Commentary

Rabbi Steinsaltz: My Mentor, Teacher, and Guide

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Shmuel Greene

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz passed away last week. The stories, anecdotes, and ideas that I can share with you contain messages of fire, passion, compassion, rebuke, amusement (at you), amusement (with you), provocation, laughter, comfort, empathy, insistence on stretching oneself, and much more. These stories and messages formed my life.

The Demand to Do More

The most life-changing moment I ever had was during Purim of 1994. I was twenty years old at the time, studying in Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Yeshiva in Bat Ayin, Israel. Earlier that day, Baruch Goldstein had opened fire at the Cave of the Patriarchs, massacring 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 others. After hearing about what had happened fifteen miles away in Hebron, the energy in Yeshiva was charged. We celebrated Purim, but we were “bouncing off the walls,” not knowing what to do with ourselves. Toward the afternoon, we headed out to Jerusalem to gather with Rabbi Steinsaltz at his house, as we had done in prior years. Again, the atmosphere was of commotion, confusion, and unsettlement; Rabbi Steinsaltz himself noted later that the gathering that year was different from those of all other years. During the gathering, someone hugged the Rav and accidentally scratched him. For the Rav, getting scratched was no small thing; he had a medical condition that included bleeding and bruising issues. 

Then, Rabbi Steinsaltz started speaking. I remember wishing to myself that I was sober, since he was talking in a way that we weren’t used to. He started off by saying, “I cannot promise anything to anyone, but the Jewish people need soldiers who are willing to do anything for their sake. To go anywhere, to talk to any kind of Jew, and to make a difference.” He proceeded to lift up his arm―which was dripping with blood―and say, “The only thing I can assure you of is that the work will be made up of blood, sweat, and tears.” He finished by saying that anyone who wanted to work for and with him in making the Jewish people knowledgeable of their purpose as a nation and as individuals should seek him out over the next few weeks at his office.

I could barely breathe. I was in. I found myself at his office within two weeks of that fateful Purim, pledging my life to work with him for this cause. He agreed, and my life has been devoted to the Jewish people’s welfare ever since.

What does a life of devotion to the Jewish people entail? On the one hand, one who shoulders some of this burden can never take themselves too seriously. On the other hand, one must realize that the world is dependent on them and that the demands are great. 

As ambassadors for Rabbi Steinsaltz’s cause of devotion to Jewish welfare, we are here to teach the Jewish people who they really are in order to fulfill their purpose in the world and thrive―not just survive, but thrive and flourish. Rabbi Steinsaltz argued that the only way for Jews to learn who they are is by gaining Jewish knowledge. “Let My People Know” became his motto. That mission statement guided his enterprise of making the Jewish canon accessible to all, which he did most famously through his commentary on the Talmud, Tanakh, Mishnah, and Rambam. The demand upon his students―and of all people―is to figure out ways to realize this goal of spreading Jewish knowledge, as the world depends on it.

Jewish knowledge was not just meant for the Jews to whom we were reaching out but was demanded especially from Rabbi Steinsaltz’s students themselves. Rabbi Steinsaltz told his students that in order to be able to have an inkling into what Judaism means, one needs to know one hundred books by heart. He didn’t mean that this requirement would make one a righteous person; this amount of knowledge is necessary just to start being a Jew. He said, “For you guys, I’ll take it down to forty books. No, ten. Even better, four. What are they? Tanakh, Talmud, Shulhan Arukh, and Zohar.”

The thing is, Rabbi Steinsaltz wasn’t kidding. He once told me that in the previous thirty years, he hadn’t once told a joke with the sole purpose of making people laugh. Every glance, every sentence, had a purpose. The demand to always do more was real because God is real, and He expects us to take care of the Jewish people and the world.

The role of educating the Jews and teaching them their purpose is a great responsibility. If that type of responsibility falls on us, then there is no time to waste. Rabbi Steinsaltz embodied the idea of never wasting time. The best time to reach him was late at night or early in the morning―as the world slept, he was toiling for the Jewish people.

Even at those unusual hours, Rabbi Steinsaltz showed his devotion to his students. A year into our marriage, my wife and I were deliberating between two job offers outside of Israel. Realizing that we needed our Rebbe’s advice, we marched over and knocked on the door of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s office at two in the morning. As he opened the door, the Rav said, “I’ve been thinking of your decision, and it’s not as if I don’t have other things to think about.” 

Role Models and Authenticity

The mission of “Let My People Know” pushed me to create the Mekor Chaim-Steinsaltz Ambassadors program in 2005, while I was working at Rutgers Hillel and living in Highland Park, NJ. The Ambassadors were drawn from Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoa, whose core mission is “to create a cadre of rabbis, teachers, and spiritual and communal activists who embrace Rabbi Steinsaltz’s educational philosophy: that learning belongs to every Jew and that all Jews merit the respect and love of their fellow Jews, regardless of level of observance and belief.” The mission of the Mekor Chaim-Steinsaltz Ambassadors Program was to facilitate and model how to love being Jewish in a deep, natural, and joyous way. The Ambassadors promoted and exemplified a living brand of Judaism, one that exudes passion, pride, and the daily relevance of God, Torah, and the land of Israel, and one that is rooted in knowledge and personal experience.

Rabbi Steinsaltz would meet with the Ambassadors before they came out to their respective communities and would see them again during the year when he would visit the United States. Throughout the ten years that the program ran, there were always two consistent pieces of advice sought by the Ambassadors from Rabbi Steinsaltz at these meetings. Before they set out, the Ambassadors wanted to know what kind of role models they should be. While they were in the midst of their work, the Ambassadors wanted to know what kind of real impact they were making.

