Monday, June 30, 2008

"Jewish morality contains absolute values of good and evil"

In August of 1996 Rabbi Steinsaltz delivered a lecture in Shanghai to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It was part of an unprecidented visit and series of lectures by Rabbi Steinsaltz at the invitation of the Chinese government.

Here is a excerpt from Rabbi Steinsaltz's discourse on Pirke Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, comparing Chinese and Jewish cultures:

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

One major philosophical and cultural difference (between Chinese and Jewish cultures) is in the relationship between morality and religion.

In Chinese culture, there is an almost absolute separation between these two spheres, since religion — namely, the relationship between man and God — is basically ritual, and has little to do with the world outside of the Temple.

Whereas in Jewish culture, the opposite is true: morality is based upon religion, and man-and-God and man-and-man relationships are not seen as two separate spheres, but rather as two aspects of the same whole.

This difference is not only philosophical, but has also great bearing upon the development of morality and of the culture as a whole.

In Chinese culture, morality is basically a social and inter-personal relationship that has social and political meaning, but does not have a relationship with objective, abstract and absolute values.

In other words, this morality is relativistic, seeing good and evil not as absolute values, but rather as definitions of what is socially and socially politically right or wrong.

In sharp contrast to that, Jewish morality contains, from its very first beginning, absolute values of good and evil.

Chinese culture had one major encounter with a different cultural system that had an absolute value system, though it had no God, and that is Buddhism. (I am speaking now about the theoretical encounter with Buddhism, and not about what happened to Buddhism when it became a Lamaistic religion, or a Dao-Buddhist popular religion.)

In Buddhism you have this notion that certain things are bad, regardless of social context, and if one does them, it changes one’s karma, causes one to have a lower incarnation, and vice versa.

And as the respective cultures develop, this point, in itself, creates a sequence of cultural and philosophical differences.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From "Pirkei Avot and Chinese Culture: A Comparative Survey Lecture" delivered at the Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai, August 29, 1996


Sunday, June 29, 2008

"How can one speak about the unspeakable?"

"Many books have been written about holiness and about the sense of holiness and they all face one fundamental dilemma - how can one speak about the unspeakable?

This is the quandary of mystics, sometimes of philosophers and even of artists.

One definition that carries with it a large measure of truth is that holiness is that which is found beyond all boundaries, that which reaches absolute infinity and absolute transcendence.

And actually, our perception of holiness can be expressed by the term (used but not coined by Freud) an “oceanic feeling,” that attempts to explain or touch upon the comprehension of holiness.

A person facing the ocean for the first time, or at any other moment of heightened sensitivity, faces something grand and immeasurable, something infinite.

The feeling of “me against infinity” is, I would imagine, the basic sensation of one who stands against the holiness.

This definition is imperfect; the “oceanic feeling,” like the ocean itself, is finite.

Although it is very big, it is still limited. Our perception of infinity is, in many ways, an attempt to grasp the unlimited, the unperceivable, that which cannot be understood, that which is, in essence, the unattainable, by its very definition.

The attempt to enter the realm of holiness is paradoxical.

Because I have entered it, then, by definition, it is not truly holy; and if it is truly holy, I shall always stand outside of it.

The reply in the Torah to Moses’ prayer, his request to see the face of God, is: “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live… and you shall see My back parts, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).

This, indeed, is the point: it is impossible to see the Face; at most, we can reach an indirect, “lateral” recognition of these things, but never a direct-fundamental view."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay titled "On Holiness and the Boundaries of Holiness," by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, June 27, 2008

"Profound contents written in simple prose"

This past week Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked by the On Faith web site, "Tell us about a book (or books) that made a difference in your life."

He replied:

The Jews are not just “The People of the Book.”

Much closer to the fact, they are "The People of Many Books”.

It would be too cumbersome to list the many books that are either important generally, or have a private, individual influence.

In many instances, a choice of one book is not a matter of extreme importance or overwhelming influence, but rather of a mood. In one mood, one book comes to the front, while at other times or in other situations, a different book may be chosen.

So it is, in some way, an expression of a particular time and mood that I mention one book, which is not the greatest or most important, but is still very influential.

This is a little book that has several names, and is called "The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav".

These tales are written in the basic format of folk tales, even though (unlike most folk tales), most of them are completely original.

The stories, told in very simple language, contain many adventures, miracles and extraordinary events, but the simple format is just a very thin cover for the profound contents written in simple prose.

Most of the tales are very poetic, with the qualities of high poetry, but what is more important is the very elaborate symbolism, the very original thinking and innovative messages.

Strangely enough, these tales hardly contain any direct reference to religion, and hardly ever mention the Divine.

The messages within contain much material – from very keen, sometimes even sarcastic observations of human life and history, as well as very strong moral guidance.

The beauty and the power of these tales comes also from the fact that they can be read and enjoyed by children, and can be re-read many times by adults, even by very knowledgeable people.

The book can be found in several English translations, as well as in other languages, in different levels of accuracy.
--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Thursday, June 26, 2008

"When a teacher is a fake, the students know it right away"

"Character education is not done through direct statements, such as: be nice, be honest, etc.

Children are very clever; they also observe their teachers from every possible angle.

It is therefore extremely difficult to fool them.

Be the subject studied what it may, what the teacher transmits about character formation is what the teacher actually is.

The teacher is the actual model, and therefore, you have to be what you teach.

When a teacher is a fake, the students will know it right away. It is so very important for a teacher to be able to say “I do not know.”

The importance of this cannot be over-stressed. Pretending knowledge undermines not the knowledge, but the character of the pupils.

