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.
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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.