Wednesday, April 30, 2008

“The higher someone's noble rank, the more obligations he has”

Rabbi Steinsaltz says:

Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher/sociologist, wrote a book entitled The Revolt of the Masses, in which he says that nobility is best expressed by the French expression noblesse oblige.

Nobility is not about rights or riches; it’s about obligations. The higher someone’s noble rank, the more obligations he has.

Being Jewish means that we have obligations from the moment we open our eyes to the moment we go to sleep, from the day we are born to the day we are buried.

They never leave us, not for one moment.

There is no time in which we can say, “Okay, dear God, now we’ll part ways. We’ll meet again sometime.”

Being a Jew means that God intervenes in our pocketbooks, in our kitchens, in our bedrooms.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to do anything.

We’re allowed to do lots of things - but always with the notion that Somebody is there, and He’s keeping count.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From the essay by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz “It Takes a Giant” March 11, 2003


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"We cannot go to sleep until we find out what truth is"

My son is currently in Israel at a yeshiva. In our telephone conversation yesterday we spoke about his eagerness to study Talmud.

Our discussion reminded me of part of a talk Rabbi Steinsaltz gave at a Jewish school in Kiev.

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

Some 150 years ago — this is a true story — a certain German prince wanted to know what the Talmud is.

He asked a certain rabbi to invite him to a yeshiva and teach him one page of Gemara.

Thus, for a few days this prince sat and studied the first page of Bava Kamma. He found it very interesting and thought-provoking, but there was one thing that he could not understand.

At the very end of the page, it says that the problem they were dealing with throughout has no practical meaning whatsoever, that it is merely theoretical.

What is the point of such a book? He asked, Who needs it?

I do not know what the rabbi’s reply to that prince was.

But if I were there, I would tell him that the main question of the Talmud is not “What do I need to do next?”; for that, there are other books.

When I want to know what steps I should take in order to cook a certain dish, I refer to the cookbook; and in order to know what my next action should be, I open a book of halacha or any other sort of practical book.

But in the Talmud we have something that will not necessarily be of any tangible benefit to me today, tomorrow, or ever. It is a value in its own right, something that gives me no respite.

For in the very final analysis, what I want to know is — Where is the truth?

And indeed, the central, all-encompassing question in the entire Talmud is, Where is the truth — as far as any human being can attain it.

For certain people — hopefully, for Jews — the pursuit of truth is an inner need.

We cannot go to sleep until we find out what truth is.

For us, truth is not a trivial matter such as what is the length of my trousers; it is something that we cannot live without.

And in this sense, it is deeply connected to our philosophy and to our faith.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from the transcript of a talk titled "The Pursuit of Truth" presented to a girls' school in Kiev.


Monday, April 28, 2008

"Did you ask a good question today?"

In contrast to all of the do's and don'ts of Pesach, the next major holy day on our calendar, Shavuot, by comparison, has little in the way of laws, customs and rituals. But it does have the one thing I admit I love most about Jewish tradition--study!

In the essay I am posting today, Rabbi Steinsaltz focuses on just that eternal Jewish activity: studying and learning--its importance in Jewish life, its uniqueness among humans, and its connection to Shavuot...

"Did You Ask a Good Question Today?"

For most, the act of studying stops abruptly at the end of formal schooling, whether after elementary school, high school, or college.

Not that they don’t have many experiences, and hopefully learn something from them. If they live in a good-sized city, they may have lectures to choose from, and perhaps go and listen, and even go again, if the subject interests them. But few adults sit down and study in a continuous, disciplined way; they find no compelling need or motivation.

Curiosity is a characteristic of youth. Many educational systems don’t understand this. They try to make every subject of study “relevant,” and that’s a mistake. Teachers, and sometimes parents, think that this enhances the desire and inclination to learn, but they are actually destroying curiosity, which is what is most important.

The idea of being interested in irrelevant things –that have no immediate relevance to our existence – is part of our uniqueness as humans.

In the preface to his book on popular physics, Leopold Infeld describes the earliest experiments with electricity. You can do them yourself. You take a piece of glass and rub it with silk, and you get electricity. Or, you take a piece of amber and rub it with flannel. You get electricity, this way, too, but it is a different kind: One is positive, and one is negative.

Now, what would most people do if they had those things? They’d take the piece of glass and use it as a paperweight. They’d place the amber on a shelf as an ornament. They’d use the flannel to clean their shoes, and use the silk to wipe their nose.

So how did we go from static electricity to computers – from the Greek philosopher Thales (the first to describe creating static electricity by rubbing glass with silk 2,500 years ago) to Steve Jobs tinkering in his parents’ garage? These people were curious. They had some time on their hands and they had some stuff to play with. They played in order to satisfy their curiosity. They tried this and that, and then found something interesting.

When a school tries to make everything relevant and utilitarian, it may kill curiosity. In some realms of knowledge, it is fine to ask what the good of something is, to see if it gives a practical answer to a practical problem. But sometimes, I want to find out about what it is. One may say that it is the lack of continuous curiosity that slows human advancement.

Jews are obligated to be involved in studying Torah simply to study Torah. As a religious activity, this is unusual. Most religions have expectations about belief and about doing the right things, but they don’t obligate you to study. Jews, however, study Torah as an independent activity that is not directly connected with belief or action. In fact, the most studied books in Jewish life, like the Talmud, have little practical use.

So why are people studying the laws of things that happened in remote times – and were rare even then – or things that the Talmud says never happened and never will happen?

We devote time to it because what we are doing is going after knowledge for itself, not as something to be used. Not everyone has the same level of active curiosity, but study is encouraged and done as an obligation. The number of classes and lectures available in a Jewish community can’t be compared to anything that happens in any other place.

Why does God want us to study? Theologically, it is a way to commune with Him. The ability to study for the sake of study is what I call a true human trait in which we are, in a way, higher than angels. Angels don’t seem to have curiosity; they know everything. And animals learn only what they need to live. So the only beings who are curious about anything are people.

This notion was always powerful within Jewish life, and it has pushed some people to high intellectual levels.

Isidor Rabi – who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944 – attributed his prize and his great achievements to his parents. When he came home from school, they never asked him what he learned. Rather, they wanted to know, “Did you ask a good question today?”

The Jewish approach to learning seems to have been ingrained very early and very deeply. Hectaeus, a Greek geographer during the reign of Alexander the Great, wrote about remote countries that were beginning to be known at the time. He remarked that he had heard of an interesting people who lived south of Syria: All of them were philosophers, that is, people who ask idle questions and are interested in wisdom for wisdom’s sake. That is a nice statement about our people.

On the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah. We don’t dance and sing with it, as on Simchat Torah. Rather, alone or together, we sit and learn – whatever text or topic we choose – just to learn and to connect with God.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, April 25, 2008

"Jewish history basically begins with a naughty boy"

Recently, I heard Rabbi Steinsaltz say that while some people are accident-prone, he himself seems to be “story-prone.” A lot of untrue stories appartently circulate about Rabbi Steinsaltz.

Yesterday, the Executive Editor of Jossey-Bass, one of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s publishers, was talking with me about some of the many articles about Rabbi Steinsaltz frequently appearing in the press.

The conversation prompted me to go back and reread one of my favorite pieces, written by my friend (for over thirty years) Helen Weiss Pincus. Helen received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for this article (First Place, “Weekly Profile Writing” 2004).

It was called “The World According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.” Here is a slightly edited version of the piece. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Click here:

"The World According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz"

By Helen Weiss Pincus, from The New Jersey Jewish Standard, October 31, 2003

Talking with Jerusalem scholar, educator, and author Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is like grappling with a page of Talmud -- a particularly difficult page -- full of apparent non-sequiturs and elliptical references. What really interests the rabbi-rebel-scholar-mystic are the world’s “whys.” He eschews answers in favor of questions.

“Unluckily I don't know enough,” he said in a recent interview. “If I am going to be interviewed I will know even less. When you give all the time answers you don't have time for questions and the real things are questions. The world is so full of questions. In our times, in a certain way, physics became kind of a shambles. So it is even more interesting because you don't really know. You know now less than you knew when I was a youngster. You know more but you understand less.”In quest of questions, Rabbi Steinsaltz encourages Talmud study.
The culture-spanning image of a pale yeshiva student bent over dusty ancient tomes avidly pursuing pure knowledge – Torah lishma - is as real as ever, but Steinsaltz hopes to extend the exploration of the Talmud to many more people.

In 1965, he founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, and since then has been working on translating and reinterpreting the Talmud. Thirty-six volumes have been published in Hebrew, and volumes are available in English, French, and Russian.

The Talmud is an extensive amalgam of thousands of years and millions of words of discussions, debates, interpretations, anecdotes, and commentaries on the more succinctly written Chumash -- five Books of Moses. While the words, stories, and principles of the Chumash have become woven into other religions, the Talmud remains uniquely Jewish.

Steinsaltz believes Talmud study is the key to Jewish continuity. “A Jewish society that ceases to study the Talmud has no real hope of survival,” Steinsaltz says.

An educational innovator who has established schools on his home turf and abroad, and who at 24, was the youngest school principal in Israel, Rabbi Steinsaltz recalls his own unconventional early educational experiences with nostalgic satisfaction.

“When I entered high school, they began to talk about how a person is supposed to learn something in school. That seemed to me so impossible that I just left.”

Ultimately completing high school in two nonconsecutive years, the unconventional but enthusiastic student filled his open-classroom days by “talking with friends. Being alone. In fact even looking at some of the textbooks of school. I studied mostly Jewish things. It was a very nice time. I was mostly in the street. I learned a lot about Jerusalem, talked with people. I was in places. Not in school. All of it was very helpful.”

Although he clearly relishes his bad-boy past, students applying to Mekor Chaim, the elementary-through-high school yeshiva he founded started in Israel, are put through rigorous testing to filter out all but the “best kind of kids socially, intellectually, and religiously. Anybody that is below a certain level is not accepted. And then we take the best motivated and the best mannered of them.”

The Mekor Chaim teachers are also held to a high standard. In a heterogeneous classroom “a fair amount of kids don't understand a word. Some of them are not interested and so on. So then if the teacher achieves something, anything, it is an achievement. [But] when you have such a collection, if you don't achieve, then it shows that somebody is very guilty. If a teacher is not successful with [the Mekor Chaim students] he should be kicked from here to wherever.”

Steinsaltz, as a student, did not harbor such great expectations from his teachers. “In school, you see, I was very quiet. There was a tacit agreement between the school and me. I don't bother them; they don't bother me. I was sitting in the last bench. I was shortsighted even then so I didn't see anything written on the blackboard. But nobody asked me about it. So I was sitting reading books or writing something. I didn't bother the teachers; the teachers didn't bother me. It was quiet.”

He acknowledges that despite all available testing a child's potential sometimes goes undetected. Indeed, he would most likely not have made the cut at Mekor Chaim and the school would have lost a gifted student. “The thing which nobody can find out is who are the children that have the spark. This spark is something that sometimes you see. Something is burning. You know it is there. [But] sometimes it's so very well hidden ... that you don't see it in them. You don't see their future abilities or their future potential. I don't know the way to find it. Maybe it's the child that gets thrown out of yeshiva. Maybe it's the child that everyone wants in yeshiva. I don't know.”

A Guide to Jewish Prayer is one of Steinsaltz's more than sixty published books. He has spoken to Torah educators about how to make daily prayers meaningful. Could he offer suggestions for leading reluctant teens to prayer? ”

A teenager is really an obnoxious creature. Somebody wrote that human beings are the only creatures in the world that suffer their adolescents to stay with them. All other animals kick them out. All others. Horses. Elephants. They know that [adolescents] are impossible.”

These emerging adults, he continued, "undergo changes. And these changes are not easy at all. You form new relationships with everybody, including yourself. For some people it is a very difficult time. You have to meet your body again and it's a very different meeting than you had five years ago. You wake up and you find that you have a new life of dreams and desires.”

The educational component is the determinant, he believes, in how children deal with prayer.

"The question is what harm has been done to them before. If children are not pushed by brute force and if they get to understand what is the nature of prayer it is much easier. But in America you don't speak about prayer. You speak about repeating words in Hebrew that a boy or girl doesn't really understand. There is no emotional attachment. Prayer is an emotional intellectual communication with God. If you went to a Presbyterian school you possibly heard something about prayer. But if you went to a Jewish school you only heard about 'davening.' Small children shouldn't be pushed into full-fledged davening.”

Steinsaltz also speaks about to doctors at Israeli hospitals about medical ethics. He has a lot to tell them.

“There was a time when the doctors had an uncanny interest in me. I spent lots of time in the hospital making their lives miserable. They liked it when I left. I wasn’t very respectful of the doctors.”

Notwithstanding the aid of a computer -- a concession to handwriting so illegible that even he has trouble deciphering “a gimel from a chaf sofi,” -- words do not flow effortlessly for this prolific writer.

"One page sometimes takes me a whole day. Writing is for me a difficult job but still I manage to do it by stealing time. From whom can I steal time? From myself, from one thing, from another thing, sometimes from sleep. Sometimes, it's unforgivable, but sometimes from my wife. Writing takes me an enormous amount of time. But sometimes I look back and I see that I did write some words.”

Discussing how to find and allocate precious moments reminds the rabbi of an anecdote.

“It's a nice story. I have a friend, an acquaintance really. We met years ago. From the beginning he was strange. I used to meet him in hospitals. He would come to the hospital and play the fiddle. He would go from one room to another, ask people what they wanted and play it on the fiddle. He would play whatever they wanted in that particular room and then go on to the next. Big hospitals have lots of rooms so he would spend the day in the hospital. So I met him off and on. I thought perhaps he was one of those well-meaning people who had gotten into a blind alley in life. Later on, by chance I found out that this person didn't make a living by playing the fiddle. He was a lawyer. He did practice law but only in the late afternoon. He was a lawyer who spent most of his time playing a fiddle. So what is important? It's a good question.”

The rabbi mused about whether the lawyer should have used his time to achieve something “higher or nobler? He could possibly have become a judge. But he decided to become a fiddler playing in the rooms of a hospital. What's more important? People make decisions and these are a matter of sacrifice. This is a real person not a story about a legendary figure, a tzaddik. There is a good chance you can bump into the fellow if you happen to visit a hospital in Jerusalem…What do you want to get from life? Probably not what everybody would suggest is the best choice.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I tell the children [in my schools] that their job is to make the lives of the teachers miserable by asking them questions and making them study something.”

His own childhood was surrounded by many questions and few answers. “When I tell my children that compared to my parents I am a very open book, they don't believe me. My father was involved in all kind of secret things. His motto was, as in every secret service, ‘You know only what you need to know.’ The need to know is in the present. Everything with respect to the past that has nothing to do with my life was never told to me. Even now I know very little about my parents’ lives. They didn't talk. First person singular wasn’t very common there."

