Many of the rabbis of the Talmud, that vast, a-historic, impossible-to-categorize compendium of Jewish thought, law, and lore that looms magnetically behind Jewish life for the last two millennia, were huge personalities, quirky, brilliant, larger than life, unmistakably human and alive.
So was Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the Israeli scholar who translated the Talmud into modern Hebrew and oversaw its translation into many other languages.
Rabbi Steinsaltz died last Friday at 83.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s work was monumental; it is tiring to imagine simply carting all of his work from library shelf to reading table, much less engaging with it. But his great gift — and he had many — was to make the Talmud and the other texts he tackled engaging, accessible to far more people than the yeshiva students for whom, at least in the popular Jewish imagination, it was confined.
Like the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz was complicated, passionate, warm, brilliant, kind (except when kindness was not called for), gentle (except when he was called upon not be be) and funny.
Ilan Kaufthal of Englewood and Rabbi Steinsaltz were friends for the last 30 years; Mr. Kaufthal now is president of the Aleph Society, which supports the work of Rabbi Steinsaltz and of the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote or translated about 60 books, including both versions of the Talmud, the more widely studied Babylonian and also the Jerusalem one. He started that work in 1963, when he was 27, and finished in 2010. He closely oversaw its translation into English, a language in which he was flawlessly fluent. He translated the Tanach into English; he wrote about chasidic mysticism — his work about kabbalah, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” also is considered to be a classic — as well as biology and zoology.
“The most significant thing about what he accomplished is that this is the first guy in history to have taken the Talmud and opened it up to everybody,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “He democratized the Talmud; anyone who wants to can pick it up in their own language.”
“When he started this project, basically the Talmud was confined to scholars, people who were intimately familiar with the methodology and the language and the method of how you learned it — and that was a very tiny part of the Jewish world,” Mr. Kaufthal continued.
“He called it ‘Let My People Know,’; he felt very strongly that knowledge is power. He wanted to give people the knowledge, then they could figure out what they wanted to do with it. They could take Judaism in whatever direction they want to take it.”
That was a logical outgrowth of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s own path to a deeply religious life. “He was not a guy who tried to make other people religious,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “His own background was secular, but his father nevertheless sent him to religious school.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz was born in Jerusalem, in what still was Palestine, under the British mandate, in 1937. His parents, Abraham and Leah Krokovitz Steinsaltz, were socialists; the New York Times reports that his father went to Spain in 1936 to fight Franco. They were thoroughly secular. But Abraham Steinsaltz “said that ‘You can be a nonbeliever — an apikoros — but you cannot be ignorant,’” Mr. Kaufthal reported. That religious education stuck.
Rabbi Steinsaltz was broadly educated. On the secular side, he went to the Hebrew University, where he pursued his interests in science and math, interests that make themselves clear in his later work. He also earned rabbinic smicha. He became a school principal at the extraordinary age of 24. When he was 27, he began to work on the Talmud.
“He wanted to be able to take the text, and first of all translate it so it would stay as close as possible to what the text meant to say,” in either the classic Hebrew or the Aramaic in which it was written. “He was a stickler for making sure that his translation hewed to the original intention of the words.
“He also made sure that he translated all the commentary exactly according to their original intent.
“And then he added his own commentaries, about how he saw some of these things. He saw them as supplemental, not as something that tried to diverge from what was written.
“A lot of thought went into designing the page, and in many cases into illustrations. So that when the text referred to biblical animals, he felt very strongly that to say that they’re talking about an oryx is great, but if someone could see what an oryx looked like, that would add dimension and color to the text.
