The Sage Who Brought the Talmud to the Masses

August 10, 2020 | Edward Alexander
About the author: Edward Alexander, professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, is the author most recently of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: A Literary Friendship (2009) and Jews Against Themselves (2015).

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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