Steinsaltz on life in technicolor and the vitality of messianism

Prolific scholar speaks about the chief rabbinate, Reform Judaism, and Jewish extremism ahead of Pesach.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Decrying pomposity and “frozen decorum,” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his Passover message this year argues that innovation and novel interpretation at the Seder night is an ideal, and that the text of the Haggada cries out for participants to proffer their own input and understanding.
This exhortation for a dynamic approach to Jewish life is entirely typical of a man who has spent his years writing on every aspect of Judaism, disseminating knowledge – Jewish and otherwise – in various educational networks and producing his monumental elucidation of the entire Babylonian Talmud.
Ahead of Passover, the renowned rabbi discussed with The Jerusalem Post some of the issues currently facing the Jewish state, including social justice activism, the Chief Rabbinate, Jewish extremism and messianism, giving his frequently nonconformist positions on these matters.
Sitting in his office, puffing intermittently on his trademark pipe, Steinsaltz sets out his stall for independent thinking by stating clearly that when reading a newspaper, which he does on a regular basis, “the first thing to do is assume everything there is a lie unless otherwise proven.”
And similarly, he refuses in everything he does to accept a simple narrative over what he insists is the highly complex reality the State of Israel finds itself in.
Addressing calls to social activism, which abound ahead of Passover, the rabbi expressed skepticism about the goals and perspectives of such campaigners, saying they rarely appreciate the broader picture.
“You want to help people on the one hand but you need to see the whole picture as well, and when you don’t see it you create an imbalance,” he observed, in reference to those championing rights for the country’s African asylum-seekers.
The rabbi says, very unfashionably, that “you should first care for your own people and then for others, and care for others only in exceptional cases,” asking why social activists do not tend to the Israeli poor in southern Tel Aviv living alongside the large asylum-seeker community there.
At the same time, he doesn’t deny the need to do more in life than the precise requirements of religious practice, and says that the “do-gooders,” as he terms them, are indeed doing good.
“These people do merciful things and compassionate things,” he says.
Yet he insists, by way of a reference to Lord of the Rings and the struggles of the novel’s protagonists who come in between the purely good and the purely evil, that the world is nevertheless complex and defies simplicity.
“So who’s right? They’re partially right and partially not right. Black and white are wonderful colors. But both of them are not simple, and what should you do with the other colors?” As a rabbi and educator, the place of the rabbinate, in its non-established form, in Jewish life is something Steinsaltz has been talking about for many years, and it is something he views as also requiring a dynamism and the ability to adapt to changing times.
“In our times a rabbi is far more a pastor than a religious authority,” he said. “Rabbis used to be called mara a’atra, master of the place, and so a rabbi should care for all the problems of his congregants,” he continued, saying that knowing about a neglected child in the community and dealing with the problem is as much the concern of a rabbi as is Shabbat observance.
To become such a figure, Steinsaltz continues, he “should therefore have a PhD, then he should have been at least a colonel in the IDF in a combat unit, and then good looking, then a wonderfully good speaker, and then he could possibly be a rabbi,” he says with a chuckle.
“He should also be a Torah scholar,” the rabbi adds as an aside.
“So when we try to get a rabbi we need to try to get something the community needs most. So if we want to appoint a spiritual leader we don’t want him to tell us about politics. We want him to tell us about right and wrong, or what to do and what not to do.”
About the established Chief Rabbinate, Steinsaltz is rather dismissive.
“I don’t know who obeys the chief rabbi. Possibly his wife, perhaps, I don’t know, I didn’t check?” he said mischievously.
“Who obeys the Chief Rabbinate? You obey either a local rabbi, or your own rabbi, or someone you’re connected with,” he continued, pointing to the political nature of the elections to the body as a key weakness.
Asked about the latest vexation of the chief rabbinate, and the religious establishment in general, that of the proposed state-mandated pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall, Steinzaltz critiques both the premise of the plan itself and those fighting against it.
On the one hand, he says it is is illogical for the haredi leadership to fight so hard against such a prayer section since they see no intrinsic value in the state itself, and that they should therefore not be concerned as to what the state gives its imprimatur.
The only people it should bother, he says, is the national-religious community, since it is both Orthodox, which he says precludes pluralism, and sees the state as part the “final redemption.”
As to the purpose of the new prayer section itself, Steinzaltz is a definite skeptic. 
After deploying the disclaimer that he is personally close with several Reform rabbis, he cast doubt on the very theological foundations of the Reform Movement.
“Is Reform Judaism any form of religion?” he asks earnestly. “I’m not sure, I don’t know. What are their holy books and who are their prophets and what are the tenets of their faith?
“The Reform movement decided many years ago that it doesn’t have any kind of faith. If you don’t have tenets of belief, this is right and this is not right, then you just have some customs.”
Aside from the numerous conflicts surrounding religious identity in the country, that of Jewish extremism, although he framed it more as a problem of human characteristics and psychology than a religious problem.
Jumping in before a question is even asked, he argues that the so-called “hilltop youth” – young, religious radicals living in outposts and often accused of acts of violence against Palestinians – are not extreme because they are religious but extreme simply because they are inherently extremists.
“The hilltop youth don’t obey anyone, not rabbis, or [hassidic] rebbes, or the state or anyone. They are real anarchists. Anarchists used to bomb and kill world leaders in the 19th century. A number of presidents and kings were killed at that time, and those anarchists didn’t get approval from a chief rabbi or a patriarch or the pope.”
He goes a step further, likening the “price-tag” phenomenon to the human rights organization B’Tselem.
“They’re basically the same thing. The only law they obey is their own feelings.”
He says though that taking revenge, the essence of the “price-tag” attacks, is problematic in terms of Jewish law, saying the Torah prohibits taking revenge, which should be left to God.
He nevertheless expressed a certain liking for those who are more zealous in nature.
“In someway they are more delightful as people,” he observes, although asserts that this does not necessarily connote approval of their actions or of their failure to see beyond the monochrome to the full-spectrum of complexity he praised earlier.
“Some are fools and some are idiots. It happens. But the people in the middle are not in the middle because they are more considerate or are thinking more. People in the middle don’t have the courage or the will or the fire to do anything else, so they walk in the middle and hope they wont be hurt.”
Steinsaltz also disapproves of the label of “messianic” often appended to the radical Right, arguing the very essence of Zionism itself is messianic, combined however with “a very deep urge for complete assimilation.”
The word has been dirtied, he said, despite the fact that Jews pray for the coming of the Messiah every day, several times a day.
“You can go after a false messiah, which is something different. The fault is not in messianism but in following the wrong path. It’s a different mistake,” he noted. “My father went to work with his hands in the Land of Israel. What was that? A desire to build the future. He didn’t go to America to be a taxi driver. This country was built by messianism, and this is what has upheld it. People give their lives for doing something. I think it’s a good quality not a bad quality.”
The dynamism Steinsaltz sees in messianic ardor is perhaps another facet of the innovation he lauded in his Passover message, and most likely part of his incredible drive for accomplishment and achievement, which has been expressed in his prolific output of religious literature over his lifetime.
And the aspiration towards the ultimate Jewish future illuminates this same message, as he concludes by saying that at the Seder, the Jewish people renew their connection with each other, “recall the past, give thanks for God’s goodness, grieve over misfortune and anticipate the future redemption.”