Meeting Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an uncategorizable mind

We left Steinsaltz’s office not knowing precisely what category to place him in. It is not common to meet someone who truly defies description.

RABBI ADIN STEINSALTZ, who died on Friday – self-effacing charm, a quick wit and love.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
RABBI ADIN STEINSALTZ, who died on Friday – self-effacing charm, a quick wit and love.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In 2016, my wife, my younger son and I had the opportunity to meet privately with a person that Time magazine described as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” His name was Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
I was first introduced to Steinsaltz’s writing through a friend. He’d given me a book as a gift nearly 30 years ago called The Thirteen Petalled Rose. The book is a mix of poetry and religious philosophy, and for me at least, it was life changing. Complex and artful, The Thirteen Petalled Rose is a rambling text about the nature of angels, souls, reality, and mankind’s purpose on Earth. For many years I carried it with me whenever I traveled, and after our second date, I gave a copy to the woman who would eventually become my wife. (She admitted later that she never cared for the book, oh well…)
In 1989, about a year after I was married, I learned that Steinsaltz would be speaking in Los Angeles. I was thrilled and somewhat surprised to learn that he wouldn’t be speaking at a religious institution, but rather at the Jewish National Fund office in the LA’s Mid-Wilshire district. The JNF is a Zionist organization with a mostly secular bent. I showed up early to his talk and got a seat near the front of the auditorium.
Before Steinsaltz was scheduled to speak, a well-known rabbi from the San Fernando Valley served as his opening act, as it were. The rabbi’s speech was expertly written; his diction was pitch-perfect and he delivered a message that ruffled exactly zero feathers. Just in case you’ve not been steeped in the particulars of Jewish thought and history, I’m going to digress just bit, to provide you with a little background information to help you understand just what it was that this particular rabbi spoke about.
The Jewish people are a Diasporic nation, sent into exile nearly 3000 years ago. They were sovereigns in a land called, Eretz Yisrael – or, “The Land Of Israel.” Many things happened there, it’s all in the bible of course, but we’ll skip over them for now. The main point to keep in mind is that two Jewish temples existed on a mountaintop in Jerusalem. Both temples were the ultimate symbols of faith and the national sovereignty. It is said that the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in each of the two temples, functioned as a kind of portal, joining heaven and Earth. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. As a result of that second destruction, the Jews went sent into exile, dispersed all around the globe, with some of us winding up in places as disparate as Sydney, Minneapolis, Tehran and London.
Even in 2016, as we have for thousands of years, Jews pray three times a day for a return to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and specifically for the Third Temple to be rebuilt (that there is a large mosque called al-Aqsa currently standing on the site where the Temple will one day be reconstructed is just another of the huge problems, theological and otherwise, that face the Jewish people). With this historical background in mind, here’s a reconstruction of what I remember that first rabbi saying:
“And it is imperative to remember that the temple we pray for, the temple we’ve been longing for these many millennia, is not an edifice of stone or of steel, but rather, it is a place in our hearts and a space in our spirits. A state of mind and soul where all men are brothers, where harmony is the rule and where peace reigns on the face of the Earth. Nay, we long not for any material structure, but for a heart that beats with love and mercy for all.”
The rabbi read from a prepared script, looking up at the crowd occasionally – he’d been well-schooled in how a professional speaker should connect with people. His voice, practiced in the art of oratory, rose and fell as the crowed nodded in agreement. I’d heard these kinds of platitudes before and I remained unimpressed. But now it was time for Steinsaltz to address the audience, the man I’d come to see.
Having never even seen a picture of Steinsaltz, I was at first taken aback when he shambled onto the stage. He was small, almost elfin. His clothes were a bit disheveled, his pants a bit too short and his beard was wild and unkempt with streaks of yellow. What I noticed more than anything else was a certain glint in his eyes, as if he were about to play some tremendous prank on his audience. He approached the lectern slowly, with no notes whatsoever. He looked out at the crowd, assessing us, just as we were assessing him; after all, we were curious to meet a real live “once in a millennia scholar.” Here’s how I recall his first words that afternoon:
“Thank you my dear friends for coming to see me today, I’m quite sure most of you have much better things to do than to listen to an old man. I also want to thank the esteemed rabbi for his thoughts on the future in general, and more specifically on his view of the rebuilding of the Third Temple. What I’m most curious about however, is whether or not the good rabbi has ever made love to a woman, and perhaps whether he is of the opinion that a purely platonic love is somehow the best form of love.”
The crowd, now visibly alarmed, murmured and twisted in their seats. A handful of people simply got up and left. Had they heard the rabbi correctly? Were the first words out of this bearded, clearly religious man’s mouth, about sex? Steinsaltz went on.
“And I wonder if the rabbi who proceeded me here on this stage believes as well, that reality is comprised of nothing other than a spiritual dimension? Because in every case, as far as I’m aware, where there is a longing for something, that longing must also contain the element to which we human beings connect with most easily, that being, physicality. To say that the Third Temple exists only in the mind, that it is merely some ephemeral thing, rather than an actual construction of stone, is to relegate one of the central components of our faith to a fairy tale. Just as physical love between a man and a woman is inexpressibly higher, incomparably deeper than platonic love, so too a dream for our nation’s future must also contain both the physical and the spiritual for it to become a reality.”
It was just then that someone in the audience stood up and shouted, “This is nonsense, what do you know about reality?” (I suppose I should also mention that aside from being one of the great rabbinical minds of our age, Steinsaltz was also a zoologist and a scientist, having served as a resident scholar at Yale University, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington). But rather than be the least bit offended by the outburst, Steinsaltz smiled and extended a warm invitation to the man for a discussion about the “nature of reality” backstage after he’d concluded his speech.
That first encounter with Steinsaltz sealed the deal. I had been taken with his self-effacing charm, his quick wit and the love, evident in the way he embraced the crowd and brought them to embrace him as well – even as he posed his challenging ideas.
In our meeting with the rabbi last week, we found him in good spirits but looking thin and somewhat older than his 78 years. A bit weary as well, perhaps from a recent surgery, his voice heavily accented and very quiet, was one I strained to hear over the noise of the electric heater set up in his spare office to ward off the chill of a rainy Jerusalem morning. As he struggled to light his ever-present pipe, and I sipped on green tea, we soon got around to the question of antisemitism. Why, we wondered, did the world seem to hate Jews as much it did?
To this question, he had exactly one quote and two jokes to offer.
First the quote:
Immanuel Kant expressed two great perplexities: The first being the survival of the Jewish people through the millennia, and the second, the world’s never-ending scourge of antisemitism.
And then the two jokes – from what is arguably one of the great minds of the last thousand years:
A person was asked to explain antisemitism. “Antisemitism,” he said, “is when someone hates a Jew even more than they deserve to be hated.”
And next...
A man once said to his friend: “There are two causes for the ills of the world. One is the Jews, the other are bicycle racers. To which his friend replied, “Ok, the Jews I understand... but what about the bicycle racers?”
We left Steinsaltz’s office not knowing precisely what category to place him in. It is not common to meet someone who truly defies description. It is, however, beautiful, uplifting and entirely life-changing.

The writer is a Grammy nominated American singer/songwriter based in New York. His blog can be read at https://himmelman.wordpress.com/