It is a rare accomplishment for a rabbi to have his name attached to the word “Talmud,” the corpus of Jewish law and lore that has been the subject of Jewish study and scholarship for close to 2,000 years. But becoming identified with his eponymous translation of the Talmud was only one of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s many accomplishments during a life of making Jewish texts accessible to all — from casual reader to scholar — without compromising the rigor of his analysis.
Steinsaltz, who died in Jerusalem on Aug. 7 at 83, was well known for his sharp intellect and tireless work ethic — with reports indicating that he regularly put in 17-hour workdays. Steinsaltz’s path to elevated Jewish scholar status was a bit unusual, as he was born into a secular family, and wasn’t drawn to religion until his teenage years. He eventually became associated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, but was better known for his erudition, prodigious work product and overall scholarship than his Chasidic association.
In 1965, when Steinsaltz was in his 20s, he began a translation of the Talmud from Aramaic into modern Hebrew. That project, which became his life’s work, took 45 years to complete. In the process, Steinsaltz added his own commentary to each page — a move that courted some degree of controversy, since it was seen by some as an effort to elevate his teachings to the level of Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator whose glosses on the Bible, the Prophets and the Talmud appear with those traditional texts in a script that bears his name. But Steinsaltz was undaunted, and in the process made much-welcomed technical innovations to his new Talmud texts, adding punctuation and paragraph breaks to make the ancient block texts (with no punctuation) more open to the modern reader.
For a haredi Jew, his innovations were seen as radical, even heretical, by some. And perhaps those concerns contributed to Steinsaltz’s rock-star status in the Jewish world, where he was lionized as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar” who could “converse and relate with ease to the most brilliant scientist and the smallest of children equally,” as Rabbi Pinchas Allouche, a colleague of Steinsaltz, put it.
Accessibility and broad-mindedness were the hallmarks of Steinsaltz’s work. In addition to his writings, he established a network of schools in Israel and the former Soviet Union that helped advance his goal of making the entire canon of Jewish texts accessible to all, irrespective of knowledge and background.
Later in life, Steinsaltz Hebraized his surname to Even-Israel, but it is the Steinsaltz name — associated with this most humane, modest, prodigious, erudite scholar — that has become so well-known, honored and respected.
Adin Steinsaltz was a hero to the Jewish people and a scholar of our generation. May his memory be for a blessing. JT