“He felt that the presentation matters, that the medium matters; he believed that if you could illustrate what the words mean, it would add more life and interest to the text.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s translation of the Talmud is available free online at Sefaria. “He was very excited about that being available,” Mr. Kaufthal said. When the founders of the open source Jewish resource, Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer, met with Rabbi Steinsaltz a few years ago, they were not sure that Rabbi Steinsaltz would be comfortable with their plan, although “they were extremely taken with the idea that they were meeting with a genius of the highest order.” Genius notwithstanding, he had not grown up with the internet; their ideas might not have been intuitive to him. “But within five minutes he got exactly what they were doing, and he said that he would work with them, and do whatever he could to help.
“They were shocked — and delighted.”
So what was it like being in the presence of a genius of that order?
“It is very hard to describe honestly how much of a genius he was,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “He is truly the only person I have ever met where I felt that there was a library in his head. And it was not confined to Jewish texts. The library in his head had works about science, about philosophy, about biology…
“I have never met a man with a fraction of his intellect, but he also was impish. He was delightful to be around. He had a sense of humor. He was extremely funny about what was going on around him in the world, in life, in society.
“He was a guy who loved to eat and drink — he liked to have a triple espresso at 10 at night. He wrote most of the evening. He probably spent 18-plus hours a day working.
“He always appreciated people. He was nonjudgmental about everyone — except people who thought too much of themselves. Pretentiousness was something he abhorred.
“He was a lot of fun to be with.”
He remembers a time that he and Rabbi Steinsaltz had dinner at a well-known kosher restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Most people in the Jewish world knew who he was,” Mr. Kaufthal said. He was famous; he also by that time was noticeable looking, and probably a bit more rumpled than most people in that always-tucked-in neighborhood. “It was soon after the Lubavitcher rebbe died.”
Some background — Rabbi Steinsaltz’s relationship with Chabad Lubavitch was deep. He was introduced to Judaism through them, he thought of the rebbe at least in some ways as his spiritual father, his wife came from an old Lubavitch family, and he adopted at least some of its customs.
The story of how he adopted his middle name, Even-Israel — Stone of Israel, a quote from Bereshit 49:24 — is connected to Chabad; the story is that the Lubavitcher rebbe suggested that he take it.
But he did not have a formal connection to the Lubavitch infrastructure; he was more of a free agent. The love, though, was ever-present.
“So this man came by, breathlessly, to say hello, and said, ‘Is it true that you will be appointed the next Lubavitcher rebbe?’” Mr. Kaufthal continued.
“And Rabbi Steinsaltz looked at him, without smiling, and said, ‘It is true, but please don’t say anything about it, because first I have to finish my tenure as the king of Poland.’”
Mr. Kaufthal and Rabbi Steinsaltz had enough to talk about; the rabbi had recently returned from a trip to Lake Baikal, in Siberia. “It’s the most natural lake in the world,” Mr. Kaufthal said. The Russian navy had taken him down in a submarine so he could look at the animals there.”
That reminded Mr. Kaufthal of another story. He’d talked to a mutual friend in San Diego, who had hosted Rabbi Steinsaltz on a Sunday, a day unusually appointment-free. “He asked where he could take him, and Rabbi Steinsaltz said the zoo.” They went to the San Diego Zoo, and “I have never met a person with as much interest in zoology.
“He was a unique man.”
Another of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s attributes was his openness to all students. “He never rejected anyone who wanted to learn,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “I was always amazed at the diversity of the people who followed him. Some were totally secular and interested in Talmud as an intellectual pursuit, and some were chasidic guys who were interested in the kabbalistic aspect. There were billionaires and people who literally were janitors. They were both women and men. The diversity of sociological, economic, and religious beliefs and geographic diversity was unbelievable.”
“He was simply teaching Jewish thought. Torah. He made no judgment about who he was teaching. That was not his job. His job was to provide Jewish knowledge, and to let them use the Jewish knowledge to whatever end would benefit them.”
Because the one group of people to whom Rabbi Steinsaltz’s lack of judgmentalism did not apply — the pompous and self-satisfied — “he was really an awful fundraiser,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “He cared about people who were interested in knowledge. He cared about the soul.