A Midrash about biblical patriarch Abraham relates that his father, Terach, once left him in charge of the family business -- an idol shop. Rather than sell the merchandise, Abraham, already a confirmed monotheist, challenged the customers' beliefs and dissuaded them from purchasing the fresh-out-of-the-kiln deities.

“Jewish history,” Steinsaltz said, “basically begins with a naughty boy who went to his father's business and asked ‘Who cares about this?’ That's our history.”


Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Caterpillar Does Not Become a Butterfly in a Single Act"

Recently I’ve been in email correspondence with a young man who has asked me to help him in his process of becoming more involved Jewishly.

Today I found myself insisting that he track down and read Rabbi Steinsaltz’s extraordinary book Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew.

My suggestion prompted me to go back and reread one of the most important chapters in the book for me personally, “All or Nothing: The False Dilemma.”

In that chapter Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

"All or Nothing: The False Dilemma"

A person who, through neglect, develops a malady in one part of his body, need not, for the sake of consistency, neglect the other parts as well.

So it is with the mitzvot.

The question of “all or nothing” is also invalid from a human, personal point of view.

Though the ba’al teshuvah may wish to see himself as one reborn and to begin his spiritual life with a sense of wholeness, it is important for him to recognize that even in spiritual rebirth it is not possible to take on everything at once.

The people of Israel, in accepting the Torah, did not receive it all at one time.

Rather, the process was a protracted one, from the early preparatory stage of the seven Noahide laws to the acceptance of additional mitzvot in Egypt, at Marah, and at Sinai, to the full revelation there that followed.

Similarly, a child raised to be an observant Jew takes upon itself the full yoke of the mitzvot only after long preparation; years of training and the gradual, step-by-step assumption of responsibility according to its intellectual readiness and practical capacity.
The essential point is that living beings do not undergo sudden, complete transformations.

The caterpillar does not become a butterfly in a single act but as a result of a gradual process, governed by certain laws.

Within this process there appears to be a series of jumps between distinct stages, and these the ba’al teshuvah also must make from time to time.

But these transitions, too, are neither as quick nor as sharp as they appear.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew, “All or Nothing: The False Dilemma,” pp. 18-19


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Obstinacy Will Be On Your Side"

Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches:

When the Jews, immediately after receiving the Torah, made the Golden Calf, Moses prayed to God asking Him to forgive the people for this terrible sin.

He said, “Ki am kishei oref hu. Visalachta…for it is a stiff-necked people, and you shall forgive...”

This seems strange. If they are an obstinate people, then why should God forgive them?

The Ramban, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, who lived in the 13th century in Spain, answered this question.

He wrote that the verse means that Moses says to God:

“You know your people. They are a terribly obstinate people. To move them from one level to another, from one position to another, takes a long time. Because of this, you should forgive them.

“You must remember that they lived 400 years amidst an evil nation. You want them to change? You can’t expect them to change in a day. It will take them years and years to change.

“But when they are changed, the same obstinacy will be on your side. They will never leave you.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"To Accept Things That Are Beyond Our Faculties of Comprehension"

On the second night of Passover we begin looking ahead to the holy day of Shavuot.

With the coming of each special day on the calendar I go to my shelves of books by Rabbi Steinsaltz and review what he has written about that approaching day.

One special source is a book-length dialogue between Rabbi Steinsaltz and Rabbi Josy Eisenberg of Paris, France, called The Seven Lights On the Major Jewish Festivals, (Jason Aronson, 2000).

In the chapter on Shavuot, Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches:

One of the problems facing this generation is that we have perhaps become too “intelligent,” too knowledgeable, or too rationalistic, to be able to experience the total and spontaneous allegiance of our ancestors.

Worse still, we tend to forget that there is something beyond reason. Jews need to face this question both as individuals and as a nation.

How can we recover this ability to transcend the particular and seize reality in its totality without performing fancy calculations beforehand, without asking, “Do I understand?” “Do I want this?” “Am I ready?”

This is why the sages say that every day we need to place ourselves at the foot of Mount Sinai.

This can take place on Shavuot or on any day of the year.

The face-to-face encounter at Sinai involves an encounter with Oneness and willingness to accept things that are beyond our faculties of comprehension.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From The Seven Lights on the Major Jewish Festivals by Adin Steinsaltz and Josy Eisenberg, p.231-232


Friday, April 18, 2008

"We are being decimated by love"

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

Why is This Generation Different From All Other Generations?

The seder is a singular event in the Jewish calendar, requiring days, or even weeks, of preparation.

When we sit down at the table, at last, and coax the youngest participant to ask Ma Nishtana, we know exactly what is different, and how much effort it took to make it different.

The next set of questions — those asked by the Four Sons, or the Four Children — addresses a larger issue.

According to one perspective, the Four Sons represent four generations of the Jewish people.

This leads us to the wider question I have posed above. A different night is one thing, but a whole different generation?

The first generation is not only wise, but enthusiastic — or perhaps it is enthusiastic because it is wise. It has received a solid Jewish education and is steeped in Jewish life and Jewish culture. Its members ask questions so as to broaden and deepen their commitment.

The second generation is wicked (the language is harsh, but it’s the text we have): This generation may have learned the “behavioral” part of Judaism, but it has missed the spiritual and the inspirational elements. Lacking a meaningful understanding of Pesach — and, indeed, of Judaism – it rebels.

The third generation asks a question that is almost primitive: “What is this?” This generation is ignorant, too ignorant to be rebellious. Yet the grandchild notices unfamiliar objects and actions, and so he approaches the grandfather with his questions.

The child of the fourth generation, however, is not motivated to ask, and would not even know what or whom to ask. No one in his orbit is Jewishly knowledgeable or Jewishly connected. His grandfather is a member of the second generation, the one who rebelled against the Jewish heritage and rejected it. He has no memories and no context.

Throughout our history, and in almost every country of our dispersion — with the noteworthy exception of the United States — others have tried to destroy us with hate.

Today, however, the biggest problem — especially in the United States — is that we are being decimated by “love,” as, one by one, Jews are voluntarily surrendering their Judaism on an unprecedented scale.

Our response to this threat must also occur one-to-one.

At the seder, and every day, we must respond to our children’s curiosity with substance and we must meet their passion with our own.

We must assure that we live a Judaism that is fresh and vigorous and compelling, so that every generation will be able to establish itself as a first generation that is both wise and enthusiastic.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Excerpted from a syndicated column April 1, 2004


Thursday, April 17, 2008

"One may jest, one may ask questions, one may play"

The external framework of the seder, despite it being fixed, is not rigid; it allows, and even encourages, the introduction of changes and innovations.

Not only were new sections added to the text of the Haggadah over the generations from time to time, but the text itself, by its very nature, demands completion.

In each generation parents and children are again asked to think about the enslavement and liberation from Egypt—to discuss them, study them, and to examine the many points at which present-day life meets, identifies with and clashes with the Passover Haggadah.

Essentially, everyone is asked to add to the story, to perfect it and to “relate the Exodus from Egypt” at least for “that entire night.”

For this reason, there is no hard and fast rule as to how one is to read the Haggadah and who is to read it.

If they wish, the members of the household may ask the oldest one to read it and to explain;

if they prefer, they may all read it together;

if they wish to sing the text, fine;

if they prefer it may be read without song and melody.

Whoever wishes to ask questions is invited to ask, whether young or old--the wise child, the wicked one, the stupid one.

And whoever wishes to answer or to discuss the matter is praiseworthy.

The night of the seder expresses that characteristic of Judaism which was succinctly put by one of the Hassidic teachers: “’You shall be a holy people unto Me’--that your holiness shall be human.”

