Monday, March 31, 2008

"The Goal of Jewish Mysticism"

A few weeks ago I had some email exchanges with my friend and colleague Rabbi Steve Shaw, who has known Rabbi Steinsaltz for decades. Steve was instrumental in helping Rabbi Steinsaltz launch his publishing and teachings activities in the United States. Currently Steve is living in Jerusalem and is doing extraordinary work with Bedouins at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. I will always be indebted to Steve for arranging my very first meeting with Rabbi Steinsaltz nearly 30 years ago.

Steve told me that he visits weekly in Jerusalem with Rabbi Herbert Weiner, the author of 9 ½ Mystics: The Kabala Today. Click here The book has been aptly described as a modern classic. I remember being captivated by it when it was first published in 1969. I tracked down Rabbi Weiner in 1974 when I was a librarian in New Jersey and I visited with him several times in the attic study of his synagogue. Rabbi Weiner was writing about Kabbalah in the United States long before it became popular.

In the book, Rabbi Weiner, explains that he first met Rabbi Steinsaltz when Rabbi Steinsaltz was 26 years old. Rabbi Weiner describes that one day he once asked Rabbi Steinsaltz for a definition of mysticism. As Rabbi Weiner, who is now retired from his pulpit in New Jersey and living in Jerusalem, relates it, the next day Rabbi Steinsaltz handed him a piece of paper with the following written on it:

The goal of Jewish mysticism is the effort (combined with the practice) to come close to things, a yearning for identification. This yearning includes all things, small and large, but its special goal is an identification with the innermost aspect of everything—the Divine.

Mysticism, therefore, is the desire to remove the outer covering of things which hide their inner quality. Only through finding innerness in our life, as well as the innerness of all things, will this desire for full identification enjoy any kind of gratification.

It is possible, therefore, to perceive two processes at work in mysticism.

First, an activity which is mainly speculative—that is, the intellectual effort to remove the shells of reality.

Second, the activity by which, after the removal of the outer coverings, one binds oneself to the truth.

These two processes make up, respectively, the philosophy and practice of mysticism.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

"What is a Tzaddik?"

A little over thirty years ago I read a book called A Tzaddik in our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin by Simcha Raz. (It is still available, and I urge you to read this great work; you’ll thank me for it!)

Rabbi Levin was known as “the tzaddik of Jerusalem.” Among the many extraordinary things he did, every Shabbat Rabbi Levin visited Jewish prisoners in pre-state Israel during the British Mandate.

Those of you who know me well are aware that I have, for many years, sent Jewish books to Jewish prisoners. There is even a federal penitentiary in Texas with an “Arthur Kurzweil Judaica Collection” in the prison library. The Jewish prisoners there, who I’ve sent many books to individually, once decided to pool their books and then asked the prison officials to make a special section of the prison library so that the books could be readily available to all.

So, in a way, I have a special connection to Rabbi Aryeh Levin.

In 2004, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave a talk in memory of Rabbi Aryeh Levin at the Underground Prisoners Museum in Israel. The evening was hosted by the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Center.

Click here for an English translation of that talk by Rabbi Steinsaltz:


By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

It has been said that in every generation there are thirty-six hidden tzaddikim, righteous people, in whose merit the whole world continues to exist.

However, one great tzaddik once said that sometimes, even non-hidden tzaddikim, people whose righteousness is overt, are also hidden tzaddikim. That is because what we do know about them is very little. Whatever is unknown about them – that is the part of the hidden tzaddik within the revealed tzaddik.

This number, 36, is part of Jewish folklore – but where does it come from? What is unique about it?

This number is mentioned for the first time in the Talmud. I assume, although I cannot fully prove it, that our Sages chose that number because it is the majority of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin court was made up of 70 people who were, in fact, the judges of the world, and in a certain sense, the leaders of the world. In order for the world to continue existing, at least the majority of this court – 36 – must be righteous people.

Some of the 36 may not fulfill important roles, or occupy prominent positions. It may also be that the other 34 (*) members of the Sanhedrin were not such great tzaddikim. And yet, it was those 36 tzaddikim, the majority of the Sanhedrin, who decided time and time again that indeed the world merits continuing to exist.

What is a “Tzaddik”? This term has many different definitions: ranging, on an ascending scale, from the person who thinks that his or her conduct is in order – to someone larger than life, a sublime human being indeed.

However, I would like to speak about this term in relation to the figure of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. I had the privilege of knowing Rabbi Aryeh when I was a very young man. I still keep at home a letter that he wrote to me in reaction to something I had written: a very loving, heart-warming letter, a letter which is like a caress – which I may not have deserved. And it is because I knew him that I think he is indeed a good example of what can be called “a tzaddik.”

