RABBI Adin Steinsaltz opened up the Talmud to the non-charedi world — despite much charedi opposition.
Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents, Rabbi Steinsaltz was introduced to the world of the Talmud by his grandfather, a Polish-born secular Jew who valued Jewish learning.
After he became religious, Rabbi Steinsaltz published translations and commentaries on the Talmud and the Tenach in modern Hebrew, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
He had studied maths, physics and chemistry at Hebrew University and has easily straddled the two worlds of Jewish and academic scholarship.
The Steinsaltz Centre, which is now headed by his son, Rabbi Meni Even-Israel, has just published the English edition of the Steinsaltz Humash.
Having suffered a stroke two years ago, Rabbi Steinsaltz senior can now hardly speak.
But his son told me: “He still works five to six hours a day. He can annotate texts. He marks the texts we send him and comments on them.
“Physical therapy and exercise have helped him amazingly. He understands everything. He is 100 per cent all there.”
I asked Rabbi Even-Israel what it was like growing up the son of such a controversial Talmudic giant.
The rabbi replied: “I generally had a fine childhood, but I hardly ever saw my father. He was working very hard.
“Times were different from today. There was less technology available. But his presence was definitely prevalent in the house.
“He never really said yes or no to anything. He never really gave us guidelines as to what we shouldn’t do. But we understood what to do from his example.”
Meni has clear childhood memories of often waking up in the early hours and going to the kitchen to get a glass of water where he would see his father “sitting, usually with an open Talmud, his pipe and nearby a work of fiction or a secular book”.
Meni said: “The message we received was that any information was good. My father was always reading or learning.
“Our house had a very diverse collection of books, ranging from Judaica to art. It was all there. We assumed that all books were meant to be opened. It was very uplifting, a very good way of thinking.”
It was when he was a teenager that Meni’s father was ostracised by much of the charedi world, which was opposed to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s open approach to the Talmud.
Meni recalled: “The controversy came and went. Today things are much faster. Controversies last a week and people move on. My father’s controversy lasted three to four months. It was not pleasant.
“When religious leaders make a cherem (a ban on reading someone’s works), they make their decision intellectually and spiritually. They don’t think about their minions in the street who come to your house and curse you.
“They don’t take that in to consideration. That’s life, there is nothing you can do about it.”
Meni said that he became a rabbi without ever intending to. After seven years in Israeli Chabad yeshivot, he came out with semicha (rabbinical ordination).
Meni said: “If you go to yeshiva for so many years and learn all day long, you should come out with something in your hand. Graduation should be the result of going to yeshiva. If you are sent anywhere you should have the ability to give religious guidance.”
True to Lubavitch tradition, of which his father is a keen supporter, on rabbinical graduation Meni was sent on shlichut, first to Geneva and then to America.
I asked him what those experiences were like after being born and bred in Israel.
He replied: “It is mind-opening. In Israel, the majority of religious Jews are Orthodox, or traditional. In America and Europe the Jewish community is much more diverse. When I went to Geneva it was the first time that I realised that the world is much larger than the little pond we live in here in Israel.
“We have to be a light to the nations, have inter-faith dialogue and interact with the type of people you do not you see in Israel.
“When you teach in the Diaspora, not all your audience is Orthodox or even Jewish. When we are overseas our job is to be there for everybody.
“We give seminars and classes about a variety of topics. The arguments are not just about Israel issues but world ones.”
He worked for six years as a Hillel campus rabbi in New York and Baltimore. This gave him the opportunity to study philosophy and social studies at university.
In 2005, Meni returned to Israel on the request of his father to work for him. He says that the Steinsaltz Centre, which he took over, is an “overwhelming full-time job”.
The centre, whose motto is Let My People Know, focuses on publishing and translating all Adin’s vast works, as well as on education for youngsters and adults.
One of the centre’s high schools, Makor Chaim hit the headlines in 2014 when three of its students were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas as they made their way home for Shabbat.
The centre also runs a post-high school programme hesder yeshiva programme in conjunction with the IDF, as well as adult education programmes.
Meni said about the centre’s latest publication: “When my father completed the Hebrew Talmud in 2010, he took upon himself other projects because apparently the Talmud itself was not enough.”
One of the unique aspects of the Steinsaltz Humash is that it contains colourful illustrations, not only to brighten up the text, but often to explain it historically, geographically and scientifically.
For instance, the Humash contains a picture of the mandrakes which Reuben gave to his mother Leah, accompanied by a description of medicinal qualities of the plant.
Meni says: “The Humash is accessible for everyone, especially for a young audience, who may be sitting in shul or school and feeling bored.”
It also contains commentary by Rashi printed in an upgraded font making it much easier to read than in other versions.
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