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I had been learning from Jim for 17 years. He created a Talmud study circle that met weekly at 7:45 a.m. on Tuesdays in the beit midrash of the Center for Jewish Life. It was there that I saw him for the first time, surrounded by Princeton University faculty and staff, leading a discussion on a text from Tractate Shabbat on what books one is permitted to carry from a burning library on the Sabbath. Books are alive, and when they are threatened with extinction it is most fortunate if someone comes along to rescue them. Jim was such a person. He revived books for those of us fortunate enough to study with him.
The study circle enlarged over the years, migrating to the larger rectangular table of the library. And when Jim retired, it moved to the conference table in the Center for the Study of Religion, and eventually to the Princeton Jewish Center.
For me, and for many others, the most important motivation to show up at the table was to be with Jim. He honored me by including me in more intimate study sessions, including the one that he was leaving on Thursday morning.
After his death, four of us gathered before dawn on March 30 to participate in shomrim, the guarding of the body. I brought along a folder containing copies of some of the texts that we had studied with Jim. I was drawn especially to a teaching of R’Chanina — “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven.” This text suggests that we have no choice as to whether we will be tall or smart or healthy; but it is up to each individual whether he or she is humbled and in awe when contemplating Adonai.
I wish Jim were here to wrestle with this text. There is a big hole in the world, and there is a war inside me between awe and fury that such an inexplicable and random act could wreak such damage.
When Jim retired from the Center for Jewish Life, I gave him a big hug and told him that he was one of the few rabbis who had never pissed me off. He beamed and looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m not through with you yet.” He still had so much work to do. For the past several months, he was working on translating a novel by S.Y. Agnon, the Israeli Nobel Laurate, that has not yet been published in English. He had many study partners on a wide range of texts, from talmudic to postmodern.
Jim left us in the middle of a sugya, a talmudic recounting of a rabbinic debate. The Gemara included a teaching that Rav Zutra bar Toviya attributed to Rav: “For one walking on a dark path, if he has a torch in his hand, it is like two were walking on that path.” For me, and, I am sure, for many others, walking with Jim was like walking on a dark path with a torch. May his memory be for a blessing.
Neil Litt is an assistant director of Princeton University Press and a former chair of the National Havurah Committee.
This article was changed to correct the date of the crash which was March 28, not March 26.