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Found in Translation

Scholar Adin Steinsaltz discusses his recently completed edition of the Talmud, why the Internet is better than TV, and the prospect of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Elvis playing cards together

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Adin Steinsaltz. (Erik Tischler)

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.

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Carl says:

Too bad that there aren’t more like him. Israel, with all its taxpayer financed Yeshivot, has mostly succeeded in turning out narrow-minded intellectual midget torah scholars. Maybe because he was raised secular he turned out different.

Adin Steinsaltz is also a great man. We are so blessed to have him here in this generation. He is one of the hidden beauties of Jerusalem.

Sandee says:

A breath of fresh air! His warmth, wit, and intellect shine through in this too-brief interview.

rebscott says:

As a Reform rabbi, I suppose that it seems odd that Steinsaltz is a great hero of mine. I place his work, The 13 Petalled Rose, on my short list of most influential books that I’ve ever read. His learning and wisdom are matched by his modesty and true love for his people and his nation. May he live to 120!

Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

New, … Old Thinking …….

The Man is a Genius … Certainly on Par with all the other Geniuses that have come along in the last century, in all Disciplines, all of which were also Jewish …

Is it any wonder?

Emanuel Feldman says:

Re why the Artscroll Talmud translation did not meet the resistance that the Steinsalts Talmud met: The Artscroll faithfully followed the format of the classic Talmud volumes, retaining the same pagination and format on each page, also retaining Rashi in its classic script and in its normative place on the page. It had the look and feel of an old fashioned Gemara. The Steinslatz consciously changed the page format, had a lovely new cover done by a top graphic artist,and opened not from the right, as Hebrew texts do, but from the left. Later on, Steinslats changed this format to a more classic one, but originallky this was one of the major reasons it was not accepted by the Orthodox Gemara-learning crowd. It is a monymental work, but opposition had little to do with vested interests fighting against him.

Emanuel Feldman says:

The Steinslatz Talmud changed the classic page format and opened from the left and not the right. It did not have the look and feel of a classic Gemara.,The Artscroll had this look, and therefore was accepted widely. Resistance to the Steinslatz – tho it is a monumental work – stemmed from his efforts to make it palatable to modern audiences.Had little to do with vested interests fighting him

Emanuel Feldman says:

just sent comments and they keep being rejected.

pnina sharon says:

Steinsaltz’s example of what he has put his life’s energy and genius into; childrens education, learning, writing and translating, is a map of values that is as instructive as any volume.

If someone from the Aleph Society is listening, please reconsider the decision to stop publishing the Steinsaltz edition in English translation. It does many things that the ArtScroll series does not–and I quite like the latter–such as give all the Old French terms Rashi used to gloss Talmudic terminology, include illustrations of key artifacts from Talmudic times, and offer capsule biographies of Tannaim and Amoraim. The four tractates that have appeared in English are wonderful!

Izzy says:

Rabbi Steinsaltz was the man that propelled me into my conversion to Judaism. He is a teachers teacher. We are blessed by his kind and the freedom to be inspired and to learn.

Sy Weiss says:

As an 80 old secular Jew, without the ability to read Hebrew,
If the great Adin Steinsaltz could put it on line, GOOGLE could translate Talmud to English. I think I still have time in this world to get into IT. Will finish in YENE VELT if I
take time away from Elvis.
Sy Fort Lee NJ

JDE says:

I don’t care for Steinsaltz and never have. I don’t agree with those who consider him to be “great”, and I certainly don’t agree with his characterization of Schneerson as such. I think it’s more reflective of a lowering of standards, rather than of anything else. It may be due to the dumbing down of America, of which the TV he complains about is, ironically, one causal factor. We’ve become accustomed to mediocrity, so anyone who stand out even a little becomes superlative by comparison.

American Jews have been so profoundly infected by the virus of nostalgia that any old Jew with crinkly eyes and a long beard becomes an object of reverence and devotion. Pile on top of that a translation of the Talmud and my God, the man’s a tzaddik!

Frankly, I see his devotion to Schneerson along with his other proclivities to be a waste of what was probably a first-class mind.

yosh mier says:

the rabbi says thingsthat we believe are handed down mosea from sinai…he says are for practicle reosons…as documnted by r aaron feldmen and others…

You write:

Steinsaltz also oversaw the subsequent translation of his edition into five other languages.

