We shall not see his like. Noster Gaius to his students of Roman law. A true pontifex maximus - a master builder of bridges - to those who followed his bridging of Rabbinic Judaism to New Testament Christianity. A scholar who could examine and defend and celebrate Tamar and Esther, Judas and Paul. The lineal descendant of a medieval martyr, Maharam, and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and the professor-director of the Hebraic Collection of the Robbins Library at Boalt Hall in California.
He did not seek riches or power but understanding. And because his understanding illuminated so many puzzles and perplexities and paradoxes he had the power of one who teaches with authority, and the riches of honors came to him honorary degrees, for example, from Oxford and from Cambridge and from Paris and one he had to decline because of his health, from Harvard; and honored lectureships at London and at Uppsala and at Jerusalem and, what he prized most, at Edinburgh in the form of the Gifford Lectures. He stood astride several worlds, bridging not only those of Jews and Christians but those of law and classics, the humanities and hermeneutics, medical ethics and theology. Always he gave of his learning to his colleagues and to his students and most notably to those chosen disciples who have carried on his work in Athens (GA) and Ithaca (NY) and Durham (NC) and Cambridge and Edinburgh and Liverpool (UK) and Jerusalem.
At the core of his commitments were the values of the Orthodoxy in which he had been nurtured. I number them, first, as respect for the text - no commentary, no paraphrase, no dictionary as substitute for study of the text itself; second, friendship for the offbeat and the person deemed not significant - Helen recalls the friends he made with the homeless at his doorstep in North Beach and the chess players at the Trieste; I recall the democracy of his dinners and the diplomacy with which he shifted the seating of his guests; third, reverence for people and places and books that smacked of the holy; to these the music in his soul responded - not for him any easy skepticism or cheap cynicism or supercilious disdain for the bearers of faith; to the student,, the seeker, the doubter - to them his heart went out. From that foundation set by his studies he approached Jesus as a Jew; from that foundation he understood the words "In my Father's house there are many mansions."
David did not for himself proclaim a faith unless by his chosen vocation he silently evidenced his convictions. He once paraphrased for me in English some lines of Rilke that he said spoke for him: the poet had compared himself to a bird flying around a tower, uncertain where to land and unwilling to fly elsewhere; so
he, David, was the bird and the tower, God. In looking yesterday for the exact words of the poet I found (providentially as it seemed to me) others that evoke David by their abruptness, their mystery, their references to a generous gesture, to the importance of breathing, and to the swiftly shifting, daring perspectives of birds. They are from Rilke's First Duino Elegy:
Do you not know yet? Cast out of your arms the emptiness
To broaden the spaces that we breathe - maybe the birds
Will feel the widened air with a more fervent flight.