Never mind the Bible, it’s the sanity of the Talmud you need to understand the world and yourself

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s leading scholars, says Israel would be a less fanatical place if schools were to focus on teaching the Gemara

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) in his Jerusalem office (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) in his Jerusalem office (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Which book should be at the core of Jewish education? Most educators would probably point to the Bible without thinking twice, but Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz happens to disagree. While not doubting the importance of Bible study, he would prefer that the Talmud, or Gemara, stand at the center of the Israeli school system.

“It’s a central pillar for understanding anything about Judaism, more than the Bible,” says Steinsaltz, one of the world’s best known Talmudical scholars. “The Talmud is not a divine gift given to people. The Jewish people created it. But on the other hand, it created the Jewish people. In so many ways, we’re Talmudic Jews, whether we believe in it or not.”

Does one have to believe in God to appreciate Talmud study? Steinsaltz doesn’t think so. “Do you have to believe in Shakespeare?”

No other book has shaped the Jewish people as much as the Babylonian Talmud, asserts Steinsaltz, 75. He should know. He spent nearly five decades writing a comprehensive commentary on all of the Gemara’s 63 tractates, which deal with everything from civil, criminal and ritual law to Jewish history, ethics and mythology.

Gemara guru Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) in his Jerusalem office (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Gemara guru Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his Jerusalem office (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

“Dealing with Talmud is like doing psychoanalysis. At least you’re beginning to understand what you are,” he said. “No part of Jewish culture, on any level, is without some sort of connection to the Talmud.”

The Talmud records the legal and religious discussions thousands of rabbis had over centuries until it was compiled in about 500 CE. It constitutes the foundation of Jewish law, practice and customs to this very day and forms the core curriculum of Orthodox yeshivas.

But Talmud study would be helpful even outside the yeshiva world, Steinsaltz believes. Replacing the Bible as the key book taught in Israel’s schools could help the Jewish state become a more balanced and stable society, he asserts. “The Talmud as a book has the enormous quality that the world needs now more than anything else: sanity,” he told The Times of Israel recently in his study, situated in a serene street of Jerusalem’s Nahlaot quarter.

“The Talmud is the book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity,” posits Steinsaltz, suggesting that the most fanatical rabbis are rarely great Talmudists. After all, the Gemara consists mainly of logical and rational back-and-forth discussions about legal issues, aimed at arriving at a factual truth, he points out. What could be more sane than that?

“It was a big mistake to make the education in Israel based so much on the Bible,” Steinsaltz says, in between puffs of his pipe. “Because the Bible was written by prophets. If you read the Bible, you somehow become in your mind a little prophet. That’s the way in which Israelis speak to each other — they don’t have conversations, they all have complete and unlimited knowledge. Learning Talmud would bring a big change to the Israeli mind, because it deals with and is connected to dialectic.”

‘Dealing with Talmud is like doing psychoanalysis. At least you’re beginning to understand what you are’

Talmudic discussions are indeed often methodological attempts to arrive at a just conclusion on the basis of scrutinizing a legal problem. But the Gemara is not always “rational.” Sometimes it delves into the supernatural. Certain segments speak, quite literally, of the power of demons or magic amulets. One particularly baffling segment describes how several sages created vegetables and other food items for their own consumption pretty much ex nihilo, by merely uttering some magical formulas.

Steinsaltz, a white-bearded all-round scholar who has published more than 60 books on subjects ranging from Jewish mysticism to zoology, has many responses to such challenges. One of them is referring to “The Screwtape Letters” by Christian writer C.S. Lewis, a novel describing the correspondence between a senior demon and his apprentice. One of the first lessons the senior demon teaches his student is to make the humans believe demons have horns and a tail. “Because if the humans see you they will never recognize who you are,” Steinsaltz quotes with a smile.

“I don’t know why we shouldn’t believe in demons,” he says. “We see enough of them walking around in human form, don’t we?”

Witty stories aside, Steinsaltz, is well-versed enough in modern science to confidently posit that whoever believes in the latest physical theories should not be bewildered by Jewish mysticism.

“If you study the physics of today, you are no longer astonished about anything,” he says. To give an example he mentions String Theory, which — grossly simplified — speaks of at least twice as many dimensions as the classical model of Einstein’s relativity and which physicists predict will replace the world’s current understanding of the universe. “The cucumbers in the Gemara will sound to you nice, sane and pretty much real-life after you read it.”

The Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem's Nahlaot quarter (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot quarter (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Steinsaltz’s first name “Adin” means gentle or tender in Hebrew, which characterizes him well: he is smiley and friendly and speaks so quietly that it almost sounds like he’s whispering. During our interview, he patiently answered every question — often interjecting personal anecdotes and quotes from Plato to Pushkin into his responses — until his aides intervened and (politely) threw me out.

Born in Jerusalem to secular parents, Steinsaltz studied mathematics, physics and chemistry before embarking on a rabbinical career. At 23, he became Israel’s youngest school principal. His claim to fame, however, is his groundbreaking commentary to the almost 6,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud, a labor of 45 years. He completed the monumental project two years ago, providing a commentary that helps Hebrew speakers decipher the complicated text of the Gemara, which was written in ancient Aramaic and without punctuation.

In what has come to be known as “the Steinsaltz edition,” the classical medieval commentary of Rashi was given a different place on the page, which was one of the reasons parts of the Haredi world deemed Steinsaltz’s commentary unacceptable. Some hardliners shunned Steinsaltz and his text: the late Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, for example, called him a “heretic” and forbade students to consult his commentary or even debate him.