Thus, the atmosphere at the seder may not be one of scorn or joking, but of respect for the sacred—but in a human manner.

One may jest;

one may ask questions;

one may play.

The afikoman is “stolen,” one acts out the Exodus from Egypt, and once again this Jewish family, which is now celebrating the Passover Seder, is connected with the entire Jewish people, in all places and throughout the generations.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Adapted from The Passover Haggadah by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz ( Carta, Jerusalem, 1983)


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Part of the Family is Missing"

All of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s books are provocative. He challenges my basic assumptions, he turns my questions on their head, he pierces beneath the surface of things and he prompts me to see the world with fresh eyes.

In some ways We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? is the most provocative of all of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s books. One of the important ideas in the book is Rabbi Steinsaltz’s description of the Jewish people as a family.

I urge you to track down this book and read, in detail, how Rabbi Steinsaltz unravels the idea of the Jewish people as a family. I am confident you will be convinced that it is not merely true but also dazzlingly clear as well as quite useful when applied to many of the questions we have about Jewish life today.

When the book was first published in 2005, Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote a brief article that not only begins to explore his insight of the Jewish people as a family but also provides an important message about the holiday of Passover.

Click here to read this piece by Rabbi Steinsaltz:


by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

What does it mean to identify oneself as Jewish?

As a rabbi - someone who is, one might say, a Jew by profession - I have given a fair amount of thought to this issue.

The most obvious first answer, I believe, is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as it might seem.

There is no basic set of meaningful principles to which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.

Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.

Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.

Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official "shared" language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.

What we are - I propose - is a family.

We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel. We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.

We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family. We are all proud when one of us does good and embarrassed when one of us does bad. And, as much as we may argue among ourselves, we are always there to defend or assist one another.

The sense of family is an integral part of all Jewish holidays, but it is even stronger during the festival of Passover.

The central ceremony of Passover is the seder, which takes place in the home, not in the synagogue. And the key element of the seder is in telling the story of our (physical and spiritual) enslavement, our (physical) liberation, and the attainment of our (spiritual) destiny at Mount Sinai - that is, the reaffirmation of our identity as the House of Israel.

Next Saturday night, Jewish families throughout the world will come together and read from the Haggadah, the text of the seder.

They will begin to tell the story by pointing to the matzah, the unleavened bread, and declaring, "This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover."

As we look at the matzah and remember our history - when we were hungry and needy, yes, but also when we were all together - we realize that part of the family is missing.

There are empty chairs in the house, where a son or a daughter or a cousin ought to be.

We issue the invitation and we open the door, but some of them are so far away - from us and from Judaism - that they don't hear our invitation or see the light from the open door.

If every Jew who cares about the members of the Jewish family will issue the invitation and open the door, many of these estranged Jews will hear or see, and drop in for a visit - if not to his own house, then to the house of a long-lost cousin.

Let us welcome them back.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"On Being Free"

Beginning yesterday, and continuing through Friday, I am selecting from the teachings of Rabbi Steinsaltz directly related to the inner meaning of Passover. The following is an excerpt from the title essay of Rabbi Steinsaltz's book, On Being Free.

On Being Free

Freedom and slavery appear to be simple opposites, each defined as the absence of the other: slavery, the absence of freedom; freedom, the absence of slavery.

But each of these terms must be understood without reference to the other.

Throwing off one’s fetters does not necessarily mean that one has entered into a state of freedom. Slavery is that condition in which a person is always subject to the will of another.

Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability to act upon, and carry out, one’s own independent will.

The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled: he is simply a slave without a master, or, in the case of a people, those whose overlords have abandoned them.

Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must thus pass through an intermediate stage in his progress without which he cannot become truly free—he must develop inner qualities of his own.

The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people’s departure from the house of bondage; they needed to develop to become a truly free people and not merely runaway slaves.

Their situation as they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit was described by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra: the children of Israel could not even think of putting up any sort of opposition to Pharaoh, for they had been brought up in slavery, and they were so accustomed that all their old subservient attitudes overcame them afresh at the sight of their former masters.

Only after the entire generation that had lived in bondage had perished in the wilderness could their descendants enter the Land of Israel and establish themselves as a free people.

In other words, the slave is doubly bound, first of all by his own subjugation to another’s will, and secondly by his lack of a will and a personality of his own.

A person who retains his own essential character can never completely be enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never truly be free.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from "On Being Free", p.19-20, in On Being Free (Jason Aronson, 1995)


Monday, April 14, 2008

"We Become Children Once Again"

The whole Passover ritual could be summarized in a single commandment: "You shall tell your son."

This is why at the beginning of the Haggadah the child asks four questions: "Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we only eat matzah?" and so forth.

According to the law, if there is no child present, or if an adult celebrates Passover alone, he must ask the questions, even though he is supposed to "know" the answers.

It is customary in certain communities for adults to ask the questions, because on Passover, we should, in a sense, become children.

This is also why in the Bible, Passover is called the "spring holiday." On Passover, nature as a whole begins to blossom and man's renewal coincides with that of nature.

The Sages have pointed to the parallel between the word nitsan, "bud," and Nisan, the month in which Passover takes place.

It is a true renaissance. We become children once again, and all we can do is ask questions.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, April 13, 2008

"What Do You Do When You Have A Flat Tire?"

When Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) urges me to “acquire for yourself a friend,” it must have had a person like my friend Simcha Prombaum in mind.

Simcha, who is the rabbi of Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is my teacher and advisor, and he is also someone with whom I can study Torah, joke with, and share the most personal of matters. And, like me, he is devoted to Rabbi Steinsaltz.

In this week’s Forward newspaper (as well as on its on-line version) you can find an article called “Four Questions for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz” in which Rabbi Prombaum asks some thought-provoking questions of Rabbi Steinsaltz in anticipation of the upcoming holy day of Pesach.

The Forward is always worth reading.

Here is a link to the on-line version of the piece:

I am also reproducing the text of the article here:

Four Questions for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

by Simcha Prombaum

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the brilliant young sage from the generation following the Second Temple’s destruction, likened himself to “a man of 70” in the Passover Haggadah. If ben Azariah were alive today, his role model for wisdom might very well be Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.

At 70, the indefatigable Steinsaltz — renowned Jerusalem scholar, philosopher, social critic, educator, author and Sanhedrin president — travels the world over, “trying to do something useful in every place.” Hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar” for his innovative commentary and translation of the Talmud into Hebrew and other languages, Steinsaltz received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, in the field of Jewish studies, in 1988. Today, he presides over a chain of schools in Israel and in the former Soviet Union.

“And there is always something else to do,” Steinsaltz told the Forward. “I have writing plans for about another 150 years.”

It’s that hectic season again, when Steinsaltz and Jews everywhere will busy themselves with Passover preparations. Nonetheless, he graciously agreed to speak with Simcha Prombaum for an interview of “four questions” in honor of Passover. His answers may serve as a stimulus for meaningful discussions around the Seder table.

Simcha Prombaum: In the Passover Haggadah, the Four Sons represent an archetype for the need to adapt Jewish educational efforts and methods to the needs of the students. In America, there are many different educational outreach initiatives: day schools, summer camps, Birthright, etc. Which of these initiatives have the best chance of producing the kinds of Jewish role models we will need for the future?

Adin Steinsaltz: An important question one has to ask about every educational experience and every educational experiment is “What do you remember?” The basic point is not “What should we do?” but “What is the outcome?” Which means you cannot rely on a one-time experience or a shorter experience. Any kind of stable educational system has better chances. The school system can be very effective if it is good. But there are problems attached to it. You can transmit some knowledge, but not too much knowledge, in school. And when you are staying in the school, especially in a Jewish one, it becomes a matter of enduring rather than enjoying. That’s a problem.

