With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s passing on Friday, the Jewish people lost a remarkable leader and teacher, a unique personality, and a man who touched the souls of tens of thousands of fellow Jews.
Who was Rav Steinsaltz? First and foremost, he was a Torah scholar, a teacher, and a prolific writer. He was a Chabad chassid who was thoroughly familiar with the depths of chassidic theology and was able to convey those depths to the uninitiated. He received the Israel Prize, the highest civilian honor in the state of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem named him a Yakir Yerushalayim, an especially cherished citizen of the Holy City.
He was a poet, a mystic, and an expert on world literature. He was a delightful speaker and a skilled debater. He was an ohev Yisrael, a lover of all Jews, no matter their educational background or denominational affiliation. He was a creative outreach pioneer who established educational institutions in the former Soviet Union. He was an activist in the movement to free Soviet Jewry. He was a linguist. And he was a good friend with an amazingly eclectic range of good friends.
The impact he had upon spreading Torah study – thereby bringing Jews closer to G-d and their faith – cannot be overstated. He translated and wrote commentaries upon the Bible, the Mishnah, the entire Babylonian Talmud, the works of Maimonides, and Sefer HaTanya.
He was perhaps the most prolific commentator on Jewish texts in the history of the Jewish people. He wrote original and extremely insightful works on Jewish thought, chassidic philosophy, and Talmudic methodology. His inspirational works are indispensable tools for those who seek spiritual growth. The website of his publisher, Koren Publishers Jerusalem, lists 236 volumes of his original works, translations, and commentaries.
His motto was “let my people know,” and it can be maintained that nobody has done more to make Jewish tradition accessible to all than Rabbi Steinsaltz.
Above all, he was a visionary, always ahead of his time. The co-founders of Sefaria.org relate that when they approached him years ago for permission to initiate a digital project that would make his Hebrew translation of the Talmud and its English translation available for no cost to the public, they were certain they would have a difficult time explaining the nature of this project and its potential to reach a huge audience to this aging white-bearded rabbi.
But not only did Rabbi Steinsaltz understand the implications of what they were proposing, he was three steps ahead of them. He had the vision to see further than they could. They report that this past month alone, 100,000 people accessed his translation and commentary on the Talmud, either in Hebrew or English.
Every avid reader of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s numerous works has his or her favorite few. Here are my favorites, which I especially recommend to all my acquaintances: The Essential Talmud, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, The Soul, My Rebbe, The Reference Guide to the Talmud, Talks on the Parasha, The Longer Shorter Way, In the Beginning, and The Sustaining Utterance.
I have found his multi-volume Hebrew commentary on the Tanya to be of enormous assistance to both beginners and scholars, and his as-yet untranslated Hebrew book on the weekly Torah portion, Chayei Olam, enhances my Shabbat experience every week.
What was the secret of his personality? How did this model of humility and modesty accomplish so much? How did he become so well known that he gained acclaim well outside the Jewish world? What made him tick?
To answer these questions, I must note that I was personally privileged to have had a personal relationship with him. It began many years ago when I came across a book entitled Nine and a Half Mystics: The Kabbalah Today by Herbert Weiner. Rabbi Steinsaltz was one of those mystics. My personal interest in Jewish mysticism led me to reach out to the rabbi, who was on a lecture tour in the United States at the time, and to ask him for an opportunity to meet with him.
It happened that he was then lecturing in Washington, D.C. when my family and I were living in a nearby suburb. I attended his lecture, which was delivered to a distinctly non-Orthodox Jewish audience. I was astounded by his ability to engage his listeners in a profound analysis of a Talmudic sugya.
At the conclusion of his lecture, he was surrounded by members of the audience who bombarded him with questions. We then connected only briefly but agreed to remain in touch, and so we maintained a very occasional and casual connection.
That connection deepened about 10 years ago. Rabbi Steinsaltz had, by then, completed his magnum opus, the translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud from its Aramaic original into modern Hebrew. He and his followers approached Koren Publishers Jerusalem proposing to collaborate upon an English translation of his Hebrew translation of the Talmud.
I was privileged to be chosen as the editor-in-chief of that new translation, now completed and known as the Koren Talmud Bavli. In that capacity, I had numerous occasions to consult with the rabbi and to establish an ongoing relationship with him, which lasted until his medical condition sadly deteriorated.
Our meetings were almost always held in his book-lined office in the building known as the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem. I invariably left those sessions elevated by his intellect, inspired by his authentic piety, and entertained by his anecdotes and sense of humor. Often, I left with a sense of wonder, pondering whether or not there was some central component of his persona that could help me define his essence.
These past few days, terribly saddened by the news of his death, I recalled an address he gave to a national convention of the Orthodox Union approximately 20 years ago, which helps define his essence. In that address, he questioned the litany of sins that comprise the confessional prayer that we recite on Yom Kippur, known as the Al Chet. He pointed out that we confess to several dozen sins, many of which ring true, but many of which we have never actually committed.
He went on to say that there is one sin of which we are all guilty but which is omitted from the long list that comprises Al Chet. He proposed that we add to the litany the following confession: “Al chet she’chatanu lefanecha b-smugness! – Forgive us, Lord, for having sinned before You with our smugness!”
He went on to say that he, expert as he was in the Hebrew language, knew no Hebrew equivalent for the word “smugness.” But, as he explained, “smugness” has two components: one is indifference and the other is complacency. Most people who are smug simply don’t care. They are indifferent. Then there are those few who are not indifferent. They do care. But they don’t act. They are complacent.
The essence of Rabbi Steinsaltz, I suggest, was to combat smugness with every fiber of his being, with every ounce of his immense talent. He fought indifference. He cared. And he overcame complacency. He acted.
What makes him irreplaceable was his ability, not only to teach, but to inspire. He motivated his tens of thousands of readers and followers and students to emulate him, to overcome their own smugness, to care and to act: to care about ignorance and injustice and skepticism and to act to educate, model justice, and cultivate meaningful faith.
May his memory be more than a blessing. May it be the impetus for all of us to study his works and to ourselves adopt his goal: “let my people know!”