(photo credit: The Institute for Jewish Studies in the CIS)
In 1965 when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz embarked on his monumental task to make the Babylonian Talmud accessible to everyone he was sharply criticized by conservative elements within Judaism.
It was pure audacity for a 28-year-old Israeli who had grown up in a secular home in Jerusalem to think that he could change the way Jews had been learning Talmud for centuries, Steinsaltz's detractors said.
Steinsaltz had the Chutzpah to change the format of the pages and place his own explanation of the 1,500-year-old text written in modern, colloquial Hebrew on the same page with the authoritative glosses written by Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Yitzhaki, aka Rashi.
Compounding Steinsaltz's perceived hubris was his use of contemporary scientific findings in the fields of archeology and linguistics to elucidate the difficult texts in a blasphemous union of the profane and the sacred.
For some elements in the haredi community Steinsaltz's impudence was too much to stomach. His Talmud was banned.
But nearly 45 years later, as the 73-year-old Steinsaltz prepares to finish his colossal work at the end of next year, rabbis, scholars and teachers of the Talmud recognize that Steinsaltz has made an incredible contribution to Jewish learning.
"It seems to me that many many people must ask forgiveness of Rabbi Steinsaltz, who is a real pioneer in this field [of providing easy-to-understand versions of the Talmud]," Rabbi Rafi Kadosh, a teacher at the religious Zionist high school Nativ Meir wrote in a recent article in Makor Rishon.
"Rabbi Steinsaltz was the trailblazer for the many elucidated editions of the Talmud that have been produced since he first began to do it. There is a consensus today that this was a positive development."
Kadosh debated with other rabbis whether it was right from an educational perspective to use Steinsaltz's easy-to-read Talmud with high school students. Some educators argued that students should not be spoon fed and should be forced to hone their text-reading skills by struggling to decipher Talmudic texts that are peppered with Aramaic and are often written in super-condensed form, with intricate and complex arguments.
Other rabbis argued that it was important to make the basic meaning of the Talmud accessible to more students. At a later stage, after achieving an adequate level of proficiency, students could grapple with the Talmudic texts.
The consensus seems to be in favor of incorporating Steinsaltz's Talmud, which can be found in the vast majority of religious Zionist yeshivot. In contrast, the opposite is true in most haredi yeshivot, where Steinsaltz is shunned.
On December 9 of this year Steinsaltz will produce tractate Niddah, which deals with the laws a married woman must adhere to during menstruation.
Niddah will be the next-to-last Talmudic tractate making up the series.
On November 7, 2010, Hulin, which deals with the laws of slaughtering animals, will be the last Talmud tractate in the Steinsaltz series. Ceremonies celebrating the event will be held around the world.
Besides his Talmud project, Steinsaltz has managed to find the time over the years to write over a dozen additional books on a wide range of subjects, from a detective novel to a book on Jewish identity to explanations of Chabad's mystical thought. He also has set up an educational network in Israel, the Former Soviet Union and North America.
Perhaps Steinsaltz's creative, innovative approach to teaching Judaism has something to do with his eclectic background. Under the influence of his socialist Zionist father Avraham, Steinsaltz read Lenin and Freud before his bar mitzvah, according to a Time magazine article on Steinsaltz in 1988, the year he was at the half-way point in his Talmudic endeavor and was the recipient of the Israel Prize.
But Avraham also saw to it that little Adin was tutored in Talmud and attended a religious high school, so that even if he became a heretic, at least he would not be an ignoramus.
Many would say that the Jewish scholarly world is better place as a result.