The basic question about a tzaddik is not “What did he write?” He may not have written anything at all, and still he is a tzaddik.

The question is also not “What did he say?” He may not have said anything worth repeating – and still, he is a tzaddik.

The question is even not “What did he do?”

The essence of a tzaddik is in what he is. The essence of being a tzaddik is something primordial, like the essence of a precious stone. A precious stone does not have to do anything: it simply exists. So, too, those tzaddikim are counted among the 36 righteous ones not because of their deeds, but because of their essence.

Not everyone can merit being a tzaddik. There are people who write important books, others who do great and mighty deeds, others yet who produce pearls of wisdom – and they are all great people, each on his own level. But a tzaddik, and especially a tzaddik who is “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25), is possibly born a tzaddik.

For the sake of comparison, let us look for a moment at the term “genius.” Geniuses are born geniuses, but they have to develop their talent; not everyone who can become a genius does indeed become one.

As for the tzaddikim, perhaps the Almighty scatters all over the world some special sparks that, if they work diligently, if they evolve and develop, they are the ones who are bound to grow into tzaddikim. And, being tzaddikim, whatever they do are acts of righteousness. Or, as one great tzaddik once put it: Some tzaddikim fulfill God’s will; but there are tzaddikim who are greater yet, and whatever they do is God’s will.

Rabbi Aryeh was a Jew who was strict about small and great mitzvot alike; but his righteousness was not based on any small paragraph in the Shulhan Arukh, nor even on this or that Biblical verse. He was a tzaddik, and therefore whatever he did: his speech, his caress, his smile, the visits he paid, his special sensitivity to other people’s pain – all of it stemmed from his being a tzaddik.

Those tzaddikim who are “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25) – not ones who are relatively righteous, or tzaddikim according to their deeds, but rather those who are tzaddikim in essence – cannot be imitated. They are like a rose, or a star. What does a rose do? Or a star? They are there. And wherever they are, they shed all around them some kind of a light, a glow This glow is their deeds, words, smiles, gestures; and all of this, put together, is the sum total of “tzaddik."

There are different kinds of tzaddikim. The Almighty assembles His string of pearls, His most precious jewel, from different kinds of gems. The 36 tzaddikim, then, are not carbon copies of each other. Rather, each one of them is a figure, a being, in his own right. In a manner of speaking one can say that they are taken from different places. Some tzaddikim are taken from the deepest waters of the sea; others are taken from the rocks of the desert, or from a fertile valley. There are also tzaddikim who stand in front of Mt. Sinai, who have Mt. Sinai inside of them.

I think that Rabbi Aryeh, too, was hewn from a special mountain. However, I do not think it was Mt. Sinai. Because despite the fact that the Torah was given on it, Mt. Sinai has not remained holy.
There is, however, another mountain, a mountain of everlasting holiness: Mt. Moriah. It is the mountain on which father and son cry together, the mountain whose essence is giving ourselves totally for the sake of God.

And it is from this mountain that Rabbi Aryeh Levin was hewn.
(*Editor's note) The make-up of the Great Sanhedrin included a leader called Nasi, and a vice chief justice (Av Beit Din).


Friday, March 28, 2008

"Too Long, Too Boring, and Too Frequent"

When the Sabbath is treated as a weekend (with or without synagogue attendance), it feels like the secular weekend: too long, too boring, and too frequent.

When the Sabbath is not distinguished from the weekdays — set apart as a special time with a special mindset — it is meaningless.

If we view the Sabbath candles as decorations, they will be superfluous.

If we light the candles in an effort to welcome holiness, however, they will give off a special radiance.

If we call up some friends to arrange the next golf outing, we will have just another weekend

If we can connect our shared conversation at our Sabbath table with holiness, however, we will experience oneg, the delight that our tradition extols.

If we overload our day with too much food or too much empty chit-chat, we will gain nothing.

But if we accept God’s invitation to share His day with Him and allow a bit of the world-to-come to waft into our world, we will treasure life with a feeling of wholeness and contentment.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Thursday, March 27, 2008

"He will stand like Rashi and Maimonides"

In January of 1988, Time magazine published a feature story about Rabbi Steinsaltz and his monumental translation of and commentary on the Talmud. The first volume of Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published in 1967. I just learned that the last volume, completing the project, is scheduled to appear in 2010. I reread the Time magazine piece earlier today. Here is it:

