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New Steinsaltz book offer homilies on weekly parshahs

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'Talks on the Parasha,' by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Yisrael, Maggid Books)
'Talks on the Parasha,' by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Yisrael, Maggid Books)

One of the most prolific contemporary Jewish authors is Israel’s Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Even-Yisrael). Author of some 60 books and many articles, on subjects ranging from zoology to theology, he was once described aptly by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.”

Rabbi Steinsaltz is famous for his monumental project of making the central text of rabbinic Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud, accessible to a wider readership than in any previous era of history. Diving into the so-called “sea of the Talmud” is a daunting task for most novices. Most of the text is written in a dialect of ancient Aramaic that no one speaks today. In standard editions the Talmud (with its 10 to 30 volumes, depending on the edition) has no punctuation, no vowels and no notes meant for the beginning reader. Teachers of Talmud know how difficult it is to start off a new student, since every volume seems to assume that readers know all the other volumes.

Rabbi Steinsaltz rose to the challenge, publishing a new, handsome edition of the Talmud that translated the text into modern Hebrew and provided readers with useful maps, illustrations, linguistic notes, summaries, introductions and footnotes. Recently Rabbi Steinsaltz and the team that he directs undertook the even more challenging task of making this edition available in English translation. (In 2012, I wrote a favourable review of the first volume of this project in these pages.)

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Although in many senses Rabbi Steinsaltz looks like and strives to be a haredi (fervently Orthodox) Jew, his Talmud is considered controversial and overly innovative in most haredi circles. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the biggest issues is the layout of the pages. Some conservative students of the Talmud see the “traditional” pagination and shape of each page as sacrosanct. Some felt that his reorganizing the page to find room for his new commentary made the project unkosher.

But the biggest controversies about Rabbi Steinsaltz relate to the few books he published decades ago about the personalities of biblical characters. While they contain nothing that would be labelled biblical criticism, the picture that Rabbi Steinsaltz painted of our forefathers and foremothers was not sufficiently reverential in the eyes of some haredi critics.

On the web today, you can still find broadsides against Rabbi Steinsaltz, lambasting him for describing our forefather Isaac as being “hesitant,” for saying that his wife Rebecca knew “his weaknesses,” or for describing Moses as having “limitations.” While for most Jews (and others) who read the Bible such human descriptions of biblical characters enrich our reading of the text, in haredi circles, they are incompatible with the veneration required. Rabbi Steinsaltz, understanding that challenges to his Orthodoxy were not in his best interest, apologized and rewrote various allegedly controversial passages.

The recent publication of Talks on the Parasha, a new book by Rabbi Steinsaltz on the biblical portions read in synagogue every Shabbat, made me wonder whether he was treading again on dangerous ground. He isn’t.

The book is not really a commentary on the biblical text, but a series of sermons or homilies that take off from a point in the weekly Torah portion. But instead of returning to the text itself, Rabbi Steinsaltz finds an uplifting lesson to teach. For example, this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), deals frequently with the theme of “first borns”: the Egyptians’ first borns die, the Israelites’ first borns are consecrated to God, and their first-born animals also require special treatment. In later sections of the Torah, special status is assigned to first fruits, the first harvest and the first shearing of the fleece of sheep and goats.

Rabbi Steinsaltz explains this phenomenon psychologically. The explanation, he writes, “lies not in the first born’s own essential worth, but in the special feeling and affection that we have for things that are first. The first fruit is not necessarily the choicest, but our connection to it is deepest.”

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Rabbi Steinsaltz points out that the Bible teaches us that the first-born child, special status notwithstanding, is not always the ideal person to carry on the traditions of the family or people. (The oldest child of neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob becomes the leader of the clan, and this pattern repeats itself often in later biblical books.) In the animal world, “scientific literature has shown… that the first born in many animal species have a much lower survival rate than offspring born to their mothers thereafter.”

According to Rabbi Steinsaltz, the Torah acknowledges the strength of human feelings toward things that are “first” not because they are in any sense better but in order to teach us to acknowledge the potential of “firsts” in our lives and take advantage of them. Based on the biblical verse “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of youth” (Psalms 127:4), Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches “the arrows that we shoot when we are still ‘children of youth’ are like ‘arrows in the hands of a warrior,’ in that they cannot be repeated. To be sure… even in old age, it is still possible to continue growing… But new experiences no longer come with the same regularity.”

Rabbi Steinsaltz established his reputation on his ability to read texts closely and to teach others how to do so. While this latest book does not do that, it shows another side of his personality, his desire to inspire, to teach and to challenge us to be better people, as rabbis have done from time immemorial.