Last Friday, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz died in Jerusalem. If you are not Orthodox or Jewishly observant, chances are that you have never heard of Steinsaltz. But everyone should be familiar with him and his work, because his life’s great project charts a way forward for trying to preserve the concept of Jewish peoplehood and connect the distinct Jewish communities in Israel and North America. It boils down to questions of what it means to have a shared Jewish heritage, and how that can translate to the political and cultural environments in which Jews live in the twenty-first century.
Steinsaltz, who passed away at 83, spent nearly half a century translating both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds into Hebrew, which enabled his translated Talmud to be translated by others into English and a number of other languages. Steinsaltz did not simply translate the text, but added his own commentary elucidating the concepts in the text – many of which are arcane and almost all of which are introduced with little or no background as they rest on the assumption that the reader is intimately familiar with them – and in doing so, he paved the way for Talmud study to be accessible to thousands of people for whom the barriers to entry were previously too high. Both versions of the Talmud are written primarily in Aramaic, and between the arcane language and the textual style of requiring a broad foundation of prior knowledge or an expert teacher to fill in the gaps, it meant that Talmud study was for millennia relegated to a very small and specific subset of people. In enabling people to more easily study and understand Talmud on their own or with groups of other non-expert peers, Steinsaltz did more to popularize and spread this corpus of Jewish learning than possibly any other figure in history.
It is obvious at first glance why Steinsaltz is not a widely known Jewish figure. For all he did to make it easier for people to study Talmud or to enable hundreds of thousands of Jews to participate in the seven and a half year Daf Yomi cycle – studying both sides of one page of Babylonian Talmud every day in order to complete every tractate – Talmud study remains the province of a relatively small percentage of Jews and overwhelmingly relegated to Orthodox Jews in particular. It is not something that unites Jews of different stripes or serves as a common language or element of Judaism. For many Jews, Steinsaltz’s accomplishment has no relevance to their lives, even if it is something that can be admired from afar.
Nevertheless, Steinsaltz’s approach needs to be emulated in other spheres if Jewish peoplehood is to remain a relevant, or even coherent, concept. In order for there to be a Jewish people, there needs to be something that ties its disparate elements together. That can be many things – a shared history, a shared language, a shared religion, a shared common purpose. Judaism and Jews have never been monolithic, but it is more obvious today than it has ever been just how little in common different groups of Jews have with each other. Whether it be a divide between North American Jews and Israeli Jews, Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews, religiously observant Jews and non-religiously observant Jews, the various cleavages that have always existed are deepening and also stacking on top of each other. Perhaps most perniciously, Israeli and American Judaisms increasingly mean different things that also neatly divide along political lines, and Israel itself is becoming an increasingly divisive rather than a unifying factor.
If Israeli Jews and North American Jews – groups of roughly equal size that each constitute approximately 40% of world Jewry – have different values and different worldviews, are embarking on their own separate trajectories with separate histories, and speak different languages, it makes a unified Jewish people incredibly difficult to sustain. Within both groups, there are also serious splits. The majority of American Jews are politically and socially liberal and culturally Jewish, and have increasingly little in common with the minority of Orthodox and politically conservative American Jews. How an American Jew feels about President Trump is one of the easiest ways of detecting this split, with those who support Trump charging that most American Jews conflate progressive politics with Judaism and those who oppose Trump charging that Jewish Trump supporters sacrifice Jewish values for selfish reasons or political expediency. Among Israeli Jews, the answer to the question of whether you identify primarily as Jewish or primarily as Israeli reveals a similar divide between political and cultural preferences, and alternating accusations of “leftist” and “fascist” are synonymous with accusations of treasonous disloyalty and betrayal of country.
Steinsaltz’s genius was to take something that should be a common bond between Jews – the greatest example of Jewish debate and learning, so much so that people who have never glanced at a word of Talmud understand the meaning of the phrase Talmudic logic – and try to actually make it so. Politics or cultural preferences are never going to be a stand-in for tangible Jewish heritage, and here was an example of Jewish heritage with which most Jews never interacted. It cannot be credibly argued Steinsaltz’s translation and what it spawned has indeed turned Talmud study into a unifying bond between Jews the world over, since it is still seen as a distinctly religious practice even if it does not have to be viewed in that manner. It is also seen by most Jews as irrelevant to the way they live their lives today, and the appeal of breaking one’s teeth over an argument between two Babylonian Jews who lived 1500 years ago about the precise height and width an entrance to a three-sided alleyway needs to be in order to enable the construction of a symbolic doorway that will allow carrying of objects within the alleyway on the Sabbath is understandably limited.
But when looking at the collapse of so many historically unifying forces for Jewish peoplehood, it is hard to escape the conclusion that finding a common language rooted in Jewish historical practice and Jewish historical texts is the way out of the morass. Secular Israeli columnists routinely reference Biblical stories or phrases that would fly over the heads of American Jews who don’t have a familiarity with Jewish textualism, but it does not have to be that way. I would argue that more Jews should pick up the practice of Daf Yomi as a way of exploring Jewish themes and Jewish texts, and looking at it as an exercise in Jewish continuity and Jewish culture rather than as a religious commitment or fealty to Halakhic practice. Maybe the answer is something a few steps down, such as the 929 Project that encourages reading one chapter of the canonized Hebrew Bible each day. Maybe the answer is not textual, but a massive effort to get Jews, no matter their observance level, to commemorate Shabbat weekly in some way that makes it distinct from the remaining six days of the week. Whatever the correct answer is, we should as a Jewish people look to Steinsaltz’s example of taking something that is uniquely Jewish and making it more accessible and more widespread. If we do not, then Jewish peoplehood is, like so many other constructs from the last century, not going to thrive in this one.