Photo Credit: Rabbi Steinberg

Scholar? Polymath? Renaissance man?

One struggles to come up with a word that encapsulates Rabbi Dr. Professor Avraham Steinberg. A growing number of people today are interdisciplinary, such that a rabbi/doctor or rabbi/professor no longer raises eyebrows as it once did. Thus, it can be easily missed just how unique Rabbi Dr. Professor Steinberg is.


For simplicity’s sake, I will generally refer to him as Rabbi Steinberg, but each title of his is wholly deserved and independent of the others. Most medical doctors who are professors teach in their field of medical expertise (e.g., a cardiologist is a professor of cardiology). Dr. Professor Steinberg does not. Medically, he practices pediatric neurology, serving as the senior pediatric neurologist at Shaarei Zedek Hospital, while his professorial duties are in the field of medical ethics. He doesn’t just teach medical ethics, but has written the decisive Jewish work in the field. (More on that later.)

Rabbinically, he’s a rabbi’s rabbi. Not only is he a leading authority on medical halacha, but as director of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, he oversees a team whose every contributor needs to be a massive Torah scholar intimately familiar with the entire Talmud and its commentaries.

A legend such as Rabbi Steinberg is worth reading about any day of the year, but there is special significance to the work of the Encyclopedia Talmudit during this war. Though popularity does not naturally jive with a project of deep scholarship, Rabbi Steinberg has endeavored to make the encyclopedia relevant whenever possible. Soon after October 7, his team of editors began curating a unique volume dedicated to the laws of wartime. Released just a couple weeks ago, relevant entries were culled from throughout the encyclopedia, with the result being the only book of Jewish law providing an in-depth, yet concise presentation of all the sources on war in Jewish law from the Talmud until today. Such a volume is a boon for teachers and congregational rabbis worldwide, but it is of utmost importance to those doing the fighting themselves.

The good news is that when the IDF Rabbinate heard about this project, they requested 2,500 copies to be distributed not only to IDF rabbis, but to army bases. With so many learned hesder yeshiva students and alumni in combat – including the rabbi of my shul – the demand is great among all army ranks. Unfortunately, the IDF chose to not buy them, leaving the Encyclopedia Talmudit staff to raise the funds necessary for the extra printing. The volume is now being dedicated in memory of Col. Yehonatan Steinberg (no relation), a religious officer who was the highest-ranking officer killed on October 7.


Identifying the Mutilated

My first question to Rabbi Steinberg was whether our post-October 7 reality has brought him new questions. His response was to sharpen the distinction for me between medical ethics – even Jewish medical ethics – and Jewish medical law, or medical halacha. Rabbi Steinberg illustrated the distinction through specific cases.

The cases Rabbi Steinberg shared are tragic. He had never seen difficulties in identifying the dead – both quantitatively and qualitatively – as he did after October 7. Different thresholds for identification carry serious implications, such as when a family will start sitting shiva or whether one’s spouse is considered a widow(er). Many victims were treated so brutally that the only hope of identifying them was DNA testing. Even so, some victims’ homes were burned so completely that there was nothing from their home to match the DNA material with.

In such cases, Rabbi Steinberg said, first-degree relatives can be asked to provide DNA material (which can be as simple as a strand of hair). Even worse, though, are situations where there is no body because the person was kidnapped to Gaza. Can someone be identified via video? Via certain bones without which one can’t live? These are qualitatively different, painfully new questions in the wake of October 7.

Following Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and others that brain death determines cessation of life, Rabbi Steinberg allows for organ donation after brain death. There is a debate in the Orthodox world, where encouraging organ donation remains an uphill battle. A recent article reported that 30 lives have been saved due to organs donated by 7 IDF soldiers killed in Gaza. This was at a time that over 190 soldiers had already been killed, indicating that less than 5% of soldiers had agreed to have their organs donated. It seems that everyone is reluctant, religious or secular.

Rabbi Steinberg explained that if a person hasn’t signed an agreement, the decision goes to their loved ones. He pointed to a recent study’s finding that, indeed, over 50% of trauma victims’ families do not agree to have their loved one’s organs be donated. For some people, it appears there are emotional obstacles, while for others, if even only one family member is opposed, it is not worth risking a family rift. If the deceased made it clear before death that he is a willing donor, however, Rabbi Steinberg emphasized that the family almost always respects the request, even if they personally would have been opposed.


