In conversation with Adin Steinsaltz, modern-day sage

“Steinsaltz’s commentaries will live for centuries.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz stands in the library of his yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz stands in the library of his yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
Interviewing Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is intimidating.
“He is a genius of the highest order,” University of Haifa professor Dan Segre declared without hyperbole in a Newsweek article in 1980, when the then-red-haired rabbi was just 42. “Steinsaltz has the sort of mind that comes around only every couple thousand years.”
In a 1983 Washington Post interview, when he was at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study exploring the similarities between the thought structures of modern physics and traditional Judaism, Steinsaltz was likened to one of the greatest commentators of Jewish texts in history.
“The scope of Steinsaltz’s work can only be compared to Rashi,” Michael Berenbaum, director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and professor of religion at George Washington University said at the time. Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki (1040–1105), whose commentary has become an integral and indispensable part of Torah study.
“Steinsaltz’s commentaries will live for centuries.”
The Steinsaltz Institute is located in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood. It is a modern, stately edifice that stands out against the backdrop of the older, dilapidated buildings that surround it.
The agreeable smell of the rabbi’s pipe greets those who enter. Steinsaltz’s son Menachem, who directs Shefa, the organization that encompasses all of Steinsaltz’s projects, shows me his father’s newest publications while I wait for the time of our interview to arrive.
There are commentaries on the Bible, Mishna and Maimonides’s Mishne Torah, all aimed at simplifying the study of these central Jewish texts. Steinsaltz has also written dozens of books on a broad range of subjects from Kabbala and Jewish identity, to sociology and Jewish philosophy; he has even written a detective novel which was never published. He recently completed a biography of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of Chabad, with whom he had a close relationship.
And of course, there is Steinsaltz’s magnum opus.
Finished in 2010 after 45 years of work, it is a translation of the entire Talmud from archaic Aramaic into easily understandable modern Hebrew – a compilation of often highly complex rabbinic disputes over Jewish law, custom and belief spanning centuries, finally redacted in the sixth century. Until Steinsaltz embarked on this project at the age of 28, which must have seemed audacious to many at the time, the Talmud was a text largely incomprehensible to any but the initiated.
“We are rushing to keep up with him,” says Menachem, who is working with a team of scholars to translate Steinsaltz’s Talmud into English and French.
Upon being ushered into Steinsaltz’s office, my initial state of intimidation is immediately put at ease.
The tiny man with a scholar’s stoop ensconced behind his desk surrounded by books flashes me an impish, welcoming smile as if he were a card player relishing the opportunity to give up solitaire for a more challenging game. Steinsaltz has bright blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a long white beard. If not for his slight frame, short stature and overall frailty (he suffers from Gaucher’s disease, a debilitating genetic disorder common among Ashkenazi Jews), he would make a pretty good Santa Claus.
The hook for the interview with Steinsaltz was ostensibly the kidnapping and murder by Hamas terrorists of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. Two of the boys – Fraenkel and Shaer – were students at the Mekor Chaim High School Yeshiva in Kfar Etzion, which is part of Steinsaltz’s extensive educational network embracing Israel, the former Soviet Union and North America. Our interview was postponed because Steinsaltz was busy during the seven-day shiva mourning period, visiting the families and calming the students.
“Those boys got the sympathy of the nation because they were the Israeli equivalent of the all-American boy. Everyone in Israel said, ‘This could be my son.’ That was a very unusual reaction.”
This tragedy was quickly overcome by events that transpired in rapid succession: the horrific murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by Jews; Arab rioting that spread from Abu Khdeir’s home in Shuafat to other parts of Israel; the barrage of rockets by Hamas; and the IDF’s launching of Operation Protective Edge. During our interview, we touch on many of these subjects and others.
As an interviewee, Steinsaltz is difficult to pin down.
He does not answer questions in a conventional way; he reframes them, bringing in examples and anecdotes in a slow, rambling style. What seems at first to be digression often ends up adding nuance and complexity to the point he is trying to make.
His mental associations are wide-ranging and draw from a broad range of sources. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was brought up in a discussion of former president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav.
