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Talmud, Kiruv and Controversy: Remarks by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on the Release of the English Edition
Talmud, Kiruv and Controversy: Remarks by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on the Release of the English Edition

Volume 3 , Issue 4

The following is a paraphrase of remarks made by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz at a press conference on December 8, 1989 hosted by Random House on the occasion of their publishing the English editon of The Steinsaltz Talmud. While every effort has been made to retain the Rabbi's own language, his remarks have been edited for publication in The Jewish Review. The Jewish Review assumes all responsibility for errors made in the transcription.

On The New Edition Of The Talmud

For many years a great part of my work has been, so to speak, with the slogan of ?Let my people know.? I think it is an important slogan, one which I would like to repeat as often as I can, hopefully with the same spectacular results I had in Russia. Our people have always been very much concerned with letting everybody ?know.? This is an important aspect of our own self‑understanding. In the book of Numbers there is a small discussion between Joshua and Moses. Joshua is, in a way, very angry, flabbergasted by the fact that there are two people who, not according to protocol, are making prophecy. He's aghast and says, ?Put them in prison!? Then Moses replies that he would prefer that all the people were prophets!

Now I think this is, in a way, as definite a statement of what our people are supposed to be as one can make. We wanted, although we have never achieved this, to have our whole people as prophets.

There is an interesting remark in a fragment from an ancient Greek writer, Hecatirus, who writes ?There lives a people in the South of Assyria, (referring to our people) and it is made up entirely of philosophers.? This is a description, and I think a very fair one, of what a Greek philosopher thought of the Jewish people of those times. I don't think that we were philosophers in the sense that everyone was entering into Socratic dialogues. But the notion of a people, not just individuals, interested and engaged in intellectual matters was new. Here was a whole people, immersed on one level or another, in learning. I think it is a permanent desire of our people, in every age, to have all our people be learned.

On Learning Talmud

There are many difficulties with respect to learning the Talmud. In fact, learning the Talmud reminds me of the story of the fellow who wanted, as it were, to catch two birds with one stone. He wanted to be a farmer, so he took a book on agriculture that was written in Portuguese, saying that he would learn agriculture and Portuguese at the same time. When learning the Talmud, you are doing something which is far more difficult than even that. You are learning a book written in a foreign language, which in the original is cryptic and abbreviated, and which in itself is very hard to comprehend. In a certain sense, the Talmud is great ?art,? but this doesn't help you to understand it. Imagine a real dialogue between real people, not a dramatic dialogue. These real people know so much about each other and what has happened between them before, so they don't bother to explain things from the very beginning. They always begin, like every good Jewish book begins, in the middle. (This is, by the way, a theme of most Jewish literature. We find it in one book after another including the Bible itself. The Bible does not begin with the existence of G‑d. Other creation stories from around the world do just that and hence they begin in the real beginning. However, we Jews don't have to begin with or speak about the existence of the Almighty. We know that He is there, and we just begin in the middle of the story of creation. I find this fascinating.) The same is true for the Talmud. It is a book which begins in the midst of real life, and this doesn't make it easy to comprehend.

The whole Talmud is written as a dialogue between living people who are sitting all around a table and discussing events. The table is a very big table; indeed it covers three or four countries and five hundred years. We can see it as a kind of four dimensional table that continues even into our own day. People in the Talmud come from in and out and everywhere and they continue to speak to us in our own time. People today who learn the Talmud even in the smallest cheder say, ?Abbaye says,? not ?said? because he says it. He is sitting at the head of this four dimensional table. I am sitting somewhere near the end, but still he ?says?. Sometimes I get very angry with him and ask, ?Why did you say something like this? I don't agree. I don't understand.? So this is another difficulty; the Talmud begins in the middle and expects us to simply join in the conversation.

