The Mystic as Philosopher – An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Interview conducted by Sanford L. Drob and Harris Tilevitz for The Jewish Review. Also published at

Jewish Review: What, Rabbi Steinsaltz, is the significance of chasidus for the contemporary Jew today?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: I am in a certain way terribly biased because I belong to chasidus. My background was such thatchasidus was the only way that Judaism appeared, to me, in any significant way. So now I can think about it backwards and perhaps give it some intellectual meaning, but still you must remember that I am biased. Generally speaking, as far as I can be objective, I would say that the last phase in the history of Judaism is such that to ignore chasidus would be like going back to the Judaism of the Gemorrah and ignoring the Acharonim, as if you didn’t even come across them. The reason chasidism did not spread all over the world was the twin historical disasters of assimilation and the destruction of the Jews, both as a result of the pogroms in Russia and the second World War’s destruction of the heartland of World Jewry in Eastern Europe. So chasidism was stopped in its track, so to speak, but even today if you “count heads,” you’ll find that a majority actually daven Nusach Sefard and are connected to a chasidic tradition.

Jewish Review: In speaking about chasidus and the double tragedy which has occurred to the Jewish people in the 20th century, one cannot but wonder whether chasidic philosophy can somehow provide some understanding and comfort with respect to these tragic events.

Rabbi Steinsaltz: First, let me explain something that I have said elsewhere, but which may not be printed anywhere in English. I think that since about the time of the expulsion from Spain, the only theology that our people have had is the theology of the Kabbalah. I’m saying this now not because I am biased, but I am speaking objectively. Kabbalah is accepted not only in the chasidic world, but also by those who opposed the chasidim and followed the Gaon of Vilna. In fact, the Vilna Gaon was possibly more deeply involved with, and wrote more about, the Kabbalah than many of the chasidic masters put together. Even the Sefardim have clearly been taken with the Kabbalah, if not so obviously. So Kabbalistic ideas don’t belong only to the chasidic point of view. They are a part of a general Jewish psychology and theology.

Having said this, I should now answer that there is a quotation from the kabbalistic work of Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sefer Etz Hayyim, that our world is one that in its majority is a world of evil. Evil is the ruler of this world and there is very little good in it. If I could express it in perhaps a paradoxical way, I would turn to the 18th century dispute between Leibnitz and Voltaire. Leibnitz said we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and Voltaire, who wrote Candide, made fun of Leibnitz and came to the conclusion that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. If we were to look at this question from a Jewish point of view, I would answer in the following way: “We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope.” There are, indeed, worlds below us in which there is no hope at all, and this is what we call “Hell.” But to speak of the entire structure of our own world: it really is a world on the very brink. If it were to be slightly, just slightly, worse than it actually is, then its basic structure would become entirely hopeless; the balance would be irreversible and evil would be irrevocable.

As it is now, evil can be conquered, but we are not living in a Leibnitzian paradise, but in a world in which we have to accept a vast amount of evil. What I am saying is not usually understood as a Jewish idea, but I think that it is really a statement of what I would call “Jewish optimism.” If a person sees the world as all pink and glowing, he is not an optimist, he’s just a plain fool. An optimist, on the other hand, is one who in spite of seeing the terrible facts as they are, believes that there can be improvement. If everything were all right, then you wouldn’t have to be an optimist. So I do believe that we, as Jews, are optimists because we are a people with hope and we have a theology of hope.

Jewish Review: But has G-d placed us in this worst of all possible, but hopeful worlds for a reason?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: After everything has been said and told, we come upon certain mysteries that simply cannot be answered. One of these is the question which asks about the purpose of Creation. And the fact is, as one chasidic rebbesaid with respect to this very question, there is language in the Midrash to the effect that the Almighty had a teiva, a desire, and if you have a desire you don’t ask “why?” The language of the Midrash is very suggestive at this point because a teiva is something we can’t explain. To answer a question about the “why” of Creation can, philosophically, be proven to be impossible. You get to a point where you are asking questions that are unanswerable, not because we lack knowledge, but unanswerable by definition. But perhaps we can say this much: When you speak about the world from this point of view, it is, so to speak, a tour de force, an experiment in existence, an experiment of what I might call “conquering the utmost case.” So in a way, existence in any other world is not “proof.” Proof in the utmost case occurs only when you can do things under the worst of circumstances.