Sometimes, it is so much better to say, "Dear pupils, I myself am far from perfect in this point; and while I am teaching you, I myself am also trying to make some progress."

Beyond being fair and honest, it will also be respected by the children, because then they will feel that they and the teacher are going somewhere together. For how many among us can really say to our pupils, “Look at me, and behave exactly like this”?

The point is that certain things can be taught, or transmitted, by being a role model.

A teacher, by definition, is a model, and when a teacher has humility, and integrity, it is transmitted. And it is transmitted not only by personal example, but also through the teacher’s demands.

Many teachers create dishonesty, intellectual or otherwise, by their demands, as well as by the way of what they give the better marks for – for instance, by giving a good mark to a dishonest paper, just because it is “nice.”

But there is more to it than that.

It says in Pirke Avot that Torah learning “endows him (= the learner) with sovereignty and authority,” or, in other words, what it means to master something, and what it means not to master something.

Mastery means that one becomes the real owner, the real boss, of whatever it is that he studied. And lack of mastery is the sloppiness that comes from not understanding what it means to do something, anything, properly.

This, in fact, may be the most important thing: learning the proper way of doing things.

If a teacher manages to cover all of the material in the curriculum, or more or less than that, it is not all that significant.

But if a teacher succeeds in teaching children how to do things properly, that is an achievement.

With time, such children will be able to close any gap.

To create a fine human being, even if that human being has less formal education than the average student in the other school – that is really worthwhile."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a talk by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz called "On Character Education"


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"People tend to ignore the reality of evil"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "Do you belive there is such a thing as a 'just war'?"

He replied:

War is, in general, a horrible, ugly thing.

Still, it may sometimes be necessary, and therefore justified and just.

There are two cases in which a war may be just:

1) Self-defense - a natural, inborn right of any living creature, and

2) Fighting against evil.

People tend to ignore the reality of evil.

It is not just a relative and imaginary power; evil does exist, in many ways, and ignoring it or disapproving of it will never make it disappear.

There is a time to fight evil by any means, including war.

Another very important consideration, even if it is a just war, is how effective will that particular war be.

It may happen that a just war does not achieve its purpose, and will therefore cast a doubt about how it is conducted.

These are the practical, or what one may call tactical, problems of war.

Even so, there are certainly times when war is just because the only way to fight a force of evil is to destroy it.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"For a bar mitzvah boy the real wars are only beginning"

My beloved friends, Gary and Cyndi Eisenberg, along with their famly, are leaving for Israel tomorow, to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of their younger son Sam. The occasion prompted me to reread the following speech given by Rabbi Steinsaltz at the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a friend of his:

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

"On the day of a boy's Bar Mitzvah, his father says the blessing of baruch she-petaranu — which, in very colloquial English, is something like "good riddance."

Yet it seems that the son should be making this blessing, not the father, since, in practical terms, he continues to remain responsible for the boy for another five, or who knows how many more, years.

Our Sages say (Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 63:12) that little children are punished for the sins of their parents, but when they turn into adults, they become independent and do not have to be punished anymore.

Therefore, it is the child who should wholeheartedly say: Thank God, from now on I am no longer to be punished for my parents' sins; now I can live on my own.

In some way, the relationship between a father and his Bar Mitzvah boy can be likened to that between empires and colonies.

For long periods, the big empires used to very much hold on to their colonies. Then it began to seem more and more natural for them to grant their colonies independence.

The former colonies would celebrate their newly acquired independence; but the real joy would be that of the father-government.

For in most cases, the big empire had by then become sick and tired of being responsible, and getting into all sorts of trouble, for those colonies. It was the empire that should have said baruch she-petaranu.

The same applies to a Bar Mitzvah boy. On this day the boy becomes independent, so to speak; there are celebrations in his honor, he receives gifts, etc.

But in truth, the real joy is that of the father and the mother, because the very notion that they have a son who is independent — albeit only theoretically — is very relieving.

In many ways, the Bar Mitzvah boy's independence, like the independence of a newly created African state or a small island in the Pacific, is merely symbolic. This new small country has its own flag and hymn, and will possibly have its own stamps and souvenirs, but most of it is just for the sake of making a celebration.

Nevertheless, the feeling that one is no longer all that deeply responsible is what creates in the parents the sense of joy that accompanies the baruch she-petaranu.

Not so for the boy. For in fact, the knowledge that one has become independent, that one is now on one's own, should be an awesome, possibly even frightening experience.

To be responsible for my own being is an entirely new life; it is a change that is really difficult to absorb. And yet, it is not an entirely terrifying experience; it also has its point of joy.

There were times when, in Israel, there was spontaneous joy, when people were happy because they were happy — not because they were told to be so, or because entertainment centers were created for them.

One such occasion, which some of you may have had a share in, was right after the Six-Day War, when the way to the Western Wall was opened for the first time.

I remember how people would walk up there, and when they would get near the wall, total strangers would greet each other happily, and hug and kiss. Everyone felt that something tremendous had happened.

Another such occasion that I remember was when I was a boy of about ten - the day of the declaration of the State, the 29th of November 1947. As I was falling asleep, I heard the UN vote from the neighbors' radio (not everybody had a radio then): "Argentina — yes.... Uruguay — no," and so on, in alphabetical order.

On the following morning I got up to go to school, as usual — and to my surprise saw that the streets were packed with people rejoicing, dancing.

Nobody organized it, yet all of Jerusalem was beside itself with joy - for something that was not even proper independence; it was the dream of independence. That was a very strong experience, and I do not remember having seen such rejoicing since.

