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The Marxist Who Became the World’s Most Influential Talmudic Scholar

And the rabbi who helped to guide him

Reuven Leigh
September 21, 2020
David Rubinger/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in 1987David Rubinger/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
David Rubinger/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in 1987David Rubinger/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Since the passing of Rabbi Adin Even Israel-Steinsaltz on Friday, 17th Menachem-Av (Aug. 7), the Jewish world has been recalling the life of an extraordinary man. Understandably, most of the obituaries and reflections have focused on his monumental achievement in translating and explaining the entire Babylonian Talmud. The project that he began in the 1960s of translating the Talmud was completed in the 1980s—first into modern Hebrew, and then into English under the Random House and Koren Publishers imprint. This 50-year project is undoubtedly his crowning achievement and will guarantee that his influence on the Jewish world and Talmudic scholarship will extend many decades if not centuries into the future.

In addition to the Talmud, Steinsaltz published commentaries on the Tanakh; Mishnah; the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law; and the Tanya, the foundational work of Chabad philosophy. He also published a large number of his own creative writings on Jewish thought and practice. On top of all this, Steinsaltz was an educator and an activist who established and led innovative educational institutions in Israel and Russia.

What is fascinating is how none of these achievements was inevitable or even remotely predictable.

Adin Steinsaltz was born in 1937 in Jerusalem to his parents, Avraham Moshe and Rivka Leah, Eastern European immigrants who identified as communists before warming to the democratic socialism of the Mapai party. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s upbringing in an avowedly secular home that was steeped in various forms of Marxist ideology was hardly the natural breeding ground for a future Torah scholar let alone one of the most prodigious and influential Torah personalities of recent times. There is no question that the credit for all his achievements lies primarily in his own personality and traits. His raw intellectual prowess and voracious thirst for knowledge and meaning, his determination to see through projects and ignore his critics, plus the humility and humanity which endeared him to so many, help explain so much of his success. At the same time, there were key moments in his early life when all these qualities, which could have been expended on an alternative future, were instead orientated toward Torah study and teaching. When were these moments and who were the inspirational figures who managed to capture the mind and the heart of this young prodigy?

While Steinsaltz acknowledged the importance of a range of rabbinic figures in his early life, the dominant influence that overshadows all others is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So much so, that on his recently unveiled tombstone, the most prominent epithet was that he was “devoted with heart and soul to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.” The Rebbe’s influence on him is so marked, that in 1989 he agreed to a request from the Rebbe to change his surname from Steinsaltz to Even-Israel.

The journey from a Marxist home to becoming a devoted Hasid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was in part propelled by a group of rabbis who, in the words of Rabbi Steinsaltz in the preface of his book Teshuvah, “lavished love, time, and patience on one particular boy.” Perhaps the most important of those rabbis was Rabbi Avraham Chein (1877-1957), a prominent Russian Chabad rabbi who arrived in British Mandate Palestine in 1934 via Danzig and Paris. A member of a distinguished family, Rabbi Chein developed his own reputation as a skilled writer and orator, publishing articles in Jewish newspapers and journals and receiving praise from noted literary figures such as Sholem Aleichem, Yosef Haim Brenner and Ahad Ha’am. Chein’s writings make it clear that he had a high regard for many nontraditional sources, and he weaves their perspectives into his thought, regularly making reference to philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Nietzsche, and Bergson, as well as to famous literary figures such as Carlyle, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy.

Chein’s first essay, titled “Parshat ha-Korbanot,” was written for himself without any intention to publish; however, after sharing it with a friend it passed into the hands of the writer Sholem Aleichem. Impressed with the essay that dealt with the sanctity of human life and the detestable sacrifice of human life in warfare, the famous Yiddish writer arranged for it to be published in the Russian Jewish daily newspaper Ha-Zeman. One of the pioneers of modern Hebrew literature, Yosef Haim Brenner, is reported to have said of the article, that “the words are pure like the tear of a child and are destined to cause an inner revolution of the soul.”

The next significant stage in Chein’s writings was in 1913 with the publication of his extensive essay “Yahadut ve-Dam” (Judaism and Blood), which came as a response to the famous Beilis affair in 1913, when a Jew, Mendel Beilis, was accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child. The essay, which was written in Russian, argued that the notion of murder and bloodshed is completely foreign to Judaism, and made a large impact on both Jews and non-Jews, and garnered responses from leading intellectuals, including Asher Ginsburg (Ahad Ha’am).

