The person of the Book

After 45 years of effort, Adin Steinsaltz has finally completed his commentary on the Talmud.

After 45 years, it is done. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental Hebrew translation and commentary on the Babylonian Talmud has finally reached its end with the completion of the work on its 45th volume, Tractate Hulin, and hundreds of Jewish communities worldwide will be participating in a day of study celebrating the colossal achievement this Sunday.
It was an arduous journey to make the Talmud accessible that the educator and author, born in 1937 to secular parents, embarked upon in 1965. Prior to that, Steinsaltz had established several schools and became Israel’s youngest principal at the age of 24. His passion for education hasn’t dwindled over the years, and the network of schools he founded here and in the former Soviet Union were part of the reason for his being awarded the Israel Prize in 1988. Steinsaltz has also penned some 60 books on a plethora of topics ranging from Kabbala and theology to zoology and detective novels.
“I write slowly, but I dedicate a lot of time to my writing,” he told The Jerusalem Post in his Jerusalem office while taking a series of draws on his pipe. The patience, skill and painstaking determination Steinsaltz displayed in rekindling his pipe time and again throughout the lengthy conversation conjured up his devotion to “keeping the roads and gates open” to the Talmud, perhaps the most central and at the same time challenging corpus of the Jewish library, a unique creation that reflects Jewish thought in its entirety, encompassing a complex, dialectical take on life, as he put it.
“The Talmud is a strange book. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m rather well read,” he mused. “But it was a creation of the Jewish people that, on the other hand, created the Jewish people. Not all members of the Jewish people are scholars, but it influenced all.” And that, Steinsaltz said, is probably what engendered the notion that the book is the essence of the Jewish people.
“In many ways, some non-Jews were right that it is how we are connected with the core of our being. There were many suspicious of it, but it doesn’t contain secrets. What does it contain?” he asked, and answered: “a way of thinking.”
This is a complexity, a dialectical approach that cannot be framed within a brief and simplistic journalistic headline. Learning Talmud is in fact promoting a complex take on life, Steinsaltz said.
“To almost everything that happens in this world, there is a complexity,” he said, mentioning an article he wrote years ago in which he argued that one of the things that was faulty in the Israeli educational system is that people learn too much Bible and not enough Talmud.
“When you learn Bible year after year, everybody becomes a minor prophet. And that is the way people in Israel are talking. They are not discussing things, they are telling you what the truth is. It is very hard when you have prophets shouting at each other; they can’t get anywhere,” he said.
“Being a prophet is a one-sided thing. But learning Talmud is learning a world of discussion, of dialectics. If people would be trained in dealing with matters in a dialectical way, with two or three opinions, and the Talmud is in so many cases not finished, it leaves an argument afloat – this is the kind of training for seeing and perceiving a different world.
“I’m surely not against the prophets, I’m really very much for them, and not only because of theological reasons. I’m just saying that it’s a matter of being one-sided.”
THE TALMUD OFFERED the world another gift: the notion of sanity, Steinsaltz noted. “As a book, the structure is creating the notion of being sane,” he said, as it contains “ups and downs, high mysticism to minute halachic details. Judaism works together, to have the ups and downs contained.”
To Steinsaltz, it is clear that his commentary need not diminish this complexity, but he is of course aware that not all use it primarily as a vehicle to delve into the deeper layers of the ancient Aramaic texts.
“My work has been in a small way misused,” Steinsaltz said. “It served for many people as a pony, an easy ride. But the real purpose was surely not to make it an easy ride, rather quite the opposite. In all the yeshivot, a huge amount of time and effort is spent on technicality, so you don’t have the time left to deal with anything deeper. And that is what I wanted to help people avoid.
“The same way you don’t want to have a Talmud in a handwritten manuscript, even though it’s a bigger challenge, or to take off the commentary of Rashi, which is of enormous help, the idea is that beyond a certain time you try to cut some of the technical problems.”
And did his commentary help achieve that goal? “In a small way,” Steinsaltz answered. “It could have worked better if people used it more.
For many years it was the book you hid behind your regular Talmud; you used it but didn’t admit to doing so.”
In fact, the senior haredi Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership went as far as to issue a ban on all of Steinsaltz’s work in 1989, for his “audacity” to ease Talmud study away from its traditional form, and his “blasphemous” and “disrespectful” academic approach to biblical figures in a series of publications from earlier that decade.
“It was stored in so many places, almost everywhere.
Everyone needs it, including those who deny using it. Some people can reach the essence of the Talmud more readily with it,” he said, “even within the world of yeshivot. If these in past times were more like graduate schools one entered for advanced study after having the sufficient knowledge, maturity and ability, with time, for a variety of reasons, the yeshivot became more and more [non-scholastic] educational institutions.”
They offered “some kind of structure for young adults, which isn’t to make them into great scholars, rather nice Jewish boys, balabatim [householders].”
Steinsaltz’s commentary is not only helping open different parts of the Jewish world to the Talmud, but also enabling new readings of the Talmud by people and groups who traditionally had less access to the intricate text, according to Dr. Micah Goodman, author of The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed, who teaches Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and is director of the Israeli Academy of Leadership.
“For years the Talmud was an inaccessible book, in a foreign language, with extremely complicated discussions. The sociological meaning of this fact is that only elite scholars had the capabilities and time to invest in it, which created a world of exclusive, unapproachable knowledge.
These books could be read by all, but just not understood,” said Goodman.
“Steinsaltz’s revolution is to democratize the accessibility of this knowledge. Since knowledge means power, once the knowledge is more accessible, a certain elite lost some of its power. This has some implications. Making the Talmud more accessible enables new learners to join the learning, like secular batei midrash or women – it’s hard to imagine this revolution of Jewish study that we’re experiencing in the last 40 years without Steinsaltz’s project.
“But besides the sociological significance, there are intellectual meanings as well. The possible meanings of the Talmud expanded over the years, because the way a woman reads the Talmud is different than that of a man; the way a secular person reads it is different than how a religious person does.
“Steinsaltz’s revolution expanded the circle of readers and enriched the number of readings of the Talmud. And as a result, the Talmud has a larger role in Israeli society today.”
It should come as no surprise that the completion of his Talmud commentary will not leave Steinsaltz without occupation. “I have plans for the next 70-odd years,” he said, citing books to write and educational institutions in which to bolster his involvement.
Steinsaltz’s endeavors to promote Jewish education and values stem in part from a deep concern for the future of the Jewish people. His outreach through making the Talmud accessible is somewhat reminiscent of Chabad’s postwar shift of energy to the shluchim concept. He identifies with Chabad.
“Part of helping is to know what is happening; synagogues are full, but you only see those attending them. The state didn’t become more of a Jewish state after establishment, perhaps less,” he said, noting his connection and ties with every segment of Israeli society. Incidentally and contrary to the widespread belief that he immigrated from Romania or France, Steinsaltz was born here, a self-defined WASP – white Ashkenazi sabra with pioneer parents, he said earlier in the conversation with a twinkle in his bright eyes.
“You can’t force people to do things, but you can keep the roads and gates open,” he said.
“The situation globally is most frightening – the Jewish people are now like an ancient Roman suicide, where a person would enter a hot bath, and cut his wrists. The blood would slowly be pouring out, but you don’t notice.
“That is what the Jewish people are like today; nobody is killing us en masse any more, but as a people we are bleeding enormously all over the world, so when you feel the situation is like this you do whatever you can. Any possibility of smaller healing is my contribution. If I could, I’d sing like an opera singer or dance like an acrobat. What I can do is a bit of writing to try keep the roads open.”