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May 18, 1984 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-05-18

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Friday, May 18, 1984


all or part of "The Steinsaltz Talmud"
may be issued in an English edition;
he is currently negotiating with sev-
eral major American publishers.
"I don't think it's exaggerating
to say that Adin may come to be
known as the Rashi of our times,"
says Rabbi Steve Shaw, a close friend
and adviser to Steinsaltz and whose
Radius Institute in New York spon-
sored and coordinated the scholar's
recent two-week visit to the U.S.
Rashi, of course, was the 11th
Century Biblical and rabbinical
commentator, Rabbi Solomon
Yitzchaki, whose commentary on the
Bible and the Talmud revolutionized
Jewish study and became an indis-
pensable guide for all future stu-
But for all of Steinsaltz's schol-
arship and genius (a Newsweek arti-
cle about him several years ago
quoted a colleague of his as saying
Steinsaltz had the sort of mind that
comes around only every couple of
thousand years"), he is outgoing and
intellectually playful in a quiet way.
One is immediately put at ease
in his presence. His manner is gentle,
his sense of humor is puckish. "I'll
talk about anything you like," he
tells an interviewer. To me, every-
thing is Torah." Which explains why,
in his effort to combine the secular
world of the modern era with the an-
cient world of Jewish tradition, he
has written extensively on science
fiction, archeology, zoology and mys-
ticism. He is a scientist, math-
ematician, painter, sculptor, linguist
and musician. "My attitude treats
the Talmud as a way of research into
nature," he says. His interests,
though many, are not eclectic for
they all revolve around his explora-
tion — and explanation — of
"I feel I have a mission to per-
form for the Jewish people," he said
"because Am Yisroel (the people of
Israel) comes before personal goals."
Steinsaltz believes that the future of
Jewish intellect and culture depends
on the ability of Jews to study the
Talmud seriously, and his mission is
to make the ancient writings on
theology and law accessible to as
many Jews as possible.
"Accessibility" is the key to
Steinsaltz, both personally and intel-
lectually. Personally, he has an ex-
traordinary ability to relate to all
kinds of people on their own level —
as when, to help put him at ease, he
asks a nervous photographer what
type of lens he is using. Intellectu-
ally, Steinsaltz seeks, through his
writing and teaching, to make
Jewish thought accessible to those on
the brink of assimilation potentially
lost to it. To help achieve that end, not
for whatever personal publicity it
might bring him, he makes himself
accessible to the press for interviews,
and to audiences for lectures. Jews,
he says, are family. And, "I like my
family, I want to keep it. In some
sense, I care more about reaching be-
yond the committed Jews to those
with no commitment, in the hope of
giving them desire and ability to
function as Jews."
Three talks that he gave in the
space of 24 hours in three different
cities illustrate his versatility. Ad-

The genius of
Adin Steinsaltz

This modern-day Rashi is devoting his
energies to making the Talmud accessible
to as many Jews as possible — a key, he
feels, to Jewish survival.

Continued from Page 1

dressing a Sephardic synagogue
audience in New York on a Saturday
evening, he focused on the relation-
ship between plurality and unity —
an important issue for Sephardim —
and asserted that to achieve the
Messianic dream of unity, the answer
is not to hide our distinctiveness but
to preserve it." He said that Israel's
well-meant effort to create a melting
pot for Jews from many cultures was
a failure that will take a century to
rectify. When you mingle cultures
you get the worst traits of each," he
said, "the lowest common de-
nominator. The highest form of
beauty is to allow each distinctive
color and form to work together in
The following evening, speaking
in Miami Beach to -several hundred
Jewish federation executives from
across the country, he suggested that
Jewish leaders must become, as it
were, prophets. 'We must be able to
distinguish between long-term, eter-
nal priorities like education, and
short-term ones like being able to
make decisions that will hold up cen-
turies from now."
"I felt the message I gave last
night was important," Steinsaltz said
during an interview the next day in
Washington, but I'm afraid I put
them to sleep. I spoke after they had
had their dinner and heard other
speeches, so anything less than off-
color jokes would not have kept them
awake," he says with a shrug and a
But during a lecture earlier that
day in a Washington Reform temple,
Steinsaltz kept his audience of more
than a thousand people spellbound as
he explained simply and directly just
what the Talmud has given the
Jewish people and the world.
His topic was the three major
Jewish contributions to the world.

During the First Temple period, the
Jews gave the world monotheism.
The notion of the world stemming
from one source has become virtually
universal, but it is hardly self-
apparent, he said.
The idea of redemption, the Mes-
sianic belief that there is ultimate
hope and that history will have a
happy ending" came about during
the Second Temple period. Until
then, the prevalent notions were that
everything deteriorates, or that all
life is a cycle. The Messianic notion
has penetrated all religions," Stein-
saltz said, and now it is common for
the end of days to be looked at with
The third contribution has been
the Talmud. It is almost impossible
to describe the Talmud," he said by
way of introduction. :It is an im-
possible book." It incorporates rab-
binic legislation but it is more and
different. Any definition fits, but is
not enough." The key to its unique
qualities is that it is an incessant
query — a series of endless questions
— in a search not for definite answers
but for truth."
It welcomes and encourages any
and all questions asked in the spirit
of truth. A question may go on for
page after page and no one is trou-
bled. You are not trying to get re-
sults leading from A to B," Steinsaltz
said. "You are not searching for legal
The Talmud is 5,000 folio pages
but it is never finished. We must keep
asking the questions. The more ques-
tions, the better the scholar."
The Talmud allows people to see
as many sides of a problem as possi-
ble. It is at once a holy book and a
search for the truth — it is holy intel-
lectualism. Though it is holy in every
detail, one may question what is
written in it, disagree with it, argue.

You kiss the Talmud before studying
it and when you finish — but while
you are studying it you pound it!"
That is the beauty and the lesson_
of the Talmud, Steinsaltz explained.
It teaches us to always see the other
side, to believe and to question at the
same time.
It is this delicate sense of balance
that has allowed the Jews to survive
and maintain their sanity through
centuries of persecution, he went on.
There is in the world a basic drive for
pushing an idea to its extremes, for
seeing issues as black or white,
,either/ or. We tend to see but one side
to an argument.
"The Talmud has kept us sane by
showing us that there are contradic-
tions in the world and that we cannot
solve them. We must learn to live
with them." Study is a form of wor-
ship in Judaism, the Talmud demon-
strates. The quest for knowledge is
also a quest for the Divine.
During a question-and-answer
session, he was asked how to start
studying the Talmud. "Grab any
translation," he replied. "Prepare
yourself for terribly hard work, work
as hard at it as you can. Jump right
in. You can't learn how to swim on
dry land. The Talmud is an ocean, so
immerse yourself. The best way to
begin is simply to begin."


din Steinsaltz began his
quest for truth and the
Divine as a "non-believ-
ing teenager." He was the only child
of a fervently non-religious, socialist
family in Jerusalem. His parents
came to Palestine in the 1930s and,
as a boy, Steinsaltz read Lenin before
he read the Bible.
He had no religious epiphany
and, in fact, argues that Jews don't
have them because to become more

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