Festschrift at Age 60

In our post-Covid world, sometimes people still wonder, “Why bother traveling to meet in-person? This interview could just as well be done over Zoom!” Sitting face-to-face for two hours with someone who measures his time in minutes was rewarding enough, but my travels on a rainy day were rewarded further still. At one point, a book on Rabbi Steinberg’s shelf suddenly caught my eye. It turned out to be a festschrift presented to Rabbi Steinberg in honor of a milestone birthday. Commonly, such commemorative volumes are put together for someone’s 70th, 75th, or 80th birthday, after a lifetime of accomplishment. This one was for Rabbi Steinberg’s 60th, by which point he had already accomplished more than most people would in 120 years.

The volume is graced by in-depth essays from leading lights across Israeli society, including Supreme Court justices, former chief rabbis, dayanim of the Bet Din HaGadol (Israel’s highest level beit din), and first-rank poskim.

Spearheaded by his son Rav Yitzchak Steinberg, dean of the Eretz Hemda Kollel in Ra’anana and a scholar and humble spirit in his own right, there is a beautiful, personal aspect to the festschrift as well. An entire section is devoted to Rabbi Steinberg’s ancestors, providing a brief biographical sketch of each of their lives and bringing their own Torah novella to modern print for the first time.

Not unlike former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Avraham Steinberg was born into a family of illustrious rabbinic lineage. His father, Rabbi Moshe, was a communal rabbi in Galicia before the Holocaust, and after he and his wife were relocated to a Displaced Persons camp after the war, he became the de facto rabbi there as well. It was in the DP camp that little Avraham, an only child of Holocaust survivors, was born. Rabbi Steinberg’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak (whom the festschrift’s organizer, Rabbi Avraham’s son, is named after), was the longtime rabbi of Yaroslav, a prominent city in Galicia. Rabbi Steinberg’s namesake, his great-grandfather Rabbi Avraham, was one of Galicia’s leading rabbis after WWI.


Medical Halacha & Medical Ethics

While Rabbi Steinberg charted his own path, pursuing a career in medicine, the deeply rooted tradition of Torah study remained a mainstay of his life. More than anything else, though, it was the unprecedented synthesis of the two fields which warranted a festschrift at age 60. When Rabbi Steinberg began his medical career, a yeshiva student turned doctor was a rarity. Even basic questions, such as how to practice medicine in a modern hospital as a religious Jew, especially on Shabbat, were barely addressed. The dawn of groundbreaking medical technologies such as organ transplants, respirators, IVF, and artificial insemination, though, meant the interface of medicine and Jewish law needed serious attention. A young Rabbi Dr. Steinberg dived right in.

As a fifth-year medical student, he founded Assia, a quarterly journal devoted to medical-halachic issues that is still going strong. In fact, I remember being introduced to it when learning hilchot niddah as part of my rabbinical studies with Rabbi Mordechai Willig. That same year, Rabbi Steinberg was chosen to head the Schlesinger Institute, a first-ever research program in medicine and Jewish law. He developed close relationships with the leading poskim of the generation, discussing case after case with them. And as the years went on, he began writing. And writing. And writing.

Rabbi Steinberg wrote the definitive work on medical halacha, Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Law, a seven-volume treatise in Hebrew spanning 3,400 pages of original scholarship. It received such high acclaim that in 1999, he was awarded Israel’s most prestigious prize, the Israel Prize, in the category of original rabbinical literature. This work became known to Anglos as the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, a condensed version translated by Dr. Fred Rosner. Given Rabbi Steinberg’s insistence in the beginning of our conversation that medical ethics and medical halacha are distinct fields, how was the title altered in such an egregious fashion, from “medical law” to “medical ethics,” I wondered?

