Commentary

My Rebbe

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chaim Davis

 

The following is an edited transcript of a eulogy for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz delivered (via Zoom) to the Young Israel of West Hartford on August 12, 2020.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was born on July 11, 1937 in Jerusalem to Avraham and Leah Steinsaltz, both fervently socialist—or more likely communist—in ideology. His father was so devoted to the cause that he went to Spain in 1936 to help defend the leftist government in the Spanish Civil War against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces.[1]

Rabbi Steinsaltz grew up in an entirely secular household. In fact, Rabbi Steinsaltz remembers reading Marx and Lenin before reading the Bible. He recounts the following:

I grew up in a family where neither my mother nor my father went to synagogue—not even on Yom Kippur. My father said that he did not go because he had too much respect for the place. He said—and I completely agree with him—that the synagogue is not a theater. Either you are a participant, or you don’t go there. Because he could not be a participant, he would not go to watch.

Nonetheless, when Rabbi Steinsaltz was ten years old, his father hired a Chabad tutor to teach him Talmud. His father said to him, “I don’t mind if you are an atheist, but I don’t want any member of my family to be an ignoramus.”[2]

At some point in his childhood or teenage years, Rabbi Steinsaltz decided to become a religious Jew, studying with this Chabad tutor and later in a Chabad School. He would later become a hasid and follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for which he wrote a book called “My Rebbe.”[3] Rabbi Steinsaltz said his decision to become religious was actually in line with his parent’s beliefs, saying: “I’m such a skeptic that I became skeptical of skepticism.”[4]

Rabbi Steinsaltz was clearly an ilui (prodigy). He wrote articles as a teenager, spoke on talk radio in Israel early in his life, and became the youngest principal of a school in Israel at age 23.

In 1965, he started his monumental translation of the Talmud into Hebrew at age 27, finishing 45 years later in 2010.

He opened a K-12 school called Mekor Chaim as well as a Hesder Yeshiva. In 1989, right after the Iron Curtain fell, he and my mother (among others) travelled throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union. On that journey, he lectured at packed halls to the Jews there, most of whom hadn’t engaged with rabbis or their Judaism in an open forum in over seventy years. He also started networking channels and classes to provide more ways for them to embrace their Judaism. He felt (and wrote) that the time to reach the Jews of the former Soviet Union was very short—at most a few years—before they either assimilated completely or decided to re-engage with Judaism.[5] Therefore, he opened a Yeshiva in Moscow. His motto during this time, “Let My People Know,” was a riff on the Soviet Jewry movement in America and their chants of “Let My People Go.”

In addition to all of these accomplishments, Rabbi Steinsaltz was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize and authored more than 200 books throughout his lifetime. In many circles, he is most famous for his magnum opus, The Thirteen Petalled Rose,[6] which was his way of re-introducing Kabbalah back into Jewish life.[7]

When asked about who he intended to help with his work, he gave the analogy of a spinning frisbee. He explained it in the following way:

The Haredi community is at the center of this frisbee, elbows locked together and seeing only themselves as they spin around. They are more or less safe. The Jews at the edge of the frisbee are flying off every second of every day, and there is nothing I can do about it. But in the middle, there are Jews holding on for dear life. These are the Jews I want to reach.

When I was ten or eleven years old, my mother started fundraising for Rabbi Steinsaltz. I grew up in a traditional Modern Orthodox household. We were, if anything, Riskin-ites (my parents having attended Lincoln Square Synagogue since before they were married). However, we did not have a Rebbe, nor did we know the terminology of what a Rebbe was. Then, my mother started to come home with stories about Rabbi Steinsaltz, stories about conversations she was a part of with donors or journalists, and the projects that he wanted to pursue that she felt committed to as well. He would stay at our house over Shabbat when he couldn’t make it back to Israel. I was uneasy about this turn in my mother and the family, and I wrote him a letter asking what he had done to my mother and whether we (or I) could trust him. I know he read the letter, but he never directly responded. From that point onward, I believe he had an affinity to me, and I to him. From then on in the late 1980s until his stroke in December of 2016, I saw him fairly regularly; he would come to New York once every three or four months, and I would see him in a personal setting and in group classes, usually more than once a visit. He left an indelible imprint on almost every aspect of my life: on my belief, my self-worth, and even the decision on which college I should go to (he announced I should go to Columbia early in my high school education, when I was a terrible student; I thought he was crazy). My occupation is directly due to him, and my marriage is forever bettered by his advice. He named my children. Even my having a beard—much to the dismay of my wife, Deena—is due to him.

My mother says that Rabbi Steinsaltz did not like to be called a rebbe. She tells the story of someone coming to the rabbi to discuss politics and voting. He refused to engage, saying that that was the realm for politicians, and he was devoted to the spiritual realm. He also vehemently refuted people who said he was a tzaddik—he was adamant that he was not. I am not sure how he would take me calling him “my rebbe,” as I didn’t address him this way when he was alive. But to me, he was my Rebbe, and to him, I was his hasid. And hundreds, if not thousands, of other people feel the same way.

The characteristic of Rabbi Steinsaltz that I would like to highlight tonight was his emphasis on education and what education meant to him. He was fiercely protective of the Talmud. In fact, he considered the Talmud, not the Bible, to be the cornerstone of our Jewish corpus. In 2012, he lamented to a Times of Israel reporter that the early state of Israel made a great mistake by placing the Bible into their public school curriculum instead of Talmud, saying the following:

The Bible was written by prophets. If you read the Bible, you somehow become in your mind a little prophet. That’s the way Israelis speak to each other—they don’t have conversations; they all have complete and unlimited knowledge. Learning Talmud would bring a big change to the Israeli mind because it deals with and is connected to dialectic…. The Talmud is a book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity.[8]

His approach to education was to put things in ways that people could resonate with culturally and emotionally as well as digest intellectually. His discourses on Hasidic thought are sprinkled with analogies to math and science and the natural world in an attempt to make these ideas clear to the modern reader.