This joy was shared by all; in spite of the fact that not only the grown-ups, but also every child, clearly knew that a war was sure to take place.

But the feeling that from now on, I can somehow decide for myself — that was an extraordinary, unforgettable feeling.

A Bar Mitzvah boy is, in a sense, in a similar situation. For him, too, the real wars are only beginning.

Until now, what he experienced were only skirmishes - with mom and dad, siblings, schoolmates... but none of it was really serious.

Now starts the time of the real wars.

Now you have to sit in front of yourself and know that all the other battles are easy to win. But this war is going to last for who knows, perhaps seventy, perhaps eighty years, and in this war you may sometimes suffer all kinds of losses — but you can also win.

This important war is the “War of Independence.”

It is the fight of a person who knows that he now has to be responsible for himself, to fight for his own entity and personality.

There are so many things to fight for: first of all, to be a good human being is a tremendous job in itself; beyond that, you have to be a Jew; then, some of you may be Levites or Cohanim — all those yokes.

May I bless you, not that everything will go smoothly: nothing ever does; but that once you start these battles, then that your life-story will be not just a mere diary, but rather "the Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Numbers 21:14).

This is where the real battles are fought, and this is where the real victories are won."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a Bar Mitzvah Speech delivered by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz at the Bar Mitzvah of a friend


Monday, June 23, 2008

"Knowledge and awareness of evil should be a required element of education from pre-school to adulthood"

To truly prevent evil from growing stronger, we cannot simply write letters to the editor of our local newspaper, expressing our shock and horror at the goings-on in our world.

The human struggle against evil requires a tremendous input of resources on our part.

Medications that cure deadly diseases do not always taste sweet; many of them even have negative side effects. But dangerous, deadly conditions must be combated using every possible strategy.

There are many reasons to ignore evil. Not all of them have the best of intentions behind them – for example, when evil is a convenience for a certain group or individual. International diplomatic considerations often motivate people to ignore, forget, and even forgive evil deeds.

In the same vein, many dictatorships are supported by the world’s most advanced democratic regimes because they are considered to be barriers against worse evils.

Thus, we find ourselves in an eternal battle between relative good and absolute evil. War may not be a nice sweet occupation for human beings, but in some cases, avoiding war means yielding to evil.

Economic and political boycott, while quite unpleasant, may prove helpful in preventing massacres and wars.

To quote the book of Genesis (4:7), "sin crouches at the door" – at practically everyone's door.

It is a great temptation, and if we allow it to enter, it will overcome us, whether we wish for it to do so or not.

Seeing the picture in this way – not as a pessimist, but as a realist – gives us a different perspective on how to deal with national, international, and private affairs.

Educating people on how to cope with evil is one element that is sorely missing in our pedagogy system.

So many refuse to even admit to the existence of the dark side. Knowledge and awareness of the existence of evil should be a required element of both public and private education, from pre-school to adulthood.

While we all may yearn for nothing but sweetness and light in our lives, we will always find one bully trying to beat others down – or, on a broader scale, a dictator willing to kill others to attain his own goals, or a terrorist who believes that the road to heaven is paved with corpses.

Raising awareness of evil is not education for pessimism or for the notion of all-present evil.

Human beings and societies, generally, have many positive aspects as well, and they must not be ignored. It is a simple fact of life that most people have more good in them than evil.

Even on the national and international level, there are many good intentions for solving the very real needs and problems of the world.

The best way to combat evil is to promote good.

This, too, cannot be accomplished by ignoring evil.

The battle requires an enormous commitment on our part. We cannot simply sit and wait for a good angel to intervene.

There is nothing wrong with believing that guardian angels keep an eye on us, but we must remember that ultimately we are responsible for most of the work – and from time to time, we can accept a little assistance from the angels.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From an essay titled "Good vs. Evil" July 19, 2007


Sunday, June 22, 2008

"With every mitzvah a man creates an angel"

The first chapter of The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Steinsaltz appears in a slightly different version in his book The Strife of the Spirit. The chapter in The Thirteen Petalled Rose is quite challenging and this alternative version is, for me, extremely helpful in clarifying its contents. I recommend that students of the "Rose" (as Rabbi Steinsaltz sometimes calls the book) look at this alternative version. Here's a tiny excerpt:

"Some angels have existed since the beginning of time, and are the channels through which divine plenty flows into the world.

There is, however, another kind of angel, those that are constantly being created.

This process of the creation of new angels takes place as a consequence of actions and phenomena that are performed and occur in all worlds, but especially in our world, the World of Action.

It is said that with every mitzvah, every good deed that he performs, a man creates an angel."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “World, Angels and Men” in The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, June 20, 2008

"God is not an old man with a beard dispensing candy to good boys"

When the first english volume of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s commentary on the Tanya was published (Opening the Tanya) he was asked:

“You quote the statement that the author of the Tanya was able to "put such a big God into such a small book. What do we learn about God from the Tanya that we didn't know before?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

"We learn lots of things because usually when people speak about God, they speak from their perception of God at a very basic level.

Think about it. When people say they have lost their faith it's because their faith at the beginning was too weak to withstand any challenges.

When your perception of God does not extend beyond a basic level, you can't deal with them very effectively when you grow up.

We basically found that people who went as believers to the concentration camps remained believers and vice versa.

The second part of the Tanya, Shaar Hayichud, deals with understanding God.

Not that you will get to know God, but at least you have an order of magnitude.

It's a mathematical term.

If you're talking about something expensive, what order of magnitude is it, hundreds or millions?

A person who learns the Tanya gets to a different order in his perception of God."

