Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Read an excerpt from the introductory “A Message from Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz” to the Koren Talmud Bavli

BOB ABERNETHY, correspondent: We have a profile today of one of the most respected rabbis in the world. He is a seventy-four-year-old Israeli, Adin Steinsaltz, the author of 60 books on ethics, theology, prayer, and mysticism, with a few mystery novels included. Rabbi Steinsaltz is most admired for a monumental project that took him 45 years, sometimes working 17 hour days. He translated the Babylonian Talmud from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic into Modern Hebrew. The Torah is Judaism’s holiest text, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Talmud is commentary on the Torah. But in its original languages, the Talmud was studied primarily by students and scholars. Now, the Steinsaltz Talmud makes it available to everyone.

The holiest site in all Judaism is in Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the Second Temple, destroyed in the year 70. The devout come to the wall to pray, and so do many thirteen-year-old boys at the time of their Bar Mitzvahs, when they take on the full responsibilities of adults. One of those duties is studying the Torah, with its 613 laws about how to live. The Torah, for Rabbi Steinsaltz, is a divine guide, a map of the paths and the main road through a world of danger and blessings—in his words, lions and angels.

RABBI ADIN STEINSALTZ: We are living in a world we really don’t know what are the paths. We don’t know what are the ways. We don’t even know what the main road is. So we need some kinds of signs to tell us that here live lions, and here possibly live angels. That’s mostly what the Torah is, a book basically of instructions: go this way, go the other way, do it, don’t do it. So that’s as simple as that.

ABERNETHY: Holy as the Torah is, its laws are in some ways unclear. For instance, it requires keeping the Sabbath, but it never explains exactly how. So the Talmud emerged, first as an oral tradition, later written down—centuries of rabbinical commentaries interpreting the Torah’s laws and arguing over them. Rabbi Steinsaltz began his translation of the Talmud when he was 28. It took him 45 years and ran to 45 volumes.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: It was necessary because it is an important book. I once called it the center pillar of our culture.

ABERNETHY: Recently, Steinsaltz was in New York City teaching and explaining what is unique about the Steinsaltz Talmud—his own commentary and extensive background.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: You have here the original Hebrew, the translation in English, and then you have, you see, notes about the law.

ABERNETHY: With his many books as well as his Talmud translation, the rabbi personifies Judaism’s commitment to learning and to argument as a means of understanding.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: The idea of the Talmud is that you are allowed to ask questions about anything, everything that can be done, encouraging you to ask questions, trying to find answers.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical Students: And the rabbis let her then remarry. Even though there was only one witness.

ABERNETHY: Every day students and scholars around the world study and question and debate the meanings of the Torah and Talmud and the arguments of rabbis who have studied them. There is no single authority to decide how best to interpret the religious law, but argument over the centuries can lead to general agreement—until the next question and the next argument.

Steinsaltz was raised in a secular Jewish family, but his father insisted he study the sacred texts so he would not grow up ignorant. I asked him how he became religious.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: It was almost spontaneous. I don’t know where that came from. Believing in God is in a way is the most natural, perhaps even the most primitive notion that people have.

Rabbi SteinsaltzABERNETHY: But belief, said Steinsaltz, is just the beginning.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: What is really difficult is not so much the belief but the relationship. I’m still striving to become better, to become faithful for serving Him, to become a human being as He possibly wants me to be.

ABERNETHY: Steinsaltz sees all human beings as God’s partners in what Jews call tikkun olam, repairing the world.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: The Lord says I made the world. It’s pretty good, but there are all kinds of holes in it. You people go, and you make the amendments—bigger ones, smaller ones. But you, that’s your duty.

ABERNETHY: The rabbi says even the smallest good deed can have a global result, the so-called butterfly effect.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: The movement of the wings of a butterfly can change the world, and the point is basically we live in one world. Any movement in this world somehow affects everything else. So when we do anything better, we change the world.

ABERNETHY: If Jews study the Torah, if they honor the Sabbath and the other holy days, if they do good deeds and partner with God, Steinsaltz says they will achieve holiness. He also says everyone possesses a divine spark.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: This spark is in a way trying to find its way to the main fire, and then it wants to sink into the main fire.

ABERNETHY: Steinsaltz said he saw no signs of any early peace in the Middle East, but he insisted that he had not despaired.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: I am an optimist, meaning that I see things as black as they are, but I still hope.

ABERNETHY: Talking with the rabbi, it was clear that his optimism rests on his absolute trust in God.

RABBI STEINSALTZ: When you believe that, you see, everything comes from the Lord.so whenever something happens if it’s a glad thing, I’m saying thank you for making me happy or healthy or satisfied. If something untoward happens to me, I’s saying the same thing. Please, thank you for letting me know that you exist.

God exists everywhere in every way in every form. We have so many prayers in our religion, so many prayers, but sometimes the prayer is just like I pick up the phone and say hello, I’m glad that you are there.

ABERNETHY: Steinsaltz said he would like to be remembered as a person who did something to make the world better. He also said he would like to live another hundred years—teaching, writing, doing what he can to repair the world and to become, as he put it, the human being God possibly wants him to be.

Next month the first four volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud in English are due to come out.