One of Chein’s most popular essays was “Lo Tirzah” (Do Not Kill), which was published in Ha-Tekuphah in 1921 and contains probably the most complete articulation of his argument on Judaism’s attitude toward the sanctity of human life and opposition to bloodshed. While the starting point of Chein’s essays varies from current events to Jewish festivals to eulogies, they invariably return to his central themes of the sanctity of individual life and the weight of the individual against the collective.

By the time Chein arrived in Palestine, he had already developed a considerable fan club among the literary and intellectual Jewish elite—so much so, that after the passing of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook in 1935, there was a considerable push for Chein to be his replacement. However, Chein would ultimately not achieve any significant recognition or respect from the rabbinic establishment. Chein’s close friend and admirer Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin suggested that his stance on war and violence placed him outside the mainstream, “his soul was essential, his soul was original, pure from stains and clean from extraneous things. His thoughts were not influenced from the outside, and not just once were his thoughts in opposition to the outside. Not with the trend, and often against the trend.” This capacity for original thought unencumbered by prevalent trends, traditional or modern trends, may explain why Chein found a more welcoming audience among the secular free thinkers of the time than among religious traditionalists. It may also explain how it came to be in 1937, that the self-identifying Jewish communist Avraham Steinsaltz asked Rabbi Chein to be the sandek at the brit milah of his newborn son, Adin.

Notwithstanding the intimate nature of their first encounter, it would be 10 years later that Rabbi Chein would leave an indelible mark on Adin Steinsaltz’s mind that would change the course of his life. During the Israeli War of Independence, Rabbi Chein was evacuated from Jerusalem and was hosted by an uncle of Rabbi Steinsaltz on a kibbutz near Haifa where the young Adin was also seeking refuge. During those months the precocious preteen saw up close for the first time an exemplary model of religious observance and piety that was unlike anything he had seen beforehand. Many of the qualities he found in Chein would later become the hallmarks of his own life’s mission.

In 1950, 30 days after the passing of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chein composed the first letter of supplication on behalf of the Chabad Hasidim in Israel asking that the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson should assume the leadership and become the new Rebbe. Chein first got to know Rabbi Menachem Mendel in Paris in 1933, where Chein was the rabbi of a large congregation and Rabbi Menachem Mendel was studying to become an engineer. Although 25 years his senior, Chein saw in the future Rebbe an extraordinary personality and willingly submitted himself to him and sought to please him, sending him unpublished manuscripts amid heartfelt requests for blessings. Instead, the connection with the Rebbe that he sought would be realized through his greatest student.

Rabbi Chein was a scholar familiar with the entire corpus of Jewish thought coupled with an extensive knowledge of Western philosophy and literature, but what distinguished him from other learned men of his time was the unique way he managed to transcend the perceived tension between these streams of thinking. He was a skillful teacher, who dedicated most of his time to teaching people the primary texts of Judaism, and his original approach attracted prominent politicians, academics, and writers to his classes including Zalman Shazar, who in 1963 became the third president of the State of Israel. In person and in his writings, Chein wove Talmudic and Tolstoyan insights together, seemingly indifferent to any perceived incongruity between them.

These qualities—a focus on teaching core Jewish texts, scholarly excellence and an openness to all streams of knowledge and wisdom, a teaching and writing style that speaks to the widest possible range of people—would establish Chein as a rabbinic figure of significant influence. Yet, since his passing in 1957, Chein has fallen into relative obscurity. Nowadays people are more likely to know the street name that bears his name in the Katamon district of Jerusalem than the person in whose honor it was named. Chein’s uncompromising views against violence and warfare and his opposition to a militarized Israeli state became increasingly unfashionable, and consequently his vision of a nonviolent approach to statecraft garnered little attention.

Steinsaltz, while also holding strong views and having the capacity for sharp-witted critiques, was far more successful in positioning himself in a manner that has broad appeal. However, the characteristics and style of Chein’s thought remain evident in his works. The wide range of sources of knowledge that typify a page in the Steinsaltz Talmud, the scientific metaphors throughout his commentary on the Tanya, and the sheer reach and impact of his writings beyond the traditional walls of the study hall are the realization of a revolution in Torah study which arguably started in Rabbi Chein’s small apartment.

