How Can We Make Judaism Less Boring?

An interview with Rabbi Steinsaltz by Rabbi William Berkowitz
Originally published in the Algemeiner Newspaper, October 19, 2006.

BERKOWITZ: Anyone who has the privilege of meeting Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz soon discovers why there is such interest in him and in his work.  First, his volume of writing is simply stupendous. Anyone who has ever studied a page of Talmud understands what a tremendous undertaking it is to vocalize, punctuate, translate, and write a commentary on it, and no less in the special style of Rabbi Steinsaltz. His efforts have helped to bring about a renewed interest in Talmud in the United States, particularly as a source of Jewish religious wisdom and guidance.

Second, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s work in the fields of mysticism, spirituality and Chasidism respond to the quest in this country for that part of Judaism that, in modern times, had been ignored, and yet is now experiencing great revival.

Third and most important, Rabbi Steinsaltz has had such an impact on this generation because of who he is as a person.  He understands modern society, yet he represents and transmits the insights of ancient, older societies. Jews have sought to come to grips with the correct balance of modernity and tradition, and Rabbi Steinsaltz has shared with us his own unique blend of the two.

Looking at society today, we see that some American Jews are looking for the right rebbe, for the proper spiritual guide who can offer a path for confusing and troubling times.  Rabbi Steinsaltz is surely that kind of guide. His appeal is that he lives in this world, understands it, knows it, and yet in the final analysis is not really of it. Thoroughly authentic in its ways, and filled with the most ardent traditionalism, his is also a piercing intellectualism endowed with a high ethical sensitivity.

Rabbi Steinsaltz is in the forefront of the movement for Jewish renewal and a contemporary Jewish spirituality. Part of this movement is an effort to bring all kinds of Jews closer together in new ways. Rabbi Steinsaltz has been able to bridge the worlds that divide the religious and secular communities, even as he has offered provocative answers to modern-day challenges.

When one enters his presence, one senses both holiness and wisdom, and one leaves with a sense of the exceptional in the midst of the ordinary. And yet Rabbi Steinsaltz does all that he does with chen, which, for Jews, can mean both personal charm and hidden wisdom.

American Jews today are seeking an authentic, holistic Judaism with living role models, paradigmatic exemplars, and leaders who also express fervor. This is Adin Steinsaltz’s greatness.

Rabbi Steinsaltz, I think it is fair to say that we live in a generation that is interested in the biographies of well-known individuals.  And I know that all of us would be interested to hear your own tale.  For example, I’d like to begin by asking whether you are always a religious man.  How did you come to achieve such width and depth of learning?

STEINSALTZ: Well, I come from a nonreligious family, and I have been educated in a strange mixed-up world – a world of nonreligious Israel – but in a very Jewish way. It is a strange combination; in my case it was a very Jewish background of people who were interested in being Jewish on the one hand, but on the other hand were, perhaps, entirely irreligious. From that background I had to fight my way to religion.

BERKOWITZ: In fighting your way toward religion, was there anyone who had a great impact or influence on you to find that way?

STEINSALTZ: My first teacher was my maternal uncle, who was a very exceptional person, a great man and yet very much unknown.  He pushed me toward religion, not by telling me to become religious but by being very Jewish himself and by imparting the idea that if one has to make a search for soul, for meaning, and for what is behind things, then there is in Judaism much to make the search worthwhile.

BERKOWITZ: Your father, as you indicated, was not a religious individual. One day someone approached him and said to him, “You know, your son, Adin, has the greatest mind in the last 2000 years of Jewish history.”  And you father replied, “Wouldn’t you know it had to happen to me!”  Is that a true story, or is it apocryphal?

STEINSALTZ: Well I think that he rather liked it – it wasn’t such a misfortune for him that I discovered the world of religion.  He was proud of his ancestry.  He came from a very Jewish and distinguished family, and he was very happy that somehow the line goes on.

BERKOWITZ: What is this new edition of the Talmud that you’re working on, and why do you see a need for it?

STEINSALTZ: I became involved with the project almost unwillingly.  It began with my giving lectures about Talmud. People were interested and told me I should write those lectures down. So, in fact, what I am trying to do is something that is, perhaps, new in our time, because our times are different. Usually the Talmudist achieves his learning from teacher to pupil directly. I tried to do the same by writing. I am trying to combine what I know about Talmud and to teach it to others who I think are interested in learning.