Rabbi Steinsaltz was then asked:

“What do we find in the Tanya that changes or enhances our view of human beings and how they relate to God in general?

Rabbi Steinsaltz answered:

"You learn a great deal about human beings because the Tanya deals with people who are being formed, constantly changing, not already made.

The Tanya asks the difficult questions.

What are the basic qualities within people?

How do I change?

How do I deal with other people's failings?

Ironically, the Tanya deals with human concepts rather than ritual ones, how you understand yourself and others.

Ultimately, you have a better notion of what God expects from you.

It's not the image of the old man with or without a beard, sitting in heaven and dispensing candy to the good boys and beating the bad ones.

You get a grown up version."

InsideOut Magazine and L'Chaim Weekly, July 2004


Thursday, June 19, 2008

When the first volume of Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary on the Tanya (Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah) was published, he was interviewed
about "pop-Kabbalah" and said:

"Personally, I am not for this new Kabbalah trend, I think it is cheap and I think it presents a danger.

Not that people are learning too much Kabbalah, but that they are focusing only on the mystery and secret and magic and don't address how people should change or become more Jewish.

Kabbalah is not a gimmick, it is something holy and serious and it needs much more than a smattering of knowledge.

Imagine taking a six-week course in neurosurgery and hanging up a shingle. It is not only fraudulent, but dangerous."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

InsideOut Magazine and L'Chaim Weekly, July 2004


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Jewish life contains certain goals and missions"

"From the human point of view, life is but life, its main goal being life itself.

Religious Jewish life, however, is not "just life:" it contains certain goals and missions.

According to this view, living well means fulfilling life's mission. This mission contains many parts and details, yet its essence is to perfect the body, the soul and the world, in the framework of an ongoing relationship with God.

This mission is to be fulfilled not at a certain age or life-period, but rather in each and every part of life, and in any situation in which one finds oneself.

Indeed, the system of commandments, in its entirety, shows that there is nothing, either in time or place, that does not somehow pertain to worshipping the Almighty and to the aspiration to perfect the soul and elevate the world.

Every nook and cranny in the Jew's life is surrounded by commandments, and the Jew is obligated to fulfill them at each and every moment.

So long as he does so properly, he fulfills life's aim. True, everything has its own proper time and age; yet in no time and age is one exempt from God's worship.

In every age, one has different roles, according to his strength and ability at that specific age and situation; and just as there are special functions for the young adult, so there are other roles that one is bound to fulfill as one progresses along the course of life.

According to Judaism, the course of life - of real life - is not seen as an ascent towards adulthood, and from then on only descent.

Rather, it is an uninterrupted journey "from strength to strength."

Starting out life as an amorphous, inchoate mass, a utensil that has not yet taken shape, man goes on to acquires a more complete form, which he keeps shaping constantly through much study and good deeds, along with a constant perfection of body and soul, by directing them towards the real aim of life.

Seeing life as a whole, all of whose parts are equally important, gives a very different evaluation of life. Once man builds this ability to live the present, to live life as it is, without picturing imaginary ideals, he can live old age just as happily as the young adult, in the peak of his vigor.

For the inevitable physical changes of old age are usually accompanied with parallel spiritual changes, which give man the possibility not to feel these physical changes - emotionally - at all.

Thus, when one puts aside all those imaginary aspirations that cannot be fulfilled, one can draw and enjoy goodness from every point along the path of life, and live life itself."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Originally published in Reshafim, June 1957


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"When faced with danger and real fear almost everybody prays"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "How do you keep your faith during times of war?"

He replied:

A time of war is - by definition - hectic, dangerous and, in most occasions, tinged with tragedy.

These very elements of war that are, almost by definition, distracting, are usually the times when faith becomes more, and not less, apparent. Imminent danger always has the ability to stir within people lost and forsaken belief.

Experience shows that, when faced with danger and real fear, almost everybody, in one way or another, prays.

Practically, what has been said – there are no atheists in foxholes – is true as well for a paratrooper jumping from the plane, or a person caught in an earthquake.

The danger, coupled with intrinsic uncertainty, leads nearly everyone to search for higher, more powerful, and more stable sources of trust.

A writing desk or a stroll in the field may allow a person to indulge in doubt, but war does not give enough space for intellectual doubt. Whatever the intellectual attitude of a person may be, intense fear and hope move deeper, sometimes unconscious sources to appear.

Unfortunately, the soaring faith, which grows almost proportionally to one’s closeness to the line of war, is not permanent.

In many cases, the fact that this type of faith is emotional and not a part of everyday life means that it may dwindle as fast as it grew.

Pain and destruction may occasionally uplift people, but because they are not built in any systematic way, they won’t endure.

War may be a reminder of the depths that are within people: cruelty and carelessness on the one hand; courage, mutual aid and faith on the other.

When there is stability, we live far more on the surface, and it is better that at least our good qualities should emerge even to these levels.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Monday, June 16, 2008

"The code of the whole is contained in the fragments"

"In the large scheme of history it may be observed that the Jewish people, who grew up and reached a certain maturity in its own land, was in exile for hundreds of years.

And this meant the loss of much more than national sovereignty; whole areas of tradition were abandoned and only vague hints survived in memory.

One can hardly reconstruct the richness of this tradition from the written evidence.

To a degree, the Temple, the legal and social structure, the schools and synagogues can be pieced together in some fashion or other.

The mystical traditions are far more elusive to the modern researcher.

Most of them have been totally wiped out by time, such as the schools of the prophets.

We have nothing resembling such schools, either in Israel or in the Diaspora.

In fact, there have been attempts to make such a restoration by pasting scattered indications together.

Some of this material has survived only in written form; most of it is considered irretrievably lost.

Nevertheless, the dream or hope or restitution has remained.

In the days to come, a regeneration is possible, if the right stimulant appears.

This anticipation is possible because, as in every organic entity, the code of the whole is contained in the fragments, so that from the little that has come down to us it may be possible to reconstruct a semblance of the ancient tradition."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Originally published in Parabola Magazine 14:2, pp. 95-102, May 1989


Sunday, June 15, 2008

"A foolish righteous person"

The phrase “daf yomi” refers to the practice of studying a page of Talmud each day.

With the Talmud’s 2,711 pages, it takes about seven and a half years to study the entire Babylonian Talmud at that pace. Since 1923, when the "daf yomi" system began, eleven full cycles have been completed.

Each day I receive (and you can too) an email containing a brief essay focusing on an aspect of the day’s Talmud “page” and based on Rabbi Steinsaltz’s insights as drawn from his Hebrew Talmud commentary.

You can learn more about “daf yomi” and you can subscribe to the daily email based on Rabbi Steinaltz's commentary by going to this link:

Right now, the daf yomi system is in the section of the Talmud called “Sotah.”

Here is a sample; it was for yesterday’s page (June 14th), Sotah 21a-b:

In the Mishnah (20a) Rabbi Yehoshua mentions a number of people who he categorizes as mevalei olam - those whose actions destroy the world.

One of them is a hasid shoteh - a "foolish righteous person."

Our Gemara defines the term by giving the example of a man who sees a woman drowning and reacts by saying that, as a religious person, it is inappropriate for him to look at her - even though that is the only way to save her.

In his Minhah Harevah, Rav Pinhas Epstein asks why this person is considered a hasid shoteh; by allowing this woman to drown, he has transgressed the prohibition of lo ta'amod al dam re'ekhah ("do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" - see Vayikra 19:16) and should be considered an evildoer.

One possible answer is that there are other people in the vicinity who can step forward and save her, and he is considered a hasid shoteh since he does not hurry to fulfill this important mitzvah because of skewed priorities.

The definition of a hasid shoteh as offered by the Rambam is not only someone who refrains from performing mitzvot because of what he believes to be religious stringencies, but also someone who is overly concerned with stringencies in general (the example given by the Me'iri is someone who fasts on a daily basis).

The Talmud Yerushalmi offers other examples to illustrate this concept, including someone who sees a child drowning and decides that he must remove his tefillin before jumping into the water to save him, someone who sees a potential rapist chasing after a young woman and is unwilling to strike out at the person, or even someone who sees a choice fruit on his tree and hurries to give it to charity without first making sure that the basic terumot and ma'asrot (tithes) have been taken properly.

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.


Friday, June 13, 2008

"It is not enough to just be"

The Tanya relates how Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was unable to lead the prayer service one Yom Kippur.

His Hasidim pleaded with him but to no avail.

“Last year,” he told them, “I promised God I would do complete teshuvah. And look, the year passed by and I still haven’t repented. How can I possibly lead the prayers again?”

Finally his son said to him, “Father, last year it wasn’t true, but this time it will be!” Upon hearing those words, the Rabbi took heart and began the prayers.

Cultivating the self-awareness necessary for teshuvah is an incremental process.

Part of this process is acknowledging that we may not have lived up to our goals or promises from last year – or if we have indeed made progress, that last year’s teshuvah does not suffice from our new vantage point.

Who we are now is different from who we were when we repented last year. If I did not fulfill last year’s promise, that does not contradict my ability now to promise sincerely.

What is important is not what has happened – or did not happen – in the past, but whether or not a person is prepared to accept it, learn from it, and to go forward.

If we are not prepared to accept our past, including our sins and our suffering, it will come back repeatedly.

The Baal Shem Tov said that the penitent has the possibility of repentance when he is on a higher level of consciousness than he was at the time of the sin.

The sign of real development, then, is that one’s previous level no longer holds true for him.

When one gen­uinely grows, his personal truth now must surpass all his previous truths so that, by comparison, they are not true at all.

Teshuvah demands that one pursue his individual truth at all times.

Yesterday’s heavens should be today’s earth, and we must know: there is a Truth still higher than this.

Our goal is to always aim for greater heights, to be constantly struggling and striving to do better and to be closer to God.

It is not enough to just be.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Syndicated column by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, September 14, 2005


Thursday, June 12, 2008

“Transcending all the rules of the universe”

"The urge to repent grows out of the realization that it is necessary to change.

Lamenting our past wrongdoing will not serve us, for contact with evil is inescapable.

We must avoid, too, pondering the past and reliving it as it happened — complete with faults and mistakes.

Rather, we should meditate on it, as it ought to have been. The main thrust of teshuva is not only to redeem, but to rebuild, the past.

But here, we must address a looming epistemological obstacle:

Because time is strictly unidirectional, we cannot revert to some previous moment.

As a result, our efforts to engage in teshuva are, at best, paradoxical.

We must remember, however, that we do not undertake teshuva in a conventional universe.

We do teshuva in a universe that transcends physical laws — a universe in which the present, the future, and the past merge into a timeless continuum, a universe in which a lethal arrow can fly back into its quiver and be as free of suspicion as if it had never left.

In brief, teshuva transports us into a state of weightlessness, where opposing polarities (of plus and minus) reverse at will and standard metrics are suspended.

To enter this state, we will have to truly know ourselves; we will have to sound our souls.

And if our goal is not only to repent, but to accomplish an about-face, our challenge will be still greater, for we will have to reach the innermost depths of our being, the nadir of the abyss, as it were. In this realm, we are entitled to believe that our souls are not far from God.