And then you have the subject matter, which can be quite complex, and the method of thinking which is, itself, a different language of thought. The Talmud is not a new language like Portuguese. It's not just that one must learn certain signs; one must learn a way of thinking. The Talmud is a language in the same way that mathematics is a language, or in a different way, the way music is a language. So one has to understand not only the meaning of certain words but something else as well. Now, for example, I have always been tone deaf. I deplore it, but I can't do anything about it. The point is I know theoretically what a chord is; I can even read some musical notation, but this means very little to me. I know what the ?words? mean, even what some of the sentences mean literally, but I don't understand the language. So this is a third difficulty of the Talmud: it is a whole new way of thinking and experiencing.

?Now because I think that our people should know, and because I think that knowledge for them is not just a luxury but the very blood of their life, I have embarked on this project. As I wrote in one of my books, any Jewish community that lost the use of the Talmud, disappeared in a rather short time in historical terms. This is an historical fact. So the need for Talmud is more than just a luxury, an addition to one's knowledge. It is more than knowledge of just one more obscure book. People can survive very well without knowing lots of obscure books. I haven't read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I don't feel my sleep is being disturbed by the fact that I haven't read it. However, the Talmud, for a Jew, is a necessity. This is because in Judaism we have never accepted a caste of rabbis ? people who are knowledgeable for everyone. Our idea has always been that everybody should be knowledgeable. In our times, the last 1600 years, a rabbi is not ordained; he is examined. He doesn't have any personal sanctity that creates a distinction between him and other people. He has no sanctity that derives from the fact of his being a rabbi. He's simply a scholar. Being a rabbi doesn't disqualify a person from being saintly (and I'm saying this because sometimes it's not so obvious), but it does not put someone into a different caste or make him part of a ?holy order.? A rabbi is a scholar and we would prefer everyone to be a rabbi or scholar. Judaism speaks of the Golden Age, during the time of King Hezekiah, when everybody, even the children, knew everything that had to be known. In Judaism, the Golden Age is an age of complete knowledge. The prophet Isaiah says of the times to come, ?They won't teach each other anymore to know G‑d, for the earth will be full of knowledge like water covers the sea.? That is a part of the Jewish dream.

On Rendering The Talmud Into English

The Italians say that a translator is a traitor, and yes, it is true that sometimes when you translate things you end up killing them. I sometimes shudder at the thought of how this translation, for which I am in a way responsible, occasionally kills a beautiful concept that cannot be translated. On the other hand, a language which keeps all the foreign terms in the original is not very helpful. So translation of the Talmud is a terribly difficult task, but we must remember that Jewish learning has always been conducted in the local language, whether it be Aramaic, Arabic, Yiddish, or Hungarian. I don't think, from this point of view, that English is any worse than Hungarian.

The Hebrew‑Aramaic language of the Talmud, like any language, is a part of life and it creates and patterns itself according to life. We know, for example, that in some of the Eskimo languages there are 90 words for what we call ?snow.? In Arabic, which is a very rich and flowery language, there are more than 200 names for ?camels.? Words are created because one lives in an atmosphere in which delicate shades of meaning matter. But for an outsider they may not mean anything. Now English, obviously, wasn't created by people who were learning Talmud and so there are no English words for many Talmudic concepts and ideas. For example, in the Talmud there are almost 20 different terms for different kinds or ?shades? of questions. How do you translate them? There's a ?hard? question and a ?slight? question;" a ?tough? question, and a question that is not answered; a question that comes because you are showing a contradiction; and a question that comes because you are showing the source; a question that is based on logical sense, etc. How can you translate anything like this? Obviously you cannot. You can, however, explain it. You certainly lose the beauty of the original language, but within limits, you can be quite exact in transmitting the Talmud's meaning.

On The Work Of Translating the Talmud

I am by nature a person who is very hard to satisfy, and I am not entirely satisfied with the translation. I am trying to improve it and I hope the next volume will be better and the next volume even better than that. One of the problems in translating is that, for those who understand it, the language of the Talmud has a power and a certain kind of beauty. It's not just a string of words. To transmit this beauty and power is not easy. To transform the music and power of it, something that is so condensed yet somehow so expressive, is very hard. I tried to do something along this line, but I'm still working on it and I'm dissatisfied with the result. In some cases there is just no way to do it.