BERKOWITZ: How large a staff do you have working with you on this project?

STEINSALTZ: Unluckily, I cannot afford to have too big a staff.  There are ten to fifteen people who work in basic research in various fields. Then I try to combine their findings. I write the material down because I am responsible for everything that will appear there. Whether it is a mistake or something very wise, I have to be responsible for it, so I’m writing everything.

BERKOWITZ: I think everyone has an image of a Talmudic scholar as one who sits all day before the Gemora and studies. I know that your day is preferably an 18-if not a 20 hour day. And yet, reading some of your biographical material, I see a man, one of the greatest Talmudic minds of our twentieth century, who finds time to have hobbies.  I’m curious; what are your hobbies?  And do they in any way relate to your Talmudic study?

STEINSALTZ: My first hobby is the Talmud because by profession I am, or I have to describe myself as, a defrocked mathematician.  I began as a teacher of mathematics and physics. I was caught by the Talmud and I really did not want to be a Talmudist. I wanted to deal with it as a hobby, but the hobby grew. I’m still in love with that hobby of mine. At the same time, I’m interested in almost everything – from detective stories to science fiction to mathematics to animals. I am also interested in people – sometimes I even like them.  I am interested in good literature, even though I do not read enough of it. I prefer children’s stories to most earnest literature. I am interested in science for many reasons, and sometimes in politics. Sometimes I’m also interested in football, if I have time to watch it; if not, I at least read about it in the newspapers. So I’m interested in what people are interested in, and not because I have some reason, but because I am curious. I am still trying to learn, and almost everything fascinates me. So as long as there is something to learn, I like to learn more and to know more about everything.

BERKOWITZ: You have spoken to many young people.  Your name evokes great awe in them.  What is it that they are asking and looking for?

STEINSALTZ: Young people are asking more spiritually oriented questions now than they did when I was 15 or 20 years old. Young people are interested to know about themselves mainly.  It’s a quest for identity, for self.  Sometimes, by searching deeper into the ego, people can also find the Almighty there, if they search long and earnestly enough. So young people are searching within themselves, and they try to find others to help them.  Sometimes they find the right people to lead them, sometimes not.  But this is seemingly the search.

BERKOWITZ: Speaking of this search, do you see something significant in the recent proliferation of cults?  As you assess it – young people looking for identity – are there any dangers in this kind of movement within the Jewish community?

STEINSALTZ: One of the reasons that I am so interested in the study of Talmud is because I think it is the Book that teaches our people sanity.  It makes our people sane because there is an element of madness in every culture. Our people need that helping hand today, they need cultural and intellectual guideposts. One of the harshest criticisms of so many of the cults is that they are not connected with the intellect; they overemphasize heart, feeling, self expression, and so forth, and they are not interested in the person, the personality as a whole. They lack the element of intellectual integrity.  Any place where there is a lack of it, there is a danger first of all to the people involved, and also to the community.

BERKOWITZ: If I were to give this next question a title, I would call it “Judaism as a Personal Encounter.”  You said the following: “I don’t think that the tradition by itself is sufficient. Everyone has to have a personal encounter. People can do it in many ways, but they must be personal ways.”  What are you saying here?

STEINSALTZ: We cannot be imitators in everything that is real. We cannot be just followers. We are demanded, and especially our people are commanded, to be a Kingdom of Priests. The point is that a priest doesn’t need another priest to officiate for him.  A Jew doesn’t need a rabbi.  A Jew needs a personal connection with the “Boss,” with the Lord Himself.  As a person I am demanded, and as a Jew I am demanded, to have such a connection. So I have one, and for me it’s a very personal one.  I have to have some kind of meeting with the essence of my being a Jew. So I think that every one of us has at one point in his life to find out what is his or her basic connection.

BERKOWITZ: You have said that we believe that the law has at least 600,000 different paths within it for individuals to enter.  There is a private gate for each of us, and we each have to find our own gate. When you spoke about religion, as you do so eloquently, this is what you said: “I rather dislike spiritual people and spiritual things.  In fact, I think to make the Lord a spiritual being is to belittle Him.”  Now I’m puzzled by that.  What is it that you find wrong with the spiritual?  And with regard to God, if He is not spiritual, than what is He?