In more direct and concrete ways, Rabbi Steinsaltz became the successor to Rabbi Chein and benefited from the patronage that came with that role. One of Rabbi Chein’s regular classes was a Thursday night gathering in his Jerusalem apartment to learn the classic Chabad text, the Tanya; these classes would prove transformational for some of the secular attendees. In some cases, they would start a gradual move toward greater observance.

One of Chein’s greatest admirers and a dedicated participant in the classes was the author, poet, and politician Zalman Shazar. The recruitment of Shazar back into the Chabad fold of his ancestors by Rabbi Chein is probably the single most important achievement in facilitating the growth and expansion of Chabad in Israel, from the allocation of land for a Chabad village just outside Tel Aviv to unfettered access to the highest offices in the government and the military. It would also provide Rabbi Steinsaltz with his most important patron.

When Rabbi Chein died on Yom Kippur in 1957, Shazar resolved to ensure that the weekly Thursday night Tanya class should continue as before in the Chein apartment. The editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a close friend of Chein, was chosen to lead the learning. The study group would be called Chugei Chein L’Mishnat Chabad (The Chein Group for Chabad Thought) and would endeavor to continue in its role of providing a sophisticated and intellectual setting for Jews of all persuasions to encounter the profundity of Hasidic thought. Within a year, Rabbi Zevin identified in the 20-year-old Adin Steinsaltz a suitable successor for Rabbi Chein, and he took over delivering the class which he would continue delivering for the rest of his life.

Zalman Shazar was very impressed with his new, young teacher and quickly became one of his strongest advocates. In his personal correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shazar sung Steinsaltz’s praises and even sent him as his representative to participate in the celebrations marking 20 years of the Rebbe’s leadership in 1970. While Steinsaltz had been in regular written correspondence with the Rebbe since his teenage years and had already undertaken a number of projects at the Rebbe’s behest, this visit would be the first time they met in person.

In a letter from the Rebbe to Shazar shortly after the visit, the Rebbe commented on how impressed he was with Steinsaltz and how the young man exceeded all the expectations he had formed from his correspondence with Shazar. These praises from the Rebbe would subsequently be chosen to be engraved on Steinsaltz’s tombstone. The only concern the Rebbe had was that Steinsaltz was maybe too humble, and that his humility might be holding back the development of some of his talents. The Rebbe instructed that Steinsaltz should be encouraged to overcome any reticence he might have.

For the rest of his life, Steinsaltz would be a devoted follower of the Rebbe, receiving exceptional attention and closeness from the Rebbe and in return providing the Rebbe with great satisfaction with his achievements—developing a connection (hitkashrut) with the Rebbe that Chein could only have dreamed of. Ultimately, Chein would never be acknowledged and appreciated in Chabad circles for his creative and original mode of transmitting Chabad thought, and is considered to this day as somewhat of an outsider. Although Steinsaltz was also not your ordinary Hasid, and was sometimes perceived of as an outsider, the wholehearted embrace of his works by the Rebbe has ensured his place at the very heart of the Chabad world.

There are a number of other significant influences that Rabbi Steinsaltz cites in his own writings, such as Rabbis Nochum Sasonkin, Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, and Dov Eliezrov, and they also deserve a fuller exploration. As an initial suggestion, let me share an idea in the writings of Rabbi Chein which may be seen as anticipating the achievements of Rabbi Steinsaltz. In an otherwise scathing article concerning the irrelevance of so many later works of Talmudic commentary, Chein compares these writings to a mikvah of tap water that cannot purify anything and if left alone will itself become putrid. In contrast, Chein’s definition of meaningful and purposeful Talmudic commentary is where the commentator walks a tightrope, extracting something novel from the text while not imposing themselves into the text:

No one creates the splendor of the sky and the stars, even Galileo and Newton, they just see them, reveal them, understand them, explain them. Likewise, there are those who become Sinai, who immerse themselves in the springs of creation and become so drenched until they become them. The bee creates the honey from the flowers, yet it is entirely not its own, (for otherwise it would be forbidden as the product of a non-kosher species) and yet only the bee can produce it. No chemist could ever produce honey from flowers.

While Rabbi Chein was unable to see the flowering of his student, his poetic description of the beelike Talmudic commentator is a fitting tribute to the giant of a man he helped to nurture.

Rabbi Reuven Leigh is the director of the Chabad House at Cambridge