The Sage Who Brought the Talmud to the Masses

Aug. 10 2020

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.

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Read more at Commentary

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

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy