There are many who consider the purveyors of Jewish knowledge to be primarily male. While male commentators and scholars tend to invite the attention and accolades, in reality, some brilliant women are not only contributing to the projects to enhance Jewish learning but are leading the charge as well. Many of these women work for the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem, overseeing projects that are making our core Jewish texts more accessible to all.
Yehudit Shabta is one of these pedagogical superstars. Originally hired as a secretary, she quickly rose through the ranks to become a translator and editor on several high-profile projects, including the editing and partial translation of the five megillot, edited commentary on Tehillim, and a forthcoming Hebrew translation of the book My Rebbe, to name a few. She relates that in nearly 30 years at the Steinsaltz Center, she has always been made to feel like an equal worthy of respect. In this interview with the 5TJT, Ms. Shabta discusses the role she and her fellow Steinsaltz scholars play in strengthening Jewish connectivity and pushing Jewish education forward.
Rochelle Maruch Miller: Yehudit, you have been an integral part of the Steinsaltz Center for almost three decades. What are some of its unique aspects?
Yehudit Shabta: What makes the Steinsaltz Center unique is Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s vision. He wants to make the main books of Judaism accessible to anyone, and I think that to a great extent he has attained his goal. Now it’s up to us—the Jewish community—to open his books and study them. The rabbi has the unique gift of bringing complex and profound content across in a simple, clear way. He is such an original thinker, observing everything from his own perspective while at the same time from a bird’s eye view, so much higher and panoramic. There are many teachers in the Jewish world, some of whom are truly great teachers. I think people don’t really “choose” their teachers but are rather drawn to them by some inner compass. Certain teachers have a greater, broader soul called a neshamah klalit. Rabbi Steinsaltz is definitely a neshamah klalit, which is why he appeals to so many people.
As for me, I hope it is not too presumptuous to say that I have a special connection with his teachings, that I understand them — to the extent that is possible — in a way that he wants them to be understood, and that is why he has allowed me to edit and translate so many of his writings, speeches, and books. It is a privilege that I cannot be grateful enough for. I would recommend his works because they are instructive, informative, clear, original, thought-provoking — because they can expand not only one’s intellect and knowledge, but also one’s soul, and make one a better human being and a better Jew.”
RMM: What is the Steinsaltz Center’s mission?
YS: As Rabbi Steinsaltz has so aptly put it, [the mission is] to open the currently closed fundamental works of Judaism to anyone who wishes to approach them, so that every Jew, wherever he or she may be, will be able to access their rich and wonderful heritage.
RMM: Which publications and works are, in your opinion, of particular significance to Jewish women?
YS: My most favorite “babies” are two books: Simple Words and The Soul, because of my special involvement in their production. Simple Words is based on a series of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s public lectures, most of them in teleconference. I sat in in most of them and then typed them up and edited them. And The Soul, in its entirety, was dictated to me over a period of a few months, a chapter or portion of a chapter at a time, and then I edited it all. These two works are not necessarily of particular importance to women, though. Perhaps the most significant work for women is The Woman of Valor, the rabbi’s commentary to Proverbs 31:10–31.
RMM: How has the role of women as purveyors of Jewish knowledge evolved in contemporary society?
JS: When I began my way in Jewish observance at the beginning of the 1970s, there were very few institutions of Jewish learning for women altogether, and especially for women from a non-religious background. One of them was Machon Pardes in Jerusalem. Rabbi Steinsaltz taught there for the first few years. In that co-ed Orthodox institution, women were treated as equals in every way. The year I spent there was most significant in my life — as well as one or two excellent yearlong classes I attended at Bar Ilan University — and has very much given me the basis for my subsequent Jewish learning. But in the 1970s, Pardes was (considered by some to be) a revolutionary institution. [Editor’s note: Studying Talmud was one of the many available options for both male and female students there.] Since then, things have really changed. There are many opportunities for women to study, write, and teach Judaism in every possible sphere, in all denominations, in classes, institutions, seminars, papers, periodicals — you name it!
RMM: Since its inception, the Steinsaltz Center has been a trailblazer in providing opportunities for women to advance as purveyors of Jewish education. Please provide us with an example of what you have observed during your tenure as a Steinsaltz scholar.
YS: If a woman was knowledgeable, she would be given contents to deal with, without much ado. In one case, for example, a young woman, a graduate of an Ivy League university, with a degree in scientific studies and some knowledge of Judaism, would visit the office because she was alone in Israel and was not acquainted with many people. During one of these visits, she was given some English Talmud pages to proofread and it soon became apparent that she was brilliant. Accordingly, she became one of the proofreaders of the English Talmud.
RMM: How has your work at the Steinsaltz Center impacted your life?
YS: Rabbi Steinsaltz is my main teacher and guide in life. I’ve had others, but he is the main one. To work for him is perhaps the greatest privilege imaginable. I have been given the gift of many private hours with Rabbi Steinsaltz, most of them devoted to work, but some of them also to discuss personal matters. The sage advice he gave me has assisted me enormously in hours of difficulty and need.
RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?
YS: Learn, learn, learn. The wisdom and beauty of the Torah is waiting to be discovered by us.
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.