In search of the truth: A wide-ranging profile of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar most recently inveighed against Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, arguing that any interpretation of the Talmud hinders its study.

RABBI ADIN Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz. (photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
RABBI ADIN Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz.
(photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
‘Rabbi Steinsaltz once told me that the most important question in life is ‘Then what?’ “You get married, then what? You do a good deed, then what? The outcome, what is left after we take action, is the paramount question we ask ourselves,” says Steinsaltz’s student Rabbi Pinchas Allouche.
Recently, Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz, one of the most important rabbinic figures today, turned 80. He established and led yeshivot, was the rabbi of the Tzemah Tzedek Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, and authored several books. However, his most remarkable achievement is translating and commenting on the entire Talmud.
“Talmudic literature is very difficult to penetrate,” says Hillel Levine, an old friend of the rabbi and a former professor of sociology and religion at Boston and Yale universities. “Steinsaltz made the Talmud accessible, or at least much more accessible, not only to Jewish people, but to everyone. That the Talmud became part of the great classics of human civilization is thanks to him. There is no question about it.”
A year ago, Makor Rishon included Rabbi Steinsaltz in its People of the Year list. In the short segment on him, after describing his accomplishments and contributions, reporter Mendi Grossman wrote: “Did the fact that he devoted all his might to the world of literature prevent Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael from being an active participant in the Jewish life of our generation? His brilliance, thoughtfulness, originality and articulate manner should have attracted a large fan base and his intellectual opinions should have been echoed on every issue. That didn’t happen. And for the rest of us, that should be his next project.”
In the past 50 years, many hoped Steinsaltz would have taken more responsibility on his shoulders. His vast knowledge, openness and insight into so many different worlds made people believe he could mend society’s wounds. He never fulfilled this promise. Despite how venerated he became, he was uninterested in leading crowds and only rarely expressed his political views. But his intellectual and political opinions and his less familiar sides can carefully be teased out of his writings and stories of his friends and family.
POSSIBLY THE most prolific commentator of our time, famous for his sardonic humor and uncompromising intellect, he is unable to write or speak today, due to health complications. He is only capable of “subtracting.”
“What do you mean by ‘subtracting?’” I asked his second-born and eldest son, Menachem (Meni) Even Yisrael, as he showed me his father’s office in the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
“My dad meticulously rereads his yet-to-be-published manuscripts and deletes superfluous words or even commas.”
In his modest office, surrounded by books, sitting at a messy table, a glass of orange juice to his left and a computer to his right, his father, the white-bearded Steinsaltz, hovers over sheets of paper and books. His tongue is too heavy to eloquently pronounce words, but his eyes and cheeky smile still reflect his astuteness.
Asked what it was like to be raised by his father, Even Yisrael responds: “It wasn’t easy. There was always an underlying expectation that I couldn’t meet.
“If you ask my sister or my brother they will give you different answers. Each of us had to obey different rules. My dad didn’t go so much to pray in a minyan. Perhaps for minha [afternoon prayer service] sometimes. But on Shabbat morning, no matter what, we had to be at the Tzemah Tzedek Synagogue in the Old City.”
The Steinsaltz family still resides in the same house in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. The rabbi’s wife, Sarah, comes from one of the first Chabad families. Her late brother, Rabbi Shmuel Azimov, was the chief Chabad emissary in France. “He changed the country entirely,” says Even Yisrael. “He turned Chabad into an empire there.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz himself is also a follower of Chabad and “had a personal relationship with Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” says his son. “Yet he was also a nonconformist who paved his own path. We weren’t devoted to the cause. We didn’t talk about it that much at home. We studied hassidism, but that was most of it. My siblings and I were educated in a mix of Chabad and non-Chabad institutions. My dad didn’t wear the distinctive Chabad outfit everywhere.
“One of the strongest childhood memories I have is of walking with him on Eastern Parkway. He told me, ‘I’m not ready to see the Rebbe yet,’ but it so happened that the Rebbe was leaving his home and when he spotted us, he asked my dad over. I remember that they spoke, perhaps about the [disputed] territories or about a quote from some book, and I could tell from my dad’s body language that he was speaking to someone who was above him. At the same time, the Rebbe spoke to him as an equal.
“When my brother was brought up, the house was adorned more heavily in Chabad fashion. I was a Chabad emissary in Virginia and the relationship with the organization became clearer. Still, we maintained the behaviors of the previous generation. We didn’t call up the Rebbe with every single question asking for permission on various matters when it’s unneeded.”