Rabbi Steinberg’s answer was twofold. One, Jewish medical ethics and medical halacha are essentially the same field, as Jewish ethics will be significantly informed by Torah and halacha. Secular medical ethics, by contrast, is a separate field. Two, in a play on the well-known maxim, don’t judge this book by its title! Both titles are correct, but even taken together, are only partially representative of the book’s contents. The book’s essence is medicine and Jewish law, but most entries have not only an ethical section, but also a historical background to the topic and, when relevant, a legal background to its place in Israeli law.

But Rabbi Steinberg’s work in these fields goes well beyond writing. He has provided over 5,000 expert witness briefs in court cases involving pediatric neurology or medical ethics. And perhaps the most impactful work of his career has been chairing government appointed committees on bioethics, directly influencing Israeli law on end-of-life issues, organ donation, and circumcision. As such, Rabbi Steinberg is an exceedingly rare breed of intellectual whose work has positively impacted all sectors of Israeli society.

It is one thing to unify around a need-based organization such as United Hatzalah or Shalva. But to be a unifying force in the world of ideas, where ideological divisions are rooted? Nearly impossible. Yet Rabbi Steinberg transcends it all, with his respect, humility, and compassion playing as important a role as his extensive knowledge.

I asked Rabbi Steinberg who he sees as the up-and-coming Jewish medical ethics experts in the younger generation. He didn’t name one. Instead, he passionately advocated that more professionals fuse their Torah study with their profession of choice. “Today many doctors are religious and learned, yet very few of them go into medical halacha or medical ethics, which I fail to understand.

“They learn other topics and that’s nice, but what’s most relevant to them are the laws pertaining to the medical practice. It’s the same mitzvah of Torah learningyou’re not losing anything! If you are a businessman, learn business halacha.In fact, he emphasizes, it’s in the interface between Torah and your profession where your learning is most valuable, because you are an expert in your field. Thus, if you are familiar with the Torah principles relevant to your profession, your input is valuable to a rabbi making a halacic decision on that subject.


Fourth Life

At the time of the festschrift’s publication, Rabbi Steinberg’s life was already full as a physician, ethicist, and author. But in 2007, Rabbi Steinberg’s fourth life began, taking on a new mission directing the Encyclopedia Talmudit. In under 20 years, he has again accomplished more than even great scholars do in a lifetime. Literally. The first half of this historic Torah project took 60 years, but the second half – under Rabbi Steinberg’s visionary watch – is slated to be completed in under 20 years, by the end of 2024.

I point out that the latest volume of the encyclopedia is still on the letter mem, leaving about 40% of the alphabet left to go. How does 40% of a 75-year-old project get done in one year? Rabbi Steinberg proceeds to take me on a (verbal) historical tour of the Encyclopedia Talmudit.

Conceived of during the Holocaust and started shortly thereafter, its founding director was Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a towering scholar of that era. Under his stewardship, the entries were top-notch quality but concise, with over 40% of the entries completed within 30 years. Upon his passing, though, the new editors took to adding much analytical discussion to each entry, and the work slowed. Over the next 30 years, only about 15% was completed.

By the time Rabbi Steinberg came on board in 2007, new volumes barely received attention and the project was in danger of being shelved altogether. Rabbi Steinberg endeavored to bring the project back to Rabbi Zevin’s style, with more concise, focused entries, and would constantly tell the writers to cut this part out, cut that part out. It wasn’t always an easy transition. Then, in 2014, came the breakthrough.


Encyclopedia Talmudit

From left to right, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, President Isaac Herzog, and Rav Hershel Schachter at 75th anniversary celebration of the Encyclopedia Talmudit in January 2023.

The Toronto Foundation led by Dov Friedberg, which has also been a leading force for increasing access to licensed mental health professionals in Israel’s charedi community, agreed to provide a multi-million-dollar grant toward completion of the encyclopedia’s remaining volumes.

On two conditions.

One, that the entire project be finished within ten years (2024). Second, that the encyclopedia’s administration match his contribution by raising another few million dollars.

Rabbi Steinberg hired new writers, the pace of writing quickened from 15 entries per year to 100, and multiple new volumes were published each year.

