Tuesday, / July 23, 2024

Interview: Subliminally Speaking

 In 1965, a young polymath launched a radical project sparking controversy within the traditional Jewish community. Over the next forty-five years, he and his team of protégés translated the Babylonian Talmud, bringing the study of the Oral Torah to the masses.

Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz, a towering figure of Jewish scholarship, became world renowned for his groundbreaking work: the translation of the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic into modern Hebrew and then into English. The project made the study of Talmudpreviously limited to students trained in the language and tradition of Talmudic dialecticaccessible to the lay public for the first time. 

Through his commentaries, translations, and prolific worksamong them The Thirteen Petalled Rose, The Strife of the Spirit, The Long Shorter Way, and Opening The Tanya, he also brought classical Chasidic texts and teachings to a wide, contemporary audience. 

Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz passed away this past August at the age of eighty-three. 

A beloved teacher, he established yeshivas in Jerusalem and Russia, and took an interest not only in transmitting the study of Torah, Talmud, and Chasidut to his students, but also in helping them cultivate an authentic love for their Jewish heritage community. 

With numerous projects perpetually on his table, the demand for his attention was great, and his time was a scarce resource. I am therefore grateful for the many interviews he gave me. Always willing to entertain my questions, Rabbi Adin offered his time, his wisdom, and his trenchant humor with patience and generosity.  

The following is an excerpt from my first published interview with Rabbi Adin, in 1991, when Random House released the first volume of The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition.

Baila Olidort: What is the purpose of making the Talmud accessible to people otherwise unlearned and perhaps even ignorant of Jewish scholarship?

Rabbi Adin: As I say in my introduction–in the reference guide–the Talmud is the pillar that holds up Judaism. One could be a Jew ethnically, without knowing the Talmud, but one cannot be a Jew culturally, unless one knows the basic works of Judaism. And the Talmud is clearly a very essential, very basic work of Judaism. If you do not know Talmud, you don’t really understand anything about Jewish culture. The problem, however, is that the Talmud is written in such a way that unless you have a very fair knowledge of the language and the style, or unless you are part of a culture that devotes a fair amount of time to study, it really is an impossible task. In order to enable people to learn Talmud, I have done something that makes it readable.

BO: What is the value of Talmud study for someone who does not believe in its sanctity?

RA: From a religious point of view, knowledge alone is one thing, and knowledge with sanctity is a different thing. There’s no doubt that knowledge without faith does not have the same quality.

The Talmud does not read as one would expect of a Divine message, because it doesn’t tell one what to do. We can learn the Talmud from cover to cover, and still much of it may not help us arrive at any rules for living. It often deals with subjects that not only are not practical now, but that were not practical at any possible time. So that unless one is studying the Talmud in order to do mischief—which would be unfaithful—it is still better to study the Talmud shelo lishma [not for the sake of study itself] than not to study at all. Because given time, one who studies the Talmud simply because he is interested in it, will eventually get involved and will come to learn it lishma, for the sake of study itself. 

From a cultural perspective, as a Jew, I want at least to know what it is all about. Our involvement with “the book” is so deep, that, in a way, it is a part of our character–as a people and as individuals. So understanding it makes us understand what we are. It is not directive—it doesn’t tell us what a Jew is—but it enables us to arrive at a point of understanding ourselves and what makes us tick. From a cultural perspective, then, the Talmud is the tool for self-understanding.

BO: The Talmud tells us that it is better to study for the wrong reasons than not at all, because study will eventually inspire pure intentions. Is this a psychological or mystical statement?

RA: There is a moment in the Talmud where G-d says, “Leave me, but keep the Torah.” And the Talmud explains this by saying that the light of Torah will make one return to G-d. You see, in Judaism the mystical world is not far removed. It is a very strange thing about Judaism that—while we do not speak constantly of G-d, as do other people and other religions—there is a subliminal spirituality. And when one gets involved, the spiritual message is conveyed. People often get involved in Torah learning, and, without knowing what hit them, they find themselves beginning to think in a different direction. So that, after some time, they become ripe to understand things that they were not prepared for before. 

If you are studying, for example, Bava Metzia, which is the first volume that I did [in English], you find that it deals mainly with civil law. And it has, on the face of it, nothing to do with spirituality or with the Divine. Yet somehow, there is a subtle message that comes through, which, from a religious perspective, is very effective. Torah is very successful in delivering its spiritual messages subliminally.

BO: Why subliminally?

RA: I think that, generally speaking, we prefer not to over-emphasize certain things. We as a people are so much involved with the Divine that we don’t speak too much about it because it is the very background of our existence.

If someone were to stress a subject again and again, I would become very suspicious about any kind of real attachment. When things are self-evident, you don’t speak about them. Any good woman who gets an extra amount of gifts from her husband begins to suspect that he has another woman on the side, and I think that if a person begins to speak too much about the Divine, the Lord suspects him of having other interests. 

