The task of interviewing rabbinic giant Adin Steinsaltz, 74, is a bit daunting. Described by Newsweek as a “genius of the highest order,” Steinsaltz has authored more than 60 books and 600 essays, translated and provided commentary on the entire Talmud, and won the Israel Prize. He has been appointed the Nasi (or chief) of an attempt to revive the Sanhedrin, the ancient Supreme Court of Temple-based Judaism.
Is it really possible to ask a man whom the Washington Post compared to medieval commentator Rashi a question that doesn’t sound stupid?
But during a recent visit to New York City, Steinsaltz proved exceedingly easy to talk to. He cracked jokes frequently, his cheeks turning red beneath his white beard, as he offered opinions on everything from the number of ultrasounds a woman should have during a pregnancy to Hemingway. He showed a genuine, gentle curiosity about everyone he encountered during the time we spent together, including—as we exited the office of Aleph, his American foundation, and walked down Sixth Ave.—a man dressed in an Elmo costume.
Steinsaltz was raised by secular parents in Jerusalem and studied math, physics, and chemistry, as well as Jewish studies. Steinsaltz’s father is purported to have said, “I don’t care if you’re an apikores [heretic], but no son of mine is going to be an am ha-aretz,” an ignoramus.
In his early twenties, he built a network of yeshivas in Israel and the former Soviet Union. The Israeli schools—serving students from elementary school age to hesder—are unusual for their relatively diverse student bodies, ranging from Modern Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox. Students are taught Hasidic philosophy alongside Talmud, which is uncommon, especially for a school that also encourages army service and higher education, sports and the arts.
Last year, Steinsaltz completed his translation of the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, a 45-year undertaking. Making the Talmud readable to those not enrolled in yeshiva full-time was no small task. In the traditional Vilna format, first paginated in 1835, the Talmud is a stream of unpunctuated Aramaic. Steinsaltz turned that stream into Hebrew sentences, added vowels, explanations, and his own commentary to the margins, a space traditionally reserved for medieval greats like Rashi. Steinsaltz also oversaw the subsequent translation of his edition into five other languages.
His translation was considered sacrilege by right-wing rabbis, who banned the volumes and protested their publication; Rav Shach, a prominent rabbi in the ulta-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, called for the Steinsaltz editions to be immediately sent for burial.
Steinsaltz continues to carry on at a furious clip. He’s currently working on a translation of Bible commentary, a new interpretation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and a book of personal anecdotes about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, among other projects. While we spoke, he sipped tea sweetened with five packets of sugar, wheezed a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco, and nibbled rainbow cookies.
What brings you to New York City?
I must be punished by going to exile. There could be worse places to be exiled, although not so many. I am getting punished by being here.
What are you being punished for?
You don’t want my confessions. I have sinned a lot—there is a long list of sins that bring me to New York so many times over the years. I am in New York more than in Tel Aviv, and as a true Jerusalemite, I cannot stand Tel Aviv, which I think is just a smaller uglier version of New York.
Beautiful people have all kinds of blemishes, but somehow the blemishes enhance their beauty. Anne Boleyn, Henry the VIII’s second wife, was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, and she had one green and one brown eye. In Jerusalem, it’s not easy to find a real beautiful building, but the city is beautiful. In New York there are many beautiful houses, but together it’s just New York, which is not beautiful.
Some people say that when an author translates a novel, he or she in effect creates a whole new piece of writing. Do you feel that’s the case with translating the Talmud?
Can you make a sculpture of a fountain that captures flowing water? There are very few of these. There is a very good one by Rodin. Think of almost any human conversation and put it verbatim into any language—it doesn’t make sense because you have to fill all the gaps that are in between. The whole Talmud is like this. If you wanted to translate it literally, it will mean very little. If you translate it in any way that is meaningful, it becomes different. It’s like with a play—the dialogue is a real part of the structure. When two people in the same field talk about their subject, they don’t explain everything; they jump around. It is hard to provide a very accurate report of an intimate talk. Any translation is, in a way, a part of killing it.
Did your background in physics help with the work of translating the Talmud?
On the one hand, the Talmud is very much like a stream of consciousness novel—say, Ulysses—and on the other hand it’s as precise as any book of mathematics. Sometimes it seems to be flowing in a strange way, but basically every sentence and choice of words is very accurate. The meta-language of science is very close to the meta-language of Jewish thinking.
Do you have any regrets about translating the Talmud? Has anything been lost?
Most things are lost, most things are changed. It’s a matter of making some kind of judgment of weighing different things. Teaching it in its original form means that a very small number of people will get to it, which means you create a very big population of ignorant people. It’s a matter of what’s more important. There are many areas where you have this kind of discussion. It’s a choice. I thought that the decision should be about giving people access. We don’t have a small closed group of people that are in the know. From Mt. Sinai on, we wanted everybody to participate. If you want it this way, you have to pay for it.
My understanding is there was much less resistance to Artscroll’s subsequent translation of the Gemara then there was to yours. Why is that?
The first effort is always more controversial. I don’t want to speak about lashon hara but part of the controversy was manufactured, and some people—there were interested parties—were doing it purposefully, so it was kind of an unpleasant time.
Can you tell me a bit about the new book you are working on, about the soul?
You want a fast answer? I will give you one sentence. We all believe we have a soul, and if so, we should be more interested in it.
In the 1990s, you spoke very critically about TV, calling it a force that undercut the culture of reading. I am wondering if you feel the same way about the Internet.
TV is worse because with TV you forget to read entirely. What I said in that speech is that TV—having things done in pictures—is a regressive move for human progress. The Internet, not as much. It has potential.
With the Internet, where you have all kinds of writing and other things, we are getting the malady of our age, which is too much information. It’s a different problem than TV: Too much information means you have to go into a whole new direction in order to find out what is meaningful and what is not meaningful, what is a complete lie and what has an existence.
You are writing a book about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Can you tell me about your connection to him?
I was very connected—I visited him almost every time when I was in America. It’s a very special connection.
Why did you want to write about him?
We haven’t had many great leaders. I meet lots of people, famous people, but I’ve met very few great people—even people I respected. They had some part of greatness in them, like a peacock. They have a wonderful, beautiful tail but if they didn’t have that tail, really, what would they look like? If they had not been, for instance, a great mathematician, they would have been nothing. There are so many nothings all over the world; they have something great about them, but they were not great.
But to have a great man! So, I wanted to not to share gossip but to deal with more important subjects about him. There are already several books about the subject, but many are either hagiographic or they are just plain dirty gossip.
What do you think about the movement within Lubavitch where some people say the Rebbe is a semi-deity or is still alive?
It’s like the stories people tell about Elvis Presley. Maybe they play cards together. If they are alive, they are alive in the same realm, I am afraid.
Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer and journalist.