S.P.: In the Haggadah, we read: “And this same promise has stood by our fathers and ourselves. For not only one man has risen against us, but in every generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us. But the Holy One, blessed be He, has delivered us out of their hands.” When you recite these words at your own Seder in Israel, is it an overt regional threat like [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that comes to mind, or is it some less apparent but equally dangerous threat that is in your mind?

A.S.: Sometimes the dangers are obvious, sometimes there are other dangers. In some places there is a clear physical danger. In other cases, you will have life but nothing remains of it. Sometimes that is the biggest danger. Look at a family. In 50 years, how many will remain inside the family? Assimilation and intermarriage are now the dangers that face Jewry in America, more than most other dangers, and they are not completely novel ones. People think these problems are completely new. They are not. There were ages like this in the past. And we had to do something about it with whatever means we had.

S.P.: The Haggadah puts forth the following personal challenge: “In every generation, a person is supposed to see himself/herself as if he or she had personally gone forth from Egypt.” The Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, comes from a root suggesting “narrowness.” What is an example of a narrowness of thinking from which we need to break free?

A.S.: The Haggadah is basically optimistic, stressing a great amount of hope; it is not usually a recitation of our shortcomings and problems. It looks at the spiritual redemption [ge’ulah] and says that it won’t stop. But people can’t be just optimistic. I think that is one [narrowness]. We have to be aware that there are problems and do what we can to resolve them. There must be hope on the one hand and effort on the other. What do you do when you have a flat tire? You can stand there and hope it will heal itself. You hope that some people will help you. But you can’t just stand there and say, “Okay, an angel will come and take me away from it.”

S.P.: The Passover Seder ends with a wish: “Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.” As a native-born Jerusalemite who has seen the division and reunification of the city in his lifetime, do you believe Israel’s government will actually divide it once again as a concession for peace? What concessions should Israel be willing to make for peace?

A.S.: The Israeli government cannot do everything one-sided. I don’t know what will happen, but we don’t seem to get to a final agreement by conceding another piece of land. The major historical view of the Arab nations is that we are like the Crusader state: We came, we established some kind of a place, but eventually we are going to leave it. If we agree to it, we have to move and that’s the end of it. It’s a complete solution. If we want to stay, it means that we can concede points. The fact that there is or will be some kind of an Arab state in Eretz Yisrael is not a simple thing that everyone understands. It is a concession, and there are many others that we are doing all the time.

Simcha Prombaum, rabbi of Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse, Wis., transcribes Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s interviews for Parabola magazine.


Friday, April 11, 2008

"In One Moment There Is A Reversal"

(Editor’s note: Today is Friday. Each Friday I post a teaching by Rabbi Steinsaltz about Shabbat, in preparation for the holy day. Six days a week, from Sunday through Friday, I offer a new post each day, with words of wisdom, essays, articles, updates, photographs, behind the scene news, and more—all by or about Rabbi Steinsaltz and his vital work. In addition to the new posting each day, this blog always contains dozens of essays by Rabbi Steinsaltz (please review the links running down the left side of this blog), as well as videos, interviews and links to books by him and about Rabbi Steinsaltz. You can also subscribe to this blog and you will receive an email each day containing the posting of the day.--Arthur Kurzweil)

In One Moment There is a Reversal

There is no need for work on Shabbat. What we do on this day is holy activity, which is of a different essence.

During the week, one is engaged in plowing, in breaking the encrusted soil around the heart, freeing the space for seed; we are involved with the tasks of tikkun—repairing the world and sorting out the good, separating out the evil.

All of which is only preparation for the gladness of the Shabbat.

In one moment, there is a reversal, an overturning of the profane into the holy.

One of the ways this reversal can be recognized is that certain actions, which are unqualified and optional on the weekday, become mitzvot on Shabbat—commandments of the Lord.

The change is a matter of the very formal nature of the Shabbat.

Thus, whereas on ordinary days one is supposed to eat what is necessary for subsistence, on the Shabbat eating and the joy of eating are mitzvot;

on the weekday sleep is a matter of choice or necessity; on Shabbat, it becomes part of the mitzvah of rest, and so on.

Which is to say that during the week one relates to action as a means, a vehicle for life to manifest.

One eats in order to live, not as an end in itself; and for many it is simply necessary in order to work or to do whatever one wishes to do.

Whereas on Shabbat, when work and action are revoked, eating becomes a mitzvah, a kind of sacrament. It is part of the process of raising up all the worlds on this day when the profane is transmuted to holiness.

This refers to the truism that the work of the weekday is an extension of the Divine hiddenness; on Shabbat, all action expresses something of Divine revelation.

As it is written: “And thou shall call the Shabbat a delight” (Isaiah 58:13)

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

(From The Candle of God, “Hidden Aspects of Shabbat” p.40-41)


Thursday, April 10, 2008

"The Advantage of Thinking About The Impossible"

In 1996, Rabbi Steinsaltz was a guest lecturer at the Academies and Universities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing in the People’s Republic of China. During his tour of China, Rabbi Steinsaltz also presented a Chinese translation of his commentary to Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to the Chinese National Academy of Social Sciences.

There was a question and answer period after his lecture at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanghai.

Here is Rabbi Steinsaltz’s answer to the question, “What is the role of the Jewish scholar?” posed by one of the attendees:

“What is the Role of the Jewish Scholar?”

In addition to his ability to memorize and understand texts, one of the most central drives for a Jewish scholar is to innovate.

To use a possibly low metaphor: Confucian scholars wanted to have an old woman in an old dress; modern culture wants a young woman in modern dress; and Jewish culture prefers a young woman in an old dress.

Thus, although the Jewish scholar always claims that he is just creating a commentary, he is really constantly driven to create new things, new ideas.

The way in which the Jewish scholar advances is not only analytical, but also synthetic, in that he is always trying to create new structures all the time.

Consequently, the way in which Judaism relates to non-practical ideas is very different from that of Chinese culture.

Confucian wisdom was always very practical, and also strongly connected with science and technology. In this sense, it has had very strong influence on Western culture. In the Talmud, however — of which Pirkei Avot is about the 1/5000 part — there are pages and pages of discussion of subjects of no practical value whatsoever.

In the long run, this attitude has a tremendous advantage. Because the ability to advance — philosophically, scientifically and technologically — lies in the possibility to think about impractical, undoable things.

Indeed, the history of scientific developments shows that breakthroughs happen when a scientist begins to think about the impossible.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Evil Must Be Fought"

In July of 2005, a series of coordinated explosions in London, England killed 56 people including four suicide bombers. Over 700 people were injured.

Now known as the 7/7 Bombings, it was the largest and deadliest terrorist attack on London in its history.

Prompted by this event, Rabbi Steinsaltz offered the following statement. Though it was a response to the horrible event in London, its message is timeless:

Evil Must Be Fought

By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

In our world, which is so full of information of every possible kind – especially about lesser and inferior things (which is what sells newspapers and brings high ratings to TV shows) – it should have been natural for people to be well aware of the existence of evil.

Nevertheless, it seems that oddly enough, people still do not really know that evil, as a force with an existence and a power of its own, actually exists.

In terms of world-view, it seems that the Victorian way of thinking still very much shapes people's consciousness: everyone surely knows that here and there, there are distorted and wicked human beings; but they are seen as oddities that are not part of real life.

What recently happened in London should bring about a fundamental change in our way of seeing the world. There really is evil in the world. It has its own ideology and organizations. It exists not only somewhere far away, but here, so very close to everyone's daily life.

