Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Gedolim Who Matter Part 1 - Rav Adin Steinsaltz

I've always wondered what my lack of a yeshivah education has meant in terms of who I look to for inspiration. I can only guess at that but I would say it's allowed me to look for advice and leadership from those in the Torah world who don't neatly fit into any one particular community but who have nonetheless demonstrated true godlus in Torah learning and leadership. For me a real leader is one who not only knows the difference between holding the course of his predecessors and charting new directions for his followers when the times demand it, but also knows when to choose each option wisely.

So, in no particular order, I'm going to present those who for me are the gedolim of my Jewish world. I would emphasize that these choices are my personal ones and if any of you out there have suggestions of their own, I would be happy to accept guest posts. It would be fascinating to know who is really inspiring people out there to keep the faith.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz

From his Wikipedia page:

Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents, Steinsaltz studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and sociology at the Hebrew University, in addition to rabbinical studies. Following graduation, he established several experimental schools and, at the age of 23, became Israel’s youngest school principal, a record still unbroken.
In 1965, he founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began his monumental translation to Hebrew, English, Russian, and various other languages. His edition of the Talmud includes his own explanation of the text and a complete commentary on the Talmud. Steinsaltz first translates the Talmud into Modern Hebrew from the original Aramaic and rabbinical Hebrew and adds his explanations, the other language editions are translations of the Hebrew. The only rival to Steinsaltz is Artscroll's similarly popular Schottenstein Edition Talmud (translated first into English and then other languages). To date, he has published 42 of the anticipated 46 volumes. While not without criticism (e.g. by Neusner, 1998), the Steinsaltz edition is widely used throughout Israel, the United States and the world. Over 2 million volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud have been distributed to date. The out of print Random House publication of The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition is widely regarded as the most accurate and least redacted of any English language edition and is sought after on that basis by scholars and collectors. Controversial Talmud passages previously obscured, omitted entirely or confined to footnotes in English translations like the Soncino Talmud, receive full exposition in the Steinsaltz Talmud. Random House halted publication of the Steinsaltz Talmud after less than one-third of the English translation had been published. The reasons for halting publication by Random House are disputed.[citation needed]
His translation of the Talmud from Aramaic (or rabbinical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew) has increased the number of people who are able to study its content. His translation opened the door for women who traditionally are not taught Talmud, and are therefore not proficient in Aramaic, to study the Talmud. Modern Orthodox High Schools and Seminaries teach women Talmud using his translation. The number of men capable of studying Talmud also increased as a result of Steinzaltz' work.
Regarding the access that his work provides, Steinsaltz says:
“I never thought that spreading ignorance has any advantage, except for those who are in a position of power and want to deprive others of their rights and spread ignorance in order to keep them underlings. My gemarot are surely used, if they are used anywhere, in Matan [a yeshiva for Orthodox women in Jerusalem], from beginning to end. Why? Because they help skip the elementary school level of training. That makes learning Talmud for them possible, and if it is possible then it is challenging and some of the men don’t want that challenge.”
The Rabbi’s classic work of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, was first published in 1980 and now appears in eight languages. In all, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored some 60 books and hundreds of articles on subjects including Talmud, Jewish mysticism, Jewish philosophy, sociology, historical biography, and philosophy. Many of these works have been translated into English by his close personal friend, now deceased, Yehuda Hanegbi.
Continuing his work as a teacher and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Steinsaltz established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He has served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, Brandeis University, and Florida International University. Rabbi Steinsaltz is also Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Tekoa, and functions as Nasi in an attempt to revive the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz was honored with the Israel Prize in 1988 in the field of Jewish studies.
Being a personal friend and follower of the late Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad-Lubavitch, he went to help Jews in the Soviet Union assisting Chabad's shluchim network. Deeply involved in the future of the Jews in the former Soviet Union, Steinsaltz serves as the region's Duchovny Ravin, a historic Russian title which indicates that he is the spiritual mentor of Russian Jewry. In this capacity, Steinsaltz travelled to Russia and the Republics once each month from his home in Jerusalem. During his time in the former Soviet Union he founded the Jewish University, both in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The Jewish University is the first degree-granting institution of Jewish studies ever established in the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Steinsaltz and his wife live in Jerusalem, and have three children and eleven grandchildren. His son, Rabbi Menachem Even-Israel, is the Director of Educational Programs at the Steinsaltz Center in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Why he inspires me:

Until Rav Steinsaltz came along, there were really only two ways to learn the Talmud - the old fashioned way from texts that were photostats of photostats, or from the Soncino Talmud with its odd English translation opposite the classic photostated page. Rav Steinsaltz was the first person to ask: Why not change things up to make the text easier to learn? After all the Kehati mishnayos did it with great success. And thus his Talmud project was born.

Its impact has been incredible. For people with a working knowledge of Hebrew (even if not Aramaic), the Talmud opened up as a legible book for the first time. But even though his interpretive commentary made the basic text easier to read, the Steinsaltz Talmud was never presented as a be-all-and-end-all of Gemara study, simply a way to get more into the text. After all, the reader still has to figure out Rashi and Tosafos for himself and the study notes at the bottom of the page only hint at which commentators the reader should explore.

This project has continued on despite opposition from various quarters. Some were outraged that the Rav had tampered with the classic Vilna Shas page format even thought this format is not even 150 years old! The Artscroll Talmud project, it is rumoured, was started specifically because of the success of the Steinsaltz Talmud and although it dented his sales it did not push the project off track. Through his brilliance, Rav Steinsaltz has almost singlehandedly accomplished what Artscroll needs dozens of rabbonim for.

Throughout all of this, Rav Steinsaltz' motive has remained simple: spread Torah to the maximum number of Jewish people possible. He has made his life's work into something which has and will continue to profoundly affect the Torah world.


Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Great acheivments made by a very well-meaning individual clearly trying to spread Hashem's Torah to the masses.

But you have forgotten that Rav Schach in his Mikhtavim u-Ma'amarim, "vol. 4, pp. 65-67 Steinsaltz himself is categorized as a heretic." as Marc Shapiro recorded here:
on page three.

If I recall correctly, he was accused of publishing his views which seriously doubted the authenticity and integrity of Torah Sheba'al Peh to a significant degree.
He also was accused of dealing too crudely and cavalierly with the faults of biblical personalities.

Your protrayal of this "Gadol" is significantly imbalanced.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The first accusation was proven to be unfounded. The second goes back to the whole "infallability of Chazal" argument. The Tanach openly deals with our holy ancestors' lives, warts and all. Some would ignore those warts using the argument that their high level of holiness precludes our considering them as having faults (eg. David and Bassheva incident). Others see the retelling of their faults as the sign of their godlus. Despite their human failings, they rose in holiness to a level where they could receive Ruach Hakodesh, an inspiring achievement for us to learn about.

Dr Mike said...

The ban of Rav Shach, zt"l, was more political than religious in nature and as a result was never accepted outside the Chareidi community.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

The first accusation was proven to be unfounded.

Do you have evidence for this? I was told that even moderate rabbonim like Rav Nachman Bulman smelled this type of heretical orientation in R' Steinsaltz's approach to Mesorah.

Also, this line of yours needs to be clarified:
The Artscroll Talmud project, it is rumoured, was started specifically because of the success of the Steinsaltz Talmud

There is no need to speculate with rumors. The Artscroll project saw that there was a vacuum that the Steinsalz edition was filling, but it was filling it in a corrupted form-- due to the aforementioned problem of heresy re. Chazal and Mesorah.
No need to intimate that there was some other sinister financial motive.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Others see the retelling of their faults as the sign of their godlus.

If it were merely a matter of "retelling of their faults" I wouldn't have an issue. I was careful to cite a different form of criticism.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

What a strange dialogue. I have encountered such arguments over and over again with amazement. One contends that Rabbi A is a gadol and is met with a critique about how one could say that for Rabbi B considers Rabbi A not to be (or worse). This argument is suppose to make the first person change his mind. The problem is that there is an assumption that the force of Rabbi B's opinion of Rabbi A will do this. But who says the first person abides by Rabbi B's opinion especially when it challenges Rabbi A. Once in Israel, a person saw me reading a sefer from Rav Kuk. The person told me, in the attempt to get me to stop reading the sefer, that the Chaxon Ish said one should not read seforim in hashkafa from Rav Kuk. I looked at the person and said something to the effect, with great respect to the Chazon Ish, that still Rav Kuk obviously wrote the book to be read and I was thus faced with a machloket between Rav Kuk and the Chazon Ish on reading this book -- and the I paused, and said I follow Rak Kuk and then continued reading. I think I actually said something to the effect that lfi aniyat dati I felt Rav Kuk was greated but said that more to bother the person. Who am I to weigh who is greater between two such illustrious gedolim? Yet, to quote the Chazon Ish to cause me to stop reading Rav Kuk was just foolish to me. Why assume that I place the Chazon Ish above Rav Kuk just because you do, especially since I would even question the criteria you use? Something similar often happened in regard to the Rav when people would challenge my perception of his status as a gadol because some persone, who I clearly didn't even hold could come to the Rav's toenails, challenged it. Often in those cases, I just told the person to look at the Iggros Moshe's view of the Rav and let this person now deal with the fact that he was now looking like an idiot in the eyes of Rav Moshe. Now all this doesn't apply to Rav Shach who clearly was accepted by all to have gadlus status even as many still disagreed with some of his positions and his attitudes towards such individuals as the Rav and the Rebbe amongst others. But to quote Rav Shach's view of Rav Steinsaltz as an attack of Rav Steinsalts to someone who clearly holds of Rav Steinzaltz? Why not first find out what Garnel holds of Rav Shach and not assume that everyone shares your view that Rav Shach is the final word? In that regard you could possibly have a worthwhile discussion of the issue itself. And Garnel, while you do so to some extent, why not just say that according to people who hold a specific view, they may have problems with Rav Steinsaltz but you don't hold that view -- and the very proof is that you believe that Rav Steinsaltz is a gadol.

In truth I really wanted to respond to the question of what is a gadol and what are the criteria that we should apply to render that view. Part of the question would also be acceptance as such by just some individuals or whether there has to be some broad acceptance. With all due respect, I would have difficulty accepting Rav Steinsaltz as a gadol although clearly he is a great Torah scholar and has been marbitz Torah. To me, when I think gadol, I think Rav Moshe or the Rav. The question is why and I can't really fully articulate it but it is a feeling of what a gadol is that I find in these two and sadly feel is missing in this generation.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Tell you the truth, the reference to Rav Schach was only to substantiate my claim that Rabbi Steinsaltz was in fact charged with being a heretic. This important controversial aspect of Rabbi Steinsalz's profile should not be omitted.
We all would like to think our role-models are squeaky-clean, but life doesn't always work out that way.

My claim that Rabbi Steinsaltz harbored heretical notions about Torah Sheba'al peh should indeed be argued on its own merits. I await further discussion on the topic to prove my point and to see whether the term "gadol" is indeed an appropriate title for Rabbi Steinsaltz.

I wasn't trying to convince anyone by simply dropping Rav Schach's name. I know my audience better than that. Sorry for the confusion.