Giving The Talmud to the Jews

Monday, Jan. 18, 1988 By RICHARD N. OSTLING

All of the spiritual, legal and cultural teaching that forms the heart of . traditional Judaism is contained in the massive sacred book the Talmud. Yet for most Jews that book is closed: without specialized training, it has been impossible to understand it. In a recent poll, 84% of Israeli Jews reported they had never read any of it. The reason is simple: the text is dauntingly complex.
The written compilation of centuries of oral wisdom, the Talmud was completed 1,500 years ago in two versions, named for their places of origin. The commonly used Babylonian text runs to 2.5 million words. The Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud, far less known, is half as long, but many sections are so condensed as to be unintelligible. Its message was alive only for scholars and a handful of others. Now that is changing because a brilliant Orthodox rabbi named Adin Steinsaltz believes Judaism is in peril if "an essential part of our people are cut off from the Talmud."
He is working to produce new editions of both Talmudic texts, a feat no scholar has ever attempted, and, at age 50, is well along on the monumental task. This summer his Institute for Talmudic Publications will print Volume XX of the Babylonian Talmud, the halfway point, with completion expected in 15 years. To date, nearly 1 million of the various books have been sold, and an English translation is planned. Last month the long-awaited first volume of the Steinsaltz Jerusalem Talmud was issued. The first printing sold out in a matter of days; a second appeared last week.
"He will stand like Rashi and Maimonides," says Israeli Historian Zeev Katz, daring to compare the contemporary rabbi with the two great Jewish sages of medieval times. The assertion that Steinsaltz is a once-in-a-millennium scholar is particularly remarkable coming from Katz, a leader of Israel's association of secular humanists. But the diminutive, soft-spoken Steinsaltz inspires superlatives from all Jewish factions. In recognition of his achievements, he has just been named winner of the 1988 Israel Prize, his nation's highest honor. The rabbi greeted the news with characteristic mirth: "Gee, one gets that a year before one dies."
A self-described "commuter between heaven and earth," Steinsaltz did university work in physics and mathematics rather than rabbinics and had a rigidly secular upbringing in Jerusalem. His father Avraham, a far-left socialist, was an early Zionist and proudly Jewish, but he kept any religious sentiments carefully concealed. Little Adin read Lenin and Freud before his bar mitzvah. Later, however, the family saw to it that he was tutored in the Talmud and attended a religious high school. Explained Avraham: "I don't care if you are a heretic. I don't want you to be an ignoramus."
Adin was bored at school and far more interested in the struggle to establish the state of Israel than in spiritual questions. "I am by nature a skeptic," he remarks. But the youth who looked upon believers with disdain was slowly and inexplicably drawn to faith. "I never climbed high mountains or shot lions. The way to religion was the beginning of an adventure, and a very big one," he says. "It came to the point that this world was not enough."

Steinsaltz's audacity was such that at age 27 he decided to create a modern Talmud. "It was a kind of hubris," he admits. Standard editions are virtually unreadable for nonexperts partly because the Hebrew is printed without vowel notations or punctuation. And the work abounds with obscurities. Two commentaries are customarily printed alongside the text to assist understanding, but they raise further questions because they are centuries old.
Braving the ire of traditionalists, Steinsaltz inserted vowel marks and punctuation. He also translated Aramaic sections into modern Hebrew and explained the numerous words from other languages that crop up. Even more boldly, he wrote his own commentary to appear with the two classical ones and provided a wealth of explanatory notes. Twelve typefaces had to be used to help readers sort out the various categories of material.
Once the first Babylonian volume appeared in 1967, opposition among the ultra-Orthodox melted away. Today most Israelis agree with Hebrew University's Shmuel Shilo: "You can now read the Talmud the way any book is read. It is now a popular work." The director of the pluralistic World Union of Jewish Students, Daniel Yosef, says that "Steinsaltz has taken the study of the Talmud out from behind the closed doors of the yeshiva and given it to all of us."
In frail health (his spleen was removed in 1980), Steinsaltz nonetheless puts in days of 16 hours or more, much of them at the word processor, where he uses software he designed for handling Hebrew. Working in an old stone house near his Jerusalem apartment, where he lives with his psychologist wife and three children, he is helped by a devoted, low-paid group of 15 to 18 disciples. On the side, he has written everything from a detective novel to a celebrated work of mystical thought, The Thirteen Petalled Rose. Steinsaltz also presides over two synagogues and two yeshivas and is a popular lecturer and radio speaker. "He is good at everything but raising money," laments one New York City supporter of the Talmud project. "Every time I bring a potential donor, he goes for the man's soul, not his pocket."
The Steinsaltz Jerusalem Talmud, begun in 1976, is likely to prove even more important than the Babylonian, since the text has never before been available with a satisfactory commentary. To make the notorious Jerusalem passages readable, Steinsaltz is interpolating words into the text, marking additions in a lighter typeface so readers can discern the original. He has no idea how long it will take to finish the Jerusalem version. There are many sources of information on the Babylonian, he explains, but "with the Jerusalem I am almost alone." But then, Steinsaltz is almost unique as well.
With reporting by Marlin Levin/Jerusalem