This ideology is not necessarily connected to people of a particular religion, color, race or creed. It belongs to those who allow evil to control them to such an extent that human life has lost all value in their eyes. Their plan (or rather, that of their leaders) crushes and kills men and women, old and young, guilty and innocent alike.

Although people are hurt by the activities of this evil, there still exists a desire to find some justification for it. People try to explain evil away, especially when it relates to others. They speak about national uprising, poverty and illiteracy, about unbridled incitement.

No doubt, all these things do exist. They do not, by any means, however, justify evil, or even furnish a valid explanation for it. This sort of evil is not spontaneous. Rather, it is planned and controlled by cold-blooded people who have no compunctions about killing their victims, as well as their messengers.

These leaders of evil do not operate alone. They are assisted by the innocent, the indifferent, and the foolish.

The innocents are those who can find, or even invent, justifications and explanations for everything.

The indifferent are those who are not moved by disasters that happen to other people, in other lands.

The foolish are those who think they have a safe way of escaping disaster.

We must see reality as it is: there is evil, wickedness and cruelty in this world. We can and must persecute them down to their most primary sources. It is possible to fight and, through an extended, concentrated effort, also to eradicate them. In any case, we must remember that there are things in this world that decent human beings must fight and annihilate.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"A Good Teacher"

A good teacher is one

who helps his student to learn

how to learn,

and who teaches him

to become a mentsch.

Turning a student into a mentsch

is the greatest possible achievement

of any teacher.

Whoever does that

does something God-like,

a real imitatio Dei:

creating a human being.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from "On Character Education"


Monday, April 7, 2008

"The Hero We Need Today"

Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches:

The hero we need today is not the one described in Pirkei Avot (5:20) as "heroic as a lion."

In fact, the lion is a very lazy animal that spends most of its time doing absolutely nothing. It does, however, have the ability to reach high speeds in a fraction of a second and harness tremendous force in order to accomplish something quick and spectacular.

The "heroic lion" kind of hero has great powers, but they are neither constant nor stable; rather, they are revealed all at once, in one sudden and dramatic outburst.

The hero whose heroism is not discernible is the greater hero.

It is the storeowner who wakes up in the morning and opens her shop, even though there was a terrorist attack next door the day before.

It is the man who walks with his backpack on his shoulder, and continues walking, even after he has been attacked;

the person whose house is destroyed, yet he rebuilds;

the individual whose plants are uprooted, yet he replants;

the woman whose children are murdered, yet she gives birth once again.

This heroism is not suitable for movies or the theater. Nor is it the kind of heroism that is limited to the prominent and the powerful.

It is within reach, also, of the simple and the small. It is the heroism of "when I fall, I shall arise" (Micah 7:8), of "a just man falls seven times, and rises up again" (Proverbs 24:16).

from the essay "A New Kind of Heroism" September 5, 2002


Sunday, April 6, 2008

"I am trying to keep the roads open and the bridges functioning"

When I was in my teens, I learned of an important number in American Jewish life: 296.

296 represents the subject of “Judaism” in the library’s Dewey Decimal System.

As I systematically read the dozens of books about Judaism in my local public library, I began to have the feeling that the books I was reading told me what other people thought Judaism was all about, but that these books were largely secondary sources quoting other secondary sources.

What I really wanted however were authentic encounters with primary sources.

And then Rabbi Steinsaltz came along. His message, essentially, was this: don’t learn about Judaism from the opinions of other people. Rather, go find out for yourself.

I didn’t want to study about the Talmud; I wanted to study Talmud.

I didn’t want to study about Chasidism and Kabbalah; I wanted to encounter the texts for which my ancestors lived and died.

In the last few years, three more books by Rabbi Steinsaltz have been published allowing me to do just that: the books are Opening the Tanya, Learning from the Tanya, and Understanding the Tanya.
Click Here

In each volume, Rabbi Steinsaltz translates the text of the Tanya, a classic of Chasidism and Kabbalah, into clear English, and offers his commentary. The commentary, once again, is not simply about the text. What Rabbi Steinsaltz does is to go word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and concept by concept, helping me to study the Tanya itself.

A few years ago, on the occasion of the publication of Opening the Tanya, Rabbi Steinsaltz was a guest speaker at Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Los Angeles. Anticipating his arrival in L.A., The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles interviewed him by telephone while Rabbi Steinsaltz was in Rome.

Here is a transcript of that phone interview by Gaby Wenig, a staff writer for the The Jewish Journal:

The Jewish Journal: The Tanya has been translated into English before--why the need for a commentary?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: It is a tough text in two ways. It is a very concise and precisely written book. Secondly, it is a very demanding book. So many people really don’t understand it. It is not one of those books that you read and you get all palpitating and emotional. It is a tough book, written in very classic language, very precise and very demanding.

So such a book needs lots of broadening in order to make it understandable and in order to get the ideas across.

JJ: So was the Tanya written for lay people or scholars?

AS: Among many other things, it is a matter of time. The lay people of 200 years ago and more, were possibly more scholarly than the scholars of today, and what they thought about a simple Jew in those times is something that you would think about rabbis in our times.

The general level of Jewish knowledge was much higher. Secondly, the book was written at the beginning for a very well-defined group. It was a group of people that were the followers of the author, so in that sense there was some kind of an understanding of what he is talking about.

When the book is read by somebody who is not of that circle, you have to begin a few miles after.

JJ: How and why was the Tanya revolutionary when it was published in 1797?

AS: In this book are many novel ideas, and possibly the most important and significant idea is ... that the basic questions of morality are not coming down to a dichotomy. Morality has the notion of dichotomy: you are either good or evil, you’re either a saint or a sinner-- it is an either/or way of looking at the world.

In this book comes the novel idea that there are some people for whom the conflict for good and evil is never solved completely, and there are people for whom the struggle will be permanent and eternal. These people are important people, not failures, and are fulfilling the divine plan, by their permanent struggling.

This book is a very comforting book, because it says as long as you are struggling—“conquering your own evil desires ”-- you are a hero, and it is frightening because it doesn’t say that you will ever come to the point where everything will be peaceful in your mind. All your life you are going to struggle.

The hero here is the anti-hero, because the hero here is not the conqueror, but the person who does the hard work. The glory is of a very different kind.

JJ: What do you think of Hollywood’s obsession with Kabbalah? Do you think that the Kabbalah Centre has anything to offer?

AS: There is no spirit in it, no message in it. This is part of a general term toward the esoteric that seems to be à la mode for the time being, but it is not important on any real level. At best, it is shallow and unimportant. At worst, it may become slightly dangerous for Judaism and for the people who get involved in it. To get involved in any kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-religion is always slightly dangerous for the religion.

JJ: You have spent a lot of your life’s work making Jewish texts such as the Talmud accessible to Jews of our generation. Do you think that by and large Jews today are ignorant of their heritage?

AS: Yes--and in some ways that is the biggest danger because ignorance, unlike a level of commitment, is something that grows without any special effort. You don’t have to create ignorance, it grows on its own. Every year that passes, every generation means more ignorance. What I am trying to do is keep the roads open, the bridges functioning and the gates open.

JJ: You are also known as a speaker on medical ethics. Now we are moving into an era where questions of medical ethics come up all the time, with genetic engineering and stem cell research, etc. What limits can and should we place on these types of experiments?

AS: My basic advice to researchers is that one has to be extremely cautious, because it is much easier to open gates than to go on and close them.