Part of the virtue of the King James translation of the Bible was that certain expressions were literally forced into English and then they actually became idiomatic English. Sometimes there is almost no other way of keeping the grandeur, the beauty, the power of the original, other than by forcing it onto the other language. It's very hard to do so, but sometimes, if it is successful, you get, in English, the taste of how it sounds in the original. You get the real melody.

On Who Can Learn And Benefit From The Steinsaltz Talmud

I would say that it is accessible to any person who can read English. Let me just add one rider. The Talmud is a very tough book. I would love to make the Talmud as amusing and as exciting as any detective novel, but I can't. I don't know if it can be done. We're dealing with tough material. The way of thinking is difficult. The subject matter is not easy. It is very diverse. To speak of the ?sea? of the Talmud does not quite do it justice. One should rather speak of the ?world? of the Talmud. It has everything in it. Almost everything that you can imagine is found there. So the Talmud is accessible to many in the sense of its being understandable, but it still requires a great deal of effort ? an effort and will to follow it. I can make the water accessible, but to make it desirable and to make people get involved (which is a very important part of the learning process) is another question. I'm not now talking about emotional or spiritual involvement, but rather about a great deal of intellectual involvement. I suppose that with a teacher, in a study group, it becomes easier.

I sometimes observe people sitting for a whole night playing a complex intellectual game, like certain card games. Some people can sit and enjoy themselves all night with the Talmud ? sitting for a whole night in threesomes or foursomes and totally involved in their learning. That is not something I can force. It may happen and then it may not.

On Whether The Steinsaltz Talmud Is A Stepping Stone Towards More Traditional Learning.

I never wanted the study of my translation to be the final goal. That idea is unpleasant as it always reminds me of death. As a Jew I believe in ?living things,? and I always believe in having people continue learning. In fact, this edition has been published with an eye towards the idea that if you go through it, you will unintentionally be training yourself to understand some of the Talmudic language. There is a special literal translation inserted that is meant to be as close to the original as possible. It is not meant to aid understanding, but is included in order to enable people to grasp the original. So you get it translated with two different approaches ? a literal approach and an explanatory approach in order to help the reader, and possibly to tempt the reader to do without a translation at all.

I know that many people prefer to have their disciples remain as children, always five years old. I would like mine to grow and to possibly say, ?Goodbye. Thank you for the experience, but now I can do certain things on my own.? People advance much farther this way, and I would be very proud to say that this man was once my student and now he could be my teacher. The Talmud itself says that a person envies everybody except his children and his disciples. This is because a person feels he has a share in their greatness. If a disciple becomes greater, wiser and more beautiful than his teacher ? the more the better.

On The Potential Misappropriation Of His Work

It would be very hard for one to make a ?plaything? out of the Talmud. One can make jokes about difficult books, but one cannot make a ?plaything? out of them. With all the work I have put into making the Talmud accessible, it is still very tough reading. Our people have kept certain of our books hidden and unfortunately these are the books that were translated first into many languages. There are so many books on Kabbalah which have been translated and really shouldn't have been because translation without explanation is always a dangerous thing. We know ?The Hidden is for the Lord, but the revealed parts of Torah are for us and for our children forever.? The Talmud is part of the revealed tradition.

There has, of course, always been some concern about the widespread dissemination of Torah. There was, for example, concern about the production of the first printed volumes and we find that there was a brief period of ambivalence about printed Talmuds and other holy books in some of our sources. And then they made a decision that printing them was worthwhile. Let me tell you a chasidic story that exemplifies the exact reason for this decision. There once was a king who had an only son who became terribly sick and was dying. A great doctor came and said he had a possible solution. The king was to take the crown jewel, smash it, turn it into powder and then try to pour it down the throat of the son. If a drop enters, the child would be healed. But in any event, it meant the stone would be lost forever. The king said, ?If I don't have a child, why should I care about the stone?? so he agreed to try. Most of it, he realized, will be spilled, but some of it may penetrate and that's worthwhile.This is exactly what I am saying about the whole subject of this new edition of the Talmud.

On The Talmud And Jews With Secular Background

The Talmud as a book was, in a way, never finished. People are writing commentaries and are adding their work to it constantly. One of the beauties of the Talmud is that every new point of view adds some dimension to it. So when new people come to it with a different background or insight, the questions they ask can be very important.

