When I first read in 1989 of a young Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz with incredible insight into Talmud who was beginning a project to translate it afresh- into English, (later into French and Russian as well…) with his own additional commentaries… little did I know that our paths would ultimately cross.
Upon arrival in Israel over 20 years ago, my husband had friends who were part of a small, hand-selected group of men whom Rav Steinsaltz invited to his offices weekly to “study.” Bernard was fascinated by the opportunity and he too was invited to attend each week. It was a “coup” to be invited. In attendance were men from very different professions. I remember that a non-Orthodox Rabbi was invited, businessmen, doctors, scientists, lawyers, academics, and that Rav Steinsaltz was especially interested in them, and how they perceived the world. The class really was not as much for him to teach others (although the participants wanted it to be so…) as much as it was for him to learn more from the life-experiences of those unlike himself. His students were adults, successful and out in the real world, dealing with issues that the Rav would not personally encounter. Often the class had to remind Steinsaltz to begin teaching Gemara… as he was far more interested in other subjects completely. He knew Gemara backwards and forwards… but the rest of the world… now that was something yet to be fully comprehended.
My husband used to love to retell a conversation that he had with Rav Steinsaltz who mentioned that he had read Bocaccio’s “The Decameron”. Bernard was shocked. It had quite bawdy content in it. So he asked Steinsaltz “Why” he had read it. “I will tell you the truth,” he replied. “When I was young, it was the only book in the library which I had not already read.” That kind of inquiring mind is unfathomable to most of us.
Steinsaltz had a brain which surpassed us all. I never heard him proclaim it, but I am positive that he had a photographic memory. Once he read a fact, it stayed with him always. Dates… names… languages. He studied them once, and they became a part of him. He spoke to world leaders in their own languages…even to the Dali Lama. I know this from a press conference which I covered where the two of them told of their relationship. This kind of mind is beyond the imagination of mere mortals such as we.
There are many lessons to be learned from such a man. He was not really a great orator. Perhaps his brain presumed more of the listener than we were up to. I attended many of his dinners and heard his speeches… and was not overwhelmed. I always attributed it to my lack, rather than his. His devotion was to his religious texts. They are apparently brilliant on every level. Many of his other books which are on a multitude of Jewish subjects including Kaballah, are actually taken from different lectures he had given, which were recorded and transcribed (and edited?) to be put into book form. Once I recall someone quoting from one of these books and Rav Steinsaltz responding “I said that???” It was almost as if his brilliance was unfathomable even to himself.
At no time did the Rav act superior or seem to think that his abilities were of his own doing. He seemed to fully absorb that his mind was a gift from God, which he was obligated to use to its max. He worked feverishly… compelled to complete as much as he could while on this earth. I understand that many of his papers still remain unpublished, in the hands of his son awaiting release in the future.
This humility is the mark of true genius. For those among us who choose to be atheists … thinking that they are too intelligent to believe in that which they cannot see… Steinsaltz’s belief in God should make them reassess. If a human being who has mental abilities which by far surpass the rest of us – believes fervently that his abilities are a gift from God, then perhaps we should all take heed. His brilliance did not take him to atheism… but to a greater understanding of the complexities of the universe into which we have all been born. He never doubted the existence of God and devoted himself to making religious text more accessible to you and I. Once, when in the home of a French Jew I saw volumes of the Steinsaltz Gemarrah… in Hebrew and French ! That was a revelation…. To see how far his work was reaching. This is to say nothing about his schools in the former Soviet Union – to reach a generation of children whose parents had no knowledge of their own religion to impart. I will make no attempt to catalogue all his efforts on behalf of Judaism and the Jewish people. I feel confident that many texts will be written to do that as time passes.
I am quite sure that Rav Steinsaltz knew that he was a genius. But I am also quite sure that he took no credit for it. Life hands us all different skills and abilities. Fulfilling them is our obligation and ignoring them would be a terrible loss for ourselves and those around us. This is perhaps the greatest lesson that Rabbi Steinsaltz left us all to ponder. If he was obsessed with fulfilling his potential, then who are we …to strive for less?