We are now in an era where the possibilities of medical research are so big, that we have far more power than understanding. Creating anything is opening a door to an unknown hell, so we have to be extremely cautious.

Personally and theologically I am not against research or knowledge. I think that we as Jews are basically progressive. But progressing also means you are treading in something that is much worse than a minefield, so you should remember day and night--be cautious.


Friday, April 4, 2008

"The Performance of Any Mitzvah is a Joy"

From the writings of Rabbi Steinsaltz:

A Chassidic story relates that once a certain rabbi was visited by the Baal Shem Tov, the great leader of the movement, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

To his astonishment, the Baal Shem Tov kept singing the awesome prayer of repentance, “Al Chet,” (literally “for the sin”) in a clearly happy melody, more like a marching tune than a recital of guilt and remorse, indeed, reflecting the liveliness of transgression more than the sorrow of contrition.

The rabbi could not help asking the meaning of such impious singing, and he received the reply:

“Anyone who is a genuinely devoted servant of the King will sing whenever he is carrying out the King’s orders, whether he comes as a victor in battle, or whether he is cleaning out the filth from the homes. Since the King’s instructions for this day are to do repentance, to clean out the filth, I sing as I would at any opportunity to do His Will.”

That is to say, the performance of any mitzvah is a joy, whether it be a likeable task or a disagreeable one, a significant act or something relatively trivial. And all the mitzvot together form a symphonic whole, a single command, a collective summoning of our response.

From “Hidden Aspects of Shabbat,” The Candle of God, p.31


Thursday, April 3, 2008

"One Must Never Grow Weary"

"Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind. The feeling of 'behold, I've arrived' could well undermine the capacity to continue, suggesting as it does that the Infinite can be reached in a finite number of steps. In fact, the very concept of the Divine as infinite implies an activity that is endless, of which one must never grow weary. At every rung of his ascent, the penitent, like any person who follows the way of God, perceives mainly the remoteness. Only in looking back can one obtain some idea of the distance already covered, of the degree of progress...The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going--he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest--to be someone who has lost his way."

(from The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"What Happens If You Destroy One Lie After Another?"

People who know me well and even many who don’t, know at least one thing about me: my favorite book, the book that has had more of an influence on me than any other, is The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Steinsaltz. Since its publication in 1980 I have read it—literally—hundreds of times.

If I were living in the world created by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, where books are banned and where those who want to save books memorize them and in a sense “become” them, The Thirteen Petalled Rose would be the book I would select. (A soft-cover edition, with two new chapters and a new introduction was recently published.)

One of the most challenging statements in the book, for me, appears in Chapter 2, “Divine Manifestation.” Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

“Precisely because the Divine is apprehended as an infinite, not a finite force, everything in the cosmos, whether small or large, is only a small part of the pattern, so that there is no difference in weight or gravity between any one part or another. The movement of a man’s finger is as important or unimportant as the most terrible catastrophe, for as against the Infinite both are of the same dimension.”

I thought of this passage when I read the answer to a question Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked at Florida International University after he was given an honorary doctorate in divinity in 2005. After receiving the degree and offering a lecture titled “The Life of the Mind,” there was a question and answer session during which Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked if God cared about the 150,000 lives lost in the recent tsunami. James D. Davis, Religion Editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on the event and described Rabbi Steinsaltz’s response by saying, “His reply was unexpectedly bleak, suggesting that there were no easy answers.” What Rabbi Steinsaltz said was this:

"To God, there is no difference between one or 150,000 persons. A staphylococcus is equal to an elephant or a wave or Jupiter. When I ask God questions, I can only hope for limited answers. I have a right to ask. Every child has a right to cry. But not every cry has a right to be answered with a kiss. And not every question has a right to be answered quickly or soothingly."

Prior to his visit to the university, one of its publications, FIU Magazine, held a telephone interview with Rabbi Steinsaltz. Here is a transcript of that conversation:

A conversation with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

“What happens if you destroy one lie after another? What remains?”

By Deborah O'Neil, in FIU Magazine, Winter 2005, Volume 12

Rabbi Steinsaltz, I hope we can have a dialogue that is meaningful for all of our readers, regardless of their faith, and even those without faith.

AS: Well, let me begin by stating that there are very, very few people who have no faith at all. Every place, people have faith. It’s very rare to find a person without it. I have a friend who published a book called “Memoirs of a Believing Atheist.”

A believing atheist?

AS: A believing atheist, I suppose, believes in atheism. You have all kinds of sets of beliefs. They don’t have to be equally right, but at least people do believe.

You have said that you were surprised to find yourself a religious person. Tell me about your conversion, if that is the correct word for it.

AS: The word is appropriate but the description is not. I know lots of people who became religious in many ways, but very rarely is it a sudden conversion. Getting into religion for me was somewhat of a continuation of an expression of my state of mind, which is basically very skeptical. It sounds like a paradox but it really is not. Religion can exist in a very different realm. Communism was a religion. Even what I call American civil religion — the New York intellectuals. If you look at these people whose whole is escape is The New York Times and parts of The New Yorker, these people are also, in a certain way, religious. I grew up within all this. Being a skeptic, I began destroying them. In a way it was a process of elimination. What happens if you destroy one lie after another? What remains?

What prayer is for you?

AS: Basically, prayer is a contact, a conversation, a way of trying to speak to God. I’ll tell you a story. I have a daughter who was then 3 years old and she asked me a terrible question. I was, at the time, praying. She wanted something but because I was occupied I did not attend to her. Later on she asked me why. I told her, “I was speaking with God.” Then she asked me a question that still bothers me. The question was, “And what did He say to you?” I’m still grappling with this. If I would put prayer in the most essential meaning, it would be not just talking. It would be rather, the attendance, my movement towards. Even more basic than any words is the knowledge of He and me. That is the very essence of prayer.

What is spirituality?

AS: When I came for the first time to America, I came as an adult. I came with a little bit of English and for me, the word “spirituality” was a nice word. After being in America, I became allergic to it. What spirituality has become is mushiness, a lack of coherence, a lack of any kind of devotion. I’m scared of the word. I try to delete it from every text.

Well, if you could redefine spirituality, what would it be?

AS: Because we are physical beings, we are so very tied to matter and material things. We presume somehow that these represent reality. The idea that reality contains other things than those that a simple monkey can feel — the ability to get beyond that is an opening. In itself, it doesn't mean much but it means the ability to acknowledge the overwhelming value of those things that are not touchable, not seeable and so many times don’t even cost money. It’s a gateway. It is not, in itself, an answer.

Can one be spiritual and not religious?

AS: Every person is spiritual. Most of our inner feeling is not connected with the material world. Love is a spiritual manifestation. Hatred is also spiritual. Spirituality in and of itself is a different realm from the material world. It can be secular and it can be religious. It can also be evil. Spirituality is not, by definition, holy or glorious. In many places where you have a shallow notion of the world, you don’t have an understanding of the reality of evil, but evil exists. Evil has spiritual manifestations, lots of them. You can have a completely evil spirituality.

Spirituality, per se, is looking into a world which is, in our modern times, something we usually don’t have a clear notion about. We have all kinds of wrong definitions of what is real. Because of that, opening up to spirituality — understanding the reality of nonmaterial things — is important.

You say humanity needs to reconnect with the fundamentals of existence. What are those fundamentals?

AS: The fundamentals are things that have a meaning and the meaning should be understood. Being an intellectual in many ways is the ability perceive gray. The danger of it is that after some time you don’t even know there is white and black. That is the danger of any kind of sophistication. The other side of it is, What are fundamental notions? Good and evil. Truth and lies. There’s love and hatred. Of course, there are lots of shades of meaning. Seeing them is intellectually stimulating. Not perceiving that there are differences is the blindness that comes from knowing too much and understanding too little.

