An appreciation of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz – opinion

Written by on August 13, 2020

In effect what Rashi had been for all students of Talmud for 1,000 years, Steinsaltz became for thousands in this generation.

POPE FRANCIS poses with Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz during a private audience at the Vatican on December 5, 2016. (photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / REUTERS)

POPE FRANCIS poses with Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz during a private audience at the Vatican on December 5, 2016.

(photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / REUTERS)

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who passed away in Jerusalem on August 7, is best described as one of the master Jewish educators of the past century.

His most significant contribution and achievement, as is widely known, is his translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew, complete with his personal commentary. Perhaps because he himself came from a secular background, he was able to approach the Talmud with fresh eyes instead of fitting into the standard Yeshiva study paradigm.

Thus, he presented the Talmud in a more user-friendly fashion. He inserted punctuation and paragraph breaks. His commentary explained the full line as well as concepts and broader issues in each sentence.

This is unlike the established universal commentary of Rashi. Rashi’s explanatory notes highlighted more difficult or more obscure words, but often left it to the student to figure out the exact meaning of the full line. Steinsaltz also added historical background, biographical notes and realia to make the meaning clearer.

He deviated from the universal standard printing of the daf – the actual page – in order to allow the student to complete the learning at his own pace and in reflection of the Steinsaltz commentary. This aroused controversy and pushback. Some heads of yeshivot denounced such departures from tradition. Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the eminent ultra-Orthodox leader, famously denounced Steinsaltz as a heretic.

Still others discouraged students from using Steinsaltz’s edition on the grounds that it was like using crib sheets or Regents prep handbooks to take major exams. Steinsaltz persisted. He won out because in the end he enabled many more people – inside and outside the Yeshiva world – to successfully study the Talmud using his format.

In later years, his publishers ‘compromised’ with traditionalists by restoring the classic standard page format while attaching Steinsaltz’s commentary and notes. In the 21st century, the traditional ArtScroll publishers produced its own English translation and commentary but they followed Steinsaltz’s format, so his triumph was complete.

Starting with one volume, Steinsaltz determined to do his translation and commentary on the whole Talmud – a project that took over four decades and was crowned with an Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in Jewish studies. Thereby, he earned the most dramatic title bestowed on him – “the Rashi of this generation.”

In effect what Rashi had been for all students of Talmud for 1,000 years, Steinsaltz became for thousands in this generation, i.e. the basic introductory commentary and initiation into Talmudic studies.

This made the Talmud a major ongoing resource of Jewish knowledge and culture for a much greater constituency. In later years, Steinsaltz organized translations of his work into English, French, Spanish and Russian, again successfully widening the Talmud’s audience.

Rabbi Steinsaltz grew up in a secular family (albeit he was a great-grandson of the Slonimer Rebbe). His father was a dedicated Communist who fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Steinsaltz would credit his father with pointing him in the direction of his life work.

HE LAUGHINGLY would repeat his father’s charge to him: If he chose to be a Jewish atheist that was OK, but it was insufferable that he grow up to be a Jewish ignoramus! Adin became a baal teshuvah, adopting Jewish religious practices in his teens and went on to do rabbinical studies, both with Chabad rabbis. He attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. His secular studies enabled him to read widely throughout his life.

He showed great interest and commented widely on contemporary and societal issues. He was himself a deeply spiritual person and quite traditional, so he was critical of rabbis who lacked religious content or were clueless about contemporary culture. Thanks to his wide-ranging interests and his gifted pen, he published 60 books on Talmud, Jewish mysticism, Jewish philosophy, biography and Jewish community life.

As an autodidact and primary product of yeshiva training, he did not use (or show much interest in) critical and academic scholarship. However, his books were widely popular, traditional introductions to these areas for many audiences.

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s broad mind led him to focus on the central challenge of this century: how to successfully transmit Jewish knowledge to generations exposed to secular culture and attracted to alternate identities and values. His prescription to assure the Jewish future was based on solid Jewish education (starting with the Talmud) for the masses, not just the elites. He used his fame and recognition to found a string of elementary yeshivot and high schools in Israel.

Initially, he set the curriculum and hired the educators to run them. These schools were characterized by a combination of love of Torah, joy and love of learning, a stress on excellence in achievement rather than competitive examinations, ethics (the high school ran on the honor system), and exposure to the outside world in all its variety; all reflective of the man. This assessment is based on first-hand knowledge as several of my grandchildren attended these schools.

Using his slogan “Let My People Know” and his fundraising connections, he reached out to stimulate Jewish education in Russia. He founded the Jewish University in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the first degree-granting institution of Jewish Studies in the former Soviet Union. For a decade he traveled there personally to teach and influence.

A final word about the man. He was lovable, i.e. gentle, kind and sweet. He was blessed with wit and a pixieish sense of humor. His wide knowledge and interests made him a fascinating conversationalist and an often-interviewed and quoted celebrity.

Steinsaltz heroically fought through a variety of illnesses over the years, including speech aphasia that resulted from a stroke several years ago. But he persisted with great devotion. In recent years he wrote a commentary on the Bible and advanced his educational projects. Thanks to his work ethic and his vital spirit, he completed a life of rare achievement.

The writer was a leading thinker, communal activist and Modern Orthodox rabbi in American Jewry. A recent immigrant to Israel, he serves as President of the JJ Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life, a division of the Hadar Institute of New York and Jerusalem.

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