A Rabbi for the Ages: Adin Steinsaltz

Let My People Know!

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz was a Torah giant who published over 200 books, founded a network of yeshivas, and dedicated his life to battling Jewish ignorance and apathy. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his monumental translation and elucidation of the entire Babylonian Talmud, a project that took him 45 years to complete. He’s been called a “one in a millennia” scholar.

Born in Jerusalem in 1937, Rabbi Steinsaltz was a direct descendant of the first Slonimer Rebbe, leader of a Hasidic dynasty. However, by the time of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s birth, his family had abandoned all vestiges of Jewish observance and his parents, Avraham and Leah, were fervent communists. Interestingly, although Avraham Steinsaltz was not a believer he hired a tutor to teach his son Talmud. He told young Adin, “I want you to be an Apikores (heretic) not an Am HaAretz (ignoramus.)” Leah adamantly refused to light Shabbat candles.

Always an iconoclast, young Adin rejected the Marxist ideology of his parents and became a baal teshuva – returnee to Judaism – as a teenager. On his own initiative he enrolled himself in a religious high school, where he learned from the great rabbi Shmuel Elazar Heilprin. He was greatly influenced by Chabad theology and the teachings of the Kotzker rebbe. The Chabad leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was driven to make authentic Judaism accessible to all Jews and this became Steinsaltz’ mission as well. He knew that the biggest enemy to Jewish continuity in our age is widespread Jewish ignorance and apathy.

Steinsaltz’s student Rabbi Pinchas Allouche said, “…he dedicated his life to making the entire canon of the Jewish library – the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, Maimonides, Tanya and more – accessible to each and all, regardless of their level of knowledge and background.” Rabbi Steinsaltz wanted to democratize the Talmud, and his motto was “Let my people know!”

Like his Rebbe, Steinsaltz was well-educated in secular subjects and fully engaged with the world outside the religious community. While enrolled at Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim, the central school of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Steinsaltz was also studying math, physics and chemistry at Hebrew University. At age 24, Rabbi Steinsaltz became Israel’s youngest school principal.

In 1965, when Rabbi Steinsaltz was 27, he founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began a project of staggering ambition: a translation and commentary of the entire Talmud, which hadn’t been completed for centuries. He worked 16 hours a day, while also teaching, lecturing around the world, and writing hundreds of articles and dozens of books, Steinsaltz worked on his edition of the Talmud for forty-five years before completing it in 2010, when he was 73 years old. The Steinsaltz Talmud editions include translation from the original Aramaic into modern Hebrew, English and Russian. The completion of the project was celebrated with a Global Day of Jewish Learning which has become an annual event.

Influenced by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Steinsaltz became active in outreach to Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He opened a yeshiva in Moscow in 1989, the first officially sanctioned Jewish school in Russia for 60 years. He founded a network of yeshivas in Israel and the former Soviet Union. The Chief Rabbi of Russia Adolph Shayevich gave Rabbi Steinsaltz the title Duvhovny Ravin (Spiritual Rabbi), an honorific indicating his importance to Russian Jews. Throughout the 90’s Rabbi Steinsaltz traveled to the former USSR every month from his home in Jerusalem. He founded the Jewish University in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Rabbi Steinsaltz published “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” his classic work of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), in 1980. He also completed a nine volume work on the classic book of Hasidic philosophy, the Tanya. Over his long career he published over 60 books and wrote thousands of articles on a wide variety of Jewish subjects, including philosophy, theology, prayer, morality and kabbalah. In 2014 Rabbi Steinsaltz’s biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was published.

A beloved public figure among all segments of Israeli society, Rabbi Steinsaltz was awarded the nation’s top civilian honor, the Israel Prize, in 1988. For decades he gave evening seminars which attracted Israel’s most prominent politicial and cultural figures to lectures that lasted until 2 am or later.

Rabbi Steinsaltz had a stroke in 2016 and lost his ability to speak. His mind was still sharp and for the next four years he continued to edit his previous work with the help of his son Meni, with whom he communicated silently.

There are so many great quotations from Rabbi Steinsaltz, here are a few:

“When one person takes one step ahead, something good happens in our world. But when one million people take one step ahead, the whole world shakes.”

“The Talmud is the book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity.”

“I do believe that this knowledge, it is not just the knowledge of history, it is knowledge of ourselves, it is our own picture. Talmud is a book that has no real parallel… it is a constant search for truth, for absolute truth.”

Responding to Divine messages in our lives is like answering a cosmic telephone.  “Just imagine a person sitting on a star, sending messages to other planets: he’s sending messages over and over. Now what will be the breakthrough point? The breakthrough point is when there is *any* answer. When at the end of nowhere, somebody answers.”

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish. 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.”

“Jewish learning is created by the Jews and is also creating the Jews. When you learn, you learn about yourself. So learning one page of the Talmud is equivalent to two or three sessions with a psychoanalyst. That’s why people are interested – Jewish learning is a mirror into our soul.”

Arthur Kurzweil is a writer who served as Rabbi Steinsaltz’s driver when he was in New York and wrote two books about him. Kurzweil said, “The Talmud was never meant to be an elitist book. It was meant to be for everybody. So Rabbi Steinsaltz spent 45 years trying and succeeding to make that happen.”

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz died on August 7, 2020. He is survived by his wife Sara, three children and ten grandchildren, and is buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

For a lifetime of service to the Jewish people, and his astounding scholarly contributions to the Jewish canon, we honor Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz as this week’s Thursday Hero. May his memory always be for a blessing.

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