IN 1994, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died, Rabbi Steinsaltz was going through surgery. For the funeral, he sent his son to Brooklyn in his stead. Reporting back, Even Yisrael said, “The more intellectual folks said the Rebbe is gone but there are crazy people out in the streets, messianic nutcases who think he is still alive. To say that my dad is uncomfortable with this side of Chabad today is an understatement.
“I myself think that the messianic followers, those who insist the Rebbe is still alive, are a problem. For over 2,000 years whenever false prophets told the Jewish people that the messiah has already arrived it caused problems. There is an esoteric midrash that says Isaac died while in the binding. That he died for the sins of his generation. The belief that one person can repent for the sins of all generations was adopted by others.
“My dad believed that the Rebbe was a light of that generation, with the potential to be the Messiah in his generation but not after his passing. We call this ‘Be’hezkat Mashi’ah She’bador.’ [‘As the messiah in his generation’]”
Asked why his father never became a prominent leader in the Chabad organization, Even Yisrael said, “He never wanted to. He has his own way of going about things. His yeshiva isn’t a Chabad yeshiva per se. We do study Chabad Torah, but also the Torah of the Kotzker Rebbe [Menachem Mendel of Kotzk]. Makor Haim, my dad’s yeshiva, encourages people to study many things, not only one narrow interpretation of our tradition. Those who opposed my father always used his Chabad affiliation against him. But he was never a complete part of the movement. The Chabad leadership has its own needs and my dad never played ball with them.
“It’s true that my dad became religious through Chabad. However, it’s more complex than that. First, even though he grew up in a secular family, he went to a religious school and his communist father, a member of Lehi, my grandfather, told him to study Talmud. It was a different generation then – secular people were still well-versed in the Jewish canon.”
RABBI STEINSALTZ is strictly Orthodox, but unlike many rabbis in Israel today, he never preached cultural exclusivity. He is outstandingly knowledgeable on science, philosophy, literature and history, and isn’t afraid of academic or outside influences. Steinsaltz once even mentioned in an interview that he penned a science-fiction novel, but has no intention of publishing it.
“Growing up,” says Even Yisrael, “he read the Torah with me every night, but the moment I was able to swallow books on my own I was encouraged to also read [the French children’s comic-book series] Asterix. At home we learned that good education meant reading everything. We read science fiction. In fact, Isaac Asimov, the famous Jewish-American science fiction author, is a third cousin of my mom, and one of the strongest childhood memories I have is of watching Les Misérables in the theater. At home, my sister, brother and I were exposed to a wide spectrum of people and faiths: left-wingers, right-wingers, priests, rabbis – all were guests at our house.”
IN THE past few years the Steinsaltz Center hosted a series of lectures. The list of speakers showcased Steinsaltz’s radical pluralism. It includes poets associated with the ‘Mizrahi struggle’, professors who are considered off-the-charts left-wingers, a rainbow of male and female rabbis, an MK whose main issue is allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, and even an Arab journalist.
In years past, many saw Steinsaltz as a person capable of bridging different worlds. He is respected across the sectarian divides of Israeli society.
Hillel Levine, who has been a friend of Steinsaltz since the late 1960s, met him when he was a graduate student affiliated with the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.
“My friends, the secular ones, looked up to him as a source of information and inspiration – a true Jewish intellectual knowledgeable on almost everything. He was a big man on a campus that housed some of the greatest political scientists of that time. What was impressive about him wasn’t only that he knew so much, but also his insight into the lives of people like myself and other seculars.”
Not everyone agrees
Rabbi Steinsaltz also attracted opposition. At 27 years of age, he began his mighty project of translating and commentating on the Talmud in order to make the ancient debates friendlier to as many people as possible. In a quite unorthodox way, he divided each page of the Talmud into two and reordered it in a more comprehensible fashion. In response, some rabbis, such as the Grand Satmar Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum and Rabbi Elazar Shach, made bold statements that went as far as accusing him of heresy.
In the Steinsaltz camp, people believe that the campaign against him wasn’t innocent. In a documentary about Steinsaltz, named Yatza Sod (A Secret Revealed) it is mentioned that competing Talmud publishers paid over $250 million to Lithuanian rabbis to persuade them to denounce him and his books. The truthfulness of this heavy charge was never proven.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar most recently inveighed against Steinsaltz, arguing that any interpretation of the Talmud hinders its study.
“His claim,” says Even Yisrael, “is that my father’s edition trains students to be lazy since the Talmud is served up already digested to them and they don’t need to struggle with the text. My father’s editions aren’t meant to serve those who study in the yeshiva eight hours a day, but for those who don’t, who otherwise wouldn’t have the tools to comprehend this text.”
