Adin Steinsaltz, a Key Player in Judaism’s Oldest Conflict

Adin Steinsaltz was a key protagonist in a millenia-long debate within Judaism: Should access to its core texts be confined to an elite or to the masses? Is Judaism about conservation or innovation? What makes a rabbi ‘great’?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz smokes a pipe in Jerusalem on November 10, 2010.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz smokes a pipe in Jerusalem on November 10, 2010.Credit: Bernat Armangue,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Since the death in Jerusalem of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz last Friday at the age of 83, a debate has been raging in a corner of Jewish social media over who was bigger, Steinsaltz or Rabbi Elazar Shach, who predeceased him by 19 years.

A bit of background for the less initiated. Both rabbis were Talmudic scholars and educators. Shach, who died in 2001 at the age of 102, was born in Lithuania and had studied and taught at the fabled pre-war yeshivas there before emigrating to Palestine during World War Two. Over the next half a century, Shach became the central figure in the rebuilding of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hassidic) yeshivas, widely (though not universally) considered the elite of ultra-Orthodox scholarship, and, through his position as co-chairman of the Council of Torah Sages, the most powerful leader in Haredi politics.

Steinsaltz, in contrast, was born into a secular Israeli family in Jerusalem. The son of a Communist volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, he drifted towards Orthodoxy in his teens, studying Torah in Chabad yeshivas, but also sciences at the Hebrew University.

While Chabad, as they do, have been eager to pronounce him one of their own, as he was close to the movement and wore Chabad-style suits and squashed fedoras (though unlike most Chabadniks, he usually wore a blue, instead of a white shirt) he operated independently and the students in the schools and yeshivas he founded tend to come from a more mainstream modern Orthodox or national-religious background, attracted by Steinsaltz’s unique blend of worldliness, scholarship and neo-Hasidism.

The two rabbis were of different generations and lived and worked in almost totally different spheres. Their paths would never have crossed (in fact, I’m almost certain they never actually met) if it wasn’t for Steinsaltz’s life’s work, the reason he was so celebrated in life and death, including a New York Times obituary: his translation/commentary on the Talmud.

In 1965, Steinsaltz embarked on a vastly ambitious project to render the 1,500 year-old jumble of unpunctuated Aramaic and Hebrew covering 2,711 double-sided pages accessible to less experienced scholars by translating it into modern Hebrew, and then into English and other languages. He completed it in 2010.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in 2012.Credit: Omar Miron

The reception to the Steinsaltz Talmud was mixed. While it was wildly popular among students and many rabbis from diverse sections of Orthodoxy praised it, the hardcore of the “Lithuanian” elite shunned it. The most vociferous among its critics was Shach, who wrote in 1989 that “by its study, all spark of holiness and faith is removed.” He recommended its volumes be consigned to the geniza, the repository for worn-out religious texts, and that it be prohibited from study and even from being physically allowed in yeshivas.

Shach’s vehement opposition was probably based on a number of factors. The “Lithuanian” system of Talmud learning sanctifies the hard labor of deciphering every word, its subsequent permutations and sequences, and idealizes a lifetime spent in study. It’s an elitist form of scholarship, that seeks to keep those not who are not cognoscenti out. But it’s also a very natural instinct, because the study of sacred texts often invites exclusivity, and because the rigorous study routine sifts out unsuitable and inadequate minds. 

Then there were Steinsaltz’s modern flourishes, the little footnotes on matters of language and nature, added on the margins of his volumes. And then of course there was politics.

Someone had told Shach that Steinsaltz was a Chabadnik. And while his style of commentary was uniquely his, a fusion of many Jewish and even non-Jewish traditions, even the whiff of Chabad was enough to raise Shach’s hackles. He saw the Brooklyn-based Hassidic movement, with some justification, as a dangerous messianic cult. To Chabadniks who indeed claimed the last Rebbe was the Messiah, Shach famously responded: "Total heresy. Those who say so will burn in hell."

His demand to censor any mention of Chabad and its leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson from the pages of Israel’s official organ of Haredi Jewry, the daily Hamodia newspaper, brought about a schism in the 1980s within the Agudat Yisrael party, which had represented the interests of ultra-Orthodoxy from before Israel’s foundation. Shach’s demand split the Hassidic rabbis, who refused to ostracize Chabad, and their Lithuanian counterparts, who left and formed their own newspaper and political party.

The schism would be short-lived; by 1992 they would once again run in the same Knesset slate as United Torah Judaism, but officially they remain separate parties and the controversy still rankles, especially among the Chabadniks, who continue to resent the way Shach tried to cut them off.

Steinsaltz, who through his life was resolutely apolitical, had nothing to do with any of this. He thought Shach’s criticism of his work was fueled by his anti-Chabad animus, but it’s very possible that even without it, the Lithuanians would have opposed him. Nevertheless, this week, when he was widely eulogized, it was Chabadnik wags who tweeted, asking which series of books had more readers, Steinsaltz’s Talmud, or Avi Ezri, Shach’s dissertations on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah.

It was a silly provocation. A bit like trying to gauge the influence of Albert Einstein and J. K. Rowling by comparing their book sale figures. Steinsaltz’s work was intended to popularize and democratize Talmud study, while Shach was only ever interested in writing for a small group of elite scholars in Lithuanian yeshivas. And besides, his literary output was not his main achievement.

Men attend the funeral of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Mt. Of olives in Jerusalem, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

Shach was no innovator. In fact, innovation was antithetical to his ideology. He was devoted to rebuilding, reinforcing and preserving the insular world of the Lithuanian yeshivas, gate-keeping them against modernity and secular enlightenment. After their destruction by the twin forces of Nazism and Communism, it seemed a forlorn hope.

In the new Jewish state, there were only a handful of yeshivas who kept the ethos and a few hundred students. Founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion was so certain they were destined to soon die out that he agreed to exempt the students from military service.

But Shach and his colleagues proved Ben-Gurion wrong. Shach was to become the most influential in the small group of rabbis who built what today is not only the largest fraternity of Torah scholarship in history, but also the ideological vanguards of an independent and politically powerful Haredi autonomy in Israel, as well as similar autonomous communities in the United States and Britain.

Who was bigger, Shach or Steinsaltz? That depends on your yardstick for greatness. Steinsaltz single-handedly opened up the Talmud to popular study. Shach was pivotal in causing a seismic change in Israeli and Jewish society. Both men’s work will have implications for generations, perhaps centuries, to come.

The Shach-Steinsaltz controversy is not really about Chabad, it’s not even about the older conflict between Hassidim and the more cerebral mitnagdim (opposers) of the Lithuanian tradition, which stretches back two and a half centuries.

It is the oldest dispute in Jewish history, echoing back as early as the Bible, between those who insisted that the ancient tradition could only be protected by isolating it from the world and its influences, entrusting it to priestly and scholarly castes, and those who believed it would only flourish out in the open where as many students as possible could enjoy it. For all their comparative greatness, Shach and Steinsaltz were just two more avatars in a never-ending argument.

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