By Toby Klein Greenwald
On Friday, the 17th of Av, Rav Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz passed away and was buried on Har HaZeitim — the Mount of Olives — while hundreds of family members, colleagues, and students stood in the hot sun, singing Chassidic niggunim following the burial. The diversity of people who accompanied him to his final rest spoke to the miracles he accomplished in his lifetime.
Two years ago, there was a dinner held in Jerusalem in honor of his 80th birthday. We were privileged to be there, but more important, both my husband and I had the privilege of working for him, and my husband also studied under him. More on that later.
Once in a generation — if we’re lucky — do we witness the creation of a project so expansive, so extraordinary, that it revolutionizes Jewish scholarship for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people, and for future generations. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is perhaps best known for his trailblazing Babylonian Talmud, and as the Haggadah song, “Dayenu,” goes, “That would have been enough for us.”
What is equally extraordinary is what was created concurrently with the Steinsaltz Talmud, what followed it, and what new projects were in the works when he passed away, for he has produced commentaries also on Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings), the Mishna, the Mishneh Torah, and Tanya. All of these are now within the reach of both scholars and lay people, and going forward, they will become accessible digitally.
The eclectic collection of guests who came to his dinner, like those who, l’havdil, attended the funeral (visible through a live Facebook feed), were of a wide age range and, at least outwardly, appeared vastly diverse in religious style. This spoke to the fact that the greatest achievement of Rav Adin Steinsaltz had been his ability to be a giant whose intellect could reach the stars, yet who could communicate and interpret the treasures of the Torah to those below who are as numerous as the sands of the earth.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was a keynote speaker at the Rav’s dinner in 2018, said, “He was trained as a scientist but has the soul of a poet. He was brought up by very secular parents. Adin told me that his parents insisted that he learn Gemara because they wanted him to be an apicorus (heretic), not an amaretz (ignoramus).
“With his creative genius he has taken the most complex texts and turned them into the simplest messages,” Rabbi Sacks said. He quoted the pasuk in Isaiah, “Vekol baneich limudi Hashem” — “And all your children shall learn of G-d,” and noted how there have been attempts in the world to create egalitarianism in wealth and in power, and they have failed, but that Rav Steinsaltz has “dedicated his life to creating something egalitarian by opening the doors of study to everyone.”
According to Rabbi Meni Even-Israel, the Rav’s son and executive director of the Steinsaltz Center that continues his work, the Rav became Torah observant when he was 16. He studied chemistry and physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But he spent most of his time on Jewish studies and spent many hours with Rabbi Shmaryahu Sasonkin and the late Rabbi Shlomo Zavin. He also studied for a brief time at the Chabad Yeshiva in Lod, and began to publish essays, lecture, and conduct educational activities for teens.
In 1965 the Rav married his wife Sara, opened a small hesder yeshiva (in which students divided their time between study and army service), and he founded the Israel Institute of Talmudic Publications in Jerusalem in cooperation with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministry of Education and Culture. With that he began his life’s work: translating the Talmud from its original Aramaic into modern Hebrew, and adding a commentary that a layperson could understand. He was only 28 at the time. This is not as surprising as one might expect, because at 24 he had been appointed the youngest school principal in Israel, at a school in the Negev.
Though the small yeshiva could not sustain itself beyond the first year, it was a microcosm of things to come. My husband, Yaakov, who was one of the six students, recalls, “The highlight was the seudat shlishith (the third Sabbath meal) that we had at the home of the Rav every week. The singing, his inspirational stories, the atmosphere … this was what made the yeshiva special.” Since then the Rav went on to found a plethora of educational institutions, and that special atmosphere permeates them all.
The Work of a Lifetime
The Rav expected to complete his Talmud project within 13 years. It took 45. The first volume was published less than a year after opening the Center. It was followed by 40 additional volumes, and the project was completed in the month of Kislev of the Hebrew year 5771 (December 2010). The English version is called The Essential Talmud. In 1991 he changed his last name to Even-Israel under the guidance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to whom he became very close. He was awarded the Israel Prize in 1988 and many other prestigious prizes.
