A Slice of Life: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

An interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz by Fay Kranz Greene
about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s ¬†book,
Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah


Please tell us that this is not Madonna’s Kabbalah.

Personally, I am not for this new Kabbalah trend, I think it is cheap and I think it presents a danger. Not that people are learning too much Kabbalah, but that they are focusing only on the mystery and secret and magic and don’t address how people should change or become more Jewish. Kabbalah is not a gimmick, it is something holy and serious and it needs much more than a smattering of knowledge. Imagine taking a six-week course in neurosurgery and hanging up a shingle. It is not only fraudulent, but dangerous.

Why has Kabbalah become so fashionable and what does that say about our culture?

It’s popular now because magic is a great thing, it’s New Age, it uses a different language and a different formula that people don’t understand and therefore find fascinating. It’s interesting that the best selling books today are diet cookbooks and books about magic and spirituality. They are interconnected: It’s the idea that you can rely on something spiritual, and you don’t have to work hard to change yourself.

Some might say that reading Tanya is the same thing.

No, it’s not the same because the Tanya doesn’t make life easer for anybody. You can’t say “Hallelu” and be saved. It’s a very demanding book and some people have even told me it’s a frightening book. Its minimum expectations are much higher than anyone will ever reach.

So tell us something about “Opening the Tanya” and why it is different from the other books you have written on this work.

The other commentaries on the Tanya, even my own book, The Long, Shorter Way, give a summary of the basic concepts. But this is a book for study, not for reading. It’s very detailed and the entire text is here. I think however, that it is a very readable book.

In the introduction, you write that the Tanya is the book of Beinonim, the intermediate person who does not sin in deed, word or thought, although the potential is there. If an ordinary person really learned the Tanya and really studies your book, can he or she actually attain that level?

The Beinoni differs from the Tzadik, the completely righteous person, in that the Beinoni has conflict. Having conflicts, doubts, and uncertainties does not make you a bad person. That’s the main idea of the Tanya, that even if you have problems you can achieve. A Tzadik on the other had is born, not made. But for the majority of us who were not born a Tzadik, the Tanya tells us that we can do great good in this world if we don’t give up; if we fight and properly channel our personal weaknesses, our emotions, desires, the conflicts of every day life.

Everyone can aspire to be a Beinoni, but if everybody will, that’s the question. If you buy a book on physical fitness, there is the assumption that if you exercise right and eat right you can have a more fit body. But will you look like the person on the cover? Not always! If you do the work, you will have a chance. Some people will become Mr. America and some people will find it easier to climb the stairs.
You quote the statement that the Alter Rebbe, the author of the Tanya, was able to “put such a big G-d into such a small book.” What do we learn about G-d from the Tanya that we didn’t know before?

We learn lots of things because usually when people speak about G-d, they speak from their perception of G-d at a very basic level.

Think about it. When people say they have lost their faith it’s because their faith at the beginning was too weak to withstand any challenges. When your perception of G-d does not extend beyond a basic level, you can’t deal with them very effectively when you grow up. We basically found that people who went as believers to the concentration camps remained believers and vice versa. In the second part of Tanya, Shaar Hayichud, it deals with understanding G-d. Not that you will get to know G-d but at least you have an order of magnitude. It’s a mathematical term. If you’re talking about something expensive, what order of magnitude is it, hundreds or millions? A person who learns the Tanya gets to a different order in his perception of G-d.

And along that same vein, what do we find in Tanya that changes or enhances our view of human beings and how they relate to G-d in general?

You learn a great deal about human beings because the Tanya deals with people who are being formed, constantly changing, not already made. Tanya asks the difficult questions. What are the basic qualities within people? How do I change? How do I deal with other people’s failings? Ironically, the Tanya deals with human concepts rather than ritual ones, how you understand yourself and others. Ultimately, you have a better notion of what G-d expects from you. It’s not the image of the old man with or without a beard, sitting in heaven and dispensing candy to the good boys and beating the bad ones. You get a grown up version.

And finally, what is the message that you would like your writings and speeches to convey? Do you have a dream you’d like to still live out?

Wherever you stand, take one step further. That is my message. My dream is that it will be fulfilled and people will do it. When one person takes one step ahead, it is personal – when a million people take one step ahead, then the earth shakes.