“I can’t tell you how many wealthy people he made scathing and very much to-the-point comments about wealth, and how wealth should not be mistaken for knowledge.
“We raised money for his work despite him.”
Mr. Kaufthal knows that he will miss Rabbi Steinsaltz gravely, but he has found some comfort in the rabbi’s teaching. Rabbi Steinsaltz often focused on the personalities of the rabbis of the Talmud. “He would talk about the characters of Rabbi Akiva and the Rav and Rabbi Tarfon, and I really felt that he knew who they were. He was able to focus on them and bring them to life. So I really get a lot of comfort imagining that he finally is up there with them. He’s able to talk to them in person now.”
Rabbi Elie Mischel, who heads the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, had been interested in Rabbi Steinsaltz for a long time. His wife, Dr. Rebecca Mischel, is Mr. Kaufthal’s niece, so when Mr. Kaufthal’s mother, Edith, died in 2013, Mr. Kaufthal asked Rabbi Mischel if he’d like the chance to drive Rabbi Steinsaltz from Manhattan to the shiva in Englewood, and then to Newark Airport.
Not surprisingly, Rabbi Mischel jumped at the chance.
That day has stayed alive in his mind.
“I am a bit intense, and I had so many questions,” he said. He was driving; he asked the questions, “and Rabbi Steinsaltz spoke so softly. I had my left hand on the wheel, and I had to shove my ear toward him, and I tried not to kill us both while also hearing him.
“I tried to memorize all the things he told me, and I typed up about three or four pages of it.”
He put some of those notes into an email he sent his congregants. It includes these paragraphs:
“Shmoozing together in the Kaufthal kitchen, Rav Steinsaltz’s conversations moved back and forth seamlessly, from the Talmud to mystery novels, from the world’s deepest lake to the Tanya. Rav Steinsaltz was fascinated by almost everything, including science, sports, and people (my favorite line: “I am also interested in people — sometimes I even like them!”).
“There are many biographies published in the Orthodox world that portray great Rabbis as, in Rav Steinsaltz’s words, ‘plastic saints’ — as perfect people who never made mistakes. Rav Steinsaltz, however, understood that perfection is for angels; that it is our striving that makes us uniquely human. He wrote that ‘every man is a contradiction … a combination of the holy and the trivial. One has to integrate it all into some workable unity by building one’s life as though it were an annex in the court of the Holy Temple, the inner chambers of which one can never be sure of entering.’ If anyone has ever succeeded in living these words, it is Rav Steinsaltz himself.”
Rabbi Mischel remembers seeing Rabbi Steinsaltz at an Aleph Society dinner; the program was a conversation between the rabbi and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, moderated by Harvard Law School’s Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Noah Feldman. “Scalia was so respectful, and Steinsaltz gave him a hard time,” Rabbi Mischel remembers. “He said, ‘If Jesus would come into the world today and walk into a synagogue, he’d say that some things have changed, but he’d recognize it. But if he’d walk into a church, he’d say, ‘What in the world is going on here?’
“He was so unique, and in a way that means a lot to me,” Rabbi Mischel concluded. “Rabbi Steinsaltz shows us that there is not one type of person who serves God. He could have been a night talk show host, but instead he was one of the greatest rabbis of his generation, who changed the world while being himself.
“Even more than any one individual teaching, that is the loss that I feel most. You might not be the sweet type, who naturally will be a rabbi — but God needs every one of us.
“He was a world changer. Thank God, he lived a full life. Our loss is greater than his.”
Rabbi Chaim Poupko, who leads Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, knew Rabbi Steinsaltz for most of his life.
“I was very privileged to know him,” Rabbi Poupko said.
Rabbi Poupko, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois, comes from a long line of rabbis. His father, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, now is the rabbinic scholar at the JUF, Chicago’s Jewish federation; he was close with Rabbi Steinsaltz.
