More Than the Sum of Our Days

In my family, Gedalyahu Alon is famous for this: It’s a Jerusalem street close enough to the heart of the German Colony that when we rented an apartment there a few years ago, our elementary school-aged children had the heretofore-unimaginable privilege of walking to Emek Refaim all by themselves to get ice cream. Which was amazing. But not quite as amazing as the man for whom the street is named.

Gedalyahu Alon was born in 1901 in Kobryn, Belarussia – according to a census taken the year after his birth, he was among the 8,000 Jews living in a city with a total population of 10,000. At the Lithuanian Mussar Yeshiva in Slobodka, he distinguished himself as an outstanding student and – perhaps more important – became immersed in the school’s emphasis on character-improvement and ethical living (more on this later). He made aliyah in 1926 and joined the inaugural graduating class of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, earning a degree in Talmud and classics in 1931.

While the juxtaposition of talmudic and classical studies may seem odd, the combination was actually at the heart of Gedalyahu Alon’s brilliant contributions to Jewish teaching. He was as learned in rabbinic and Jewish Hellenistic literature as the most vaunted sages, but he was also a master of Greek epics, Roman law, the Christian Bible, and the works of the fathers of the Church. With his comprehensive yeshiva training and his vast knowledge of the classical sources, Gedalyahu Alon was able to engage in uniquely deep, detailed, and complete scholarship on Jewish history, focusing especially on the era of the Second Temple and the periods of the Mishnah and the Talmud. And while Gedalyahu Alon was a prolific and respected author – his numerous papers and articles have been collected and published in several volumes – he remained at heart a teacher, serving as a professor at Hebrew University and leading classes in Talmud and Jewish history until literally the day of his death – March 17, 1950. In 1953, he was posthumously awarded the first Israel Prize in Jewish studies.

Even for those of us not versed in Yevamot and Bava Batra, Homer and Justinian, Gedalyahu Alon remains an inspiration. Here is, for example, his simple and beautiful distillation of the worldview of his Lithuanian yeshiva: Speaking of the inherent conflict in the Talmud’s differing rabbinic opinions, he taught: “[A]cute tension…is counteracted by every shadow of a good thought in the mind and by even the slightest manifestation of kindness – the central point of the creation of the world, the source of man’s nourishment.”

And consider this brief statement, which – like Gedalyahu Alon’s brief life – reminds us that we are more than the sum of our days:

“Man’s every deed,” Gedalyahu Alon taught, “is eternity.”