Unless we reach this zone, we cannot be convinced that a radical change has taken place deep down in our hearts, a change that is capable of transcending all the rules of the universe."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From a syndicated column, September 19, 2003


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Religion is oftentimes not critical enough of itself"

The people at the website "On Faith" asked Rabbi Steinsaltz the following question:

In his "letter to a Southern Baptist pastor" biosociologist E.O. Wilson warns: "An alliance between science and religion, forged in an atomosphere of mutual respect, may be the only way to protect life on earth."

Is such an alliance necessary? Possible?

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

While the alliance between science and religion is fraught with difficulties – in part due to a long history of mutual suspicion – I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

Science and religion draw their facts from different sources and demand different types of evaluations of the world.

However, an alliance between the two can be made if each realm is clearly defined in such a way that their proximity does not create constant conflict.

It is unlikely that these two systems will offer the same approach to every subject, but there can be areas of overlap without resulting in entanglement.

Similarly, not every idea needs to be discussed; some concepts can remain solely in the realm of science, or of religion.

Thus, there exists the possibility of an alliance between science and religion, though it is by no means a simple one.

Far clearer than the “how” of this alliance is the “why.”

Science does not have its own purpose or inherent morality; in many ways, its only goal is progress.

Science is an extremely powerful tool with the capacity to build, as well as to destroy. It has been used by humans for many purposes, some good and some evil.

Oftentimes, the real danger lies not in the failed experiment that causes a catastrophe, but in the scientific successes that are destructive in the long run, even though no one meant to cause harm.

The influence of religion helps to preserve and protect life on Earth by giving science a moral direction and higher purpose.

This alliance is beneficial to the religious sphere, as well. Science offers tools for implementing lofty ideas and creates clarity and order, thus providing structure for religious ways of thinking.

And in many ways, the difficulties inherent in this tumultuous relationship serve as a form of criticism of religion, which is oftentimes not critical enough of itself.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Sunday, June 8, 2008

"The answer that was revealed to us at Mount Sinai"

The current issue of New York's Jewish Week is running a new essay by Rabbi Steinsaltz in preparation for Shavuot. To read it, you can go to their website:

or read the essay here:

Shavuot: Understanding The Purpose of Our Freedom

Since the second night of Passover, we have been counting the days of the Omer, which will culminate in the upcoming festival of Shavuot.

In a certain way, we cannot help but feel that Shavuot is the completion of the festival of Passover.

The Talmudic name for Shavuot — Atzeret — is the name given to the eighth day of Sukkot and alludes to the fact that Shavuot can be defined as the eighth day of Passover (which is, biblically, a seven-day festival).And while the second and eighth days of Sukkot are seven days apart, the amount of time between Passover and Shavuot is seven times that amount, or the 49 days of the Omer.

The festivals of Passover and Shavuot are inextricably linked, as the Torah lists no specific date on which Shavuot is to be observed; we are simply told to count 49 days from Passover.But the connection between these two holidays goes far beyond mathematics.

Consider the significance of Passover — the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. As generations did before us, we observe the essence of Passover when we personally experience the exodus, when we break loose from the yoke of slavery and flee from danger.

Sometimes, it is impossible for one to stay where he is — it is urgent that he extricate himself from peril. But even in the intense element of deliverance, his escape — like any other — gives rise to a fundamental question: where does one go from here?

The Passover exodus contains a negation of the past and the desire to move away from it, but it does not answer the question of purpose.

Deliverance, per se, is no more than casting off one’s shackles. It leads, therefore, to quandaries, questions and confusion.

Freedom as a positive concept calls for a personality with a will of its own. A person who escapes from captivity and returns home is indeed free, but a person who flees without knowing where to and without any specific goal in mind has not attained freedom — only the denial of his slavery.

Shavuot, which is referred to as “the time of giving of our Torah,” provides the answer to the question raised by the festival of Passover — the ultimate purpose of the Exodus.

Passover represents exodus, an escape from; Shavuot is the movement towards, a route leading to a goal.

The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is the conclusion of deliverance, that which gives it its fullest meaning.

The Torah, when describing the Tablets of the Law, says that the writing was harut al ha-luhot, “graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). On this verse our Sages comment: “Do not say ‘harut [graven] al ha-luhot’ but rather ‘herut [freedom] al ha-luhot.’ ”

The Tablets of the Law are the very source of the freedom that can only be attained after being redeemed from slavery. This explanation is not a metaphysical rendering of the events; it is explicitly stated in the Torah, in the words of the Almighty to Moses after the revelation in the burning bush.

When Moses argues with God about his mission, God replies (Exodus 3:12): “And this shall be the sign for you that I have sent you: when you will have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.”

In other words, God’s revelation to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and their subsequent worship of Him are what infuse meaning into the miracles performed in Egypt.

Those miracles, and even the Exodus itself, are an incomplete message. When God tells Moses that He wants to deliver the Jewish people so that they can worship Him in the desert, it is not a pretext for the Exodus. It is the most real answer, the entire essence of the Exodus itself.

Passover, then, is a festival without a clear ending. It receives its spiritual significance from the Torah given seven weeks later, on Shavuot.

The gap of time between these two festivals symbolizes the wandering and the search, the transition from a negative reality of physical labor — and nowadays, of spiritual enslavement — to an essential quest for the meaning of that freedom.

On Shavuot we receive the answer and come to understand the reason for the Exodus.

Only then do these two festivals become one unit at whose core is the Jew searching for his raison d’ĂȘtre. Such a person cannot be content with the mere negation of his existing reality.