Rabbi Poupko remembers that in 1989, “when things were softening in the former Soviet Union, Rabbi Steinsaltz was invited to start a yeshiva in Moscow.” The invitation came from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. “Among a number of rabbis, my father was invited to teach there. And when I was sick as a kid, he davened for me. So he felt a special connection to me; my father invited him to my bar mitzvah, and he spoke.
“Over the years, I have had a number of opportunities to sit and talk with him, and to get advice.
“The best description I can give of Rabbi Steinsaltz is that his feet were firmly planted in this world. He was very very sensitive to people and to their struggles. His spirituality, his intellect, reached the highest levels, but his feet were firmly planted.
“I wasn’t in regular contact with him, but I met him several times in Israel, when I studied there for two years after high school,” Rabbi Poupko continued. “Before I came home, my father told me to sit and talk with him, and he gave me a piece of advice that I never forgot.
“He said, ‘You are going back to Yeshiva University. You will have a curriculum. You will have credits. It will be a structured environment.
“‘Don’t just think about meeting the requirements that are set out for you. Always try to do more. Always try to reach beyond that.’
“That always stayed with me. It’s easy to just go to your classes, take your tests, and you’re done. That has always been very motivating for me.
“And he lived that.
“Because he is so world-renowned, there is an image of him as a great rabbi, and therefore unapproachable. But when you sat and talked with him, he was warm and congenial. He had a sense of humor. He was dynamic. He was a person you could sit and talk to for a long time.”
Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Diamond of Teaneck is the Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He did not know Rabbi Steinsaltz, but he does know his work.
He compares Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud to the other English-language translation in common use, the Art Scroll version. They’re different, he said. The Art Scroll “is fully encased within the world of the beit midrash,” the study hall; “you don’t really have a sense of the outside world on which the Talmud is commenting.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz gives context. “Linguistic, botanical, agricultural, cultural, historical context.
“I think that in some sense, he is changing our sense of what the Talmud is,” Rabbi Diamond said. “When people study Talmud today — and I think this has been true for a long time — in many settings you are studying ideas without necessarily engaging in the reality to which those ideas are attached. For example, if you are study the mishna that deals with various types of plants, if you study Art Scroll you will find out perhaps what Rashi thinks a particular plant is, or what the tosafot” — medieval commentaries — “thinks, but you won’t get the ideas of a botanist, or the benefit of a contemporary who knows what it actually is.
“It’s the mindset of saying that we want to step outside the beit midrash, and have access to the knowledge of people outside it.
“It reminds us that the rabbis were not cooking this up in the beit midrash without reference to the outside world. On the contrary, it suggests a certain way of living in the world and engaging in the world as you study Torah. It suggests that Torah should be engaging in the larger world.
“To me, that is his greatest contribution. He had a lot of natural curiosity. The rabbis had a lot of natural curiosity too, and the Talmud reflects that.”
Another aspect of Talmud that Rabbi Steinsaltz modeled was the importance of a sense of humor, although Rabbi Diamond said that it’s not necessarily of “the roll-in-the-aisle variety. In my classes, if you don’t get it, I won’t explain it, because it won’t be funny then anyway. But the rabbis are funny.
“I always tell my students that one of the reasons that I trust the rabbis is because they tell stories about themselves behaving badly. They talk about their mistakes, about their rivalries, and that is reassuring, because you know that they are human. They are trying their best to be godly, but they know and acknowledge that they are imperfect.”
He quoted a friend, Dr. Robert Pollack of Columbia University, who once asked Rabbi Steinsaltz for advice on how to defend his own belief in God against his colleagues’ hostility to that belief. “Steinsaltz said to him that that when people believe that there is no one on the throne, they will end up putting themselves on it.
“That is such a brilliant insight into human nature, and it touches on what is fundamental to his own philosophy. One thing Rabbi Steinsaltz made clear again and again was the importance of humility, of self-knowledge, and of honesty, and of the aversion to the deification of human beings, starting and ending with himself.”