L’havdil. If I want to test a new car, the way that I test it is not on the smoothest of roads, under the best conditions. To have a real road test to prove that a car really works, I have to put it under, and I would say this again, the worst conditions in which there is yet hope. I cannot test it by driving it off a cliff, but I can test it on the roughest terrain where I must come to the edge of a cliff and have to stop. How is a new plane tested? They put it under nearly impossible conditions, which the plane must withstand. Otherwise the whole experiment doesn’t prove anything. The same with Creation. Creation would have been pointless unless it was a Creation under precisely these difficult circumstances. So I am saying, theologically speaking, that the worst possible world in which there is yet hope is the only world in which Creation makes sense.

Jewish Review: You have made an intriguing analogy to a mathematical problem that can only be solved by positing a point in a third dimension. Could you elaborate on this and could you explain what the problem on earth is that we need to solve and how does the point in the higher dimension solve it?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: I made more or less this same point when I gave a speech to a group of historians of science in the Soviet Union. It was such a bizarre experience. Here I was in Moscow, standing before a group of people who are supposedly atheists, and I argued that without getting to the fifth dimension, you cannot solve any problem in this world. Now, when I speak about problems of the world I am talking about all the basic questions, not just the theological and philosophical ones such as “What is the purpose of things?” “Why are we here?” or “What is the justification for the things we undergo and experience?” But I am speaking of other more mundane questions as well. I don’t believe, for example, (and this is what I pointed out in Russia) that you can really resolve problems regarding economic justice or social equity from within any given “earthly” framework. This is because such frameworks are unable to assure their own success. You can show, for example, that there are many elements that will make even an egalitarian framework socially and economically problematic and which will lead to its collapse. So most of the questions of the world, economic, ecological, philosophical come to an impasse and are unsolvable within the framework of our own world. This is because the world contains enough contradictions, enough destructive elements, so as to eliminate any possibility of a solution. The only way we can solve these questions is through movement into a higher dimension or world.

To give one example, which I tried to use in Russia: you cannot have an egalitarian society in which justice prevails unless you have a belief in something higher. Let me explain. Democracy is based, strangely enough, on a religious principle. Democracy would be totally irrational unless we held firm to the belief that we have souls and that these souls are all equal to one another. This is because, as was written in Orwell’s 1984, one can’t rationally make the statement that all men are equal, and this is simply because it is obviously untrue. People are not equal from any point of view. Therefore, to create a society based on the notion that the vote of a wise and learned person has the same value as the vote of somebody who is unlearned and doesn’t know what he is talking about; you must posit that they have equal souls. This is also true with respect to the rights of man as well. Why should a person who is the highest intellectual be regarded as equal to somebody who is ignorant or who is a criminal with respect, for example, to the right to be saved by a given medical procedure? So you see, this principle, this belief that people have souls and that souls are of inestimable, equal value, is the source of every social structure we hold dear.

Jewish Review: And that’s how that point in the fifth dimension solves the equation?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Yes, I’m saying that without having the (unprovable) notion that we have souls, we would be unable to have a just society. An egalitarian society would collapse under the weight of people’s natural differences. The notion in The Talmud that one should have mesiras nefesh (self sacrifice) with respect to bloodshed is based on the question: “What makes you believe that your blood is redder than the blood of another?” One might well answer: “What do you mean `what makes me believe …’? This fellow is a no-good idiot, criminal and sinner and I am so and so, the great. I should be killed to save the life of this miserable wretch?” But still, according to Jewish law, if am ordered, at the expense of my own life to kill him, I cannot. I must be killed rather than kill another person regardless of any difference in our status. Because who knows that my blood is redder and I am superior? This statement serves as the basis for the very possibility of law. Where does it come from?

Jewish Review: So you feel that the world is riddled with these contradictions and in every case, not just here, the higher world is needed to resolve them?:

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Yes, this is just one example. We don’t have enough time for all the world’s other problems.

Jewish Review: Have you written about this elsewhere?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: I don’t remember. Possibly not. So you may possibly have something that is at least expressed in a new way. So you’ve got something that you may call a chiddush.