STEINSALTZ: When I speak about spiritual people, I speak about those people who are always immersed in higher mysteries, those who always try to deal with things that most people understand little about. I’m trying to say something else. I don’t believe that if one has to look for the Lord, one has to look to the ceiling or to the heavens. The Lord is everywhere, not just space-wise, but everywhere in every meaning of things. To speak about the Almighty is being connected with the spiritual is correct, as long as we don’t say that He is spiritual because He is not material. But on the other hand, I can’t say that He is material because He is not spiritual.  Both these terms are not adequate to describe that which is beyond all this. The Gentiles say that the Lord is on high.  He’s sitting in heaven. We say that He is even higher because He looks down upon heaven and earth. The Lord is so infinite that He deals with the smallest physical being-with the molecule and the germ, with a grain of wheat – in the say way that he deals with angels, with the galaxies. He is so great that all these things are in the same way insignificant, but very significant when all of them are together.

So in a way what I’m saying is that this is Judaism. Judaism is that belief that connects the earthly and those things that are not earthly. What is really of interest is something beyond us, and we can get to it by combining the two, by not leaning too much to one side or the other.

BERKOWITZ: Two quotes lead me to questions in this same area. The great psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, once said that the main problem facing us is not sexual repression but spiritual repression. The great Jewish thinker Chaim Greenberg once said that when Satan wants to attack religion, he afflicts it with a yawn. Rabbi Steinsaltz, is there much today that is boring in religion, and if so, how would you overcome it?

STEINSALTZ: There is surely a lot that is boring.  I don’t have the opportunity in Israel, but I listen here in America to numbers of sermons delivered by rabbis, and I find that there is a lot that is boring, at least about Judaism. However, I am not speaking only about religion. There are a lot of things that are boring. Doing things because they have “always” been done “that way” is boring.  Listening and not participating is boring. And this is the danger for religion, especially in America, where people are becoming only listeners and passive participants. The way out of boredom is to participate.  Participation doesn’t mean being a member of a group that holds brunches on Sunday mornings. Participation means being a part of what I would call the adventure of study, the adventure of prayer, the adventure of fulfilling any mitzvah. Thus, the way to participate is to get more involved personally, to try as much as possible to become part of things, and to ask every day, as once young people were asked in the cheder, “What new thing did you find out today?”  That is what is called Chidush-Torah, the renewal of Torah.

I would say, therefore, that the function of a rabbi should be to call to his community and to ask each of them, what new thing did you find out about being Jewish. This is what we have to do in order to avoid being bored.  We cannot be bored when we are participating, when we are part of the creative. Then we are a part of the Torah.

BERKOWITZ: One last question in this area before I turn to some issues in Israel. It fascinated me, especially in light of what he has been going on in Iran and continues to go on in Israel, when you said that you prefer religious fanatics to nationalistic fanatics.  Why?

STEINSALTZ: Nationalism is a very terrible religion.  It’s religion because it is based upon mystical, non-rational reasoning, and it works as a religion. Most religions have built-in inhibitions. A person who believes in religion knows that there are things that are prohibited from the point of view of religion as religion

Nationalism doesn’t have any limits.  It doesn’t have any inner factors to fight it.  It has no saw except itself. Therefore, it is very dangerous, perhaps one of the most ruthless and cruel religions that has evolved through the ages, more cruel than any ancient religion, more cruel than any inquisition, more cruel than any burning of bodies in any other culture.  This is the danger of nationalism all over the world.

Now, the combination of religion and nationalism, when it comes together, becomes worse than anything else, because if a person feels that he is a prophet, then he can do anything in the name of the Lord.  But if he is a nationalist, then he can even do contrary to what the Lord says, because the nation needs it.  So this combination creates a terrible basic temperament and a background upon which anything can happen. These people have all the arrogance of religion without any of its limits, and, therefore, they have the worst of two worlds in a most dangerous combination.

BERKOWITZ: What are you feelings on the issue of the settlements in Judea and Samaria?

STEINSALTZ: I said many years ago that I think it was a basic mistake to consider the settlements only militarily important. This is a secondary consideration; what is primary is that Jews must be allowed to live everywhere in Eretz Yisrael. That includes the city of Hebron. The idea that Jews have to be excluded from any place, and that otherwise we cannot make peace, is abhorrent to me.