He must strive to learn his true purpose through the answer that was revealed to us at Mount Sinai.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Friday, June 6, 2008

"Atheists belong to an unorganized but very defined Church of the Atheists"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked: Atheism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. Why do you think that is? Can there be a productive conversation between believers and atheists, and if so over what kinds of issues?

He replied:

While atheism is now enjoying a certain vogue in the U.S., it is not a new phenomenon.

In Europe it has been popular for over 100 years, perhaps as early as the French Revolution.

Until recently, it was not very common in the U.S. because the United States was, and is, an extremely religious country – different, in that sense, from almost all of Europe.

What happened in more recent years is that the growth of religious fundamentalism created a counter-reaction in the U.S., a strengthening of trends and ideas – many of them quite old ideas – that have become, in certain groups, a la mode.

In essence, nothing has changed, neither the problem nor the arguments; rather, the difference lies in the publicity.

Can there be a productive conversation between believers and atheists?

It depends on what level.

Any deep conversation is not very helpful because there is, in a certain way, a clash between two faiths, two forms of belief.

The atheists belong to an unorganized but very defined Church of the Atheists, while the believers belong not to the same church, but to a different one.

Whether one is an atheist or a believer, one’s underlying emotional stance is something that cannot really be changed, and therefore there cannot be a really productive, fruitful dialogue.

However, what sometimes happens is that people of different belief systems meet each other and somehow come to appreciate that the other is also a person.

And that is a great achievement.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Thursday, June 5, 2008

"The commandments are finite tools for reaching infinity"

The Significance of the Giving of the Torah--A Message for Shavuot

by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

After the great miracles of the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea and all of the major events that the Jewish people experienced before arriving at Mount Sinai came the Giving of the Torah.

What was the purpose of the sublime revelation itself?

The actual contents of the Ten Commandments – for instance, belief in God, honoring one's parents, and the prohibition against murder – are the cornerstones of human morality and can be reached through logic.

Moreover, our forefather Abraham is said to have fulfilled all the commandments long before the revelation at Mount Sinai.

What, then, did the Giving of the Torah actually add to the world?

Every Jew has a "Godly spark," which is the innermost core of his spiritual life. This spark is always there, even when we cannot see beyond the screens that hide it.

And since this spark is the "holy of holies" of the soul, we always aspire to God, whether consciously or unknowingly.

Some people seek a philosophical closeness with God; others are led to it by the events of their lives, by delving into the mysteries of nature, or by examining Jewish history.

Another way of nurturing the desire for closeness with God is by looking into oneself: "From my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26); it is the understanding that God is the source and essence of not only the entire universe, but also of my own private soul.

However, even when the desire for closeness with God turns into a conscious, clear drive – even when it pushes us to search for God – we are in the dark: As we read in Kedushah, "Where is the place of His glory?"

In the pre-Revelation world, man strove to reach God but remained distant, despite all his efforts.

Generally, the first thing that the God-seeker wants to do is to transcend the limitations of matter and soar to the abstract and the spiritual.

Our material body and the physical world seem to be the greatest obstacles on our path.

Sometimes, one can reach peaks of love for the Divine and totally abandon the world.

But is this really the proper approach?

Furthermore, deeper thinking will reveal that whatever we do, we will never be able to comprehend God.

Whatever we may feel of God's life-giving light is but a tiny, dim spark; in truth, the Almighty Himself is far beyond anything that even the most sublime human mind can comprehend.

To Him, not only physical matter, but even the highest degree of spirituality, is nothing.

It follows, then, that all human efforts to get closer to God are bound to fail. However high one may ascend, there will always remain an infinite, unbridgeable gap between man and God.

We feel the desire to come closer to God, yet we have no means for fulfilling it.

This is the point of the Giving of the Torah.

We, as humans, are incapable of reaching God; but God – with His infinite loving kindness and goodness – lowers Himself toward us, so to speak, in order to fulfill the purpose of Creation.

The Revelation on Mount Sinai is much more than a set of directives, instructing us what to do and how to behave; it is God's will, as it is expressed through the Torah and its commandments.

It reveals to us the way to actually unite with God – namely, by fulfilling His commandments.

Indeed, the Hebrew word for "commandments" – mitzvot – comes from the word tzavta, togetherness – being united with God.

By "descending," so to speak, on Mount Sinai, God "brought down" His unlimited, indefinable essence into the definitions and limitations, fences and constraints of the Torah and the Commandments that He has given to us.

The Torah is the expression of the Divine. It is God's wisdom and will and is therefore much more than "a Torah from Heaven": it is Heaven itself.

There is, therefore, a fundamental difference between the outward manifestation of the commandment, as we understand it, and its innermost essence as a way of connecting with God.

"Thou shalt not kill" as a human law, deduced through human reason – while a great achievement of human ethics and morality – does not go beyond the human realm.

On the other hand, "Thou shalt not kill" as revealed on Mount Sinai is a Divine commandment, part of the bond that the transcendent God forms with us.

The commandments, then, are finite tools for reaching infinity.

The Giving of the Torah opened for us the path – the Torah path – to reach God.

The Almighty Himself descended and revealed Himself through the Torah, thus giving us the way, and the possibility, to overcome the obstacles of our human nature in order to come close, and adhere, to God.

"The Significance of the Giving of the Torah - A Message for Shavuot" Syndicated column May 10, 2007


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Almost everything fascinates me"

During the years that I have read the writings of Rabbi Steinsaltz or have attended hundreds of his lectures I have learned that he rarely speaks about himself personally.