Rabbi Steinsaltz always addressed the first issue the same way that he answered a similar query presented by my wife a year into our marriage. We were about to move to the west coast, where I would be serving as an assistant rabbi at a synagogue. Even though my wife had no formal “official” role, we were there serving as a couple. She would be “the rabbi’s wife.” 

My wife asked Rabbi Steinsaltz how she should approach the position and specifically asked, “Am I supposed to be a rebbetzin?” She understood that she had to step up and into a new role. She had a responsibility and knew that the people in that community would have expectations of her, the new rabbi’s wife. What uniform (costume?) should she wear in order to rise to the occasion?

Rabbi Steinsaltz told her not to be a rebbetzin.

Rabbi Steinsaltz recognized that it would be better for her to show people that she is a normal person, a regular person who looks to Torah in order to grow. The more authentic she was, the more relatable she would be. She would maximize her influence by just being herself.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was saying something both practical and deeply profound for not only her, but also for the Ambassadors and all those who desire to impact the world. He was teaching us that the role models that people need do not need to pretend to be someone/something else to matter; they do not need to deny the world whatever it is that they were created to contribute. True role models should not subscribe to the false belief that only those with communal titles are entitled to stand for the community, to engage with and teach Torah, to lead.

As for the Ambassadors’ question regarding actual impact, Rabbi Steinsaltz constantly emphasized that no good deed goes to waste. Personally, I have seen this idea come to fruition in the few days since his passing. I have received messages from people across the world reporting how much they have been impacted by us without any of us even realizing, even by things we have done and said that seemed trivial at the time. Many people who have heard of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s passing are now thanking both my wife and me for the connection to Rabbi Steinsaltz and his teachings that we have created throughout the years.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

With Rabbi Steinsaltz’s passing, we are now the ones responsible for the caretaking of the Jewish people in particular and the world in general. That responsibility can only be undertaken if we are able to discern between what is truly important and what is not.

This discernment was one of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s trademarks. There was a period of time in Israel when there were protests aimed at closing down Bar Ilan street in Jerusalem on Shabbat. I heard Rabbi Steinsaltz muse and say, “I don’t understand. If those protesting consider those driving on Shabbat to be non-Jews, then what do they care if they’re driving on Shabbat? If they consider them to be Jews, then how can they cause the drivers to detour that particular road and desecrate Shabbat even more?” Here (and in many other instances), the Rav demonstrated his ability to see through the unimportant issues and break an issue down to its important components.

That ability to discern between what is important and what is not was expressed in every one of his messages, whether the issue was one of national or personal importance. It put one in their place, but at the same time, it empowered the recipient of that message in tremendous ways.

While I served in the army, my fellow soldiers and I did not carry around anything that we could dry our hands on during drill exercises outside of our base camp. When the members of my unit and I washed our hands for bread, we then either dried our hands on our clothes or just ate the bread with wet hands. I asked Rabbi Steinsaltz which option was better―I knew that the Talmud states that one who dries their hands on their clothes forgets all they learned, but I also knew that on the other hand, one should not eat bread with wet hands. Without hesitating, Rabbi Steinsaltz said to me, “Shmulie, one must know something in order to forget it.” He wasn’t making fun of me. He was bringing me back to reality and making me realize that I didn’t know enough yet to be worried about forgetting, thereby pushing me to know more.

We tend to get confused with so much going on around us. Rabbi Steinsaltz cut through the unimportant complications and made it possible to frame things in a clear way, even though the issues were still complicated. Many of those that interacted with him, especially those seeking advice, claim that their reaction was, “That’s so simple! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Articulating complex concepts and ideas in simple terms while maintaining the original complexity is what he did with his commentary on the Talmud, Tanakh, Mishnah, Rambam, and Hasidut. That’s what he did with advice, and that’s how he guided the lives of my family and me.

The advice that we needed to hear the most was often the simplest. After dating my now wife for a while, the two of us went to meet Rabbi Steinsaltz on a Saturday night. After talking with us for an hour and a half, he concluded by telling us, “You should make it or break it within a week. The questions you have about yourselves as a couple can only be dealt with (maybe not even solved) within a marriage framework.” So simple, yet so empowering.

Rabbi Steinsaltz demanded that we do more. That we have passion for the Jewish people and for God. That we do not waste time. That we become authentic role models. That we make an impact that is dependent upon the necessity to discern between what is important and what is trivial. These are just some of the lessons that Rabbi Steinsaltz conveyed to me and many others.

So, what is missing now that he has passed?

What is missing is the twinkle in his eye when he looked at you for a moment. His glance contained all of the messages and lessons that he was imparting to us. His glance brought life and urgency to all of his stories, messages, writings, and directives. Imagine this glance while you hear some of the stories that formed and impacted my life and the lives of many others around the world. 

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s stories and messages have a purpose. They are told to push you; they are told to ignite you; they are told to haunt you. Let them make us think, wonder, and dream.

Shmuel Greene
Rabbi Shmuel Greene is the NCSY director of Central and Southern New Jersey. He is a passionate and devoted Jewish educator, constantly striving to empower Jews of all backgrounds to connect to and enjoy the richness of Jewish living. Rabbi Greene has served the Jewish community as director of education at Rutgers Hillel, director of teen initiatives at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life at The Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation, and director of The Steinsaltz Ambassadors program.