After the Bright Light of Revelation: A Conversation with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This interview, conducted by Yehuda Hanegbi, is also featured in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Q: Since the Jewish tradition is one of the oldest in human history, it would be valuable to learn something of its origin and durability. Is it possible to ascertain the sources of this tradition? Are they specifically Jewish or are they not also drawn from a broad ancient prehistory, like the stories of Creation and the Floor, original monotheism, primitive worship of the heavenly bodies?

Steinsaltz: Even though much of the biblical traditions relates to legends and events that occurred before the giving of the Torah, this total Revelation at Mount Sinai stands at the center of the world of Jewish consciousness. All the other sources that presumably preceded it, like certain stories of the creation of the world, the origins of the laws and customs of ancient society, and so on, did not reach Judaism independently; they passed through the great filtering of Divine Revelation at Sinai. The influences of the outer world, ancient legends and lore of the nations round about, certainly spread to the Jewish people of the time, but it was all cast into the melting post of the Jewish tradition itself. The bright light of revelation of the Torah at Sinai fused it into a single entity. It was a process that was repeated in subsequent generations. To the extent that external influences did find their way into Judaism, they almost always appeared as subsidiary, not intrinsic to the core. And indeed there was a certain opposition to them; if they could not be merged, they were ultimately ejected. When they did melt into the Jewish tradition, they were so thoroughly integrated that it would be almost impossible to identify them as foreign.

Q: What is the role of Divine Revelation in Judaism, especially considering the preponderance of law and custom?

Steinsaltz: As we have said, theological and not only theologically, the Revelation at Mount Sinai is the core of Judaism. And this not only because it is the beginning but because it is apprehended as a total and all-inclusive revelation. That is, this revelation is considered the opening point, the transition point, between the higher essence and the lower essence – between God and man. After this revelation there is actually no need for a new revelation because besides being the first or original of its kind, the Revelation is a one-time event that includes all the other revelatory events. It has been compared to the primordial act of the creation of the world, which was also a first and single act and included all that was and will be in the world.So, too, the Revelation at Mount Sinai is such a unique event containing in it all that afterward will ever be made known about the connection between God and man.

Therefore, the Jewish tradition is full and complete – not because it relies only on an ancient single sources, the Bible, but because it is open to additions. All the accumulated oral traditions are considered part of the original written Torah. Even details of the oral Torah, obviously belonging to a much later period, are considered to be continuations of the original revelation. It is all the same revelation, written or oral, and includes the ancient text and the ever-changing unwritten social form and custom.

In Pirkei Avot, the tradition is described as a Shalshelet Kabbalah, a chain of reception, a process of handing on, from one generation to the next: from Moses to Joshua and from Joshua to the elders and from the elders to the prophets, until the last of the sages. This concept of a continuous chain is central to the whole Jewish outlook on tradition. And it does not only go back to Revelation. The very notion of the inspired person or persons who act as a link in the chain throughout the generations is a profound contribution to the Revelations without necessarily changing it. The original revelations contained all that was eventually relevant to it. Those men who contributed to knowledge were in reality discoverers; they did not invent new ideas or theories – they merely uncovered truths that were already there.

Q: What is the secret of the tenacity of the Jewish religion, outlasting persecution, dispersion, the fall of civilization, and even the influence of modernity?

Steinsaltz: There are certainly many reasons for the lasting existence of the Jewish religion. In a certain sense it is one of the riddles, or permanent secrets, of the reality of things. As the philosopher Kant is believed to have said: There are two proofs of the existence of God. One is the stars in the sky; the other is the existence of the Jewish people. One may discern that there is a secret here, a hint of the dialectic interrelation between tradition and historic reality, because when tradition is all-embracing, beyond the influence of time and place, it becomes that in which reality is contained. If and when a collision does occur between tradition and unanticipated aspects of changing realities, the individual person will reach out to find in his tradition those elements of coherence and certainty that are relevant to the new situation, whether it be a material or spiritual challenge. And the Jew has known a great number of such challenging confrontations: exile, servitude, harsh decrees, antagonistic opposing philosophies, and oppressive circumstances. His return to tradition has taken many forms; it was never the mechanical restoration of a fixed structure. The tradition itself adjusted to the new situation. New responses were elicited. This is because the Jewish tradition is not an inert inheritance; it is like a living organism able to react and response to a variety of changing circumstances.