BO: How then do you reconcile Chasidic study which is clearly more direct in its Divine messages?

RA: In many ways, we need to stress these things more today because we are not on the same level as the generations before us. If you are living within a very high culture, or if you are very sophisticated, you don’t need overemphasis. But today we need to say things explicitly. To make an analogy, when you are healthy and strong, you eat simple bread. When you are sickly, you are given the choicest foods, but you still don’t enjoy them. There were times when people could chew a piece of Gemara and get all the Divinity out of it. In our times, we need far more explicit statements—we need more involvement because, in a certain way, we are less involved.

BO: Is the logic of the Talmud different than, for example, the logic of science—of the Western world?

RA: It is clearly different. It is not easily defined because it is a very different way of thinking. The Talmudic way of thinking is, strangely enough, far more similar to what is done, for example, in modern physics, than what is done in regular logic. It is a difference in approach and that again is another reason that makes it difficult to study. Not only does it require knowledge of another language, but you have to think in a different way. You have to put on a different head. And that takes time. And some people never really get it.

BO: In the study of the Talmud, one often gets the feeling that perhaps much of its discussion is really a reflection of the mores and norms of that particular time. You don’t necessarily feel that it is timeless.

RA: The Talmud, or the true scholar does reflect eternity. But you cannot deal with questions that don’t make sense for the time. So if you put a particular question within certain parameters, you will have to rephrase it so that it will make sense in a different period. A book of mathematics, for example, can have a mathematical basis that is eternal. But ancient Greek mathematics are written in non-decimal notations because they did not have decimal notations then. That doesn’t mean that their work is not true. Rashi, for example, makes his calculations using long division in a very labored process, because decimal or logarithmic notations were not known then. His results are however, quite correct, but the way he does them is very different from the way we would do them today. So you are always dealing with the language of the time. Some of the problems are no longer practical. Some of them have to be rephrased. This really is what studying is all about—rephrasing statements in a style that makes sense.

BO: How does the Talmud respond to changes in life and society?

RA: The response is a cautious one. Regarding our own society, the question is: are we living in normal or abnormal times? Is our century an aberration in history? You see, there are fixed points in life, and when some of these fixed points change within the span of a decade, we begin to think that they have changed completely. And while people generally react so fast to these changes, we later find out that the changes were just ephemeral–that the changes are not stable. This explains why the clocks of halachah tick not every second but every ten years or so. Because they can only respond to real, permanent changes in life. That’s why, in some areas, it was always difficult to be a Jew: because we are sometimes out of step with society. In Roman times, our attitude towards women was quite well accepted while our attitude towards monotheism was not accepted. In Roman and Greek times, Jews were considered lazy because we have a day of rest. This was regarded as proof of the inherent laziness of Jews. Today, on the other hand, we do not need to defend one day of rest. Now people are thinking about two or four.

BO: Many statements made in the Talmud appear dated, and seem to enlarge the gap that we perceive between Talmudic and modern sensibility.

RA: It was only several years ago that a sleep laboratory in Houston learned, after doing much research and experimentation, that the maximum number of days a human being can go without sleep and not suffer permanent damage is six. So that if someone goes for up to six days without sleep, but then sleeps on the seventh, whatever damages resulted from this lack of sleep would be repaired. One of the scientists wrote to me asking for the source in the Talmud about resting on Shabbat, on the seventh day. The point is that as we do more research, and discover more and more about life, we find so much in the Talmud that, until then, did not necessarily make sense. One of the things that we learned in the last fifty years of science was not to be rash about getting to solutions. You cannot rely on what was written in the last issue, say, of Popular Mechanics as a source of all knowledge in the world, or what the women’s magazines have to say about life, truth, and marriage. People should have at least a fair amount of skepticism. Personally, I have been dealing with Talmud for many years, and I have found out lots of things. And the more I know about it, the more respectful I become.

BO: There has been concern raised that, by popularizing the Talmud, you allow people who have no prerequisite background to read it very superficially and falsely, and then assume that they now know what it is all about.

RA: I have not popularized the Talmud in the sense that it is easily read. The Talmud is written in its own jargon, which limits its accessibility. So I wrote it in a language that is accessible. But it cannot be made into “light” reading material, unless you cheat, which I did not. In fact, I included—at least in the notes— almost all of the Rishonim and Acharonim [the early and later sages], which means it is a rather high level of knowledge. So it is certainly a tough book. It is not easier than any book on mathematics, law, philosophy or a combination of these. And one cannot merely read it, but must study it and be involved with it if he or she is going to accomplish anything.And although I have made this a possible task now, it still entails a fair amount of involvement, possibly a teacher, a teaching community, or at least a study group to do it properly. As somebody said when the first volume appeared in Hebrew: “From now on, we no longer have a good excuse to be an Am Ha-aretz”—an ignoramus.

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