Dear Rav Steinsaltz,
In response to your recent article titled Who Will be Our Rabbis? I would like to humbly inform you that you are mine. Perhaps you are wondering how I could possibly be calling you my Rabbi if we have only met a few times for no longer than a few hours and you probably don’t even know me by name. We don’t live in the same country; I never attended your schools nor have I worked in your institute of higher learning.
Please allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Shmully Hecht and I am a Rabbi serving the Jewish Community at Yale University. I, like you, am a Chosid of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe who always reminded his followers to appoint for themselves a personal Rav, namely a mentor or a Rabbi. I hope you will accept me as your disciple.
Please let me explain.
You are not only my Rabbi because of the wisdom you have shared with the world through your books and classes on Talmud, Jewish thought, Mysticism, Chasidism, theology, history, and biography.
You are not only my Rabbi because of your vicarious participation in our Talmudic conversations at Yale which are rigorous and lengthy and include everyone, from the freshmen to the President. The Steinsaltz Talmud often guides us through the words of Hillel and Shamai, Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rashi and Tosfos and it is to your writings we often turn when seeking clarity and precision.
You are not only my Rabbi because of the thousands of young Jews from across Israel and around the globe who flock to study with you. I am told that many have been turned down by other schools, were born in troubled homes, or are poor and often simply disenfranchised by the “establishment.“ They see you as the only tangible link they have with the Jewish people, the Torah and religious life. I have personally witnessed so many young teenagers stop by the Tzemach Tzedek Shul in the Old City of Jerusalem to see you. Their reverence is evident as they respectfully shake your hand, whisper into your ear their most private thoughts and feelings, eager to receive some words of encouragement. Words that will no doubt change their lives forever.
You are not only my Rabbi for giving so graciously of your limited time and engaging with the Yale students l lead on trips to Israel. I remind you of one of the conversations we had in that same shul in the Old City many years ago. We were sitting around the Bima and you were responding to Joel Chudow, a PhD candidate in physics who had a particular interest in nano technology. He bravely asked you about the connection between Judaism and Physics and you responded by highlighting the notion of a positron and an electron. You explained the principal of a positive force having a diametrically opposing negative one and that these two were often parallel in degree. You reminded us that although sometimes in life we only witness one side of the equation we must remember that the other side also exists, despite often being disguised or concealed. You then stressed that when interacting with our colleagues on campus we must constantly be reminded that every one of us has that hidden power, in Chasidic terms the Neshama, or in physics’ terms, the Charge. While that charge is often manifested in a negative force, the potential to transform it into a positive one is not only every Jew’s responsibility but a sacred privilege to be embraced and practiced.
You then told us about a radio symposium in which you and Moshe Sneh (father of Ephraim Sneh and a long serving Knesset member of early Israel ) participated. Moshe was known to have switched from the early extreme parties of the Haganah; the Jewish Agency; over to the left wing faction of Mapam and ultimately in 1954 to the communist party of Maki. Between broadcasting sessions you told him that he reminded you of another Polish Jew, Nathan Birenbaum whose life can be divided into three periods; first he was an ardent Zionist, then he preached for assimilation, and then he became an ardent Orthodox Jew and one of the leaders of Agudat Yisrael. You turned to Moshe and asked “You have already done the first two, what about the third part?”
This must have seemed like a rather sardonic remark to a man like Moshe Sneh who at least publically seemed distant from, and indifferent to religious life and its practices. But then, as the 15 of us sat crammed around the table of the Tzemach Tzedek Shul eagerly awaiting to hear his response, you began to cry. Your son later told me he had never seen you cry before. You went on to vividly describe how this secular political leader leaned over the table in the radio studio and said, “Adin, I am much closer to that pursuit than you could ever imagine.”
But It wasn’t until some time later when Moshe Sneh died and his last will and testament was published in the newspaper that your pertinent words and his true inner identity came to light. In his published Will Moshe Sneh requested that all of his funeral preparations and burial procedures be done according to the highest level of Halacha, namely authentic Jewish law.
With your prayer shawl wrapped around your face while grasping your small prayer book you whispered to my friend. “ Joel, the student or Professor whom you think is furthest away from Judaism, is most often the closest. It is basic physics and the entire real universe exists on this idea. Every negative force has a positive one that counters it and it is our task to ignite and steer the charge in the positive direction.”
