British Association of Jewish Studies Bulletin:
David Daube, 1909-1999
Note: The editor has asked me for a personal memoir, rather than a conventional obituary. Readers may be interested to see some fine examples in the latter genre (particularly, that of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, first published in The Independent), together with other tributes by family and friends, on a web site maintained at the University of California Law School, Berkeley (Boalt Hall), at http://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/daube/
My first acquaintance with David Daube was through reading his Studies in Biblical Law during my LL.B. in Liverpool. I was contemplating a research degree. The choice was between sociology of law and the history of Jewish law. Imagine the contrast between the turgid prose of the sociologists and the immediacy, excitement and humour of Daube's book. It was no contest.
On any objective criterion, he should never have taken me on. I had failed to get the top degree that was demanded; my Jewish educational background was limited and traditional (an evening boy at the local yeshiva). But Daube was not to be deterred by such conventional considerations. Nor did he insist on rigorous or systematic remedial measures: during the first term of supervision (Autumn 1965), I wrote (at my own suggestion) a series of essays on early Jewish history, notable only for their banality and reliance on secondary sources. Daube tolerated this, gradually easing me into a more critical approach.
By the end of the first term, he decided that I should move on to the substance of the thesis (on the early Jewish law of theft). I still felt painfully under-equipped. For Daube, however, research training meant learning on the job. For two years, I submitted material on a weekly or fortnightly basis. As was his normal pattern with research students, he would invite me for lunch at All Souls, then spend most of the rest of the afternoon analysing and criticising my work line by line. No more intense or productive supervision could be imagined. I owe everything I may have done subsequently to this foundation. Alan Watson has recorded his enduring sense of fear of disappointing Daube in approaching these sessions. My own recollection is that of the feeling with which I always emerged. However devastating the criticism may have been — and never without justification — Daube always concluded with sincere and persuasive words of encouragement, which made me ready, even eager, to commence the next cycle of destruction.
He was a warm, wise and generous mentor, whose support went far beyond doctoral supervision and subsequent academic advancement. He did not distance himself from the personal lives of his pupils, both in joy and sorrow. He spoke at the wedding of Rosalyn and myself in Liverpool in 1967, but what stands out in my mind is not merely the studied flattery of his speech, but the manner in which he spoke informally to members of our respective families, without a hint of condescension but rather with genuine interest and human feeling. Perhaps it was his pre-war experience that left him with the understanding that life existed outside academic circles. He continued throughout the years to take an interest in my family; I recall with particular affection a lunch he gave for us at the Berkeley City Club in 1992.
This is not the place to attempt any overall appreciation of his scholarly publications. The three Festschriften published in honour of his 65th birthday in 1974 — in Jewish law, Roman law, and New Testament — are eloquent testimony in themselves. His writings in Jewish law were characterised by sensitivity to both narrative and linguistic detail; though not a theoretician, his work always seemed to me to exemplify some of the most interesting modern developments in linguistics and the philosophy of language. His early works, in particular, will remain classics: Studies in Biblical Law (1947); The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (1956); The Exodus Pattern in the Bible (1963), Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law (1964). For Daube, there were no artificial distinctions between law and narrative, law and theology, ancient law and contemporary experience. There was also a myriad of stimulating articles (a start has been made in collecting them, under the editorship of Calum Carmichael); I will mention just one: "He That Cometh", which for years I have reread annually before the seder service (and frequently invoked, in explaining the Afikoman).
No one could possibly be bored by either a lecture or a book of Daube: his voice and characteristic intonations echo through his writings. Rarely can such sophisticated literary knowledge and analysis have been matched by so direct, easily accessible yet elegant a writing style (and this, of course, in a second language).
Daube took pride in tracing his scholarly ancestry through the generations of Roman law scholars. In turn, he has founded a school of Jewish Jurisprudence. The first generation, trained before he left Oxford, includes Reuven Yaron, Edward Gershfield, Stephen Passamaneck, Calum Carmichael and myself. By the time of his death, he already had academic grandchildren occupying positions of distinction in both Israel and the United States.