BERKOWITZ: Let me pose several questions concerning religious life in Israel, with which you are intimately acquainted. How do you feel about pluralism in Israel?  For that matter, what are your comments concerning the religious establishment and the chief rabbinate in Israel? Are they doing a good job or a bad job? And should they be part of the political system?

STEINSALTZ: The fact that the Conservative and Reform movements are not very popular in Israel is not due to politics. The point is that if there are enough people interested in Reform and Conservative Judaism, these will become huge movements in Israel with or without government approval. If there is no large Conservative or Reform community, it is because the people in Israel somehow have the notion that if one wants to be religious, there is only one way to do it. I’m speaking now about facts and not offering my own opinion. The point is that many people in Israel have a belief in the Almighty, a belief in Judaism. They keep so many commandments connected with Eretz Yisrael that they don’t believe that they need any special religious arrangement to do so. Pluralism is allowed. If it doesn’t work out in Israel, it’s not because of the government but because of the people.

Now the chief rabbinate in Israel is something entirely different. For many reasons, it is an unsuccessful body. I once told Yitzchak Rabin, when he complained about one of the chief rabbis, that the chief rabbi is not the rabbi of our rabbis – namely, the rabbi of Orthodox Jewry. He’s your rabbi. He’s the rabbi of the secular community.  You elected him, you made him a chief rabbi, and if you are not satisfied, it may be because you didn’t find the right chief rabbi.  In general, I think that basically we have not been successful in Israel in having great religious leaders who could influence the community and the country as a whole, and this is mainly due to political reasons.

BERKOWITZ: In speaking of the current state of Judaism, you made a very interesting observation: “I think it’s true to say that kosher-centered Judaism is a new phenomenon, but I don’t think that this type of Judaism can really exist for any length of time.  It is a sign of something dying that has no chance of survival.”  Rabbi Steinsaltz, what is kosher-centered Judaism?  Why are you so pessimistic about it?

STEINSALTZ: Kosher-centered Judaism is a Judaism that tries to fashion two worlds – one of which is a small world in which you can feel Jewish through those things that are somehow obligations. They have to be of a material nature – easy to see, easy to discuss, easy to solve – things that you can easily work at. You can work at being kosher. You can buy another pair of tefillin. I think this is an unhealthy sign – being kosher is only a part of being Jewish, as anybody who has any interest in Judaism knows. It becomes some kind of routine, and people deal with this aspect because they are not interested in anything really important about Judaism.  Now, I don’t think that it can go on forever because, as you mentioned before, it is boring and after some time it becomes boring even for those who participate in this sport.  Second, it is just a shell, and the shell has no inner core. Therefore, I don’t believe that it will survive.

BERKOWITZ: If we get out of the kitchen – and women are trying to get out of the kitchen – one of the areas that is uppermost in the minds of a lot of people is the role of women in Judaism. In the United States, in particular, this subject is receiving a great deal of attention. What are your feelings on this issue?  What are your views on women rabbis or women cantors? For that matter, do women have a religious mission and a special role within Judaism?

STEINSALTZ: This is a big question, and what is worse, it’s a sensitive one. And when questions are sensitive it means that whatever you say, somebody is offended, and nobody really listens.

But I am concerned with the halachic point of view, which, I think, is the only point of view that is really Jewish. It places many limitations on women’s role and on women’s participation in religious commandments. That is very clear, and I think that any major change will produce a new and debased form of Christianity.  On the other hand, I would like to see Jewish women participating in things Jewish, participating because there is a lot in which to participate.  Wherever there is interest on the part of Jewish women in Judaism, they will take a greater role.  If a person is knowledgeable, that person, whether man or woman, will be a leader in Jewish life.  If women are really interested in Jewish things, they can participate actively, not by getting what you call “rights,” but by getting whatever fulfillment they can.  Those who will be interested will be the center, will be where Jewish life is.

BERKOWITZ: Rabbi Steinsaltz, a prominent American leader declared that “… what we Jews must do is to actively missionize the unchurched Gentiles.”  Should we seek converts?  Secondly, do we Jews have a mission to the world.