Russian Jewish anarchist Shalom Schwartzbard’s assassination of Symon Petliura, the exiled anti-Communist Ukrainian nationalist leader whose troops were responsible for most of the post-World War I massacres of Jews on Ukrainian soil, was mentioned in a discussion of Jewish revenge.
He straddles disparate and seemingly contradictory positions – and he does so while sucking obsessively at his pipe. Speaking with Steinsaltz, one is quickly disabused of the notion that any serious question has an easy answer. Don’t expect sound bites from the rabbi.
Asked, for instance, if he believes religion is the source of all the conflicts in the region, Steinsaltz notes man’s natural proclivity for war (“In the Pacific Islands, tribes did not live in peace and many were cannibals”); proceeds to point out that ideologies such as Nazism and Communism are no less dangerous than religion; and goes on to emphasize the difference between Islam – which is, according to Steinitz, inherently militaristic and expansionist – and Judaism and Christianity, which are not.
Despite the many examples of bellicosity in the Bible – the conquests of Joshua, King David and King Solomon to name just a few – Steinsaltz insists that even before exile, Jews were reluctant warriors who had an ambivalent attitude toward warfare. Unlike the Greeks, who glorified the fighter in their literature and culture, the Jews hardly ever describe the warrior as an ideal type. Dying in battle is not portrayed as honorable.
On the other hand, Jews, like the Scots and the Swiss, were forced to fight, gained experience as fighters, and took advantage of this experience to make money as mercenaries. “In Greek times, you see, there are funny things about their [Jewish mercenaries’] contracts. We know, for instance, that they did not fight on Shabbat unless they were attacked.”
Steinsaltz says there was something atavistic about the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, embracing aspects of their collective character that had remained dormant during the long exile. This explains how a people denied sovereignty and a land of their own quickly became proficient at warfare and agriculture.
Asked about our territorial conflict with the Palestinians, Steinsaltz says that, in principle, human life takes precedence over land. Therefore, he would be willing to exchange territories for real peace.
But when asked if perpetuating Jewish control over the West Bank without giving Palestinians full political rights is immoral, he rejects the idea, arguing that the Palestinians do have rights; that since Israel took over control of Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians’ situation has improved tremendously; and that since Judea and Samaria were illegally occupied by Jordan before Israel took control, the territories cannot be considered “occupied” today – because they never belonged to any nation.
Steinsaltz sees no moral necessity to give Palestinians full political rights.
“Sometimes a minority can rule over a majority. The notion that the settlements are the basic reason for not making peace is a wonderfully good excuse. But practically speaking, most of the people who work in the settlements are Arabs.”
On the subject of religion and state, Steinsaltz takes a unsurprisingly conservative position on most issues.
For instance, he believes the State of Israel should continue to prohibit civil marriages.
“It [preventing civil marriages] is more important than [preventing] eating pork. If you get into a marriage [with a non-Jew] it is very difficult to change it, and it is not easy to change the children.”
But when asked if the State of Israel needs chief rabbis, Steinsaltz answers in the negative.
“No. What good are they? Someone with a personality can make something out of his position, but the position does not bring esteem to the rabbi. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually gained power after he ceased to be chief rabbi. Nobody knows what the chief rabbi does.”
STEINSALTZ IS adamant that Hamas is an implacable enemy.
“Hamas says in a very loud voice that it wants to expel us from Israel. Hamas is attacking us because it has a permanent war with us. The wet dream of all Arabs around us is that we become dhimmis, a lower-class people that can work and have some safety.
“Those rockets are not just because they hate Jews. They want us out… speaking with Palestinians about peace is a little far-fetched. We can do a long cease-fire. But to speak about peace is to demand too much of them.”
Our conversation moves to the murder of Abu Khdeir.
Steinsaltz makes it clear that this was an abhorrent act. “Killing this boy was a horrible thing to do, and after I heard about it I was distraught.”
But he spends a good deal of time explaining that the Jewish murderers of Abu Khdeir should be condemned not principally because what they did was morally abhorrent – obviously it was – but because their despicable act endangered the lives of Jews by generating a backlash of Arab fury.