I once was in a class with him when he was discussing faith, or emunah. I suggested that faith might be promoted by an appreciation of science. For instance, could a deep appreciation of the contradiction between Newtonian and Quantum physics promote the need for a God? He was adamant that he thought these realms were distinct and that scientific inquiries lead to scientific discoveries, not religious ones. I pressed my case, and he began to grow frustrated. He stopped and thought for a second before saying, “Science and religion are like tools; science is a hammer, and religion is a cup. You can’t drink water from a hammer.” He then smiled broadly, giddy with himself for coming up with the analogy.

His definition of education was very unacademic. He had a special place in his heart for children who caused mischief in class. To the dismay of his own principal, he would even tell the kids to misbehave in class. I think it was his way of encouraging skepticism, which he thought was the essence of thinking and ultimately of believing.

He was nonplussed about academic performance, perhaps as much for the school as for the children. He felt that a school should first and foremost be a place where children feel “like they belong.” After that, he thought everything else could fall into place. He was more concerned about reinterpreting ideas and reshaping questions into essentially Jewish—and existentially Jewish—themes. He re-educated as much as he educated.

In 1970, when the “Who is a Jew” debate was raging in Israel (as it pertained to the right of return), Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote an essay called “What is a Jew?”[9] In it, he asks: is there an essence of a Jew that binds each of us together despite our many diaspora homelands, cultures, languages, and varying religious and secular beliefs?

In October of 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, he wrote an essay on heroism. There he explains that the Jewish Hero is not one who is “heroic as a lion” or one who “summons enormous strengths in a second to do something spectacular.” Rather, the Jewish Hero is a person who “rules his spirit.” This is “the person who walks with his backpack and continues walking even when he gets hit; the person who, when his buildings are destroyed, rebuilds them; who, when his plants are uprooted, replants them; who, when his descendants are killed, gives birth to new ones.”[10] [11]

His educational approach of redefining ideas while infusing them with his philosophies was not only aimed at Jews. Maybe his only book aimed toward a broader audience, Simple Words,[12] was a compilation of words—such as “Good” and “Envy” and “Death” and “God” and “Hollywood”—that he thought should be understood from a different light.

Finally, I want to talk about one specific idea that I have held onto since his death. It is one that gives me great solace, which I hope it will give you as well. The rabbi talked a lot about teshuvah (repentance) and even named a book of his with that title.[13] His idea was to focus on the process of change. He said that it is true that certain people can change in a blink of an eye, even permanently. However, most people do not change quickly. Rather, positive change can be agonizingly slow—if looked at too closely, a person might be viewed as going in the wrong direction. His first book of Hasidic discourse is titled The Long Shorter Way,[14] teaching that a person can be directly in front of his home, but there is an obstacle in his way. He might try to climb over the obstacle, though that way might be much too difficult. The shorter way might be to go around the obstacle. If that obstacle is a river, for instance, the way around it might take a long time and even send you in the opposite direction for a while. If we look at just a small portion of a person’s journey, we might chastise them for their misdirection in life. However, if we zoom out and take a wider view, we might see that it is indeed the shorter way—or even the only possible way—to get home.

He also said that sometimes the act of changing or of teshuvah does not necessitate taking any steps at all. Rather, a person can spend their life turning around until they find the right direction to be looking, and this reorientation too is a great act of change, of teshuvah, and should be celebrated.

I miss the rabbi very much and have not fully realized that I won’t ever speak with him again. But it is his messages, like these, that bring me solace and will nurture me and my family for our lifetimes.


[1] See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/09/books/rabbi-adin-steinsaltz-dead.html.

[2] Arthur Kurzweil, Pebbles of Wisdom from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2009), xvi.

[3] Adin Steinsaltz, My Rebbe (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2014).

[4] Kurzweil, xv.

[5] Adin Steinsaltz, A Dear Son to Me (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2002), 88.

[6] Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1980).

[7] I heard him say once that before Shabbetai Tzvi, every heder child studied Kabbalah, as it was the “theology of the Jewish People.” But the Rabbis of the time were so upset by the messianism of Shabbetai Tzvi that they closed off this part of the Jewish corpus. He thought that this was a gross overreaction, and his books, especially The Thirteen Petalled Rose, are meant to try to reintroduce this Jewish theology back to the Jewish People.

[8] https://www.timesofisrael.com/never-mind-the-bible-its-the-sanity-of-the-talmud-you-need-to-understand-the-world-and-yourself-adin-steinsaltz/.

[9] Steinsaltz, A Dear Son To Me, 21-32.

[10] https://steinsaltz.org/essay/anewkindofheroism/.

[11] Rabbi Steinsaltz also had penchant for deliberating on seemingly incongruous intellectual and especially spiritual ideas, sometimes arriving at a synthesis (see his essay “The Golden Mean and the Horses’ Path” in A Dear Son to Me, pp. 123-132, where he integrates Maimonides’s dictum of a Golden Mean with the extremism of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) and sometimes preferring one approach over another. For instance, he had an intense affinity for Nachmanides’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, defending it from criticisms from more rationalist approaches.

[12] Adin Steinsaltz, Simple Words (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

[13] Adin Steinsaltz, Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (New York: The Free Press, 1987).

[14] Adin Steinsaltz, The Long Shorter Way (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1988).