Q: How does the concept of Knesset Yisrael function in the preservation of the tradition? Is it as a mystique of the national ego or as a mystique of egolessness (contained in the concept of the Shekhinah, or spirit of God), which is its counterpart?

Steinsaltz: In many respects, tradition in Judaism is called Torah. And this is one of the words that have no exact translation; the accepted translation, law, is certainly incorrect. Torah, even in its verbal meaning, includes the Bible as well as the law, philosophy, dream, legend, and everything else that constitutes human life. The one word, Torah, signifies that which instructs and enlightens; it is much broader and more dynamic a concept than simply the teaching. And the subject of Torah, that which carries it, or the medium through which it is manifest, is Knesset Yisrael. The translated concept is “the assembly of Israel,” but it is not at all a statistical totality or a numerical sum of a particular group of people. It is that which one may loosely call the soul of the people. Most important is its function as the bearer of the Torah. In many ways its life and actions are themselves among the creative forces of Torah, of tradition. The Jewish community keeps determining Halakha, doctrine and custom, at every crossroad. The decision is made by consulting the Torah and then itself becomes Torah, so that Knesset Yisrael is not the passive bearer of a yoke of Torah and law that has been thrust upon it – it is an active component of the Torah. Its entire being is a constant merging of life and Torah and the result is the essence of Jewish tradition. Not in vain has the relation between God and Knesset Yisrael been likened to that between man and wife. From this is may be understood that the interaction, besides the love and respect between them, has a great depth of intimacy and potency. In order for something to be born, for anything to happen, the role of Knesset Yisrael is that of the bearer, the means, or the vehicle. As such Knesset Yisrael is the many-sided subject and instrument of Torah and Jewish tradition.

Q: Can one say that Judaism has a special relation to time, enabling it to transcend the natural forces of decay?

Steinsaltz: The problem of the relation to time is indeed intrinsic to the tradition, but not in the sense of a fossil, of something petrified. Time itself is an entity within the tradition. The image is generally that of a tall tree, a living organism: the more time passes, the taller it grows. The tradition thus does not undergo drastic changes; its essence remains the same. Like certain trees, thousands of years old, that live as a biological unity, the tradition creates from within itself the parts that renew the intrinsic form. The factor of time, as a process of decay, has relatively little influence on its basic essence. It can be uprooted only by some massive upheaval, but not because it has reached a certain point in time. Unlike anything fabricated or man-made, it has the capacity of restoring itself by division and multiplication and growth, and by a stubborn retention of essence.

Q: What are the modes of transmitting the tradition? It is mainly through written works like the Bible and the Talmud? Or are other factors, such as custom, holidays, and oral transmission, more important?

Steinsaltz: When the tradition is vital and active within the community, it carries on almost without words, without saying anything. It is transmitted because the Jewish tradition is not only a verbal deposit; it is a very inclusive message that relates to the whole of life and not only to religion or to the historic past.Therefore it is passed on via almost all the channels of daily life. The written past of the tradition lives within the details of contemporary work and food and blessings. One may even define the tradition as being composed of two elements: One is that of life – habits, speech, and manners, from the preparation of food and the choice of garments to the various rituals of passage and the facial expressions of the people. The other is that which is transmitted by written texts and verbal teachings.

The relation between those two aspects of the tradition is, on one hand, a very conscious application and carrying out of the inherited legacy. On the other hand, it is an unspoken belonging to the written Torah.That which is not articulated is not less important. The conscious and the unconscious transmission proceed together to create the wholeness of living tradition. And wherever there is a crisis in any one aspect of transmission (if the conscious community connections are severed or if there is a break in the educational conveyance of the past), the tradition tends to become atrophied into some kind of mask of itself, or else it becomes excessively vulnerable to outside influences without even knowing what is happening.

In a community that manages to live in some sort of integrated wholeness, there is a dynamically proportional relation that is not the same for all the members of the community. The functions are divided.For certain people the conscious component is greater; for other it is much less. For all of them, however, there is a need to combine the two components, the conscious and the unconscious, so that the society finds itself automatically structured by them. There is an ordering of functions, as in a living body. The brain, which consists of the more intellectual and learned part of the community, has to be maintained at a high level. The rest of the body, whose level of consciousness is different, divides itself, and each part relates with great plasticity to the rest of the being. To be sure, it is impossible for any part not to have some degree of consciousness or connection with consciousness. At the same time, there is no part without its relatively unconscious physical elements of existence, blood vessels and bones and flesh. The whole is what makes each part function.