I’ve had similar conversations with friends about absolute truths.

AS: Knowing about absolutes doesn’t mean you don’t know about other things. From time to time, either in my life or in my politics, I have to take sides. The inability to take sides has become a malady. There are certain things where people shouldn’t be neutral.

Is God one of the fundamentals that has been lost?

AS: As a religious person, God is the most fundamental thing…I don’t think He has been lost. He was discarded.

Discarded sounds more serious than lost; it seems more deliberate.

AS: It’s not deliberate, it is just inconvenient. It makes me stop at all kinds of stations. It makes me rethink what I have done. All of these things are unpleasant. So if you find you can live without it…Idol worship is one of the ways of getting from one big, great God to cutting him into small little gods that are more convenient. It’s going back to old gods, gods of power and money like Zeus. The god of fertility and sex, Aphrodite. They are returning, not under these names. You speak about power but you do not speak about the God of power.

You once said that if the world were just slightly worse, then its balance would be irreversible and evil would be irrevocable. Has mankind fallen?

AS: We are not fallen, but we are not that far away. One of the problems in the world is not only evil, but stability. Who gets punished first, the sinner or the stupid? In the meantime, a lot of damage is done.

Yet, in your writings you say there is still hope. What do you hope for?

AS: The return of sanity to the world. It is not in the biggest demand, but possibly it is the most urgently needed.

Can you describe your sane world?

AS: It is described graphically as a wave. A wave is made of two movements. One is up and down. One is forward. When you have a combination of these things, this is what I’m calling sanity. Real waves are like a human heart beat. There is a repetition. There is also a newness.

Where do you find hope?

AS: Hope is in God. There is also a certain amount of hope in what I find in people. I’ve met all kinds of people. I’ve hardly ever found a person who is completely evil. Hope is that which I call a little spark, a little grace. It is there. It also needs a tremendous amount of work.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

"We Cannot Reach God"

In 2005 Rabbi Steinsaltz was invited to Rome to give a series of lectures both to the Jewish community as well as at the Vatican. Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was Rabbi Steinsaltz’s host.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Di Segni, who was born in 1949, is a medical doctor specialising in diagnostic radiology. He is descended from three generations of rabbis, completed his rabbinical studies in 1973, and was elected as chief rabbi of Rome in November 1991.

Among his many lectures on that trip, Rabbi Stensaltz spoke on "Infinity in Faith and Science" at the Pontifical Lateran University which is under the direct authority of the Pope in Vatican City. The Italian newspaper Il Foglio reported on the event.

Here is a translation of the article, originally written by Marina Valensise, a journalist, for Il Foglio:

Adin Steinsaltz, the Rabbi who lectures on infinity to Roman Catholics

Rome. Adin Steinsaltz is a witty man. As soon as he starts to speak in the Pio IX classroom of the Pontifical Lateran University, it is evident that he has captured the audience.

Standing behind the dais, the rabbi speaks off the cuff, talking about infinity in science and theology, as required by the STOQ (Science, Technology and Ontological Quest) Project Conference, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. He opens by quoting Voltaire: “Whoever does not believe in infinity, should simply consider human foolishness to change his mind.”

And on he goes for an hour with a “superb lecture on theology” as his Roman hosts enthusiastically say. “Science,” says Steinsaltz, “is concerned only with the measurable, be it the infinitely small, like the photon, or the infinitely large, such as the universe; it is always tied to the concepts of limits and finiteness.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is an utterly different matter: there, everything is the invention of human beings - except for the natural numbers, which are a gift from G-d. In fact, it is the only science that contemplates the concept of infinity. Even the Greeks knew it, for it was the Pythagoreans who discovered the irrational numbers, as well as a transcendental number such as the pi, whose value can be decomposed to infinity. And mathematical infinity is indeed composed of an infinite series of individual, finite points.

However, is it possible to talk of an infinity unrelated to any kind of discrete or distinct parts? It is indeed. The Torah does so when it speaks of One God. Kabbalistic literature does that, too, when, it speaks of the seventy or thousand names of God, yet defines Him as the source, the One, or that which is beyond numbers, the infinite and blessed being. This is the essence of divinity: neither material nor spiritual, but divine. It therefore follows that we cannot reach God, since we are finite beings, whereas God can reach us because, unlike the Cartesian cogito, He thinks before existing...”

The Rabbi continues his dialogue without the shortest abstract; only the sheer play of mental associations held together by the most rigorous logic. “People come to hear me speak live, not to hear me read a written text”, the rabbi explained the day before, in front of a dish of fried artichokes in the kosher restaurant of Cianci Square. This remark was the starting point for ruthless criticism of the universities which have not yet internalized Guttenberg’s invention and insist on sending professors to stand in front of the students -just as they did in the Middle Ages, when information was precious goods, to be distilled ex cathedra...

Besides being witty, Adin Steinsaltz is also a highly critical person. But if one does not know that he is the greatest living Talmudist, who has translated the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic - a monumental task which has, within 40 years, reached the 37th tome out of 42, revitalizing a thousand-year old tradition for millions of people, so much so that today, the Steinsaltz Talmud can be found in every home in Israel - one would only see a short man with a long white beard down to his chest and the blue eyes of a good-natured gnome from an Isaac Singer story.

However, this inspired genius, advisor to Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s interlocutor before he became Pope, tells of the Jew who arrived in Rome to find many well-known names: “Simon of Caifa, alias Peter, who received that enormous structure, Jesus of Nazareth, Saul of Tarsus... they all came from our People, and they, too, started, as usual, to quarrel with God”.

A Jew in the Lateran, Rabbi Steinsaltz speaks, characteristically, as heretic. The novelty, though, is that he does so without having to defend himself before a court, without fear of being sent to the stake for his passion for a forbidden book, as was the case in times past, according to his own words in his excellent book, now translated into Italian (The Essential Talmud, Cos'é il Talmud, Giuntina, Florence). Rather, he speaks as the guest of honor of Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, and of Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council of Culture. This is a sign of our times.

“Anti-Semitism,” says Steinsaltz, “has always existed, even where there were no Jews; but in the past, it was not nice to admit it.” He tells about the Japanese writer who – out of ignorance - brought Begin as a gift the “Protocols of the Elders Zion”, considering it a compliment. He talks about the Islamic and fundamentalist threat, yet Ahmadinejad’s words do not upset him all that much. “I do not lose sleep at night. Attacking Israel would only make the Jewish cause more popular”.

Even if, when asked about the future of the Jewish State, he is the first to ask himself what is so Jewish in a state that, in the course of a few years is about to have more Arabs in it than Jews, Rabbi Steinsaltz has the backing of too many thousands of years to take this threat too seriously. “The history of the Jewish people is a mystery”, he says, quoting Kant, who saw Jewish history as evidence for God’s existence.

But for him, anti-Semitism too remains a mystery. Some years ago, in Russia, he was asked what is the true reason of anti-Semitism: “There are at least two,” Steinsaltz answered. “The first is that Jews believe that they are the Chosen People. The second is that anti-Semites suspect this to be true. The French, too, consider themselves the most clever people in the world, but nobody seems to take them seriously...”

Finally, though, when asked by a Catholic from Rome whether or not it is true that the Jews are indeed the Chosen People, the Rabbi replies, “I cannot say. Although, if I would believe that they are not, I cannot see how I would be a Jew.”

by Marina Valensise, for Il Foglio, November 15, 2005