With a large black kipah slightly askew atop a mat of graying hair, and strands of his flowing beard branching off in all directions, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz evokes the image of the classic absent-minded professor. Indeed, his tendency to ask more questions than provide answers might lead those unfamiliar with his body of work to conclude that the man once declared by Time magazine to be a "once-in-a-millennium" scholar was nothing more than an eccentric teacher: knowledgeable, but not inspiring, not incisive. They would be wrong.
Embarked on a task
The Jerusalem-born Steinsaltz, 67, who earned popular acclaim for his ongoing project to translate and elucidate the Talmud into English, has embarked on an equally monumental task with the publication this year of We Jews. Unlike his earlier undertakings, which include last year's encyclopedic commentary on the first 12 chapters of the 18th-century Chasidic treatise, the Tanya, Steinsaltz's newest book is intended for those with perhaps less of a grounding in Jewish texts.
"That's What I hope for: You hit a nerve and produce a reaction."
"The book on the Tanya is a very demanding book," says Steinsaltz, recipient of the 1988 Israel Prize, the Jewish state's highest honor. The rabbi made his remarks in an interview before giving an April 7 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania to promote We Jews.
"This book, I hope, is not so very hard to understand. It certainly is more readable." Written in a question-and-answer format and addressed to all members of the extended Jewish family, We Jews attempts to answer such queries as "Why do Jews want to save the world?" and "Are we a nation or a religion?"
The answers to both touch on the theme of the treatise, that Judaism represents neither a people, a nation, nor a religion. The Jews, as Steinsaltz states in his book, "are a family.
No matter how the individual Jew behaves and no matter how thorough his assimilation into the surrounding society, he remains a Jew in the eyes of others, just as he will [always] remain a member of his family." Thus, when it comes to the innate Jewish trait to "save the world," Steinsaltz asserts, the identified Messiah complex – "even in its non-Jewish and nonreligious manifestations – includes within it a deep sensitivity to the suffering and distress in the world in general." But We Jews, according to the Chabad Lubavitch rabbi – who earned a degree in mathematics from Hebrew University, and in 1984 founded the Mekor Chaim Education Institutions system in Jerusalem – is more than a character study of the Jewish family. He wants it to produce action. "That's what I hope for: You hit a nerve and produce a reaction," he says. "The basic problems I raise are about identity. Just ask people to make a list of their identities. Sometimes, a person will say, 'I'm a dentist. I'm a husband. I have three children.' Then they say they're Jewish. "Just imagine if every Jewish home had a mezuzah," he adds, hinting at the mission he's been on for quite some time. "That's like putting on a little flag, but it's really a revolutionary change."
One way Steinsaltz offers to measure the success of his current venture appears quite simple, like the mezuzah, but again, he says that it's utterly revolutionary: "If at the end of the book, someone puts five cents in the next charity box, it would have some result."