Talmudic sage for the masses

To survive, Jews must study the Talmud, says Adin Steinsaltz.

Talmudic sage for the masses (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Talmudic sage for the masses
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Slouching his five-foot two-inch body into a chair behind his desk in his Jerusalem office, clutching a lit pipe in his left hand, brown ashes scattered on the desk, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz radiates a devilish, impish self-confidence even as his words sometimes sound illogical. Strands of white hair hang over his forehead. The cadence of his voice is slow, deliberate and soft.
More than any other Jewish scholar, he has made Judaism’s sacred texts accessible to the masses. Yet he describes himself simply as a “commuter between heaven and earth.” This commuter, a man whom Time Magazine called a “once-in-a-millennium scholar,” has already revolutionized Judaism by translating the 1,600-year-old, 2,711-page Babylonian Talmud, the central text of rabbinic Judaism, from its ancient Hebrew and Aramaic into modern Hebrew.
Begun in 1965 when Steinsaltz was only 27, and completed in 2011, the translation has sold three million copies. The project took twice the time he estimated. Clearly pleased at Time’s approbation, Steinsaltz nonetheless modestly calls its praise a “wild exaggeration.”
At 74, Steinsaltz sounds as if he is only at mid-course in his career, and not winding down. Of his monumental Talmud translation, he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I hope it’s not my life’s work. I hope to do greater, more important things.”
Sounding a tad unrealistic, he insists that he has a 170-year plan that includes a number of new scholarly projects, including providing commentary on the entire Torah. To accomplish that long-term mission, he says he will continue to work 17-hour days, a habit made easier by his inability to sleep too many hours.
He begins most days by attending morning prayers, though he admits that after completing his day’s work at 3 am and eating a meal, he does not always make it to prayers. With a twinkle in his eyes, he says tongue-in-cheek, “After I finish these projects, I will put myself on pension.”
He may be the Jewish world’s most prolific multi-tasker, with “16 balls in the air,” as he puts it. These include the commentary on the Bible in Hebrew and English, as well as a commentary on the Mishna and on Maimonides.
Suggesting a slight concession to reality, he admits that he is in a rush, “If I would get a guarantee from above that I will live those 170 years, I would possibly pace myself better – and sleep more. I really don’t know so I want to get as much work done as I can.” Is Steinsaltz doing the most comprehensive work in Jewish scholarship? He does not like the question. He answers it as if he had been asked to describe his relationship to the Jewish people. “I am one of the very few people who really care about the Jewish people as a whole. Most Jews care for their particular group. Once a Russian official asked me what I was doing in his city and I replied, ‘I am visiting myfamily,’” he relates. By family, Steinsaltz meant all Jews in the world.
A computer resting on his desk aids him, as does a printer to his right, the modern tools of a man who once wrote in longhand but at a certain stage could no longer read his own handwriting. “Some of my secretaries read my handwriting better than I do,” he quips. To overcome his bad handwriting, he switched to dictation and to videotaping himself before turning to the computer full-time. Steinsaltz sitting behind his desk answers questions in slow, discursive discourse, going off into tangents, as eager to interview a visitor as to be interviewed, just the opposite of the conciseness and efficiency he displays on his Talmud pages.
To the scholar’s utter dismay, not everyone loves Adin Steinsaltz. He has a hard time believing he has critics. “I would like to be well liked,” he admits, discarding his usual modesty for a moment, and indeed many of the three million people who bought his scholarly works probably like him very much, and view him as Judaism’s most formidable scholar.
The Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has decreed him to be a heretic, who has exploited his commentary and translations to distance Jews from the original Biblical and Talmudic texts. He denies such accusations, “I always keep to the text. The Haredim could say the same thing about every one of their rabbis.”
Still, the late Haredi leader Eliezer Shach went so far in 1988 as to place a ban on all of Steinsaltz’s works, accusing him of heresy.
“He is not a genuine person,” Shach wrote of Steinsaltz. The ban has not prevented the Steinsaltz works from becoming huge sellers. In 2004, Steinsaltz agreed to lead a controversial movement of rabbis to revive the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish supreme court, a first step toward transferring the authority of Israel’s secular Supreme Court to a Rabbinical High Court.
Four years later, he resigned his position as president of the new Sanhedrin.
Despite the Haredi ban on his scholarship, Steinsaltz’s work stands alone within the Jewish world. Among English-speaking Jews he is best known for his English edition of the Talmud, a project he began in the 1980s but had to shelve for lack of sales and for his taking too long to complete.
Starting the English-language project from scratch recently, he is making the planned 41-volume edition more concise. Now 10 percent completed, he hopes to finish the project in five years.
Steinsaltz has an immense following, but he attracts scholars not regimented disciples. "He does not want to give orders," his son Meni says. “It is not in his nature.”
It is not only a ticking clock that impinges on Steinsaltz’s plans. It is also the need to constantly seek financial support for his projects. To win that support he has had to overcome his scorn for politics: “You cannot do anything of importance in Israel without politics. And not being in politics is like being an orphan. I’m an orphan in that sense. I’m not a good flatterer. When it comes to offending people, I am much better.”