The Steinsaltz Hebrew Talmud received endorsements from great rabbis in our times, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Admor of Erlau, and many more.
In the course of those 45 years the Rav published more than 60 books, numerous essays, recorded video classes, and also taught and lectured throughout the world. The Rav established a network of educational institutions for the Jewish community in the Soviet Union, including the first yeshiva formally acknowledged by the authorities, a Jewish university, and a training school for preschool and elementary school teachers.
Rav Even-Israel also established other schools that are inspired by his worldview, such as an army yeshiva (Yeshivat Hesder) in Tekoa, Israel, and the Makor Chaim elementary, middle, and high schools in and near Jerusalem. Sadly, the Makor Chaim high school yeshiva in Kfar Etzion became well known when two of the three teenaged boys who were kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 2014 were from that yeshiva. (One of them, Naftali Fraenkel, was my student.) But the yeshiva has morphed their tragedy into days of unity, in which they send students to secular schools in Israel to interact and create dialogue. During the seven years I taught in Makor Chaim, I discovered it was a high school yeshiva with out-of-the-box thinking and an atmosphere of curiosity, creativity, and joy.
By 1976, the Rav had also created the Shefa Institute, consisting of an elite group of students who would study, write pedagogical materials, and teach in educational programs for adults, creating a new dialogue with Jewish texts. My husband was one of the researchers and writers, and the Rav hired me to produce Shefa’s adult educational activities.
I remember vividly meeting with him a number of times in his private office in the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. It is written in Talmud Sukkah 21:2 “Even the prosaic conversations [sihat hulin] of wise men are equal to the entire Torah.” And indeed, even the Rav’s comments on prosaic matters were filled with rich philosophical insights and colorful anecdotes, and it was a privilege to just sit quietly and listen while he expounded on educational issues and Israeli society, as way of introduction to the next project.
The benefit of this close contact gave us a rare opportunity to know the Rav when he was much younger, and even then, a visionary and dreamer.
Yehudit Shabta, editor and translator, worked for the Rav since 1989. She tells the following story, by way of illustrating his worldview. “When our daughter was one year old we brought her to the Rav for a berachah. He said to the child, ‘I bless you that your parents will not get in the way of your growth.’”
Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, filmmaker and daughter of Sylva Zalmanson, one of 12 Soviet Jews who tried to escape the USSR in 1970 by hijacking a plane, in the bold “Operation Wedding,” and who ended up as prisoners of Zion for years, wrote in a public Facebook post on the day of the Rav’s funeral about her own experience with Rav Steinsaltz. She was 16 and rebellious. Everyone had advised her mother to be tough on her. Sylva took her to the Rav and he had one piece of advice: “Only love.”
We have in our home many books by Rav Steinsaltz that have informed our teaching — on Talmud, Chassidut, Tanach, Jewish mysticism, and more. One of my favorites is a little book that I consult when authoring a new biblical musical — Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, which always enchants with refreshing and deep insights on biblical figures central to our national shared consciousness.
My last professional experience with the Rav was when I was the lead translator of the book In the Land of Prayer, Personal Tefillot from Israel in Turbulent Times, edited by Dr. Daniel Gutenmacher, who is also a teacher in Yeshivat Makor Chaim. It was published in 2006, following the uprooting of Gush Katif. Rav Steinsaltz has a generous blurb on the back cover of our book, but even more meaningful, he has his own prayer inside. This is his final paragraph:
Compassionate One, who is true to the covenant, the time has arrived for You to send a message of salvation and redemption to Your world, to comfort all of Your children, and to bestow upon them an era of peace and blessing, light and joy. – Rav Adin Steinsaltz
May it be so, in our day.
Am Yisrael has lost a Torah giant. His wisdom and his smile that lit up the world will now continue to glow through his students and the works he left behind.
Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning playwright and director of biblical musicals for Raise Your Spirits Theatre and a recent recipient of an American Jewish Press Association award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.