Can you please tell us what languages are this?

thank you

All great minds have detractors. Part of greatness is to make these critics insignificant and even ridiculous, by ignoring them

Dear sweet man,
I am afraid they are in the same realm, yes and alive but on a different plane.

Christopher Brooks says:

Rabbi Steinsaltz just makes me smile. I love the man.

Shlomo David says:

To Rabbi Emanuel Feldman:
I am astonished to read that you wrote that Rabbi Steinsaltz’s gemara opened from the left (It did not) and that entire opposition to him and his talmud was mainly because he used a different format.

Perhaps you fail to recall the letters declaring him a heretic, signed by some of the most prominent Charedi Rabbis in Israel.

If I’m not mistaken, your own brother might have been somewhat involved.

You’re saying that redesigning the talmud page renders someone a heretic?

He may be a marvel in Religious Life but he is wrong about First – New York – its beautiful and resonates with life and Second – Tel Aviv is the most amazing city – the beautiful Bauhaus white city – and is a miracle city built recently on sand. Jerusalem has modern buildings that look like a place where white limestone slabs come to die.

My understanding of the controversy in Orthodox corners about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud translation is that it has to do with the layout. Artscroll went out of their way to honor the traditional “blat,” or page of Talmud. R. Steinsaltz places his commentary in a column of the page traditionally reserved for medieval commentators. The Orthodox rabbinate considered it “chutzpah” of the highest order.

Where I can I get some free books and essay on this author?

Ira L. Jacobson says:

Rav Steinsaltz was a pioneer in making the Talmud accessible to all Jews. The article does not mention that first the Hebrew volumes were published, and the English ones came only decades later. The latest editions have the text in tzurat hadaf — that is, the same pagination and fonts as in the standard Vilna Shas. The translation to Hebrew is on the facing pages. And the “extras” include exposition of the text as done by the later Rabbis, the relevant halakhot (Jewish Law) to the page being studied, etymology, biographies of the rabbis who are quoted, botany, zoology, indexing and lots more.

The Steinsaltz Gemara is a monumental contribution to Jewish study.

Zvi Smith says:

I agree with J that Random House should not have stopped publishing the excellent translation into English of the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud after only 27 volumes. The discontinuance of this work is a tremendous loss to serious students of Judaica. Rabbi Steinsaltz’ Guide to the Talmud in English has no match anywhere. I use it all the time and it is most helpful

Artscroll had to get a six million dollar contribution from the Schottensteins to get their translation off the ground. Somebody should do the same thing for Rabbi Steinsaltz so that he can continue his great work.

avraham hirsh says:

I remember well the discussions on his Gemara & the related ban on learning from it. It had to do with Hashgafah, not the layout. That, is what I remember in the Orthodox rags. To go into detail would be loshon hara. I am not judging here, just reporting my recollection of the “facts”. Shabbat Shalom!

Bob Godwin says:

Zvi Smith, on May 26th, states Random House published 27 volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud.
I have Volumes 1-21, plus the Reference volume, and thought that was all there was.
Where can I get a list of all 27 of the Random House volumes?
It will be a long hunt to locate the other five volumes for my library.

Nachum says:

Bob Godwin, there were only 22 volumes. “27” is a mistake.

All the claims about the holy layout of the traditional page (which dates, at the earliest, to the Christian printer Daniel Bomberg in the mid 1500’s and really only to the Vilna edition of the late 1800’s) is bunk, as anyone who followed the story of R’ Steinsaltz and his attackers can attest. It was a political, ideological, and perhaps even commercial move.

David says:

When I was studying in Israel in 1974-75, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave a weekly, open shiur at the President’s house in Yerushalayim. He was sick at the time and yet still did it.

It was an amazing shiur with perhaps only 6 or 7 people.
One of my great regrets is that I was a stupid college student: I did not make it a can’t miss weekly appointment.

What a missed opportunity!

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Found in Translation

Scholar Adin Steinsaltz discusses his recently completed edition of the Talmud, why the Internet is better than TV, and the prospect of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Elvis playing cards together

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