Steinsaltz bases his position on the halachic concept known in Hebrew as din rodef, which deals with the case of a Jew pursuing another Jew with murderous intent. According to Jewish law, an onlooker who is witness to, say, a Jew chasing another Jew with a knife, has a moral obligation to stop the knife-wielding aggressor with all means at his disposal, including killing the pursuer.
The concept of din rodef has been expanded to include other cases where the act of a Jew endangers the lives of other Jews and is, therefore, punishable by death. In the Diaspora, Jewish informants to gentile authorities against fellow Jews could be killed. The assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was preceded by declarations by some rabbis that his actions – the ceding of land and arms to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo Accords – were tantamount to a Jew chasing fellow Jews with murderous intent.
Steinsaltz says the same principle should be applied to the murderers of Abu Khdeir. They endangered other Jews with their actions, and that’s why it was such a terrible thing to do.
Is Steinsaltz bothered by the fact that in Jewish law there is no provision to kill a pursuer when it is a gentile who is being chased? Shouldn’t we be appalled at the murder of Abu Khdeir not because its ramifications endanger the lives of Jews, but because murder of any kind is wrong? Is it not morally problematic for him that Halacha values the life of a Jew more than the life of a non-Jew? “Of course you cannot kill any person.”
Nevertheless, Steinsaltz admits there is a clear hierarchy – killing a Jew is considered much more severe in Halacha.
Is that problematic for Steinsaltz from a moral point of view? “Yes and no. You see, we have our laws. The general structure of our laws is that we are a family, and we deal with each other as members of a family. People make this distinction. We care more for our family. And so you see, let’s put it this way, if somebody kills a member of your family – a father, a mother or a wife – you feel differently and you possibly will act differently than when somebody else is killed.
“It is not that you are not moral. It is not that you are insensitive.”
I tell the rabbi that I think this position is immoral.
“I do not see things in your light. I have all kinds of questions about what you call morality. Morality is such an ephemeral phenomenon, ephemeral in the sense that it changes from time to time, from place to place. You see, you grew up in a certain environment, in a certain background.”
STEINSALTZ WAS born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents. His father, Avraham, was a Communist who fought against Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, one of the few Communists from Palestine who did so, says Steinsaltz.
Ideologically, Avraham was situated farther to the Left than the Zionist Marxist Hapoel Hatzair; he belonged to the Palestinian Communist Party, which was more congenial to Zionism than the more staunchly left-wing Communist Party of Palestine.
But both parties were outlawed by the British, says Steinsaltz.
What would Steinsaltz’s father have thought of the distinction his son makes between the life of a Jew and the life of a gentile? Wouldn’t the internationalist – who embraced Communism’s ideals of equality, secularism and moving beyond nationalism; who traveled to Spain to risk his own life fighting against Fascism for a nation of gentiles – reject a hierarchy that values a Jewish life more than a non-Jewish life? Steinsaltz says he believes his father would agree with the distinction.
“One of the things I inherited from him was his pride in being a Jew, even though he was a Communist. He told me once, ‘I am not particular about eating kosher.
But that is in Israel. When I go abroad I only eat kosher, because I am a Jew.’ I think I got this from him.”
Steinsaltz explains that his father was a complicated man who managed to hold within himself many contradictions. Though he rejected religion, he came from an illustrious rabbinic family. Growing up, Steinsaltz’s first language was Yiddish, because his parents “refused to speak the language of the goyim [gentiles].”
When he was nine or 10 years old, his father hired a Talmud teacher.
“I asked him why, and he said, ‘I don’t care if you are an apikorus [heretic], but I don’t want anyone in our family to be an ignoramus.”
Steinsaltz remembers growing up that for him, being Jewish was not a matter of questioning. It was a source of pride.
“My work in this world is about changing the melody of a single sentence: ‘I am a Jew.’ Now it can be said in two different ways – one is ‘I am a Jew’ like ‘I have hemophilia.’ “The other way is ‘I am a Jew’ like ‘I am a crown prince.’ It affects how you behave, and it affects who you marry. If you know you are a prince, you are not going to marry some base commoner.
“All my work in the world is to change the melody from one to the other.”