ANOTHER ASPECT of Steinsaltz’s work that intimidates parts of the ultra-Orthodox world is his uncompromising intellectual honesty.
“The Talmud speaks of every topic in the world. It mentions dragons, demons, ghosts and sex. It asks questions like, ‘Did King David sin?’ This is a real debate. We also have biblical stories that many people want to skip. There are two stories of creation in the Book of Genesis and there is the disturbing episode of Lot sleeping with both his daughters. How do you explain that to children?
“Some are afraid of what the Jewish corpus has to offer. We are not. We are also not afraid of making links to other cultures. The story of Samson, of a hero using his physical strength in the service of his nation, begs a comparison to the story of Hercules. I don’t think that we should hide what we know.”
A year ago, Steinsaltz uploaded a short article to his blog in which he compared Jewish messianic and political movements to ISIS. He didn’t point a finger toward a specific rabbi or movement, only wrote that “those attempting to bring the messiah right here and right now, and are trying to do so using blood, fire and smoke are only postponing the arrival of the messiah.” His son guesses who he might be speaking of but prefers not to go into details.
“These [the fanatics] are people who would bomb al-Aksa Mosque tomorrow morning should their leaders tell them to. Fanatics don’t ask questions. They simply follow the commands of their supreme leader.
We, on the other hand, believe that there is only one perfect thing, that is God, and we critically contemplate God’s actions as well.”
Levine, an admirer of Rabbi Steinsaltz for many years, asked him in the late 1980s to seriously consider the influence of people like Rabbi Meir Kahane, who preached revenge and violence.
“Steinsaltz was very open to other religions. I never heard him justify any action against Arabs or Muslims. He always demanded a high level of earnestness and hated hypocrisy. I – and not only I – hoped he could be a great integrator of worlds, that he could anticipate the escalation of the conflict and take a stand. He is a person people listen to. I begged him to speak to both sides, to gather together yeshiva students to defuse the tensions and protest calls for violence and revenge. He never listened. He didn’t take a clear stand on these matters. It’s hard for me to understand why he was evasive, and his yeshiva is now in a settlement.”
ACCORDING TO his son, the decision to establish the yeshiva in Tekoa, some 20 minutes outside Jerusalem and beyond the 1967 Green Line, wasn’t a political one.
“We needed a place, the State of Israel offered it, and the financial aspect was a key factor. If I could, I’d move it to Jerusalem in a heartbeat. We are not a rich institution. Book publishing isn’t a lucrative business. Our aims – both personally and as an institution – aren’t political. Our enterprise is about commentary, about knowledge.
“My dad thinks that without Jewish knowledge there is no going forward. Our Jewishness today was shaped by the Talmud, not the Bible. As my father says: ‘If the Bible is God’s word to man, the Talmud is man’s response to God.’ No other Jewish work has contributed more to the development, longevity and success of the Jewish people.
“Therefore his chief interest is to make our canon approachable, comprehensible and clear. He published editions of the Talmud, Mishna, the entire 24 books of the Bible, of Maimonides’s books. Now we want to make them available online. Toward that end, we cooperate with the 929 Project [reading through the Bible], and with Sefaria, the largest free library of Jewish texts available to read online. Our motto is “let my people know” and our hope is to find a Jewish family that will pick up the gauntlet and back a reprinting of all of our books.”
An independent way
Pinchas Allouche, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was a student of Rabbi Steinsaltz from an early age and is now heading the Beth Tefillah Congregation in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona.
“Rabbi Steinsaltz,” he says, “is a different kind of leader. He creates leaders... He doesn’t want students who stick to him like flies. I think this is very rare in the yeshiva world.
“He isn’t a conventional person. He isn’t trying to be loved and he can be very harsh. One time a Chabad emissary and his group came to him without prearranging a meeting and asked him to speak. The rabbi answered, ‘I’m not a monkey in a zoo that is told to jump up and down.’
“Another time, a person famous for his voice visited his synagogue. He was invited to lead musaf [the additional service recited on Shabbat]. After he sang, he came up the rabbi bragging and asked, ‘How did you find my singing?’ The rabbi relied, ‘It stank like a skunk.’ That person’s friend tried to appeal to the rabbi and said, ‘Perhaps he prayed with his heart and soul.’ The rabbi didn’t hesitate in his response: ‘In the entire animal kingdom the only animal that can stand the smell of the skunk is another skunk.’
“He is a real truth-seeker. The truth guides him. He is always straightforward, even if there is a diplomatic cost to it. He hates indifference and laziness. In 1991 he spoke to the entire Chabad leadership. He offered an unpleasantly rough critique of their activism. To this very day, some of those who were there are still appalled.”