Read an excerpt from the introductory “A Message from Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz” to the Koren Talmud Bavli. Posted with permission from Koren Publishers Jerusalem:

The Talmud is the cornerstone of Jewish culture. True, our culture originated in the Bible and has branched out in directions besides the Talmud, yet the latter’s influence on Jewish culture is fundamental. Perhaps because it was composed not by a single individual, but rather by hundreds and thousands of Sages in batei midrash in an ongoing, millennium-long process, the Talmud expresses not only the deepest themes and values of the Jewish people, but also of the Jewish spirit. As the basic study text for young and old, laymen and learned, the Talmud may be said to embody the historical trajectory of the Jewish soul. It is, therefore, best studied interactively, its subject matter coming together with the student’s questions, perplexities, and innovations to form a single intricate weave. In the entire scope of Jewish culture, there is not one area that does not draw from or converse with the Talmud. The study of Talmud is thus the gate through which a Jew enters his life’s path. The Koren Talmud Bavli seeks to render the Talmud accessible to the millions of Jews whose mother tongue is English, allowing them to study it, approach it, and perhaps even become one with it.

  • Adam Neira

    Violence is not innate. All behaviour is a result of mindset and setting. People make choices based on the awareness they have at the time and also how well they exercise their free will. The most peaceful of people can be made to commit acts of violence under the “right” circumstances. i.e. The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. The promise of the Redemption and Ganeden/World Peace 2050 is that violence will be eradicated from the realm of human affairs. This means that all acts of violence including child sexual abuse, rape, murder, terrorism and war will be eventually eradicated on Planet Earth. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is one of the wisest people alive on the Planet at this time. The interesting question right now is…”Will the Jewish people allow a real Sanhedrin to be formed to lead them in the coming years ?”

  • Rabbi Aaron Spiegel

    Rabbi Steinsaltz is a tzaddik, one who lives the way. I don’t think most people understand the monumental undertaking that is translating the Talmud. Not only did he and his colleagues translate it but also reformatted it to be approachable and a modern study tool rather than an obscure, ethereal text.

    What isn’t highlighted in the piece is that when Jewish law is adjudicated, interpretation (Talmud) always has authority over Torah. Judaism as we know and live it today would not exist without the Talmud and scholars like Steinsaltz who chart the path for the rest of us.

  • JDE

    “RABBI STEINSALTZ: The idea of the Talmud is that you are allowed to ask questions about anything, everything that can be done, encouraging you to ask questions, trying to find answers.”

    Right – as long as you come to the answers he thinks you should and do things the way he thinks you should do them.

    It’s ironic that the rabbinical students shown learning Talmud are from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which stands at the leftmost fringe of Orthodoxy – so much so that most Orthodox people today don’t even regard them as Orthodox. In addition to their focus on social justice issues (uncommon in the Orthodox world), their teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, recently ordained a woman. Rabbi Steinsaltz, from his Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), Hasidic perspective, would in no way approve of their activities or even many of their beliefs.

    The Liberal Jews and the Modern Orthodox are suffering from a bad case of “Fiddler on the Roof” nostalgia. His translation of the Talmud may be profoundly important for observant Jews (and liberal and secular Jews with an interest), but this obsession many Jews in America seem to have with R. Steinsaltz is a reflection of the romanticized notions we’ve developed concerning the Haredim, the idea that they alone represent “authentic” Judaism.

    “It was almost spontaneous. I don’t know where that came from. Believing in God is in a way is the most natural, perhaps even the most primitive notion that people have.”

    He’s generally touted as an intellectual, but he is in no way a “deep thinker” regarding the pros and cons of religious belief: He’s never subjected it to any sort of critical analysis, because he really isn’t interested, and he’s dismissive of people who don’t believe. Frankly, I don’t care for the man, and never have. Read his books, and books about him; he’s far less avuncular and far more condescending toward those who disagree with him than he comes across as being in the interview.

    Now, of course, I’ll get slammed by observant Jews and Judeophilic gentiles who can’t stand to see one of their sacred cows deconstructed. Here, I’ll even start it off:

    “You obviously have a problem with religious Jews!”

    “When you’ve accomplished all that Rabbi Steinsaltz has, THEN you’ll be able to talk!”

    There, I’ve done the work for you.

  • Nachum

    The holiest place in Judaism is not the Western Wall, but the Temple Mount above it.

  • Fr. Cyril, OSB

    An accomplishment like this by the rabbi does honor to the Jewish community and gives joy also to non-Jewish Catholics like myself, who understand that we Christians would be inconceivable without Jewish tradition, and that our education by Judaism has by no means ended at the book of Malachi.

    May the devotion of study in God’s honor bring together in harmony the Jewish and Christian communities!

  • Channah

    You say The Rabbi became ”religious”. He did not—-he became ”observant”. Anyone-no matter how they practice their beliefs can be very religious. Those who practice a strict Orthodox way of life are ”observant”. There is a big difference in what the two words mean and how they are used. I even had a very strict Orthodox Rabbi agree with me on this.

    Just an added note as to your picture of the man with the Torah-something I appreciate. The Torah is carried in a Sephardic case. One seldom sees this.

  • Fany G Lipnizky

    Dear Rabbi Steinsaltz,
    I would like to ask you a question
    A long time ago, I studied a mishnah that talk about “shibim panim la torah” I can´t remember the “makor”. Could you, please help me to find it? What do you think about the meaning of this idea?
    Thanks in advance and mazal tov!!

  • Steve Sacks

    “RABBI STEINSALTZ: The idea of the Talmud is that you are allowed to ask questions about anything, everything that can be done, encouraging you to ask questions, trying to find answers.”

    Are we allowed to question the idea that everything is subject to question? If not, this statement is self-contradictory. What happens if, after going through the questioning process, we determine that some things are NOT subject to question (e.g. the existence of God, the historicity and trustworthiness of Biblical revelation, etc.)?