STEINSALTZ: One of my dreams is to have a Jewish mission to Jews. If anybody really needs converting, it is surely the Jews.  Nobody can be as much a goy as a nice Jewish boy in New York or in Israel. So I think that we very urgently need a mission among our people.  We are losing them, and we need them. Now, the basic idea of Judaism is that it’s a family religion, and because it’s a family religion we don’t grab people in the street and say, fellow I want you to become a member of my family.  I think it is useless to go out into the street and invite non-Jews into the Jewish religion.  I say this because the Jewish religion is basically nothing abstract.  It is the religion of the Jewish family.

However, there is something else that has to be affirmed, and that is that our mission for generations was mainly to exist as Jews. Our way of bringing a mission to the world is by being ourselves. When we were simply Jews, when we didn’t try to speak about the Jewish mission to the nations, other people learned from us in one way or another.  If we are not now a spiritual influence to the world, it’s because we ceased to be ourselves, because we began to imitate others. When we come back to ourselves and we become more Jewish, it will spread by itself.

BERKOWITZ: I would like to ask two final questions.  We’ve seen in the United States and in Israel the proliferation of baale teshuvah yeshivot.  In your opinion, what is it that so many of these young people are looking for?  And what do you think of these yeshivot?

STEINSALTZ: Our young people are looking to things spiritual, to things meaningful.  Some of them, sometimes, almost by mistake, look toward Judaism. I think that most of them don’t know that among those gates to inner life and to religion there is also a Jewish gate. For so many of our people, this gate, I suppose from the bar mitzvah on, is closed, because they think that the bar mitzvah is the occasion on which a person formally announces that he is no longer interested in being Jewish. Therefore, they make it into such a big happening. For many children this is a sign that Judaism is not interesting, that Judaism doesn’t have anything to offer. Luckily, there are some who find their way to Judaism.

So this is the reason for the baale teshuvah movement in this country and in Israel. It is not yet an earnest movement because it doesn’t touch the people who count. It is still a fringe movement here and in Israel.  I would like to see first-rate people join the movement, people who continue growing within the Jewish framework.  In many of the baale teshuvah yeshivot, to my great sorrow, it seems that some students are somehow cut in half. They are no longer growing as personalities because somehow they become perhaps too interested only in being Jewish, and I would like our people to be bigger, bigger as personalities. I think that the baale teshuvah yeshivot are not yet successful in growing this type of person. It’s a pity. I hope it will change in the future, and I hope more people, and more significant people, will make this change.

BERKOWITZ: I enjoy asking this next question because it provides an interesting insight. I’ve asked it of many people through the years. If you could go back in history, and meet three people, who would they be and why?

STEINSALTZ: Well, I have just finished a series of graduate lectures about personalities in the Bible, and I found so many – too many – whom I would like to meet.  It is very hard to make a choice, and let me just clarify the fact that if I am now making a choice, it is perhaps only for this minute.  Perhaps in half an hour, or tomorrow, I will make another choice, not because the first ones are not interesting, but because the new choice represents a new facet of myself.  I hope that I’m still growing and changing.

I would like to meet Moshe Rabenu.  I would like very much to meet Rashi, perhaps because I am doing similar work – not on the same level, but at least I’m working in the same way.  I would also like to meet the Baal Shem Tov because he was always for me a figure of love.

BERKOWITZ: I close with a Chasidic story that is told of the great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was once asked, “Rebbe, we have many different tractates in the Talmud that deal with many different topics. Why, then, are there no tractates in the Talmud on the subject of the service of God, on the subject of the service of man to God, or love of man, or on the subject of the love or fear of God?”  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak responded as follows: “My students, the reason that there are no tractates on these holy subjects is that in every generation we are sent great and holy men who by their lives teach us and instruct us on these paths.

Without question, we have had the unique privilege of being exposed to a brilliant mind, a gentle, sweet, sensitive soul, and a very insightful teacher.  We have had the special privilege of meeting with a great rabbi who not only translates the tractates, but is a tractate himself in his rare and unusual life, a life that is marked by extraordinary service and love of God and man.  I say to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, may you be blessed with many, many more years to bring wisdom, learning, hope, joy and the opening of the countless gates as you help to connect heart and mind here on Earth to our God, our Father in Heaven.