Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suffered a stroke in 2016. That new books by him continue to be published is in large part due to his son, Rabbi Menachem Even-Israel, who is the executive director of the Steinsaltz Center. The Jewish Press spoke to him during his recent trip to the United States.
The Jewish Press: How have things changed since your father’s stroke?
Rabbi Menachem Even-Israel: I definitely have more responsibilities. Getting answers from my father is mainly “yes” or “no.” He can’t tell us exactly what he wants; he can’t write, but he can mark if he likes or doesn’t like something. He can circle something, or put a line through it, so we know more or less what to do.
Fundraising is also much harder. My father used to go somewhere, charm people, and then the local fundraiser would fundraise. Today, most of it is on my shoulders.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was not known to change people’s last names, yet he specifically asked your father to change his, which is why your last name and your father’s formal last name is “Even-Israel.” Do you know why the Rebbe suggested he change his name?
I’m not the Rebbe, and anything from the Rebbe we don’t explain. The main theory is that my father had just gone through a very hard time, and perhaps the Rebbe wanted to give him a new beginning.
What was it like growing up having something of a genius as a father?
You were expected to read a lot and then you were expected to read more, and after you thought you read enough, you were expected to read even more. The expectation was that it was never enough. I was never asked to excel in school, so to speak, but my own personal learning was always a demand. I was expected to finish Shas, Tanach, Chassidus, etc.
I was also expected to read Ulysses by James Joyce – don’t ask me why – Dickens, and Shakespeare. You were expected to be knowledgeable on everything in the world. Let’s put it this way: Nobody asked me to clean my room from the mess I made with books. Books were expected to be everywhere. You were expected to read two or three books at a time.
Your father is a unique individual in that he doesn’t clearly belong to any “camp.” He’s not a black-hat rosh yeshiva, a dati le’umi rabbi, or a chassidic Rebbe. Has his outsider status been a help or a hindrance to him?
It’s a very good question. In one way it’s great because he can fit everywhere, but sometimes it’s very hard because you don’t have the right political or religious backing that you would like to have. If we would associate with one organization or one movement, life would probably be easier. I think my father’s goal was to be his own man, though.
How many volumes of your father’s works does the Steinsaltz Center sell a year?
Between 70,000-90,000. Right now the majority of sales in the United States is the English Talmud – 38 volumes out of the expected 42 are now in print – and in Israel my father’s Tanach, which was published last year, is the most popular.
So far, only the Chumash portion of the Tanach was translated into English. We hope to have the Neviim and Ketuvim translated in the next five to six months.
What, do you think, attracts people to your father’s works?
They don’t have an agenda; they don’t give you orders what to do. They give the individual who reads them a key for knowledge.
They’re also very clear. The language is modern, so it’s much easier to read than anything else on the market.
You say your father’s works don’t tell you what to do. But isn’t action the most important thing in Judaism?
My father’s mission statement is “Let my People Know.” We emphasize knowledge because knowledge is the key to understanding. Eventually somebody will do something amazing and we appreciate it, but it’s not our agenda. Our goal is to teach people to know and understand. As the Ramban said a long time ago: In order to believe in something, you have to know that something.
Three thousand years ago at Matan Torah, we said “Naaseh v’Nishma.” We’ve done “naaseh” for many years. Maybe now it’s time to do a little “nishma” – to understand what we are doing.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about your father or his work?
That he didn’t just [translate and write a commentary on] the Talmud. He also did the [same for] Tanach, the Mishnah, Rambam, and Tanya.
What gap does your father see himself filling? It’s not like there aren’t numerous other commentaries out there on Tanach or the Mishnah, for example.
My father was the first one – ArtScroll started after him – who said, “Let’s make the ancient texts accessible.” That was my father’s chiddush in the 1960s. So, for example, he took the Talmud, which was a completely closed book, and he opened it. He just did the same for Tanach. He gives people the option to read it firsthand.
The Torah commands everybody to write his own Sefer Torah. The idea is that the person should own the Sefer Torah; it should become his.
So that’s the gap he’s filling; he’s giving the common person on the street the ability to read and know by himself.
What is your father working on now?
The final editing or annotation of a Hebrew commentary on the Mishnah. It’s going to be a 13-volume, fully-colored edition. In English, he’s going through the final chapters of the Tanach before it goes to print.
What’s next for the Steinsaltz Center?
We’re working on a digital platform, which means a major website and apps for Androids, iPhones and other devices. We would like it to comprise my father’s entire body of work in Hebrew and English, which includes over 160 volumes of books plus thousands of articles and audio and videos recordings.