The Sage Who Brought the Talmud to the Masses

On Friday, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz died in Jerusalem at the age of eighty-three. A theologian, mystic, educator, and scholar, Steinsaltz began his life’s work at the age of twenty-seven: producing an edition of the Babylonian Talmud with modern Hebrew translation and commentary that would make this abstruse text accessible to the beginning student. He then expanded his horizons to work on an English version (reviewed here), as well as a similar Hebrew-language edition of the older, less studied, and even more abstruse Jerusalem Talmud. In a 1990 essay in Commentary, Edward Alexander took stock of both the man and his mission:

Who is the man who has been able to interest so many Jews in Israel in a work whose supposed source—namely, the divine revelation of Torah—a large proportion of them do not acknowledge? Steinsaltz was brought up in Jewish Palestine according to the tenets of left-wing socialist Zionism. The sacred texts of his early education were Lenin and Freud. But his father was not so dogmatic a secularist that he failed to see the importance of making his son a literate, if not a believing, Jew. Adin therefore was tutored in Talmud and attended a religious high school. His university work was in physics and mathematics, yet he became religious.

Although his intention was “not to popularize the argument or the subject matter” of the Talmud, Steinsaltz was convinced that much (not all) of the notorious “difficulty” of Talmud study (or “learning”) was a matter of technical obstacles which he likened to reading a philosophical text only in manuscript composed in illegible handwriting. Consequently, he inserted the vowel marks and punctuation missing from standard editions, translated the sections written in Aramaic into modern Hebrew, and also explained the many words from other languages that appear in the text. About a million copies of the Hebrew edition (planned for completion in about 2003) have been sold. They have earned for Steinsaltz worldwide acclaim, the Israel Prize (in 1988), and adoring followers in even the most unlikely quarters.

Steinsaltz has been accused (sometimes by the selfsame critic) of “presumption” in substituting himself for the classic commentators and of timidity for not going beyond the literal meaning in his commentary. A more generous view would be that Steinsaltz is a self-effacing commentator whose learning is everywhere, his “personality” nowhere. This self-restraint has enabled him to convey the drama of a vibrant dialogue carried on through generations of scholars, as real and living today as ever it was. If we grant his starting assumptions—that much of his English readership knows exactly nothing of the Talmud, and that “the vast majority of concepts discussed throughout the Talmud are not defined in the Talmud itself”—his decision to replace the classic commentators with disinterested explanation of these concepts is perfectly reasonable.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adin Steinsaltz, Judaism, Labor Zionism, Talmud, Translation


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship