Adin Steinsaltz: Rabbi who brought the Talmud within reach of millions

Known throughout his life for his unbridled intellectual curiosity, he worked as a teacher and a principal before devoting himself to his translation of an often impenetrable Jewish text

Emily Langer
Thursday 27 August 2020 14:24
At the Jewish Community Centre London in 2013
At the Jewish Community Centre London in 2013

Adin Steinsaltz was an Israeli rabbi who devoted nearly a half-century to translating the Talmud for modern readers, an epic undertaking that unlocked for millions of people a foundational but often impenetrable Jewish text.

He died on 7 August in Jerusalem. He was 83. His death was announced by the Steinsaltz Centre in Israel, which describes as its mission “making a world of Jewish knowledge accessible to all”, and was reported in publications including the Jerusalem Post, which said the rabbi had been hospitalised for a lung infection. In 2016 he had a stroke that left him unable to speak.

One of the most famous passages in the Old Testament arises in the book of Exodus, when Moses, leader of the enslaved Israelites and their defender before the pharaoh, demands that he “let my people go”. Rabbi Steinsaltz, as one of the most prominent intellectuals in modern Judaism, adopted a wry take on that ancient cri de coeur: “Let my people know.”

He was “a genius”, Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and frequent commentator on Jewish thought and affairs, wrote in an email, describing the rabbi as “one of the greatest and most consequential scholars of the past thousand years of the Jewish people”.

Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote dozens of books, including a seminal volume on Jewish mysticism, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, and commentaries on subjects ranging from philosophy to biblical zoology. In addition to his centre in Jerusalem, he founded religious schools in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He dabbled in science fiction and detective stories, an indulgence allowed, perhaps, by his propensity for 16-hour workdays.

But he was best known for the project that he took on in 1965, when he was in his late twenties and brought his encyclopedic knowledge to bear on an encyclopedic text – the Talmud. Its 2,700 folio pages record centuries of rabbinical discourse on a universe of topics relating to ancient Jewish life, from observance of the Sabbath and Kosher dietary laws to agriculture in the Holy Land, civil and criminal law, family relations and Jewish beliefs on the betterment of the world.

Along with the Torah, the Talmud is one of the seminal texts of Judaism. Written in rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic, it is also deeply arcane, intimidating to nearly all but the most learned scholars, who may devote a lifetime to the study of the Talmud and still consider their understanding of it incomplete. Even translations – Rabbi Steinsaltz’s was not the first – failed to render readily comprehensible the pages that brim to the margins with rabbinical commentaries upon commentaries.

One “could not possibly open the Talmud 50 years ago and just start reading it”, Lewis Glinert, a professor of Hebrew studies at Dartmouth College, said in an interview. “It was in every respect a closed book.”

The task that Rabbi Steinsaltz set out for himself was not only to translate the Talmud into modern Hebrew but also to make it “user friendly”, Glinert said. He added modern punctuation, paragraph divisions, illustrations and extensive background material – engendering fury among purists but thrill among uninitiated readers.

“This was a way of opening up the Talmud to – I won’t say the average person, but to Jews and Gentiles who were prepared to invest time and energy into it,” Glinert said. “For them, it was opening up this whole world ... opening up the ancient Jewish treasures to whoever wants to come and learn.”

Rabbi Steinsaltz employed a team of translators who laboured over the task through interruptions including several Middle East wars; a modern Hebrew edition was completed in 2010. The Steinsaltz Talmud (or portions thereof) was translated into several other languages, including English. A volume in Russian was released in 1996.

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish,” Rabbi Steinsaltz once told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”

Detractors accused Rabbi Steinsaltz of simplifying a text whose wisdom was revealed through the laborious process of deciphering it. “Reading the Steinsaltz Talmud in English is like trying to understand what a crossword puzzle is when the words have been filled in,” Arthur Samuelson, a reviewer, wrote in The Nation. “You get the idea but you miss the point: process is everything.”

But even his fiercest critics, according to Reich, “are said to hide their copies of the Steinsaltz volumes in brown paper wrappers”.

“Some American critics, themselves relatively innocent of serious and sustained Talmudic study but moved nonetheless to offer themselves as defenders of the Talmud’s purity, have decried Steinsaltz’s English edition as false, superficial and a mimicry of the real thing,” Reich wrote in 1990.

“To say that, however, is to misunderstand the value and purpose of his achievement,” the review continued. “Whatever simplifications he introduces are more than balanced by the advantages they confer to the student who would otherwise find himself unable to even begin Talmud study.”

In 2010, when Rabbi Steinsaltz completed the last of the 45 volumes of his translation, The New York Times reported that 3 million copies had been sold around the world.

According to the Times, Rabbi Steinsaltz was born on 11 July 1937, in Jerusalem, in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His father, a socialist, fought with the Republicans against Francisco Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The intellectuals most venerated in their household were not rabbis but rather Marx, Lenin and Freud.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s father engaged a Talmudic tutor for him when he was 10 years old. “I don’t mind about your behaviour or your beliefs, but nobody in our family will be an ignoramus,” he recalled his father saying. That exposure to Judaism, along with what Rabbi Steinsaltz described as his innate scepticism towards atheism, led him to Orthodox Judaism.

“I came to the point,” he told the Times, “where the world could not contain my desire for truth.” He later became a follower of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidism. Under the guidance of the movement’s longtime leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he adopted the Hebraicised surname Even-Israel.

Known throughout his life for his unbridled intellectual curiosity, Rabbi Steinsaltz studied mathematics and physics at university. He worked as a teacher and a principal before devoting himself to his translation of the Talmud.

“Since I started the work at a relatively young age, obviously I didn’t take into account the immense effort it requires, which includes not only the work of researching and writing, but also many logistical problems,” Rabbi Steinsaltz told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 2009.

“But sometimes, when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing,” he continued, observing that “it seems it’s better, sometimes, for man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe more in the possibilities”.

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, rabbi, born 11 July 1937, died 7 August 2020

© The Washington Post

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