Q: As far as the documentary evidence shows, the Kabbalah was never a prominent feature in the life of the people, yet there can be little doubt as to its profound influence on the religion, customs, folklore. What was its place in the past? What is its role today?

Steinsaltz: The Kabbalah was never a conspicuous part of the daily life of the Jewish people. To be more precise, we would say that the Kabbalah as a conscious study was restricted to a small elite. This was usually a closed circle of people who could devote themselves to it -not only because of the intellectual complexities of the Kabbalah, but because, more than in any other field of Jewish tradition, a very great moral purity was required of the student. Such a high level of moral and spiritual experience could scarcely be expected of an ordinary person. In any case, by its very nature, the pursuit of esoteric wisdom is limited to a chosen few.

Nevertheless, the Kabbalah has had such a profound influence on the tradition that one may even see it as the theology of Judaism. This is especially true of the last five hundreds years or so – in spite of the fact that in our own time the Kabbalah is just beginning to emerge from the obscurity into which it was thrust by enlightened rationalism. What is apparent, however, is the influence of the Kabbalah on almost all the features of daily life, from ancient times to the present. True, not everyone is aware of it, but almost every Jewish custom is likely to have some kabbalistic significance or at least to have been fashioned by some such influence.

This means that the practical Kabbalah – not in its crude magic and miracle-making folk expressions, but in its deep penetration into the action, rituals and prayers, laws, language, and customs of the people – is still existent. There is a core of those few who have made the Kabbalah a source of inner transformation and esoteric knowledge. But there are widening circles whose authority was never significant but whose influence manages to be felt somehow. To be sure, only the inner circle is likely to know the meaning of many of the old expressions and actions. In the further circles, people simply know that this is the way things are done; certain words are said, ritual actions are performed without comprehending why or how they came into being. From this point of view, the Kabbalah is still very much present – even if unknown to the majority of the people. Most Jews would probably angrily reject the notion that many of their traditional modes of expression are “kabbalistic.”

Q: What lies behind the various legendary versions of the carriers of the tradition in every generation, such as, for example, those mentioned in Pirkei Avot, or in another sense entirely, the thirty-six hidden tzadikim(wise men) whose existence sustains the world?

Steinsaltz: The tradition of the Shalshelet Hakabbalah, the Chain of Receiving, is basically the tradition of Jewish leadership. It is a listing of a certain number of the more prominent persons who were bearers of the light of knowledge; it does not deny that there were others who also carried it. The point of the chain is that there was a continuity, an uninterrupted flow.

We also have the concept of the thirty-six tzadikim whose existence sustains the world from one generation to another. In this age-old tradition, it is not a body of people who are in touch with one another; each one is alone and for the most part does not have any idea about himself or the others. They simply do not know who they are or what they’re doing. The important thing is that, from the point of view of Divine Justice, the world cannot continue to exist except if there are a certain number of persons who justify its existence.As an archetype, we have the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The question is: Why should any place that is full of wickedness be allowed to perpetuate itself? And the answer is that a minimal number of righteous persons can compensate for the evil of the many and check the course of retribution. Thus, if there were not a certain number of tzadikim who justify the continued existence of the world, the world would be destroyed like Sodom, like the world at the time of the Flood. Therefore there is the tradition of the thirty-six saintly persons whose existence on earth in every generation, whether they know it or not, keeps the world from being annihilated.

Q: Can there be said to be a definite Jewish body that carries the tradition, whether national, racial, or social?

Steinsaltz: Even in the distant past, there was probably no single body to which one could point as the sole bearer of Jewish tradition; but let us return to the analogy of the body. Generally, we can claim that the center of consciousness is in the brain. But at many periods of time during the day or the night, the point of consciousness moves to different centers. Sometimes it’s at the speech center; sometimes it is concentrated in the eyes or some other organ of perception. The movement of consciousness seems to be one of the signs of life and one could almost imagine light bulbs going on and off all over the body to indicate where awareness is being focused.