He is not quite an orphan, though, counting among those political leaders who have sought his spiritual advice the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the current one, Binyamin Netanyahu. Despite their high office, Steinsaltz placed one stipulation on his meetings with them: They had to come to his office. “If they come to me, very nice. If they don’t, I can survive.” Eshkol and Netanyahu came to Steinsaltz. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not seek Steinsaltz’s counsel but he told associates incorrectly that he had taken “lessons” from the Jewish scholar.
What kind of background fostered the scholarly career of a man to whom prime ministers turned for sagely guidance? Steinsaltz was born in Jerusalem in 1937 to Polish-born secular parents who, nonetheless, instilled a deep sense of Judaism in their son. Precocious, before his bar mitzva Steinsaltz had read Freud and Lenin. He thought seriously of becoming an inventor. He tried unsuccessfully to create a new kind of umbrella and airplane. But he found too often that others had already come up with one of his ideas.
Still, some repressed urge was boiling slowly within him. As a teenager, as he gleefully puts it, “I got religion.” Why? “It was,” he says, “because I am not a great believer – in anything. Most people believe what they are told, they believe in newspapers, television, and all the trash that they read. So I had to find myself – I decided that you cannot live in trash.”
Young Steinsaltz asked his father, who was a mason, what he thought of his son becoming religious. “Are you serious about it?” the father asked. “I don't care if you are a heretic.
I don't want you to be an ignoramus.” His father allowed him all the leeway he needed.
The teenaged Adin knew how life-changing his decision was. “Going back to Judaism was as bizarre as meeting a dinosaur. I was going against the stream of progress. But I didn’t care what my neighbors thought of me.”
And yet he was not quite through with the secular world: He dabbled in sculpture, and wrote science fiction and a detective story.
As a college student he engaged in secular studies, studying mathematics, physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“It is much easier to say what I am not interested in,” he suggests, trying to explain his fascination with the secular world.
But the pull of Judaism grew stronger and he studied at several yeshivas. “I found myself stuck because I think that our existence as a people is important. It’s more important than any other thing I thought of doing.”
Judaism’s existence and survival are at the core of Steinsaltz’s lifelong mission. Steinsaltz and his wife Chaya, a psychologist, have been married for 46 years. They have three children Esti, 43, the former head of a battered children’s shelter, Meni, 37, the executive director of his father’s Shefa Foundation, and Amichaya, 30, the project manager for his father’s Mishna project at the Foundation.
Steinsaltz has 15 grandchildren.
To survive, Jews must study the Talmud, says Steinsaltz, suggesting that Judaism makes Talmud study easier by demanding that Jews study it. “Judaism,” says the Talmud scholar, “is the only religion that has a commandment to study. Judaism wants everybody to understand it.” For that reason, he asserts, Judaism is the hardest religion to practice “because there are so many things to do, so many rules. In Judaism, God is entering into your kitchen, your bedroom.”
But practicing Judaism has its rewards, Jewish survival for one thing. The study of the Talmud, he argues, is the secret to that survival. Steinsaltz finds an intriguing correlation between assimilated Jewish communities and their lack of Jewish learning. Had their residents read the Talmud, he infers, those communities would have survived. He bangs his pipe on the desk for emphasis.
One assumes that someone who pores through Torah and Talmudic texts continuously has a deep belief in God. And so a visitor asks, “Do we have a way of knowing that God exists? Is that a stupid question?” A long pause ensues and then Steinsaltz offers comfort to his interrogator. “It’s not a stupid question. It’s a very good question.”
“Philosophically speaking,” notes Steinsaltz, “if you will provide a good proof of the world’s existence, I will provide you with a better proof for God’s existence.
Once we prove that the world exists, it’s much easier to prove that God exists.”
Four hundred years ago, Steinsaltz observes, if someone asked for a proof of God’s existence, he would have been deemed crazy because everyone knew that God existed. What did he think of Time magazine’s famous 1966 cover that proclaimed “God is dead?” “God,” offers Steinsaltz, “seems quite able to survive after being killed.”
In his “spare time,” Steinsaltz visits the network of schools he has set up – one of his numerous missions. He checks on how the teachers and students are faring. Clearly the network is one of his great loves. “If I were to have another big ambition other than researching sacred books, I would like to have a few hundred thousand pupils,” he says. Right now he has 1,000 students in five schools.
Due to his admiration for Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad movement, Steinsaltz traveled frequently to the Soviet Union, creating Jewish-oriented academic institutions there.
No photo image of Adin Steinsaltz rings more true than the one of him, right hand on forehead, his eyes squinting through metal-framed glasses at the Talmud, deep in thought. It is the archetypal portrait of an elderly Talmudic sage. Demonstrating, however, just how modern Steinsaltz is, a brochure produced by his publisher, Koren Publishers, advertises a new groundbreaking edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud: “…the first Talmud that has been specifically designed for publication both in print and as an iPad app.”
Making the Talmud accessible to the masses – through his English-language editions and an IPad app – pretty much summarizes Steinsaltz.
It doesn’t matter if Jews are poring over a Talmudic commentary in a beit midrash in Jerusalem or looking up a Mishnaic reference on their iPad in New York – what matters is that they’re swimming in the sea of Jewish texts. Steinsaltz throws them a lifeline to make sure they don’t sink – or lose interest.