheva. A member of the Kehilla was stricken by a degenerative muscle disease which ultimately proved fatal. We were a young community, this was the first time we were confronted with such a situation, and we were not sure how to assist the family in its time of trouble. Around that time the Beit Knesset held its annual membership meeting which dealt with all the standard, mundane issues. Then Jerry asked for the floor and said (more or less) the following: All the issues being discussed are important and should be dealt with. But there is a more significant task before us, and that is to organize the community to assist the family confronted with this crisis. His words woke us all up and the community immediately took action.

A footnote: Jerry spent countless hours visiting the sick man, and I once asked him “what do you talk about for so many hours?” He told me they played chess together. This was typical for Jerry. He found a dignified solution for human dilemmas that I always found perplexing. 

This is just one story that illustrates Jerry’s strong sense of humanity. He also appreciated this quality in others, above everything else. I visited him the day that the well-known Israeli author Amos Oz passed away. Oz had taught Hebrew Literature at our university, and apparently Jerry had a personal relationship with him. By this time Jerry was quite ill, and communicated very little. As I sat down next to him he turned to me and said “Amos Oz died. He was a real mensch.” I said to myself “it takes one to know one.” This was one of the last coherent sentences I was privileged to hear from him and it was important to me that it reflected a fundamental aspect of his personality. 

I consider it a great kindness that was bestowed upon me by God that I was allowed to spend most of my adult years in his company. יהי זכרו ברוך

Abie Feintuch, a graduate of Yeshiva College and REITS (1967), is a Professor (Emeritus) of Mathematics at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

[Published on October 5, 2020]

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