On Kiruv: The Biggest Mission For The Jewish People

Our biggest mission is a mission to the Jews. So many of them must become Jews. But I have found that it is so much easier to convert anyone other than a Jew. If you read William James' book The Varieties of Religious Experience you will find a very detailed description of religious conversions. In my experience I have found that cases of instant conversion in Judaism are very rare. I know, I suppose, thousands of people, some of them quite intimately, who became involved in Judaism and l have practically never encountered one ?instant? conversion. Why? Judaism does not stand on a simple creed or on the basis of blind behavior. To understand Judaism is to understand that it is a whole culture. There is a song in Yiddish, ?When we go, we go in Yiddish, when we travel, we travel in Yiddish, when we speak, we speak in Yiddish,? implying that we, as Jews, are involved in Judaism as a whole culture. It is very hard to ?get? a whole culture by immediate conversion. To say ?I get it, Hallelujah? is easy; to get someone to the point of adopting a culture is far more difficult. You must learn in order to get involved with Judaism.

There is a statement of Moses which sheds light on our mission to our own people. It has been translated in two ways and I like the explanation of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman). When the people sinned in making the Golden Calf, Moses said, ?Because they are an obstinate people forgive them.? Several commentators, Ibn Ezra, for example, say it can be read, ?Even though they are an obstinate people, forgive them.? The Ramban, on the other hand, says something like this: ?They are an obstinate people. They are not moved easily. You can't expect them to be moved by one revelation to immediately become your adherents. You must see that it will take some time, `For they are an obstinate people.' But when they are convinced, they will stand with you in every case.? So this is part of our nature. The Jew has been stranded or orphaned, and for him to become converted, to return to Judaism, is a difficult process because all his obstinacy is standing in his way. It's a process which takes time. The obstacles are often inside rather than outside. One has, in effect, do battle with a person who is obstinate with respect to Judaism and who is, thereby, only showing that he is a good Jew. I believe this is true, not just a nice Biblical interpretation.

On The Controversy Which Has Erupted Around Him In Israel

To put it in the shortest way, I tried as far as possible not to get involved in the fight surrounding me in Israel, and the reason for this was, as one of our sages said, ?I prefer to be considered a fool all my life, than to be considered in the eyes of G‑d a wicked person even for a short while.? I felt that my dealing with these questions would create an enormous amount of chillul hashem (disgrace upon G‑d's name and upon the Jewish people). So I preferred to keep silent and to avoid chillul hashem even though my silence and my ?giving in? put me in a very foolish position. I still don't regret the fact that I avoided a great amount of chillul hashem by keeping silent and appearing as a fool.

Again, in the shortest possible terms, I don't think really that there is any kind of conceptual fight or conceptual gap. The whole thing was possibly more a matter of jealousy than zealousy or zealousness. And again, I don't want to enlarge upon this, not because I don't have the means, but because I don't want to enter into any kind of a smear campaign. But you can imagine that when books that exist in the market and are being sold (and surely not under the counter), for 15 or 20 or 25 years, are suddenly discovered to be such horrible things, that something like this is not made of pure innocence. You cannot attribute too much innocence to such an immediate, but well organized discovery that is made after 10 or 20 years. So in fact, it is part of some kind of a political infighting ? something that I tried, as far as I could, to avoid in Israel. I fled from it like one has to flee from any kind of a ... temptation. This temptation of Jewish infighting is what destroyed the Second Temple and it has yet to have been healed. I surely don't want to feed this kellipah, this vicious power, by adding some more thought to it.

On Individuals Who May Be Beyond Reproach, Who Joined In The Criticism Of Rabbi Steinsaltz.

Let me just say that I could explain it very well but I don't want to. The more I would try to explain the thing in detail, to enter into the process, the more harm would be caused, rather than good. There are problems in every community. If the problem is in the greatest part of the nation, then it is possible, indeed a must, to reveal what happened. When it is a smaller group that is misunderstood, misquoted, and so on, then any kind of a revelation is apt to reflect on people who are really above reproach and reflect upon a whole community that is really not involved. And this is what I don't want to do. When I am asked about the policy of Israel in the United States or in Russia, I respond that when I am in my country I have all kinds of criticisms and I express them, but when I am outside, I try as far as possible to keep them among ourselves.