But several years ago, Rabbi William Berkowitz said to Rabbi Steinsaltz:

"I think everyone has an image of a Talmudic scholar as one who sits all day before the Gemora and studies. I know that your day is preferably an 18–if not a 20–our day. And yet, reading some of your biographical material, I see a man, one of the greatest Talmudic minds of our twentieth century, who finds time to have hobbies. I’m curious; what are your hobbies? And do they in any way relate to your Talmudic study?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz replied:

My first hobby is the Talmud because by profession I am, or I have to describe myself as, a defrocked mathematician. I began as a teacher of mathematics and physics.

I was caught by the Talmud and I really did not want to be a Talmudist.

I wanted to deal with it as a hobby, but the hobby grew.

I’m still in love with that hobby of mine.

At the same time, I’m interested in almost everything – from detective stories to science fiction to mathematics to animals.

I am also interested in people – sometimes I even like them.

I am interested in good literature, even though I do not read enough of it.

I prefer children’s stories to most earnest literature.

I am interested in science for many reasons, and sometimes in politics.

Sometimes I’m also interested in football, if I have time to watch it; if not, I at least read about it in the newspapers.

So I’m interested in what people are interested in, and not because I have some reason, but because I am curious.

I am still trying to learn, and almost everything fascinates me.

So as long as there is something to learn, I like to learn more and to know more about everything.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "How Can We Make Judaism Less Boring?" October 19, 2006


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"In Judaism, good deeds are intrinsically connected with holiness and the Divine"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "What's more important from a faith perspective, being saved or doing good works?"

He replied:

The question of whether being saved or doing good works is more important is a basic theological problem.

In fact, different religions - even factions within religions - have different, sometimes opposing answers.

So I can answer it only from the perspective of my own faith.

In Judaism, good deeds - whether they are directly in the line of worship or inter-personal good deeds - are intrinsically connected with holiness and the Divine.

On the other hand, being saved, as important and exalted as it may be, is still, in some way, an egoistic desire.

There are some differences between the desire to have great worth and the desire to live everlastingly in Paradise; still, in both cases, one is acting with his own well-being in mind, whether it be material or spiritual.

Even when there is promise for the saving of the soul by performing (or avoiding) certain deeds, or a generalized life of holiness, it is still a human desire.

To quote the prayer of one of our saints, he says to God: “I don’t want Your Paradise; I don’t want Your world-to-come. I want only You Yourself.”

And in life, doing it or reaching it is by doing the will of God--and allowing Him to deal with the far less important question – whether I myself am saved or not.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Monday, June 2, 2008

"Each of us has the ability to 'channel' God"

In preparation for the Holy Day of Shavuot (this coming Sunday evening), I just re-read an essay written by Rabbi Steinsaltz. It became a syndicated column appearing in many newspapers.

Here is the entire essay by Rabbi Steinsaltz:

Shavuot is designated as zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah: one Torah, given at one time. This is God’s part of the event.

But what about ours? What happens on the receiving end?

Receiving is precisely the opposite: We do not receive the Torah once; we receive it every day.

And we do not all receive the same Torah; each of us receives the Torah meant just for us, because each of us is different.

The Torah is not a textbook.

If a textbook is objectively good, I may study from it, but how I relate to it is irrelevant.

I cannot argue with the mathematics it presents.

I cannot argue with the rules of grammar it lays out.

Certainly, I can learn from it, but it is not important to me, because it is utterly independent of me. It says what it says.

With the Torah, on the other hand, I have to find my message.

I have to figure out our relationship.

Therefore, I have to care. I cannot glide over the text; I have to engage it.

But how do I prepare myself to receive the unique message God’s Torah has for me?

How do I get ready to convene with God?

According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi — the 18th century mystic and Talmudist — the pre-condition for this meeting is what he calls “self-nullification.” As developed in the Tanya, his quietly revolutionary work, self-nullification requires one to separate from his ego, his smugness, and his importance.

This is not to denigrate the ego.

We need our egos in order to grow, in order to fulfill the Biblical charge to master the world, in order to effect tikkun olam.

But, just as we suspend our physical creativity (i.e., the tangible expression of our ego) on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we must also subordinate our egos (on the deepest level) during those activities in which we seek to join our will to God’s.

A judge, for example, acting as an emissary of God in the search for truth and justice, must put aside his personal feelings — personal and philosophical — in order to adjudicate fairly.

He cannot disregard the facts and side with a poor petitioner over a wealthy one because he feels the wealthy one can better “afford” to lose; he must decide according to the law.

Similarly, a prophet can only prophesy when he transcends himself and becomes a conduit for God’s words. As we read in Kings II (3:11-15), when Elisha becomes angry — that is, when his ego is engaged — he cannot prophesy.

One need not be in a position as exalted as judge or prophet, however, in order to become a vessel through which God enters the world. Samuel II (6:14) relates how King David dances with utter abandon as he welcomes the Holy Ark back to Jerusalem.

Temporarily casting off his ego identities — of king, conqueror and poet — and, perhaps, even his modesty, he is open to God, and God’s approval is clear: David’s wife, who reprimands him for his lack of “dignity,” is severely punished.

Each of us also has the ability to “channel” God.

When we forget ourselves in prayer, we let God enter.

When we give tzedaka — not as an expression of our power, but as an agent of God in the distribution of His bounty — we are God’s conduit into the world.

And when we learn Torah as a way of unifying our minds with His, we are increasing God’s presence on earth.

This Shavuot, and every day, each of us has the ability to receive the Torah — our Torah — and become a vehicle for holiness.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from a syndicated column by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, May 20, 2004