What about that 40% of the alphabet which remains to be done? It’s done, says Rabbi Steinberg….online! In a stroke of ingenuity spurred by the need to meet the 2024 deadline, Rabbi Steinberg restructured the entire process of entry writing. Previously, a few entries were worked on at a time, and only once they had gone through an intensive editing process and received full approval were new entries begun. Now, Rabbi Steinberg has many more scholars writing entries which are good quality and are available online. Since the senior editors can only handle so much at once, their final approval and publication in book form will happen at a later stage.

To me, this signifies an entirely new, unheralded field of excellence in Rabbi Steinberg’s repertoire, one heretofore missing from all that is written about him: business management. In business terms, Rabbi Steinberg is the CEO of a major non-profit, demonstrating top-notch executive leadership and managerial competence. He manages a multi-million-dollar budget, recruited a team of advanced-level professionals in their field, and provided the right structure and motivation for them to turn in peak performance, for years on end, under the pressure of a “challenge grant.”

He oversaw a radical transformation of the workplace culture (when he joined in 2006, many team members were still using typewriters!) and needed to think creatively to come up with a methodology that would enable them to meet the challenge grant’s terms to increase quantitative output, but without sacrificing the quality that gives the Encyclopedia Talmudit its sterling reputation. To borrow a term from the start-up world, Rabbi Steinberg has produced a unicorn: The completion of the Encyclopedia Talmudit is infinitely valuable to the world of Torah study, well beyond the $1 billion valuation unicorn companies achieve. As King David famously said to G-d, “Your Torah teachings are more precious to me than thousands of (pieces of) gold and silver” (Psalms 119:72).

An added benefit of the project for Rabbi Steinberg is his relationship with Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, grandson of Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, who has been very supportive of the project. “I send him a WhatsApp and receive an answer immediately, as if he has nothing else to do!”


Achdut & Respectful Disagreement

Another benefit of meeting Rabbi Steinberg in person was that I could see a copy of the specially-commissioned volume on the laws of wartime. As I leafed through it, the table of contents struck me as odd. Of three sections, the first two contain chapters about warfare. The third section has chapters such as ahavat Yisrael and machloket. As someone who has written in these pages about the need for, and value of, unity and respectful disagreement, I was heartened to hear Rabbi Steinberg’s explanation of this section’s inclusion.

“The year before the war,” he shared, “there was such machloket she’lo l’sheim shamayim which brought hatred and almost divided our people. Now, it’s legitimate to think one way or the other. Do we need judicial reform or not? You can protest; you can argue about it. But to say that the other side has no basis? It turned into a situation of hatred, and we know from our history that pure hatred brings disasters. And quite possibly, this hatred is what brought this war. The lesson we have to learn from it is to disagree, sure, but in a friendly way. So we believed that improving in these areas is essential to the war’s success and included them in the volume.”

And what an inspiring role model for unity he is. For the Encyclopedia Talmudit, he accepts writers of all stripes – chassidic, charedi, dati-leumi, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi. The only criteria are to have complete mastery of the Talmud and its commentaries and to be a good writer. Earlier, I asked if there is a particular part of the Orthodox world he identifies with. On the one hand, he learned in Merkaz HaRav, was a medical officer in the Air Force, and does not advocate for a Torah-only approach. On the other hand, his dress and lingo bespeak an affiliation with the charedi community.

“Today everyone is assigned. He belongs to this world or that world. I have my own world. I think there are very good things in the charedi world. There are very good things in the chardal (Merkaz HaRav-type) world. There are very good things in the Mizrachi (Gush-type) world. I’m trying to adapt what fits me best, as long as it doesn’t violate any halacha.

“In fact, my being indifferent as far as defining myself belonging to this [world] or that [world], it helped me very much with my work, because I got access to all the gedolim, whether they are charedi, Mizrachi, chardal or Sephardi. I went to everyone and everyone accepted me equally.”

What a wonderfully harmonious approach to carry with us in a discordant world.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous article‘Minhag America’ Prayerbooks
Next articleIDF Raids Khan Yunis Hospital Amid Evidence Hamas Held Hostages There
Rabbi Chaim Goldberg has semicha from RIETS and a graduate degree in child clinical psychology from Hebrew University. Aside from practicing psychology and teaching Torah at various yeshivot/seminaries, he runs Mussar Links, a non-profit dedicated to publishing the Torah writings of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg.