In a world where the word "gadol" has lost most of its religious meaning and has instead come to be defined as "leading political authority in the Chareidi community", it becomes difficult to remember that there are still many great men whose greatness makes them stand distinguished in the annals of our people.
One of these real gedolim is Rav Adin Steinsaltz, shlit"a, a man with unparallel intelligence and the burning passion to use that intelligence for the sake of educating the Jewish world in Torah. Whether it be the many books he has published or his iconic version of the Talmud Bavli, Rav Steinsaltz has changed how people learn and made the greatest work in Judaism accessible to many who might otherwise never get a chance to learn the wisdom of our Sages.
But for me what makes Rav Steinsaltz truly great is his ability to transcend politics. His love of Torah supercedes any desire to become involved in a specific political movement. If he believes in the necessity and value of the modern State of Israel it is because he has, using his Torah knowledge, concluded that such a thing is pleasing in the eyes of God. He can work with folks across the entire Orthodox spectrum since what he has in common with them, an unabashed love of Torah, cannot be pigeon-holed into one segment or another of Orthodoxy.
In a recent interview with TabletMag he reveals another level of complexity, his status as a chasid of Chabad.
They way I see Chabad, there are essentially two movements that claim the title. The first, which I call Chabad Classic(tm), is the original movement before it became a kiruv-based, cult of personality based empire. It is the Chabad of Europe which was admired by Chasidim and even some Misnagdim across the board for its depth of thought both in halacha and mysticism. It is the Chabad that produced great poskim and mekubalim and whose influence through is various works continues to guide the Torah community today.
The second group I call Lubavitch Incorporated. It is the movement as it exists today, what Rav Shach, zt"l, called the world religion closest to Judaism. It is a movement obsessed with kiruv and deification of the last Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z"l. As opposed to Chabad Classic, it is the public face of the movement today.
For many, Lubavitch Inc. is annoying or irritating. Certainly many of us are troubled by the meshichism that has taken over the movement and which guides many of its important leaders. Almost as an involuntary counter-reaction to claims about the Rebbe's greatness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. we try to diminish him, to render him as flawed and human as possible.
This is wrong. For all that he may have done that the rest of the Torah world disagreed with, the Rebbe was a great leader in the Torah and general Jewish world who used his influence to bring people closer to Torah, even if only to the narrow Chabad version of it in some cases. His life was dedicated to bringing a successful conclusion to Jewish history by working to bring Moshiach. His was a first class mind even if some may disagree with the conclusions that mind came to.
Rav Steinsaltz, it seems, is able to understand this. In answer to the question:
What do you think about the movement within Lubavitch where some people say the Rebbe is a semi-deity or is still alive?
It’s like the stories people tell about Elvis Presley. Maybe they play cards together. If they are alive, they are alive in the same realm, I am afraid.
For too many Lubavitchers, the only way to show proper respect to the Rebbe is to acknowledge that he was/is nasi doreinu and b'chezkas Moshiach and anything less is considered the same as implying his father was a marauding Cossack. For Rav Steinsaltz, however, the difference is clear. One can quietly reject all the hoopla that Lubavitch Inc. created in the closing years of the Rebbe's life while still acknowledging his intellect, piety and influence that made its mark on the Jewish world.
For me this ability of Rav Steinsaltz, his way of being passionately dispassionate in how he approaches a subject and which allows him to see the beauty of something without getting involved in its petty politics, is a significant mark of his godlus. Perhaps if more Jewish leaders left their parochial concerns behind we would be in better shape as a nation.
My only quibble is a small one: Playing cards with Elvis? Who's the dealer, Jim Morrison?