But the ban did not hold. Many prominent Orthodox rabbis had plenty of good things to say about the Steinsaltz Talmud and today it can be found on countless bookshelves around the world. According to the website of Shefa, the organization publishing and promoting Steinsaltz’s works, students include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, US Senator Joe Lieberman, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. In 1988, Steinsaltz received the Israel Prize and earlier this year was among the first recipients of Israel’s Presidential Award of Distinction.

This summer, the Jerusalem-based Koren publishing house presented a new English translation of the Steinsaltz Talmud — just in time for this month’s restart of the cycle of daily Talmud study. In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland initiated daf yomi — the daily study of one page of Gemara, with Jews all over the world starting and completing the entire Talmud at the same time. “The largest book club in the world,” as the growing daf yomi community has been called, is currently renewing its commitment to daily study in well-attended ceremonies all over the globe.

Last week, more than 90,000 Jews cramped into a New Jersey football stadium for the world’s largest Siyum HaShas event; in Israel, too, large venues were rented to celebrate the renewal of the process. Steinsaltz was one of several scheduled speakers at an English-language daf yomi event on August 9 in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.

The Talmud accessible for English speakers

The new Koren edition of the Gemara is of course not the first time the Talmud has been translated into English. So why is another version needed?

For one thing, the publishers say, the Soncino and ArtScroll editions of the Gemara — which both consist of a translation and commentary — omit certain censored passages. During the Middle Ages, the Church removed from the printed versions of the Gemara any section they believed had to do with Jesus or their religion. In one instance, the Talmud speaks of the evangolion, which Koren loosely translates as “core elements of the New Testament.” Students of the classic Talmud editions have never seen this passage.

“A yeshiva boy, or any Talmud student for that matter, will stumble upon sections he has never seen before, and probably wasn’t even aware existed,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a former director at the Orthodox Union and the Koren edition’s editor-in-chief.

“It’s a very non-apologetic book,” agrees Steinsaltz, who a few years ago Hebraized his name to Even-Israel but is still widely known by his Old World moniker. “My writing is not apologetic, about anything. If the text speaks about demons, I don’t make any efforts to make them appear more human. If it speaks about sex, I don’t try to make it more acceptable to people. If it speaks about Jews and non-Jews, or whatever it may be, I don’t try to be apologetic. This is the book. You either become close to it and begin to identify with it, or not. But I won’t try to whitewash anything.”

For Steinsaltz, learning Gemara is more than merely studying. As he writes in the preface to the new Koren edition, his work aims to allow Jews to study the Talmud, “approach it, and perhaps even become one with it.”

What does that mean, becoming one with the Talmud?

“It’s a matter of identification,” Steinsaltz responds, puffing on the pipe again. Sometimes people see or read things but remain estranged from them, even if they fully comprehend the content. For some Talmud students a superficial knowledge of the material might be enough, but his goal is to allow readers to be able to “get involved” with the text, he says.

The 'Koren Talmud Bavli,' a new English translation of the famed Steinsaltz Gemara (photo credit: courtesy Koren Jerusalem)
The ‘Koren Talmud Bavli,’ a new English translation of the famed Steinsaltz Gemara (photo credit: courtesy Koren Jerusalem)

“The Talmud is a language of thinking. In order to be fascinated by it you have to somehow either acquire it or admire it,” he says.

As you’ll have gathered by now, Steinsaltz himself is totally sold on the Talmud’s value: “In certain ways, it is far more relevant than mathematics,” he says. “Because most of mathematics has no relevance to anything, not in this world and not in the world to come.”

Many a mathematician has attacked Steinsaltz for such statements, the sort of which has been making in hundreds of articles and lectures over the years. He’s unrepentant. Despite his knowledge and appreciation of natural sciences, he considers that people trying to convince laymen of the importance and helpfulness of mathematics are “con men,” he says. “It’s funny, but even the mathematics you need for making a satellite is not very high mathematics,” he insists.

Yet the Talmud, Steinsaltz argues, is eternally relevant.

“If you learn Gemara you don’t really know what to do as a Jew today,” he admits, since it mostly recounts discussions whose conclusions — if there are any — are not necessarily binding in contemporary religious law. “But, as in mathematics, some of these things are the basics and you build on them later.” In other words, the Talmud’s dialectic discussions teach the student the know-how he needs to approach any question that may arise.

‘If you don’t get it beyond the shards and the cow, then you didn’t really learn Gemara’

Once a student understands that learning Gemara is not necessarily about the actual subject the rabbis are discussing but understanding axioms, he can tackle any other problem, says the rabbi.

Uninitiated people, glancing at a page of Talmud, might scoff at the apparent obsolescence of the matters discussed, many of which originate from a pre-modern, mostly agrarian society. Why would anybody care today who is responsible for the damage to an earthen vessel caused by oxen on the loose?

“Some of the questions are about oxen and some are about the breaking of shards. But these are only examples,” Steinsaltz says. Every old book suffers from outdated examples, and even at the time of writing the Talmud was “not always up-to date,” he allows. But the deeper imperatives remain: When the Gemara deals with the laws of damages, it uses oxen and shards, but the same principles it uses can today be used for cars and iPods or anything else. It’s about primary damages and secondary damages; intentional damages and unintentional damages, those that could have been avoided and those that were bound to happen, and so on.

“If you don’t get it beyond the shards and the cow, then you didn’t really learn Gemara,” Steinsaltz says. “Everybody who thinks that an ox is an ox is himself an ox.”

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