On His Refunding Money For His Books

Up to now I think I have had about 10 books returned.

Basically people objected to my style, my use of language. Someone once said that the book? Alice In Wonderland is full of sexual symbols, and he advised that a person who undergoes psychoanalytic treatment shouldn't read it. In some cases, some people who were not even meant to read my books might have been offended by a choice of language, by a style. And I say, if you are such a person, if you are so sensitive and you are offended ? it wasn't meant to offend, but I still stand corrected. I didn't mean to speak in such a language for your delicate ears. But sometimes people overhear, especially when they enter into places where they are not supposed to go ... So if a person feels that a certain use of language is jarring I really didn't mean to do it.

If I'll speak to a number of people, there is a very good chance that ? even though I have, not a middle name, but a first name that means ?gentle? ? that one or two people will be offended somehow. When I am trying to be offensive, I say it. Sometimes I do it without any intentions. Sometimes it happens that you say something which you believe is completely correct, and it may be completely correct, yet for somebody it's offensive. There is no other way except to apologize in that sense, saying, ?I didn't want to be offensive and it wasn't meant for a person of your sensitivity.?

On His Relationship With Lubavitch, ?Who Is A Jew? And Clal Yisrael.

I have, as is quite well known, quite a close relationship with Lubavitch. There is a lot of controversy in Jewish life, but when the controversy is about important issues, it is a controversy that sometimes should be held. Let me just say one good word about this controversy over Who is a Jew. It made quite a number of Jews aware of their identity. You see, in some cases it is best to make a person assert himself about being Jewish. When I tell somebody who is not terribly proud of being Jewish, ?You are not a Jew,? then he may possibly, out of sheer obstinacy, say, ?I'll fight you to the death, but I am a Jew.? So raising the issue was helpful for quite a number of people in getting them involved in thinking that being Jewish is an important thing. It's not just a ?curse? that you are born with, but something that is worth fighting for! The right to be a Jew. And I think from this point of view that something was gained.

I must, however, say that in Israel there was much harm caused by the fact that the media did insufficient research in reporting on this subject. The most delicate things were reported with a real lack of knowledge and research. This is a permanent problem in Israel. Most of the important newspaper people, the main (foreign) reporters, never even bothered to learn Hebrew.

On What Brought Him To Judaism

This is really a personal question. I once told a reporter the same thing: I said, ?You don't really expect me to undress before you.? I'm not trying to be offensive, but in asking such a question you are asking about something that is really intimate, far more so even than a person's body. What is it that really makes a person inwardly change? I can't get into such delicate points, but in general I can say that I came from a inheritance of a whole line of revolutionaries. One of my ancestors, for example, joined the Polish revolution in the 19th century. He was an observant Jew who joined Kosciusko in his revolt against Russia. He had to flee from his country, and he had a death warrant on his head. Later on, there were other revolutionaries in my family and this made it possible for me to be revolutionary again. I used to tell my father: ?I am very much like you.? We each made the same kind of ?turning? at the same age. My father, whom I really liked and respected, in spite of the fact that in certain ways he was a very tough man, was easy for me to get along with. He could understand me because he respected the search for truth and he felt that if you did something you should do it well and do it wholeheartedly. That was a very clear message which I got from my parents. If you do it, don't do it by halves; do it well, and don't be afraid of anybody.

There was also something more intellectual. There is a theorem in mathematics. It is not very high mathematics, but there is something very interesting about it. It is a problem in plane geometry. It is a problem that seems very obvious, but it is possible to prove that you cannot solve it in plane geometry. The only way you can solve it is by creating a point in the third dimension. From there on, the problem is solved almost immediately. I would say that with my socialist upbringing and my awareness of the war, I came to a point where I knew that without having a point beyond the dimensions of our world, there is no solution to anything on earth.



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