You then described one of your earlier trips to the US for a speaking engagement in Chicago. You were perturbed when it was clear that only one person had attended to hear your lecture. You taught the class regardless. You lamented about how disappointed you were with humanity that day that you ventured off to the local zoo. You had gone to the zoo to further your interest in zoology and paleontology but also because at that moment you had more faith and confidence in the monkeys and apes. It was many years later that you returned to Chicago to speak once again. This time your audience filled the auditorium and during the Q and A someone raised their hand to ask a question. He introduced himself as one of the leaders of the Jewish community of Chicago and then said, “Rav Steinsaltz I attribute my leadership of Chicago Jewry to your inspiration. I am the only man who attended your lecture so many years ago.”
Rav Steinsaltz, I don’t how many Jews have embraced their ancient heritage, have studied Torah or done a mitzvah because of those timeless words you shared with a random group of college students hopping across the promised land on a free trip to Israel. What I do know is that for many of these students who were visiting their ancient homeland for the first time in their lives, those hours in the Synagogue were the highlight of their trip. Many of them told me so.
But all of this only adds to why you were already my Rabbi.
Please allow me to remind you of the first time we met and the first conversation we ever had. It must be over a decade now yet it feels like yesterday. It was in that same Shul in the Old City of Jerusalem on a particular Shabos that I dared to ask you a more personal question. I asked you where in Jerusalem one could find a spiritually inspiring individual. A revolutionary. A real Jewish leader. I was hoping you would give me an address in Jerusalem of a great seminary, a hidden apartment in the old city, a great sage, a pious scholar, a special scribe, one of the 36 hidden mystics, a unique Chosid, someone that perhaps only you Rav Steinsaltz would know.
But you stared me in the eye and with all sincerity you said ”Shmully, the great living leaders of the Jewish people, the true righteous men and women of our Nation are the simple folk who walk the streets of Jerusalem. Go and speak with them and they will guide you.”
I assumed you were referring to the shopkeepers who say Psalms when they wait for a customer, the bus driver who stops for afternoon services, the beggars who have flocked to our ancient city with the utmost of faith that G-d will provide, the simple Jew who attends a class in the Prophets once a week and knows how to recite all the Bible by memory. And of course the Jew at the Western Wall who tells stories to strangers and collects alms for the poor.
So my Rav I want you to know that I have visited the holy streets of Jerusalem now for so many years seeking out those simple folk, and indeed they have inspired me. They have inspired my family, my students and my friends. We have learned charity from the man behind the falafel stand who gives a free lunch to the needy who come looking for food. We have learned the laws of honesty from the shop keeper who chases his customer down the street because of an accounting error he has made and seeks to rectify. We have learned how to love our neighbor from strangers in Jerusalem who, when asked for simple directions, are only too eager to walk us to our destination; even when they had been going in the opposite direction. We have learned about sincerity from the recitation of Psalms emanating from the lips of common folk who trod the ancient streets of the Old City. We have learned how to keep Shabbos holy from the Jerusalem shop keeper who turned down our sale in an attempt to close her store for Shabbos. We have learned faith in G-d from the cabbies who even during war time when tourism drops, never lose their faith; only to proclaim that “Hashem Yaazor. G-d will provide.” And on my most recent trip to Jerusalem, my brother Moshe and I met Boruch from Boston. A homeless amputee who from his wheel chair parked on King George Street proclaimed these holy words, “Hashem is my best friend in the whole world. In my darkest times he has been there for me.”
Though you have introduced them to me in Jerusalem I must confess that we have met them in Rome, in Paris, in Tel Aviv and In New Haven. We have met them on the train, in parking lots, in elevators and online. You have reminded us all that Judaism at its core must be premised on an unconditional and equal love for the freshman in college, the great scholar, the Chief Rabbi and the forsaken women in the brothels of Tel Aviv. I want you to know that the world’s future leaders and power brokers of the Ivy League are inspired and educated by the simple yet sincere faith of the Jews of Jerusalem. And it is precisely for this eternal reminder Rav Steinsaltz, that I have humbly made you; my Rabbi.
Shmully Hecht is the Rabbinical advisor of Eliezer; the Jewish Society at Yale University
He can be reached at Shmully@279crown.org