Every part of the organic wholeness, which is both the mystical and the material body, has a special function that is his and only his. His role is vital to this body and no one else can fill it. And the way a person fills his role is significant, just as a person cannot be sick only in his little finger, and just as any sickness of a part imperils the well-being of the whole body, so too is there a vital interrelationship between the individual and the community. The way the individual Jew assumes his rightful place in the organism determines the shape of his life and the life of the whole.

Historically, too, there is such a movement of the center of Jewish consciousness, from country to country, from place to place. Of course there have been occasions when the center was not in any particular place or country but could be seen as scattered, or existing simultaneously in a number of places.

Q: How much of the tradition can you guess has been lost?

Steinsaltz: From the very nature of things, it is very difficult to know the quality and the value of whatever got lost. In those instances where fragments have remained we can only surmise what had once been there, like the stump of a tree. But even less than that can we know anything about human traditions that have left no mark. And this is true of every realm of human life – law, custom, mysticism, art.

In recent generations especially, the wandering (and changes) of the Jews have been characterized by a brutality and swiftness that are almost unprecedented. We can observe how, before our very eyes, the inability to permit adequate transition and acclimatization of well-established structures (education, religion, social services) and of life patterns in the family has entailed the loss of thousands upon thousands of details.

In spite of efforts to save some fragments of the tradition, most of it is irretrievably gone, and it does not matter whether it’s old songs or ancient wisdom or the food preparations of a millennium. A large part of the Jewish tradition is thus continually being lost; and it’s not only that most of the old ways and social forms are institutions are being swallowed up by more modern methods – it’s the tone and inner unity that go.

To follow the metaphor of the tree, one would say that the whole or branches of the tree had been cut off by a combination of many outside forces. But there is always the hope that when circumstances change, some of the buds that have always remained will grow again – with the renewal of those branches the form and the content will be complete.

In the large scheme of history, it may be observed that the Jewish people, which grew up and reached a certain maturity in its own land, was in exile for hundreds of years. And this meant the loss of much more than national sovereignty; whole areas of tradition were abandoned and only vague hints survived in memory. One can hardly reconstruct the richness of this tradition from the written evidence. To a degree, the temple, the legal and social structure, the schools and synagogues can be pieced together in some fashion or other. The mystical traditions are far more elusive to the modern researcher. Most of them have been totally wiped out by time, such as the schools of the prophets. We have nothing resembling such schools, either in Israel or in the Diaspora. In fact, there are been attempts to make such a restoration by pasting scattered indications together. Some of this material has survived only in written form; most of it is considered irretrievably lost. Nevertheless, the dream or hope or restitution has remained. In the days to come, a regeneration is possible, if the right stimulant appears. This anticipation is possible because, as in every organic entity, the code of the whole is contained in the fragments, so that from the little that has come down to us it may be possible to reconstruct a semblance of the ancient tradition.

Q: Can you point to something definite that has been learned by the Jews that would help other tradition now in danger of extinction

Steinsaltz: There is at least one thing that other traditions can learn from the Jewish experience, and that is that a tradition in itself – even if it is almost hermetically sealed, something that doesn’t exist any more, cannot continue to exist only by the force of inertia. A tradition cannot leave things in a state of unchanging status quo. In the Jewish experience this factor has been very prominent; the group awareness was always alive to whatever threatened it and ready to invest energy to guard the tradition and to maintain it – not necessarily to freeze it. Whenever the group was unwilling to pit itself against imminent change by investing thought and effort, the change was destructive to the tradition.

The question here is not the value or the resilience of the tradition, but the fact that any social form that does not keep reinvesting energy into its continuation will tend to die out. The efforts required are always very great. True, many traditions have survived in conditions of relative isolation. But today, folk cultures are being destroyed by no more than superficial contact with some outer influence. And this is because the people involved are without adequate consciousness of themselves or without the will to do anything about it. They are not prepared to invest the enormous effort required to meet the challenge of the contact with alien forces. But this has to be learned – and sometimes it comes too late.

The Jewish world has almost always been intensely aware of the problem. And over the centuries, a very great deal has been poured into education, in the preparation of spiritual guides and teachers of all sorts, and in the maintenance of the general framework of the tradition. In many places it amounted to one third or even more of the general expenditure of the local or national body. This was one of the main factors that helped keep the tradition going in spite of very difficult external conditions. Therefore, one can say that any group or tradition that is willing and able to invest considerable effort in maintaining its existence is that much more able to withstand the process of decay from within and destruction from without.