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November 17, 1989 - Image 114

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-11-17

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.


Is Steinsaltz A Heretic?

The recent criticism of Rabbi
Adin Steinsaltz adds a new twist
to his two-decade effort to
translate the Talmud into
Hebrew, and now into English.


Special to The Jewish News

erusalem — On the
surface, work is conti-
nuing as usual in the
small stone building in Jeru-
salem that houses Adin
Steinsaltz's Israel Institute
for Talmudic Publications.
But the members of the staff
clearly feel that, following
the recent massive verbal
attack on their patron by Is-
rael's ultra-Orthodox com-
munity, they are in a state of
This feeling, they quickly
add, is not shared by Rabbi
Steinsaltz himself. If any-
thing, they note, he has in-
tensified his work on the
popular editions of the
Babylonian and Jerusalem
Talmuds that have made
him famous. The staff, how-
ever, has placed a protective
ring around their beleaguer-
ed leader, shielding him
from journalists.
The attack had been build-
ing up for a few months, but
it rose to the surface several
weeks ago, when Rabbi
Eliezer Schach, head of Bnai
Brak's influential Ponevezh
Yeshivah, issued a ban on all
of Rabbi Steinsaltz's works.
The ban was based on what
Rabbi Schach considered to
be heretical views in three of
Rabbi Steinsaltz's books,
Biblical Images, Women in
the Bible and The Essential
Talmud, all available in
English. The main objec-
tions were to Rabbi Stein-
saltz's description of the
Biblical hero, Samson, as "a
young thug," and to the
Song of Deborah as
"bloodthirsty." Rabbi
Schach added that all the
works of anyone who had
written as Rabbi Steinsaltz
had, must be shunned.
Rabbi Schach's ban fol-
lowed a more limited denun-
ciation by the rabbinical
court of Jerusalem's Eda
Haredit. That body had
condemned the three books
in question, but had not ex-
tended its ban to Rabbi
Steinsaltz's other works,
such as the Steinsaltz Tal-
mud, his opus magnum.



In reply to the latest ban,
Rabbi Steinsaltz issued a
public apology, admitting
his error, advising the public
not to *use the offending
books and offering to return
the purchase price to anyone
who brought these books
back to him.
The entire episode, and
particularly the retraction,
seemed bizarre, to say the
least, in connection with a
personality who numbers
among his friends such fig-
ures as Giulio Andreotti,
Daniel Moynihan, Conor
Cruise O'Brien and Sir
Isaiah Berlin, and who has
been a resident scholar at
Yale and at the Princeton
Institute for Advanced
Study and a recipient of the
Israel Prize.
In articles about him in
Time and Newsweek maga-
zines, The New York Times
and The Washington Post,
Rabbi Steinsaltz has been
heralded as a genius, per-
haps the greatest figure
since Rashi in elucidating
the mysteries of the Talmud.
In interviews, he has talked
of his leftist upbringing, on
the fact that he had read
Marx and Freud before he
ever opened a page of Tal-
mud. Until now, one of his
greatest assets has been his
apparent ability to bridge
several worlds with ap-
parent ease. But the ban on
his works seemed to be cut-
ting him off from the world
of ultra-Orthodoxy, while
his own retraction seemed to
limit his freedom in the aca-
demic world.
According to those around
him, Rabbi Steinsaltz him-
self sees the episode as a mi-
nor distraction in his major
undertaking, which is to
bring the world of Talmud to
those for whom it has for-
merly been closed.
He has been doing this by
producing a new edition of
the Talmud —vocalized,
punctuated, translated into
Hebrew • and with a new
commentary. So far, 20 vol-
umes of the Babylonian
Talmud and one volume of
the Jerusalem Talmud have
appeared, the product of
some 20 years of work.


Rabbi Steinsaltz: trying to get on with his work.


About half a million vol-
umes have been sold in Isra-
el, North and South America
and Europe. The volumes
are also said to be finding
their way into the Soviet
Union. A new English trans-
lation, published by Random
House, is due in December.
Members of Rabbi Stein-
saltz's staff admit that their
edition is popular rather
than scientific. Its purpose
is to make the text available
to those who would other-
wise be unable to study it,
not to issue a new au-
thoritative edition.
Nor has the academic
community taken a great in-
terest in it, according to
Haim Dimitrovsky, profes-
sor of Talmud at the Hebrew
University. "I have looked
at some of the volumes when
I go to pray in the syna-
gogue, and they made a
good impression on me," he
said. "They are not scientif-
ic, and are not intended to be
scientific. They are popular,
and it is a nice commen-
But for some extremists,
the mere fact that anyone
would presume to put out a
new edition of the Talmud
and to write a new commen-
tary is sufficient reason for
condemnation. For them,
the format of the Vilna Shas,
an edition of the Babylonian
Talmud published by "the
Widow and Brothers
Romm" a century ago, is au-
The Vilna Shas, ironically,
follows the pagination of the
first complete printed edi-

tion of the Talmud, pub-
lished by a non-Jew, Daniel
Bomberg, in Venice in the
16th century. It was Bomb-
erg, the Christian, who
determined the
"traditional" format, with
the text in the center of the
page, Rashi's commentary
in the inner margin, and the
Tosafot in the outer margin.
It is still not clear why, 20
years after the first volumes
of Rabbi Steinsaltz's Tal-
mud appeared, Rabbi
Schach, who has attacked a

Rabbi Steinsaltz
and his staff are
busy working on
the new English
translation of the
Talmud, which they
view as crucial.

long list of figures in the Or-
thodox world, chose this
particular time to launch his
attack. It may have been
- Rabbi Steinsaltz's recent
success in setting up a
yeshivah in Moscow and
heading a massive project to
copy Jewish sources found
in various libraries in the
Soviet Union. Or it may
have been the growing de-
pendence on the Steinsaltz
Talmud in yeshivot for
ba'alei teshuvah, the newly
religious, and, according to
some, even in the regular
For those around Rabbi
Steinsaltz, the attacks sin-
gle him out as an island of

moderation in a sea of ex-
tremism. The condemna-
tions, said one, "put the
Dark Ages in a favorable

But there are others who
believe that Rabbi Stein-
saltz has been moving ever
closer to the ultra-Orthodox
world, and they point to his
retraction to prove their

Though there was no defi-
nite answer from those close
to Rabbi Steinsaltz as to
why he had made such a re-
traction, the feeling seemed
to be that by apologizing, he
had neutralized, or even won
over, some of his opponents.
A recent wall poster, signed
by "Rabbis in Jerusalem,"
accused those who contin-
ued to attack Rabbi Stein-
saltz, after his retraction, as
besmirching the name of an
innocent man.
The poster noted that the
Steinsaltz Talmud, which
had never been attacked by
any of the rabbinical au-
thorities, bore the specific
approbation of the late Rab-
bi Moshe Feinstein, whose
authority had been almost
universally accepted
throughout the Orthodox
But there was also a much
simpler, if more naive, ex-
planation: that in a world of
friction and strife, Rabbi
Steinsaltz had simply taken
the path which he saw as the
path of peace. El
(c) 1989 JPFS




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